Tag Archives: Christian leaders

Di-Vesting Authority

General Synod is an addiction for me; I know it’s bad for me and causes me great harm but yet I can’t resist engaging in it!

The latest gathering of Synod, like the recent gatherings before it, was rife with painful discord before it had even begun. As I prepared myself for social media outlets to fall into confusion and bitter rivalries (as it seems to do daily now!) I looked at an item on church vestments and thought

“At least there’s a relatively trivial debate on frocks!”

Having said that, despite the two larger decisions to be passed at Synod, it was this ‘trivial’ one that causes me to reflect most theologically about the state of the Church of England at present. As a mixed tradition mongrel of Roman Catholicism and Charismatic Evangelical I have already thought deeply about my use of vestments and, although many would say I am conflicted in my current practice, choosing to wear vestments at times and at other times not, I do know where I stand on this issue (see my post on vestments here.) This piece of legislation, for me, was going to be merely a naming of my current practice but has caused me to reflect again on that practice and the implications it presents.

My current practice is that for baptism and Holy Communion I robe for anything else I don’t. I’m Roman Catholic for their sacraments, charismatic evangelical the rest of the time! It’s not fool-proof but it’s what I have settled with for the moment. The other thing I’d want to stress is that I am, of course, contextually sensitive; if a context demands or requests I wear robes I do and if they would cause the congregation distraction I don’t.

The reason this decision has caused me to reflect, however, is an ecclesiological one. This albeit minor decision betrays the current confusion and division over the Church of England’s understanding of church and authority. This small, ‘harmless’ legislation again highlights the underlying conflict at the heart of Anglicanism in the 21st century and like the turmoil 500 years ago which caused the Great Reformation and 500 years before that the Great Schism and 500 years before that the establishing of the Great Councils it is caused by a lack of clarity on authority.

The cause of this uncertainty of authority stems from several sources sweeping across Synod and disrupting, distorting and severing fellowship and peace. One source is the individualising of society by our subjective post-Enlightenment libertarian/liberal philosophy. I have written on this so much I don’t want to unpack it anymore (if you’re interested read any other blog post and it’ll be there!) This is truly a massive problem when it comes to our understanding of Christian community.

The second source is, on it’s own, not a negative force (in fact it is quite the opposite): the rise in charismatic evangelical theology of which I am a son.

The charismatic movement began with the Pentecostal revival at the start of the 20th century and came to prominence in this country during the latter parts of the century. One aspect of this theological movement is a more egalitarian ecclesiology. If all God’s people are able to be filled with God’s Spirit, be used by God and receive prophetic words and pictures then power is no longer placed in one specific person but within the Body. The understanding of the priest as a kind of conduit for prayer and worship is dismantled. This is a good and proper challenge for the Church.

The prime time when this is exercised is in charismatic worship/prayer events where the gathered community wait on God and speak out words of knowledge and prophecy, speak in tongues and (often forgotten) interpretation of tongues. To keep in line with St Paul’s deep desire for order in church services there is a suitable place of weighing up words and pictures but ultimately everyone is encouraged to encounter God and share what they hear from Him. All voices are given a hearing. St. Paul emphasises in his important discussion on worship in 1 Corinthians 11-14 the necessity for order and the need for ‘one to interpret’ and to ‘weigh what is said’. (I don’t want to go into the exegesis of the refusal of the female voice in this context!)

In these events the ‘leader’ may well be a lay worship leader assisted by another ‘leader’ or vice versa. That ‘leader’ does not have to be ordained and they become, quite rightly, more of a facilitator. This role is key but is rarely trained with the gravity and import it deserves. People are released to lead these gatherings and imitate others without any rigourous understanding of authority. This enabling of lay leadership is rightly to be encouraged, however, but it is in this context that vestments becomes a potential stumbling block.

Vestments, historically, have sought to be signifiers of authority within the worshipping life of a congregation. The clothing is, in this respects, uniform, identifying the person in a particular role. This has meant that bishops, priests, deacons, lay readers, etc., all of whom have specific roles in a worshipping community have had these visible signs of those roles. In the new context where lay leadership is being encouraged vestments are a sign of restricting power to ordained/licensed individuals. To truly allow the laity to thrive we must, understandably, remove the vestments from the ordained but in so doing we must also remove sole authority too.

The charismatic tradition, particularly when wedded to the evangelical tradition, within the Church has really flourished over the last few decades and is one of the largest growing traditions in the Church in England. I want to stress how indebted I am to this inheritance and believe God is using it for His glory in His Church but…

It is not hard to see that within a culture where authority is placed solely on the individual and their perceived experience of the world the charismatic evangelical tradition has a lot to offer. The evangelical tradition gives, if not carefully taught, a highly individualised faith experience; salvation is for the individual, it is not a communal experience. Mix that with the charismatic tradition where the emphasis is on the personal experience of God we have created worship which is, collective in that it is expressed best with others but the experience remains rooted in the individual. The ecclesiology of the charismatic evangelical tradition is individualised, experiential and struggles to present a truly communal reality.

In his article “Human Capacity and Human Incapacity”, John Zizioulas outlines the difference between traditional philosophical thought on personhood and the unique Christian understanding.

…Western thought arrived at the conception of the person as an individual and/or personality, i.e., a unit endowed with intellectual, psychological and moral qualities centred on the axis of consciousness.

For the Christian, however,

…being a person is basically different from being an individual or ʻpersonalityʼ in that the person can not be conceived in itself as a static entity, but only as it relates to. Thus personhood implies the ʻopenness of beingʼ, and even more than that, the ek-stasis of being, i.e. a movement towards communion which leads to a transcendence of the boundaries of the ʻselfʼ and thus to freedom. (John Zizioulas, “Human Capacity and Human Incapacity: A Theological Exploration of Personhood”, T.F. Torrance and J. K. S. Reid (eds.), Scottish Journal Theology Vol 28 (1975), p.406)

I have argued repeatedly that the UKʼs capitalist liberal democracy has shaped the way we participate in Christian community, i.e. limited us on the individual participants own experience of God. It is in this view that Zizioulasʼ statement is important.

Zizioulas’ ʻopenness of beingʼ lends itself to the charismatic experience seen in many of the growing churches in the UK. Charismatic theology emphasises the importance of a transcendent experience and is achieved by creating an expectation of receptivity to God’s gifts. The challenge comes when attempting to be open to God, allowing others to be used by God to speak to you whilst remaining an autonomous individual; the central authority in our post-modern philosophy.

Samuel Wells takes this idea of receiving gifts and discusses an improvisational device called ʻoveracceptingʼ as a potential tool for Christian ethics.

Overaccepting is accepting in the light of a larger story. The fear about accepting is that one will be determined by the gift, and thus lose oneʼs integrity and identity. The fear of blocking is that one will seal oneself off from the world, and thus lose oneʼs relevance and humanity. Overaccepting is an active way of receiving that enables one to retain both identity and relevance… Christians imitate the character of God to the extent that they overaccept the gifts of creation and culture in the same way God does. (Samuel Wells, “Improvisation in the Theatre as a Model for Christian Ethics”, Trevor Hart and Steven Guthrie, Faithful Performance: Enacting Christian Tradition (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007) p.161)

Within this framework we can go someway in achieving both communion with others whilst remaining unique enough to have an identity. Zizioulas’ further development in his understanding of personhood challenges individualism by suggesting we must de-individualise Christ.

In order that Christology may be relevant to anthropology, it must ʻde- individualiseʼ Christ, so that every man may be ʻde-individualisedʼ too. (John Zizioulas,
“Human Capacity and Human Incapacity”, p.438)

Christʼs de-individualisation is, for Zizoulas, pneumatologically conditioned because it was only ʻof the Spiritʼ that Christ united the human, one individual, and the divine, another individual. In this way the Spirit makes it possible for one to be many and so constitutes, for Zizioulas, the church.

…the mystery of the Church is essentially none other than that of the “One” who is simultaneously “many”. (John Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (London: Darton Longman and Todd) p112)

Zizoulas goes on to suggest that

If the Church is constituted through… Pneumatology, all pyramidal notions disappear in ecclesiology: the “one” and the “many” co-exist as two aspect of the same being. (Zizoulas, Being Communion, p.139-141)

Zizioulasʼ belief that this will ʻremove any pyramidal structutures’, as understood by our current culture, is undermined, however, by his continued assertion of the importance of the presence of a bishop, as representative of Christ, within the community. This order of precedence raises the “one” above the “many” and thus creates, for our culture, a hierarchy. Indeed, it is the role of bishops and, to a certain degree, clergy in general that has been seen as the undermining of the full realisation of an egalitarian, flat leadership encouraged within charismatic theology and the wider culture. It is the vote on vestments that deconstructs further the role of clergy within the church which have held sway over the Church, for better or worse.

Jürgen Motlmannʼs ecclesiology offers us a helpful addition.

The doctrine of the Trinity constitutes the church as a “community free of dominion.” The Trinitarian principle replaces the principle of power by the principle of concord. Authority and obedience are replaced by dialogue, consensus, and harmony… The hierarchy which preserves and enforces unity is replaced by the brotherhood and sisterhood of the community of Christ. (Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) p202)

Moltmannʼs social Trinity is a communion free from dominion and authority and offers an ecclesiology for our generation who are hungry for the intimacy of community whilst maintaining autonomy of individualism.

Moltmann outlines three different paradigms of the church: The Hierarchical paradigm of God the Father, the Christocentric paradigm of God the Son and the Charismatic paradigm of God the Spirit. He suggests that in the Early Church there was a monarchic social structure seen through the authority of the Father and manifested itself in Papal supremacy. This caused a social rebellion in the form of the Reformation, which replaced such a view with a brotherhood of believers based on the centrality of sola scriptura. Moltmann admits,

Of course, practically speaking the distinction between trained theologians and people without any theological training has taken the place of priestly hierarchy. (Moltmann, Sun of Righteousness, Arise! God’s Future for Humanity and the Earth (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010) p23)

Tony Jones, an ecclesiologist writing about Moltmannʼs theology, suggests,

While Moltmann admits the christocentrism did not entirely overwhelm the hierarchical church, he fails to acknowledge… that hierarchy has been just as prevalent in his own Reformed tradition.(Tony Jones, The Church is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement (Minneapolis: JoPa Group, 2011) p144)

In the last of these paradigms, it is God the Spirit that brings unity whilst encouraging plurality. In the charismatic congregation, Moltmann suggests,

no one has a higher or lower position than anyone else with what he or she can contribute to the community.

In this context vestments become void of any purpose and all symbols of hierarchy and power can be dismissed. This paradigm, however, can be, and, as I am arguing, has been, too easily adopted by the individualism of our age as Moltmann goes on to say,

…all are accepted just as they are…Everyone is an expert in his or her own life and personal calling. (Moltmann, Sun of Righteousness, Arise! God’s Future for Humanity and the Earth (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010) p23-25)


And there it is: the mantra for the Church at the present time. No one can tell anyone what is right or wrong. All must be accepted and placed as equally authoritative and by so doing authority is displaced and no longer shared.

The Church of England is currently facing a new social rebellion akin to the Great Reformation and again it is about power and authority. The Reformation caused authority to be placed in Scripture and thus power/authority was placed in the hands of any who could read and interpret the text. Richard Hooker, who I would argue is the the architect of Anglican ecclesiology, later stated the need for three authorities: Scripture, tradition and reason, with Scripture having a form of primacy.

I believe we have seen an ascendance of reason as the primary authority under which the others must fall but, with the advent of charismatic theology, there is a need to rightly emphasise the Holy Spirit’s authority in the Church which has morphed intellectual reason to ‘experience’. I would say that the Holy Spirit is in all of these but I understand the move from reason to experience and it comes down to semantics for me. I would argue, however, that this ‘experience’ has been adopted by our individualised culture, abandoning objective truth and making ‘reason’ subjective experience and this is now our sole authority. It is the individualised experience, by way of the charismatic evangelical tradition being allowed to continue without rigorous ecclesiological questions being asked, that is now seen in Synod debates. The vast majority of decisions now are made on the basis of individualised experience which is a distorted understanding of reason and from this Scripture is re-interpreted and tradition is changed.

The decision on vestments opens for us the gaping hole in our ecclesiology and the social rebellion occurring in the church will only end in division if authority is not placed somewhere safe to bring about St. Pauls’ order and decency.

Chapter 72: the good zeal monks should possess


Monks should practice this zeal with ardent love…

What has happened to the UK?

We live in interesting times!

On the Sunday morning after the UK voted to leave the European Union the lectionary epistle reading was Galatians 5:1, 13-25.

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

Enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy; these were the words being used as the ripples of the UK’s decision were felt by all of us. Both major political parties went into melt down as David Cameron resigned triggering a leadership race and then the Labour party followed suit with several resignations and a leadership coup. Scotland began rethinking their independence which, strangely UKIP are dead against because they feel Scotland is better in a union than out… No one seemed totally comfortable with the way things were turning out. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s announcement was downbeat to say the least. The political jostling had begun!

Throughout the debate it was clear that what the voting public needed were facts, but who do we trust to give us the facts? As Michael Gove interestingly stated,

I think the people in this country have had enough of experts.

Although we needed facts what we wanted was ‘passion’. The ‘Trump Effect’ (which is sadly now a well known phrase!) is the replacement of intellectual reason with courage in conviction.

They aren’t afraid to say it as it is.

They are passionate about their beliefs.

Nigel Farage, the main force behind the referendum, has now resigned having achieved what he wanted in politics. He worked tirelessly to achieve his aim and ambition with great zeal but at what cost? To be more specific; in what manner? For me passion and zeal, unbridled by reason, faithfulness or stability leads to division. This is what is being outlined in the Galatians passage above.

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

When you sow in division, you reap in division.

I want to be clear that, despite my vote to remain in the EU, my concern and disappointment is rooted not in the outcome of the vote itself but in the nature that the debate was done and the precedent it has set for the future of our society. As always my judgement on the morality of a decision is based not on the decision itself but on the process and means by which the decision was arrived at. If the vote had gone the other way, I’d have still been upset and uncomfortable about the decision (albeit less intensely).

I have, as regular readers of this blog will know, for a long time been criticising the direction of our society in the UK over the last few decades. At the heart of my criticism and concern is the liberal, individualised approach to politics which places the individual desires and passions at the heart of all conversation. What matters most in debates is not reason but what a person thinks and feels. The subjective voice is unassailable and if someone’s beliefs are criticised then the opponent is labelled ‘intolerant’. Opinion is held higher than than fact or truth because there is no longer any objective truth. It comes down to what we ‘reckon’. This leads to us ensuring we get what we want but never paying the cost to get what we need.

What was obvious throughout the debate and in the aftermath of the referendum was that we the voters, en masse, didn’t know what we were doing. We were not told all the information we were fed lies from both sides and as the reality hit we were all as confused as before. We talk about the value and success of democracy but what the referendum did show me was that democracy doesn’t work because it relies on the generally uninformed voter making a decision which inevitably goes to the person who is charismatic and not for the one who is able to make the change to society that most of us don’t know we need. The referendum was won, not by truth but by personality.

Plato, in his book ‘Republic’, depicts democracy as a denigration of strong governance and places the democratic regime just above tyranny. The democratic man, which he uses to portray the character of democracy, is a man who is free to do what they want and live how they want. This democratic man is ruled by his passions and base desires. He is uneducated with little self control. Democracy is painted as self-autonomous units fighting and competing to survive… sounds like the UK at the moment!

When reading Galatians a day after the referendum it was this depiction of democracy that came to mind as I prepared to preach into a society where the political, economic and social stability of our nation was in chaos. Markets were uncertain. Communities were divided and a rise in xenophobia and racism became prevalent. Families were divided deeply and there was no sign of any leadership. This is the fruit of living life by our flesh, our passions.

The alternative, Paul argues, is to die to the flesh.

And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

The referendum was also a debate about identity. We, as a nation, are struggling to articulate a shared identity due to the aggressive pursuit of the individual identity in our capitalist, neo-liberal culture. There is no longer a shared narrative to our lives together. This is why the concept of family, community, fellowship is eroded and there is such high levels of loneliness, mental health issues, depression, anxiety and violence; and it is that one word which describes the debate and the fruit of the vote to leave, on both sides: ‘violence’.

Violence is rooted in fear. Violence is the response when we feel threatened. Violence is characterised by the cross. So what should our response be? How then do we live?


This is not the love that allows people to live how they want but the love which desires that people belong and are brought together. This love is not just allowing others to exist nearby but a desire for transformation and growth. This love is rooted in the monastic vow of stability, obedience and ongoing transformation. Esther de Waal writes,

Genuine love is free from exploitation or the manipulation of others. Where this is missing love becomes a delusion, a subterfuge, a means to an end. The patience and gentleness of verse 5 are again virtues which Benedict admires and which he has been encouraging. This is the opposite of that violence which is not limited to aggressive behaviour but may be a reflection of the hidden violence of feelings which comes out in tone of voice or the glance… The ‘wicked zeal of bitterness’ must refer to the rivalries and power games that can tear communities apart, the sort of competition that is unsuitable in the body of Christ. If you must compete, he seems to say, at least compete in love! (Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict (London: Continuum, 1995) p.211)

Paul contrasts the life lived by the passions of the flesh as a life guided by God’s Spirit.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

To live by the Spirit one must die to the flesh. This is what is being outlined by St. Benedict in this penultimate chapter of his Rule.

Let them, “in honour prevent one another” (Rom 12:10). Let them accept each other’s frailties (of body and soul). Let them try to outdo each other in obedience. Let no one do what is best for himself, but rather what is best for another. Let them expend the charity of brotherhood in chaste love.

I’m a passionate person; I feel things powerfully and I have strong convictions but I know I must learn to control and master that passion by deliberately and intentionally dying to self and being drawn into the community of love and respect. I must establish my identity in Christ and allow him to form me in his likeness.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.(Phil 2:3-8)


…salvation is not an individual project, but one we undertake with and among our brothers and sisters in Christ. We work out our salvation not only in fear and trembling, but also in community. It is in our care for, and interaction with, one another that we become the body of Christ, now and forever. (Norvene Vest, Preferring Christ: a devotional commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 1990) p.267)

Now, more than ever, the UK needs to be re-trained in living with others. There was a great cry, after the vote on the UK membership in the EU, to come together and be united. It sounded so simple but we have lost the art of doing that. Living with others is a cost to our personal sense of freedom. We have heard a lot about freedom and our own sovereignty over the referendum debate but I repeat Paul’s words to the Galatians,

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.

It is the paradox of the Christian life that we have been given freedom to choose to become slaves to one another in Christ. Community is not easy and so the need for guidelines is so important. The Rule of St. Benedict is the greatest example of such guidelines which hold people together when every passion and zeal is telling them to flee or worse do violence in thought, word or deed. A Rule of life must cover every aspect of one’s life; the thoughts (orthodoxy), the feelings (orthopathy) and the actions (orthopraxis). It must be shared with those you live with in order that everyone exists within the same narrative because with no shared story there is no shared values, direction, destination and ultimately no shared character/identity.

We have voted to leave the EU to regain our own sovereignty so how do we now build a common life together? On this issue there remains silence or rather there remains a competition for ideological power or individualised tolerance. The Kingdom of God is established when we allow our political ideology, our self-identity, our sexuality, our gender, our class, our weatlh or status to become secondary to the identity which brings joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I appreciate that may be interpreted as another subjective option of many in this pluralistic society but, as a Christian, I can see no other option offering such hope.

How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross?I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the Gospel is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it…. Its character is given to it, when it is true to its nature, not by the characters of its members but by his character. Insofar as it is true to its calling, it becomes the place where men and women and children find that the gospel gives them the framework of understanding, the “lenses” through which they are able to understand and cope with the world. (Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (London: SPCK, 2004) p.227)

The New Monastic movement is a fresh call from God to intentional place ourselves in the environment of community under a framework that will shape us into the character of Christ. That was the goal of St. Benedict and the other monastic fathers and mothers and it is the goal of this new wave of monastics. The sharing of a way of life challenges the individualised culture we now suffer within. We need to commit to a Rule which is not shaped by me or my desires but is shaped for me and my transformation and in which my passion and zeal will be focussed solely on seeking God’s will in our life together; redemption of my flesh to be guided by the Spirit.

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church is governed and sanctified:hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people, that in our vocation and ministry we may serve you in holiness and truth to the glory of your name. Raise up leaders of character who will lead us to inhabit your story of hope and in which all of us find our rest.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 71: the brothers ought to obey one another


The service of obedience is to be shown to all, not just the abbot, for by this road of obedience they shall travel to find God.

Where is authority and obedience placed and how is it used?

Let prefix this post with an acknowledgement: I will be quoting Thomas Merton a lot during this one!

I have a personal struggle with authority and obedience which is deeply woven into my personality and history. Firstly, I am a born and raised Roman Catholic which has undoubtedly influenced me for good and ill in equal measure. I cannot and will not ever shake that influence from me, I can only learn to embrace the good and ask God’s mercy and grace to redeem the ill. Secondly, I am a millennial/Generation Y, my older siblings are the cynical generation X and they have shaped me as well as my peers who, like me have been parented by baby-boomers. All of that may sound like a load of sociological mumbo jumbo but the key point is I’m a product of my culture. Generation Y is also known as Generation Me, for we are, on the whole, a narcissistic bunch obsessed with selfies due to a great deal of pampering by our parents who were the recipients of Thatcher’s ‘booming economy’! These two parts of my social makeup would be enough to create a paradox around the issue of authority but there’s more specific personality traits that create a confusing cocktail of issues for me. (There’s my Generation Y traits coming out; a desperate need to be unique and noticed. Ironic!) In Myers Briggs personality test I am an INTJ

Blindly following precedents and rules without understanding them is distasteful to INTJs, and they disdain even more authority figures who blindly uphold those laws and rules without understanding their intent. Anyone who prefers the status quo for its own sake, or who values stability and safety over self-determination, is likely to clash with INTJ personality types. Whether it’s the law of the land or simple social convention, this aversion applies equally, often making life more difficult than it needs to be.(“INTJ Strengths and Weakneses”, 16 Personalities, April 23 2016, https://www.16personalities.com/intj-strengths-and-weaknesses)

I have a deepening sense of vocation to some form of monastic life. I am a self selected Anglican. I am artistic by temperament and, until ordination, by profession. All of this makes for some paradox inducing internal struggle for me but… it’s what makes me interesting!

I appreciate authority. I desire authority. I know the necessity for authority and even in a democratic country authority is not only allowed it is more needed than ever. Our relationship with authority, as a culture, is interesting to me. After it’s abuses by so many in the 20th century we have allowed the pendulum of social opinion to swing completely in the opposite direction. As my older siblings in Generation X have taken power (often in protesting movements and social activism) a large dose of cynicism towards authority and the status quo has become prevalent too. Figures of authority are routinely mocked and publicly shamed as satire has became increasingly popular so that now most comedians will have some form of pedestal kicking in their acts. I am not suggesting this is bad or unnecessary; I’m just noting it as interesting.

Thomas Merton (here it comes!) wrote to a Marie Byles, a scholar in Japanese religions, on January 9 1967,

You ask about the Catholic idea of holy obedience. What you are really interested in is evidently the ancient ascetic idea of obedience which goes back to the Gospels, the Sermon on the Mount, and so on, is exemplified by the saints, and is analogous to the perfect obedience, docility, and so forth found in other religious ideals. The idea is fundamentally the same: to become free from the need to assert one’s ego, to be liberated from the desire to dominate others, to renounce selfish demands, and so on. Ultimately the idea is that if you renounce your own will you will be guided directly by God and moved by Him in everything… The real purpose of obedience is to obey God and give one’s will to Him. This idea of obedience is somewhat ambiguous in the later legalistic context that it got into, when the religious Orders got highly organized and became big impersonal structures run by bureaucracies. The ascetic idea was pressed into the service of a different kind of ideal, and “blind obedience” was stressed as an ideal since it meant the subject simply submitted to authority and became a cog in a machine. (Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton: a life in letters (New York: Harper One, 2008) p. 191)

Merton draws out the first issue with obedience and authority and that is: where it is placed.

St Benedict’s original emphasis of obedience in his Rule stems from the expectation that within the monastic community there are personal relationships; monks were known to each other. An abbot knew the monks, personally and intimately. This relationship can’t always have been comfortable for either party particularly in issues of obedience. The abbot would have come from the community and could have been, at one time, a peer of the monks he now found himself in authority over. Within the intimacy of this fellowship of faith and discipleship, obedience is encouraged for it’s original purpose: to practice submission of our own will to God. I acknowledge not just my own personal need to practice this submission but my whole culture to do so.

Obedience, unfortunately, has continued to be associated with big, impersonal institutions and so is baulked at by many in Generation X and younger. Since the First World War and the abuses of the ruling classes that forced the population to fight increasingly failing battles on their behalf became apparent, cultural acceptance of authority began to erode. Throughout the last century, with the rise of fascism, communism, capitalism and many other philosophical and political ideals, humanity has developed a wariness to power and authority. Institutions have one by one shown themselves to be corrupted, or at least corruptible, and trust has been lost (the Church, the police, politicians, government processes, schools). This has been done to such an extent that we are now numbed to scandal and, strangely, we now see political elite and celebrities who are seemingly immune to such challenge.

To focus the issue a little more let me explore authority within the Church of England. I, as an ordained minister, have made an oath of canonical obedience,

I, A B, do swear by Almighty God that I will pay true and canonical obedience to the Lord Bishop of C and his successors in all things lawful and honest: So help me God. (Canon C14, Canons of the Church of England 7th Edition: Full Edition with First Supplement (London, church House Publishing, 2015)

In my case I have sworn obedience to the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu which has, on occasions, been put to the test. There have been decisions that the Archbishop has made which have affected me directly and which I have not agreed with. I have accepted those decisions as an act of obedience to him. This acceptance has not been easy at times as I struggle to obey authority solely because some person of status tells me to and particularly when I don’t believe them to possess all the necessary information of understanding, but I obeyed. My struggle is particularly painful when I am asked to obey decisions that have been made without any form of dialogue or relationship. Merton goes on,

As long as the notion of obedience is implicated in an impersonal power system it will be corrupted by the very things it is supposed to liberate us from- worldliness, selfishness, ambition, and so on… (Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton: a life in letters (New York: Harper One, 2008) p. 192)

That is not purely to say that just the authority figure, whoever that might be, is corrupted by those things but those in obedience under them also. For the vow of obedience to be renewed and reformed for both parties involved I suggest we ensure it is placed back in the soil of long-term, trusting relationship. The alternative is to either blindly allow it to continue as it is and to be burdened by the struggle or to leave the system altogether (as many who have taken the oath of canonical obedience are doing.)

Thomas Merton, in a letter to a Wilbur H. Ferry on January 19 1967, makes the following heartfelt observation,

Authority has simply been abused too long in the Catholic Church and for many people it just becomes utterly stupid and intolerable to have to put up with the kind of jackassing around that is imposed in God’s name. It is an insult to God Himself and in the end it can only discredit all idea of authority and obedience. There comes a point where they simply forfeit the right to be listened to. On the other hand… If everyone with any sense just pulls out, then that leaves the curial boys in full command of the field with the assurance that they are martyrs to justice or something. the real problem remains the reform of the Church people who remain inside. And if there can only be a little agreement on a more reasonable and free approach, something can be done. (Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton: a life in letters (New York: Harper One, 2008) p. 322)

Many have asked me why I, as a pioneer minister of sorts and as a creative artist, not only follow the rules but promote the need to stay true to them. It is the key paradox that makes me, me; how does it balance?

I have spoken before about an important moment in my life when I was asked by God to make a decision: was I going to be a revolutionary or a reformer? A revolutionary, in this instance, is one who seeks to overthrow the current system in power and replace it with something else. This revolutionary wants to destroy the status quo which is , in their mind, no longer fit for purpose, in order to create the new workable model. The reformer, on the other hand, is the one who seeks to take the treasures of the old and salvage them to allow the broken parts to either be ‘fixed’ or recycled or thrown out. The job of the reformer, in contrast to the revolutionary, is a long term systematic but thorough process. I made a promise to God some eight years ago to be a reformer and not a revolutionary.

Most pioneer ministers and those involved in the Fresh Expressions movement are revolutionaries. They are tired of the status quo failing, in their eyes, in the mission of God. The Church of England is joke and needs to be radically changed and that change is going to be made from a grassroots movements akin to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and UKIP (this is not about motivation but solely about approach.) I have promised my God that I’d commit to participate in dialogue with the tradition because I still believe God has built his Church and he has not forsaken it yet. I believe that the Church is the hope of the nation and that God is still in it working through it. Fresh Expressions of church must, in my mind grow out from and remain united to the Church of God.

The Reformation was, in my mind, an unfortunate but necessary moment in Church history. It was unfortunate because it has birthed, out of division, a divisive movement. If you sow in division you reap in division. This has meant that preference has often replaced the deeply held convictions of the reformers and we have the situation where there are so many independent churches. These church congregations are not, in themselves a problem, many are doing wonderful, anointed work and I rejoice with them in the promotion of the life of faith and mission but the ecumenical movement, despite our best intentions of being united, is not full unity. What was begun at the Reformation has created this issue.

It is from this place of commitment to change the system from within that I speak. I don’t believe in complaining about something and not learning why it is as it is and how it or I can be changed to solve the problem. It is in this reformation mindset that I struggle to balance my obedience to authority and work to discern how God is birthing the new things in and through his Church. It is in all of this that I am encouraged by Merton’s letter to Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit and one of the founders of the Catholic Peace Fellowship,

While in fact there are a lot of Superiors who think themselves infallible, and are absolutely incapable of understanding what it means to really find out what their subjects need and desire (they consult only yes-men or people who have made the grade by never rocking any boats), there is a new bunch coming up that sincerely wants to help change things, but obviously can’t do everything they would like to do either. And then there are the good Joes who want to go along wherever the Church seems to be going even if they don’t really understand what it is all about. If all these are treated as if they were purely and simply reactionary tyrants, then there will be a real mess for sure… The moment of truth will come when you will have to resist the arbitrary and reactionary use of authority in order to save the real concept of authority and obedience, in the line of renewal. This will take charismatic grace. And it is not easy to know when one is acting “charismatically” when one is surrounded with a great deal of popular support on one side and nonsensical opposition on the other… In either case let us work for the Church and for people, not for ideas and programs. (Thomas Merton, Thomas Merton: a life in letters (New York: Harper One, 2008) p. 272)

Merton draws out here the other issue with authority and obedience and that is: how is it used.

The pain of authority comes when it is, as Merton calls it, “arbitrary and reactionary”. How many of us have been on the receiving end of this approach to power? Often authority is used like this when it lacks the environment of relationship but it can still manifest itself like this even when you are within long term, trusting relationships. Merton knew this personally with his own abbot at Gethsemani where he lived.

The letters and journals of Thomas Merton are full of his personal struggles with abbot James Fox who continually refused Merton the opportunity to become a hermit. these occasions are so numerous and so gradual it is hard to find just one that will sum up the pain he felt as he wrestled with obedience to an authority he no longer respected.

I know he is my Abbot, but I am very much afraid that I have never honestly been able to deal with him as with a “spiritual father” and it would be impossible for me to do so sincerely. (May 11, 1965, Thomas Merton to Jean Leclercq, ‘Survival or Prophecy?: The letters of Thomas Merton and Jean Leclercq (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002) p.128)

Just two years earlier, Merton expressed, in his journal, his approach to obedience to an authority he did not respect.

In consequence my attitude toward the monastery changes. They have need of me and I have need of them. As if without this obedience, and charity, my life would lack sense. It is an existential situation which god has willed for me, and it is part of His Providence – it is not to be questioned, no matter how difficult it may be. I must obey God, and this reaches out into everything… In this new condition my attitude toward the abbot is changing. Of course it is obvious that my complaints and discontent have been absurd. Though I can perhaps back them up with plausible arguments, they have no real meaning, they don’t make sense. He is what he is, and he means well, and in fact does well. He is the superior destined for me in God’s Providence, and it is absurd for me to complain. No harm will ever come to me through him – it cannot. How could I have thought otherwise?(January 15, 1963, Thomas Merton, Turning Toward the World: the journals of Thomas Merton volume four, 1960-1963 (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997) p. 288-289)

Esther de Waal suggests,

…obedience is a gift rather than a matter of duty. It is something which the good monk gives with gracious charity to his brother… Obedience depends on listening so totally and openly to the other that through them we discern the face, the voice of Christ himself. (Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the Rule of St Benedict (London: Continuum, 1995) p. 208)

Obedience must be a gift and should be lived not out of duty but love. This becomes painful when authority is wielded over you and obedience demanded from you rather than inspired in you. It is a delicate balance that Merton lived and that we all, in some way, must navigate. Obedience, like love, must begin as a practice, a choice and through this will grow into a habit and a virtue.

The service of obedience is to be shown to all, not just the abbot, for by this road of obedience they shall travel to find God.

Philip Lawrence, OSB and abbot of Christ in the Desert, writes,

Obedience is valuable in our lives because we show one another what it means to serve and love one another. Even the abbot has to obey the brethren! (Philip Lawrence, “Chapter 71: Mutual Obedience”, Benedictine Abbey of Christ in the Desert, April 23 2016, https://christdesert.org/prayer/rule-of-st-benedict/chapter-71-mutual-obedience/)

Obedience is to be done in love and as a service and it is expected, although not explicit in the Rule, reciprocal. The person in authority over another is not to laud it over their subjects but to be obedient also. It is in this mutual obedience that authority can be wielded.

Obedience then should be preceded by a deep listening from both parties. If it is rooted in relationship then authority will be exercised with love and obedience given as a gift.


This chapter challenges me, like the rest of the Rule, but particularly at this moment in my ministry. This current season in my life is painful like a continual dull thud causing me discomfort. I find myself blindside by a sear of the pain which I must ride out until it subsides. Through it all I choose obedience and to re-commit to following the path laid out for me by God, to see through my potentially erroneous beliefs or opinions and to say of my superior,

He is what he is, and he means well, and in fact does well. He is the superior destined for me in God’s Providence, and it is absurd for me to complain. No harm will ever come to me through him – it cannot. How could I have thought otherwise?

Having said that, I am also aware that authority and obedience is not currently rooted in relationship and it is in this way that it and I must seek to change. I must be careful though,

The moment of truth will come when you will have to resist the arbitrary and reactionary use of authority in order to save the real concept of authority and obedience, in the line of renewal. This will take charismatic grace. And it is not easy to know when one is acting “charismatically” when one is surrounded with a great deal of popular support on one side and nonsensical opposition on the other… In either case let us work for the Church and for people, not for ideas and programs.

I was asked to visit the nacent new monastic community at St Lukes, Peckham, as part of my involvement in the development of the Society of the Holy Trinity. In our discussion (which can be found here) the painful and personal issue of obedience to authority was explored. I encourage you to listen to it and pray.

I appreciate that this post has been long so I want to sum up the salient point: I believe in the Church as an institution which can develop a transformation of character by practices such as obedience. If authority and obedience is rooted in relationship and a place of intimacy they can be amazing gifts one to another. Outside of relationship they are potentially deeply damaging weapons wielded over people. The change should not be to disown them and seek replacements but to renew and replace them into their proper place.

You are the God who makes extravagant promises.
We relish your great promises of fidelity and presence and solidarity,
and we exude in them.
Only to find out, always too late,
that your promise always comes in the midst of a hard, deep call to obedience.

You are the God who calls people like us,
and the long list of mothers and fathers before us,
who trusted the promise enough to keep the call.

So we give you thanks that you are a calling God,
who calls always to dangerous new places.
We pray enough of your grace and mercy among us
that we may be among those who believe your promises
enough to respond to your call.

We pray in the one who embodied your promise
and enacted your call, even Jesus. Amen.
(Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis:Augsburg Fortress, 2003) p. 90)

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 69: no one shall presume to defend another in the monastery


Take care that, no matter what, no monk presumes to defend or protect another…

How should we teach?

I was sat with a large group of young people leading them in a Bible Study on cutting off limbs (Mt 5:30, Mk 9:43) and there were a lot of questions being asked. I had not been a leader for longer and, althoguh I had experience of being a teacher, I felt out of my depth. I looked across at the paid youth worker who headed up the team I was on and looked pleadingly at him. I desperately needed his help to answer and guide us back on track as I was flailing in the metaphorical brambles! Instead of jumping in and either closing down the questions or deftly answering them he remained silent staring back at me.

Well, thank you very much!

I thought as I clumsily fought back the probing questions and steered us to end the time together to start an unplanned game.

After the young people had left I cornered the youth leader and said,

Could you not see I was in trouble there. I needed your help and you just left me to fail and it was really embarrassing!

He smiled and replied,

How are you going to learn to stand on your own two feet if I keep propping you up. You need to find your own way out of those kinds of messes.

It was one of the best lessons I learnt.

Skip forward eight years and I’m now ordained and leading a youth group in another church. I have a new leader who I am helping to train up and she was surrounded by young people asking difficult questions about miracles. She stuttered and struggled and then she turned to me and said,

I have completely lost track of what I was saying. Ned, how should I end this?

For a moment I was back at that moment when the youth leader let me struggle on my own and I learnt the valuable lesson of finding an ending on my own. As this student leader stared at me, totally overwhelmed, I faltered and stepped in to defend her. Afterwards I regretted doing that, remembering the great lesson learnt when someone didn’t protect me from embarrassment or failure.

It seems harsh reading this chapter, to be told not to defend another person. To leave them struggling doesn’t seem that kind or, to be honest, very Christian. The instruction, however, is to enable monks to learn the lessons they need as they journey the path of righteousness. How often we step into help someone and in so doing refuse them the opportunity to grow or deepen their faith?

As humans we love the opportunity to instruct and teach others in some weird narcissistic attempt to make them more like us. Imparting advice is a way we can extend our influence and intellectually procreate. In doing this, though, we rob another of growing or maturing. It’s the problem with our established pedagogy (way of teaching).

Paolo Freire, a liberation theologian and practitioner articulates, for me, the fundamental problem with the way we teach one another. The church is not immune to the oppressive approach to education which ‘becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor.’

Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive , memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits… In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. (Paolo Freire, Pedagogy Of The Oppressed (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) p.72)

Students become passive participants who are, by the manner in which information is given to them, encouraged to accept the world as it is and not to hope for new revelations or transformation in reality.

Implicit in the banking concept is the assumption of a dichotomy between human beings and the world: a person is merely in the world, not with the world or with others; the individual is spectator not re-creator… he or she is rather the possessor of a consciousness: an empty “mind” passively open to the reception of deposits of reality from the world outside. (Paolo Freire, Pedagogy Of The Oppressed (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) p.75)

Discipleship must be shaped around a new way of teaching. A teaching, outlined in Freire’s writing, which encourages students to journey alongside another student. It is a focus on modelling how to interact, with curiosity and wonder, with the world around us. The teacher is no longer set apart, up front, depositing information but rather in amongst, a student amongst students, learning and asking questions with them about what they see, hear and experience around them.

In another book, ‘We Make The Road By Walking’, he summarises his point concisely.

The other mistake is to crush freedom and to exacerbate the authority of the teacher. Then you no longer have freedom but now you have authoritarianism, and then the teacher is the one who teaches. The teacher is the one who knows. The teacher is the one who guides. The teacher is the one who does everything. And the students, precisely because the students must be shaped, just expose their bodies and their souls to the hands of the teacher, as if the students were clay for the artist, to be molded. The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves. And in doing that, he or she lives the experience of relating democratically as authority with the freedom of the students.(Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990) p.181)

Within this liberation framework we begin to see a way in which the abbot’s authority explicit throughout St. Benedict’s Rule, can be executed without taking away freedom from the monks. The guidance and teaching is one of accompaniment; yes, firm and un-wielding when necessary but allowing God to transform them through a process. Thomas Merton understood this approach.

A person is a person insofar as he has a secret and is solitude of his own that cannot be communicated to anyone else. If I love a person, I will love that which makes him a person: the secrecy, the hiddenness, the solitude of his own individual being, which God alone can penetrate and understand. (Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island (Boston: Shambhala, 2005) p.258)


I suspect that discipleship crisis in the Church (which has led us to mission and evangelism crisis) is rooted in the approach to how we teach. The time has come to throw away the educational philosophy described above as the ‘banking concept’ for what it creates is followers who are dependant on ‘experts’ to feed them the information they need. If they manage to fight through the passivity that is forced upon them they become oppressors themselves with the catalogue of deposits they have collected over the years.

We leaders and teachers must relearn how to guide people to become the person God intends for them to be. This is going to be hard for most of us as we are products of this old and autocratic educational process. We must come to see God through Jesus the teacher who allowed mistakes and failures, who brought out free enquiry in story rather than a syllabus of knowledge that needed to be memorised. The first disciples were not given, like the other rabbis of the time, a textbook to be learnt but instead received the Holy Spirit to inspire.

This new form of teaching must ripple through every aspect of the Church; through the pulpit, into small groups, into evangelism. Can we imagine the Church being at the forefront of education again by establishing this inquiry based, liberation approach to teaching the younger generation how to engage with the world?
Guiding God, through your son, Jesus Christ, we see you teaching us amongst us. You do not deposit diktats from above but instead walk life with us encouraging and leading with all gentleness, strength and faithfulness. We thank you that your desire for us is not just to know about you but to become like you and in that, find our freedom.

Come, Lord Jesus.



Suscipiendus autem in oratorio coram omnibus promittat de stabilitate sua et conversatione morum suorum et oboedientia.

Upon admission, in the oratory, before all, he is to make a promise to stability, conversion (of behaviour/morals/life) and obedience,


I have been rather tarry on my writing for the blog this week due to the topic of today’s post. As part of a Lenten discipline I’ve decided to take up writing for 20 minutes a day again. A project which started me on this blog some two years ago! Instead of just writing a diary which led me to overly introspective and unhealthy depressive cycles of thought, I have decided to set myself outward focussed writing tasks. I have been writing fairytale versions of gospel narrative which I started for Burning Fences and I have been gathering material from this blog to put into a book (I know another book project which will probably not get finished and I’ll move on!)

One of the chapters I have tried to collate this week has been the chapter on ‘obedience’. This has meant I have looked through my blog on Parish Monasticism and picked out any material which touches on or has guided my reflections on the theme of obedience. The problem is: the whole of the Rule of St. Benedict is about obedience!

Most of the chapters have been me wrestling with what obedience looks like in 21st century western culture. I have returned again and again to issues of authority, leadership and individualism. In fact, if I were to sum up what I’ve been learning about through my reading and meditating on St. Benedict it has been the need for clear authorities in our modern day society.

At this point I’d direct you to a link on a previous blog post to highlight the salient point but, I can’t choose from so many. Type authority into the search bar at the top of the page and you’ll find the wealth of material there. Type obedience in and you’ll have more… enjoy!

The challenge of evangelism in our current age is the call to submit to an authority which is not the self. Life within the character of our Triune God demands that we relinquish power of our lives to someone/thing else, otherwise it bears no fruit. Anglican pews are used to the bottoms of the lukewarm non-committed, in fact they are pews because no one has felt the need to sit on them for a long enough time for them to be painful! (I’m being deliberately provocative, I’m sorry!) The challenge for the Church is to be bold in living out the life of obedience in a way that shows its fruit.

Let me be clear, this obedience is difficult and painful. We can easily romanticise, as with the whole religious life, what it means to commit to a life of obedience. I have only lived out ‘diet obedience’ or ‘obedience lite’ and that’s tough but I long for the environment to delve deeper into it.

True obedience requires stability and the intentional conversion of opinion, thought, behaviour and life. Obedience can only be experienced within the relationship of the other two vows that we’ve explored just as each of the other vows require the balancing of the rest in order to be fully experienced.

Brian C. Taylor helpfully writes,

We tend to think a balanced life means one in which there is no tension – a perfectly placid existence. But, in fact, it is quite the opposite. A truly balanced life, if it is to embrace the paradox of truth, is one which is in tension: not destructive and stressful but healthy and dynamic.

Approaching the vow of obedience after reflecting on ‘stability’ and ‘conversion’ it can seem that these first two vows are in unhealthy tension and the vow to ‘obedience’ brings about a dynamic tension and frames them harmoniously. This would be too limiting. In fact if you approach any of the three vows through the other two vows you’ll come to the same conclusion: Trying to live within the tension created by a vow to obedience to a particular person or Rule and the vow to conversion creates an antagonistic relationship of discernment and interpretation. When discovering stability as a third point of reference eases that battle and brings an extra dimension to the life lived within these vows. The same is true with discovering the power of conversion via the tension of stability and obedience.

In this way the trinitarian model of life asserts itself in practice.

Authority is abused; that’s a fact of life. We can all reel out stories of how someone in authority has abused that position to meet their own needs. No area of life has been immune to this experience and that needs to be said and heard. This does not mean, however, that authority is, in itself bad or negative. I have had problems with authority personally but I have found it helpful to put a face to those problems and rather than dismiss ‘authority’ because it hurt me name the person in that position who hurt me (on a side note, the Church doesn’t hurt people, people hurt people!)

Life without authority is actually just as painful and difficult and it is in the vacuum of authority that extremist views step in. As human beings we hunger and thirst for an authoritative voice to get behind and we’ll find it wherever it may be found. Charismatic leaders, like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Russell Brand, etc. can sound authoritative when their opponents lack depth and experience. Sadder still is those amongst us who’s only authority is themselves and their own egos and desires. With these as sole authorities no learning or change can occur, cynicism and skepticism hinders any depth of relationship and all of life becomes precarious and unstable.

Authority is needed to teach and grow us beyond our immediate beliefs and opinions. Authority, ironically it seems, gives people freedom to explore and exist. Culture and Societies only develop and deepen when there is a shared narrative; to prove this I point you to the current character of public discussion and the temperature of the exchanges. Our examples of philosophical discourse is loud, abusive, fear centric, cyclical and, above all, non-sequential (the great example of this is David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Question Time when in response to a question he’ll change the subject as his answer!)

Obedience is other focussed. Obedience is about placing your life, your choices, your future, however difficult it is, into the hands of another. This is risky; there’s no escaping that fact. Obedience is about inviting someone to act in freedom upon you and you to take on the consequences of their decision. This is so alien to us that it will take the Church to start to live it out to be an example that will save our world.

I want to finish this short romp through potential vows around which many new monastic communities may gather to explore briefly how our culture desperately needs to participate in a triune life. What I mean by this is a life which is beyond polarised, extreme binary terms of reference into a dynamic dance of ideas and discovery.

We are increasingly finding combative language and views as we’re forced into extreme, entrenched political, social and religious viewpoints. Our debates have become antagonistic fought between two sides; political right and political left with the centre being an attempt at mixing the two in different concoctions, liberal and conservative wings of the church with the ‘middle of the road’ churches being different grey mix of the two at the whim of that particular people. I have quoted Oscar Romero recently,

The Church, then, is in an hour of aggiornamento, that is, of crisis in its history. And as in all aggiornamenti, two antagonistic forces emerge: on the one hand, a boundless desire for novelty, which Paul VI described as “arbitrary dreams of artificial renewals”; and on the other hand, an attachment to the changelessness of the forms with which the Church has clothed itself over the centuries and a rejection of the character of modern times. Both extremes sin by exaggeration. Unconditional attachment to what is old hampers the Church’s progress and restricts its “catholicity”… The boundless spirit of novelty is an impudent exploration of what is uncertain, and at the same time unjustly betrays the rich heritage of past experiences… So as not to fall into either the ridiculous position of uncritical affection for what is old, or the ridiculous position of becoming adventurers pursuing “artifical dreams” about novelties, the best thing is to live today more than ever according to the classic axiom: think with the Church. (Oscar Romero quoted in Morrozzo Della Rocca, Roberto, Oscar Romero: prophet of hope (London: Dalton, Longman and Todd, 2015) p.22-23)

Romero’s call to ‘think with the church’ has haunted my thoughts for the last few weeks. I have come to discover that what he might have meant is to think Trinitarianly (that’s a new word I’ve just made up!) not in binary on a flat spectrum but in a three dimensional balance. We don’t fit on a continuum between two points but a matrix within three.

I am a vocal supporter on the Anglican approach to authority and it is Richard Hooker’s balance that finally convinced me of my Anglican calling. We do not limit ourselves to Sola Scriptura (scripture alone) nor to Sola Traditio or even to Sola Spiritus but a beautiful balance between them all. Univocal authority tends to lead to oppression of those under it. With only one authority power becomes unbalanced and blind loyalty is required. Bivocal authority creates stand offs, the likes we have seen within both political and ecclesial debates. It is once you reach three or more that power is released and shared. This is what I have discovered within the Rule of St. Benedict and what I am keen to press into more within an umbrella construct to feed new monastic communities across the Church of England and beyond.


So what might the call to obedience look like for the different forms of community? For most of these broad categories it will come down to the individuals involved, to what/who they are obedient may need to be fleshed out in the context.

For more intentional gathered communities, obedience will look very different depending on the individuals who participate within it or, rather, will be more or less of an issue depending those within the community. Taking on a vow of obedience would need to be done within a multi-authoritative framework. Obedience to a particular role of authority whose job it is to interpret a communal narrative which is another authority and, finally, a community of people who live out said narrative who are an accountable authority to the others.

Obedience will need to centre on accountability frameworks which will be contextual but the practice of obedience will be the same. These communities will need to figure out to what they are obedient and how they encourage the living out of the vow.

The parish church has authority structures in place but encouragement and teaching on obedience is somewhat lax amongst us. Synod and Bishops are not always agreed with and local expressions tend to follow differing practices depending on conscience; such as it naturally is within a place like the Church of England. This challenge to obedience has led to some difficult and painful discussions but the challenge has come from a perceived abuse of authority.

How do we ensure power is not abused within a large, established institution? I think a detailed exploration of the understanding of leadership is vital in this discussion. When leadership is seen as ‘driving forces’ then we are in difficulty as it is a force to be reckoned with and is unhelpful in relationship. If leadership is seen more as one who is under authority, a first amongst equals then we’re on our way to a healthier tension. That is why a model like that proposed for sodal communities can also be adopted in the modal.

Obedience within the monastic/mendicant form is to a particular tradition and so naming those things, be they, General Synod, Articles of Religion, Canon Law, a Bishop, a Rule of Life within the parish context is key to encourage the practice.

For networks of autonomous groups, obedience becomes very tricky as we have seen in the Anglican Communion recently. Establishing, early on, not only what are the authorities but also how they relate with one another is absolutely essential. If we neglect the long process of exploring together the details of how authorities relate and hold that important balance then disagreements will become increasingly difficult. This is where the Rule of St. Benedict becomes an example in the same way as the Sermon on the Mount is. St. Benedict explores, in many areas of life, how to discern the way forward, how the authorities of the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit and tradition interplay to develop a community which deepens the individual as well as communal character.

It is also important to have shared authorities, particularly so in nodal communities. It could seem as though I’m suggesting just having lots of authorities to defend against dictatorial forms of dominance but actually too many conflicting authorities and the balance is lost also. The authorities need to interact in a creative and dynamic way rather than creating a new kind of destruction.

Chapter 65: provost of the monastery


With several in charge, no one will have the opportunity to become proud.

Is it democracy?

All commentaries on this chapter begin by stating the obvious tension found here in the Rule… I will do the same. It’s pretty clear that St. Benedict does not see the benefits of a prior/provost in the monastery and believes that the abbot should govern with a group of deans as outlined in the chapter on that subject. St. Benedict, however, brings in balance and allows common practice to continue but not without some warning and dangers.

This is how to compromise. St. Benedict warns of the dangers but leaves the decision to the vote of the monastery. He adapts his vision to allow people the freedom to explore and develop but doesn’t leave them to walk down the perilous path alone, rather he continues to guide and help them to survive. It’s obvious that St. Benedict would rather monasteries decided against appointing a prior/provost but if they do decide he has some safety nets to put up in case the dangers become apparent and hurtful.

This is the strength of collegial governance and is why Synods, chapters and the like are so crucial in church. These forms of government are not democracy as we know it we know where that leads to! Democracy is about opinions and opinions can be easily swayed and manipulated; if one is not careful people lose sight of, forget or rashly change the rules and laws that govern said democracy if majority of people decide to. In the monastery the abbot decides but he decides within the confines of counsel.

After the previous chapter and throughout the Rule so far, the role of abbot is clear. It is not to be about wielding power, forcing agendas or manipulating the community but is about care, safeguarding and protecting the life of community together. The role of abbot is also totally reliant on the Rule of Life. The abbot is there to ensure all monks live under it and are guided by it. This is why the Church of England’s governance works (much to the frustration of many!)

The Church of England is “episcopally led and synodically governed” which means that the vision is set out by bishops (plural, in a college/house in which Archbishops are the first amongst equals) but they are constrained by the Synod (either General or Diocesan). This means that Bishops have final say over every matter but must decide based on the policies of General Synod. This should protect the Church from individuals or popularist thought to dramatically change the beliefs and/or practices rashly. A Bishop is there to uphold the common life and faith of the entire people of God under their care. Bishops set the pace and tone of the Church but they are accountable to Synod who can challenge decisions. Decisions are then arbitrated through Synodical Measures, Canon Law and Articles of Faith.

So why has the role of prior/provost continued if it is clear that St. Benedict was not a fan?

Practically because it works. In large communities abbots struggle with the sheer workload and pressure put upon them to oversee every aspect of the life of the monastery. He cannot be everywhere involved in everything. The other roles, outlined by St. Benedict, have some responsibility but not about decisions. Even with the appointment of Deans, each with their own opinions, it is a tiresome challenge to reach consensus let alone then to pray and make a decision that is right before God and may not be popular with the Deans and monks who advise you. The role of prior/provost is to take some of the smaller decisions off the list of things to be involved in to ensure the abbot is free to give proper time and attention to those big decisions. The relationship between prior/provost and abbot is key and St. Benedict is clear in making that a priority.

What is important in the life of the monastery is the realisation that,

…the church is radically not democratic if by democratic we mean that no one knows the truth and therefore everyone’s opinion counts equally… That is why authority in the church is vested in those we have learned to call saints in recognition of their more complete appropriation of that truth.(Stanley Hauerwas, Community of Character:toward a constructive christian social ethic (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981)p. 85)

It is here that I place a word of caution on a theology termed ‘ordinary theology’.

‘Ordinary theology’ is the sort of God-talk that comes first to the lips of all Christians when they reflect about their faith. Its main auditorium is not the lecture hall, or even the church building, but at home or at work; in the pub or in the garden; on the bus, at the shopping centre or on a country walk. Unlike the more ‘extraordinary’ theology of the academic world, it is ‘just ordinary’ and employs no technical jargon or philosophical ideas. It is, rather, couched in story and anecdote, using everyday language (which includes metaphors – without which we could hardly talk at all) and powerful images to express our deeply felt commitments and – sometimes – our agonized concerns.
We don’t have to go to college to learn how to do this. We only have to be ourselves, and to speak of what we feel and of what we know. To express in our own stumbling, inadequate way what we believe about God.(from ‘After Sunday’, “Ordinary Theology”, 2nd February 2016, https://www.aftersunday.org.uk/about/thinking/ordinary-theology)

There are a lot of things I think and feel to be right but on which I have little to no knowledge. Opinions are easy and everyone has them but they don’t always lead to wisdom. Wisdom is found after wrestling and study; reading and listening to each side, weighing up the different views and arriving, one hopes, after prayer and reflection at the right conclusion. I have the privilege of time to study and an intellect that can handle difficult subjects (I also love doing it!) I find, however, there is little desire to hear the fruits of my study in ‘ordinary life’. My reading and learning, my observations and testing of ideas is rarely requested or respected because ‘ordinary people’ don’t want to know or hear it. I sit in decision making bodies and hear a lot of subjective opinions which are all fascinating and important but I want to know the right opinion not just the good ones. Due to the shying away of many ‘ordinary people’ to deep thinking and reflecting, in a life that is busy as it is, decisions are made from a sense of utilitarianism rather than wisdom. What is going to make this decision quick and painless?.. We’ll go with that; usually the majority view.

The Bible is full of the prophetic speaking out against the majority view against the popularist opinions. Where then is their authority? I find myself reflecting a lot on the interplay between minority and majority views. In the UK it seems the minority view is heard a lot at both ends of the spectrum; we are developing into a polarised society which demands our population speak in extreme tones in order to be heard. I don’t hear much wise authoritative voices much these days; voices of those who have reflected deeply and share their views like Jeremiah, reluctantly and with great pain and struggle.

I know that I’m coming across as arrogant and demeaning (I genuinely don’t mean to be) but what I’m trying to articulate is that just because you believe something to be right in the deepest part of your being, doesn’t mean it’s right. We are fallen, broken, fallible creatures whose desires and instincts must be curbed to protect others. We need the counsel of others and we must work out our salvation in the company of strangers (those that are different from us). It is this reality we must become more aware of in are society at the moment.


I am concerned that we are allowing opinion polls direct more decisions within the Church. It is how politics is done in our country at the moment but I’d rather hoped the Church would defend itself against such simplistic ideas. It seems we are being constantly tempted to simplify our message so that those outside the church can understand us; we must remain relevant and jargon differentiates us from the world. I have quoted this before but it is worth repeating,

We are cultural refugees. The beautiful monastics throughout church history were cultural refugees; they ran to the desert not to flee from the world but to save the world from itself… Much of the world now lies in ruins of triumphant and militant Christianity. The imperially baptized religion created a domesticated version of Christianity – a dangerous thing that can inoculate people from ever experiencing true faith. (Everyone is a Christian, but no one knows what a Christian is anymore.) Our hope is that the postmodern, post-Christian world is once again ready for a people who are peculiar, people who spend their energy creating a culture of contrast rather than a culture of relevancy. (Shane Claiborne, Jesus for President: politics for ordinary radicals (Michigan: Zondervan, 2008) p. 238-240)

Orthodoxy is a dirty word it seems and, as our culture rejects more and more institutions and positions of authority in the continual backlash from totalitarian regimes in the 20th and now in 21st century, one must defend against being told what to think or believe. This leads to a subjective life relying on whims and opinions and defending those out of fear of being changed against our will. Our free will is of prime importance no matter where it leads us.

Lord, have mercy upon us.

Loving Father, whose authority rests perfectly in Jesus Christ your Son, guide us to fuller knowledge of your will and call us closer to you that we may be changed.

Come, Lord Jesus

Chapter 64: election of the abbot


He must be knowledgeable in Divine Law so as to know when to “bring forth new things and old”

Should we be trained and ordained locally?

I have written a lot on leadership and ordained ministry on my journey through the Rule of St Benedict. As I read this chapter on the election of an abbot I can see some of my own personal journey to ordained ministry in it but there are differences which mainly focus on the Benedictine understanding of leadership within a local context. It calls me to ask questions about our understanding of leadership:

Is it better to be called from and to a local community? Should we be training people to serve in their local church?

Currently in the Church of England one is called to ordained ministry to the national Church. It is the laity, on the whole, who are called to the local church. There is a growing sense, however, of the local call of ordained ministers with the rise of training programs offered by St Mellitus and St Barnabas Centres and other local training courses. I have mixed views about these.

I still fundamentally believe that residential training for ordained ministry is the ideal due to the opportunities and space for deep reflections and theological study. The local training is fantastic in preparing deacons and priests for the practical work of ministry but, from conversations with those trained in these ways, there is little time and space given for the possibility of adaptation and growth in personal theologies.

For me training was done in the common room where I learnt to hear opposing views of theology in the context of a lived out community. There was little escape from having to eat and serve those who you disagreed vehemently with. It was in the common room experience where I learnt the practical way to love in disagreement; something the Church of England desperately needs to explore and work out.

The residential model of training does leave gaps in training particularly, as I say, in the more practical experience of leading, preaching and long term pastoral work and mentoring. Yes, curacy picks up these gaps but expectation gives little room for mistake and genuine learning on that. The local forms of training, with the long term placements of over two/three years, give more space to learn such skills.

It is here that the difference between monks and ordained ministers in the Church of England must remain distinct. A monk chooses stability and their life is one dedicated to a community over their life time. Clergy dedicate themselves to itinerant ministry going where God calls them. Their stability is to the order of deacon and priest and to the institutional church.

Treasures Old and New

Having reflected on how an abbot is chosen in Chapter 2: the qualities of the abbot, I was struck, when reading this chapter, the instruction that an abbot ‘must be knowledgable of Divine Law so as to know when to “bring forth new things and old” (Matthew 13:52).’

This passage from Matthew was used for the title of a conference which gathered traditional and emerging communities within the Anglican tradition (Treasures Old and New). The couple of days in Whitby earlier last year was an important gathering for those of us who are sensing a movement of the Holy Spirit to a renewal of religious life in different forms.

I was sad not to be able to make it to these days but continue to hear from many of my friends who went about what God is beginning to reveal amongst us. I have had the privilege of journeying with many of those present and gaining from the wisdom gleaned together.

The title says something important for me of where God is speaking to us in the Church of England.

As I wrote in Parish Monasticism: a conference, I have an unsettling feeling about our current culture within the Church to create new groupings, new labels, to be new, fresh, relevant, cutting edge, etc. Yes, God creates and brings new things to birth but for me new comes from the old. I said,

In our desire to be relevant to the present, I feel, we have sold our inheritance and we have no sight on our descendants.

I am deeply concerned that we are throwing babies out with bath water in our desperation to remain in step with the world. The Church, particularly the Anglican Church, is feeling much pressure to keep up with the world, its ‘wisdom’ and its progress. We make knee jerk responses to questions and challenges posed by the people outside the Church, whom we serve in love. We have a selective replacement theology in every wing of our broad family, and a view of Jesus as someone who came and said,

So that Jewish thing hasn’t really worked, so let’s start again.

Yes, Jesus preached a ‘new’ commandment but ‘new’ is ironic because what he preaches is right at the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures: Love God, love your neighbour.

The sound system in one of our churches was quite old and temperamental and there had been cries for a new one for over four years. I had often joined with these calls to throw this old system out and get a brand new one. I was asked to look at the system and make some recommendations. In looking at it and studying it careful I realised that it was perfectly fine as it was. The problems stemmed from not using it right. The wrong cables were plugged into the wrong inputs and the speakers are not powerful enough for the amplifiers but when you use the system as it is meant to be used it works well. The problem was we wanted to throw it out and get a brand new one without asking the question: are we using it right?

I think there’s a similar problem with the Church.

We are not spending enough time thinking and studying how the Church is meant to work and we all presume it’s no longer fit for purpose. In fact, I think a lot of what the Fresh Expressions movement has discovered is what we knew before but had forgotten. The New Monastic movement (or whatever name you want to give it) has discovered what Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and many others already identified.

This does not mean that I am suggesting blindly clinging to the old, the fatal choice to remain faithful to a potentially sinking ship. There is much need of re-newing and discovering how God is adapting his plans to accommodate the world’s freely chosen direction. The world is changing and we can’t allow our world to become so alien to us that we can no longer communicate with it. Jesus shows us God is a being who loves us enough to enter into our lostness in order to be with us and save us. We must go to where people are, often places and situations where the Church has not been before because people have not been before.

The danger is allowing the new situations to change who we are in Christ. The danger, as it has always been, is to return to the life of the flesh and darkness when we have been given a life in the Spirit and of light.

I have been reading the biography of Oscar Romero and the following quote sums up what I feel God calling me to say in this generation,

The Church, then, is in an hour of aggiornamento, that is, of crisis in its history. And as in all aggiornamenti, two antagonistic forces emerge: on the one hand, a boundless desire for novelty, which Paul VI described as “arbitrary dreams of artificial renewals”; and on the other hand, an attachment to the changelessness of the forms with which the Church has clothed itself over the centuries and a rejection of the character of modern times. Both extremes sin by exaggeration. Unconditional attachment to what is old hampers the Church’s progress and restricts its “catholicity”… The boundless spirit of novelty is an impudent exploration of what is uncertain, and at the same time unjustly betrays the rich heritage of past experiences… So as not to fall into either the ridiculous position of uncritical affection for what is old, or the ridiculous position of becoming adventurers pursuing “artifical dreams” about novelties, the best thing is to live today more than ever according to the classic axiom: think with the Church. (Oscar Romero quoted in Morrozzo Della Rocca, Roberto, Oscar Romero: prophet of hope (London: Dalton, Longman and Todd, 2015) p.22-23)


At this point in the Church of England’s history with so many questions over our inner polity and interactions with the world in mission, we desperately need leaders who are knowledgable of Divine Law, who are virtuous, sober and merciful, prudent, moderate and humble. Above all of these things spiritual men and women who are wise in administering the Rule of Life for all disciples. Servants of the gospel who can bring forth treasures old and new so that the Kingdom of God can establish itself amongst us.

Loving Father, the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of your children who grow in the likeness of your Son are who are led by your Spirit. You did not give a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear but you gave us a spirit of adoption to future glory. Elect men and women from amongst us who will guide us through temptations and live out a stable and pure life.

Come Lord Jesus

Chapter 63: rank in the monastery


The brothers will rank in order, depending upon the date of their entrance, the merit of their lives or the order of the abbot.

Where does power lie?

You don’t have to look far in the archives of my five years of blogging to learn I am egalitarian. I wrote my dissertation on establishing non-hierarchical communities of faith based on the principles of ensemble theatre practice. What egalitarian communities look like depends on the reasons why you want equality and what equality means. I have also written a lot about the term ‘equality’ and I have challenged the popular contemporary definition or understanding of this term. This could confuse many (it confuses me sometimes!)

I want to focus a little more on how non-hierarchical structures are created and how they work.

St Benedict is an orderly man; you can feel that throughout his Rule. It is very popular to be cynical and against order in society. This is expressed in semi-anarchist movements such as the Occupy Movement and Anonymous. I’m not totally against such movements, indeed I agree with the sentiment at the heart of them. My challenge to them, if I were to be so bold, would be to what end? How do such philosophies create a safe, secure society which encourages the well-being and stability to life for it’s people? Power is always present in any social dynamic and to deny that is dangerous; it’s not necessarily just about who holds the power but really about how it is held.

In most societies and groupings power forces people into a hierarchy: those with more are seen as over and above those that do not.

Egalitarians seek to change that thinking, some by taking power from those that have and give them to those that don’t. This, however, only flips the hierarchy and those that didn’t now do and those that did now don’t… the oppressed become the oppressors and so the cycle begins. You can see this in many ‘equality movements’. In order to re-address the balance of power those that have held power, e.g. men, are denied dignity and are shamed into handing power over to the oppressed, e.g. women, until the balance is found. This is a dangerous way of doing things as it is violent in nature. There is a temptation to unconsciously communicate a “this is what it feels like’ message in the re-addressing of power.

Peace and reconciliation is about taking the sting out of power. Power-sharing is a narrow and treacherous path to walk. Power is a dangerous weapon to carry and must be handled with great care. We must see it as the one true ring of Middle Earth that requires a fellowship to carry it safely in order to destroy it. Power must be shared before it takes root in one person and oppresses them and then those around it.

I have been reflecting a lot recently on reconciliation and how it can be discovered. For me it is about discovering the joy and power of collaboration. The journey to collaboration must pass through the difficult destination of ‘ego-death’. This, for me, is at the heart of the healing humanity needs, both individually and collectively. It is why the cross is the central point of our salvation. The cross is the singular sign of ‘ego-death’. There can be no healing, no reconciliation, no healthy relationships without the complete annihilation of our egos and God has walked it ahead of us.

This is the challenge that Jeremy Corbyn has to enter into if his vision for a ‘new politics’ is to be achieved. I’m not totally sure he’s up to the task but I’m willing to try and, in his wake, see many others follow through. I am, personally, excited about what he has begun but trying to lead a people so adversed to the painful walk of ‘ego-death’ will be nearly impossible. The reason I have reservations is that he has yet given a good enough reason to people as to why they should go through this painful procedure. With any healing, the patient must understand the risks of not having it as well as to having it.

My wife has recently had an assessment for a lung transplant. This procedure is dangerous with many risks involved. It is overwhelmingly scary to consider all the pain, the cost and the turmoil it could bring upon us. I found myself asking,

Why would we want to do that?

Well, the alternative of not doing anything is guaranteed to be worse (for me at least because Sarah will get to be with Jesus sooner!) The transplant seen in this way is the necessary healing.

I know that our society is crying out for equality and this healing from hierarchy but I fear the obvious path towards it will not solve the problem but by-pass the most needed part of the process: ‘ego-death’. I have spoken many times of distress of the process that brought about same-sex marriage. I have spoken of my deep concern for the way in which people try to achieve gender equality. I have written too much on how broken our processes are for achieving real change in a situation and it all revolves around the lack of ego-death, or rather it is focussed too much on ‘others’ dying to their ego whilst I remain unchanged, unchallenged.

St Benedict’s Rule looks at arbitrary measurements of seniority: whoever’s been here the longest is valued the most. This is not about age but is based on an understanding that the person who has lived the central principles of humility and obedience will have transformed the most. It is the monks who have been engaged in the killing of their egos that are given the power because they know the dangers of it better than any.

I had the privilege of listening to Jean Vanier being interviewed at the New Parish Conference in Birmingham this weekend. He was asked,

If you were given a magic wand that could stop the church doing one thing and make the Church do something more, what would you take away and what would you make happen?

Immediately he responded,

I would get rid of the magic wand!

That is what St Benedict is proposing; putting men like Jean Vanier who has been slaying his ego for the most amount of time being given responsibility for the power. It is these people who understand the danger who should be entrusted with the job of walking the painful journey to destroy the sting of power.


Leaders of the local parish should be judged not by their qualifications but by their maturity of faith. At the centre of every neighbourhood should be the person who has slain their ego the most. The one who has been committed to humility and obedience for extended period of times. It is the one who has walked that journey down the narrow and treacherous path of inner reconciliation that should guide others into the same terrain.

This is where the monastic charism is so important in parish ministry. At the heart of all monastic calls is the commitment to humility and obedience that leads to ‘ego-death’. This is why the New Monastic Movement resonates with exile language so much because they inhabit the terrain of wilderness and have learnt to thrive in that post death world.

I often write a prayer that directs my reflections back to God. This time I want to use a liturgical response from Common Prayer’s Evening Prayer on Thursday.
May our minds be like that of Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
Did not regard equality with God
As something to be exploited,
But emptied himself,
Taking the form of a slave,
Being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
He humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death,
Even death on a cross.
Therefore, God also highly exalted him
And gave him the name that is above every name,
So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
In heaven and on earth and under the earth,
And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 62: priests of the monastery


He will keep his entrance rank except in service at the altar…

Where is the discipline in our discipleship?

Again and again the Rule of St. Benedict causes me to reflect on my vocation to the priesthood. The ordering of the church with it’s various designated roles and callings which overlap and yet remain distinct is a confusing subject and it gets increasingly so as people try to re-order and make room for individuals as they explore their specific ‘charism’.

After the last two week’s reflections I begin to see clearly the challenge and, potentially, the call of God on the Anglican Church.

Where is the discipline within our discipleship?

This is a particularly important question when it comes to vocation. There seem to be so many different ‘ministries’ available but with our commitment to ‘the three fold order of ministry’ there is a natural hierarchical view of ministry built into the Church. We can try and promote the work of the laity but Canon Law, which governs and shapes us, forces us to hold the offices of bishop, priest and deacon higher than others. These three offices have wide ranging specifications outlined in the ordinals that it begs the question what is it that designates a priest from the rest of the people of God.

I have sat with the ordinal many times and prayed through it. I can’t help but feel overwhelmed by everything I am asked to be and do. I’m glad that the response to whether I can fulfil all that is asked of me is,

By the help of God, I will.

But even after I relinquish some of the responsibility onto the grace of god I still have to ponder when non-ordained members of the Church take solemn vows to participate in the work of the Church? If all these tasks fall on to the ordained only what is left for the laity to do and participate in?

My question is about how to value properly the work of all the people of God and not demand that, in order to be able to do any ministry, you need to be ordained. To put it another way: how do we stop the personalising of ordained orders in order that all vocations are rightly affirmed.

Changing tack, or rather to focus in on a particular issue; I am not against the Fresh Expressions movement nor the role of Pioneer Ministers (indeed I am active within it!) but there is a real challenge that is raised by the mixed economy of what exactly constitutes a call to the diaconate, the priesthood and to episcopal office. There is an argument that Ordained Pioneer Ministers are being given ‘time off’ to pursue the work that all people and ordained ministers should be doing anyway. ‘Non-pioneer Ministers’ argue that they would love to be creative and missional if only they had the time but their diaries are full of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of ordained ministry. Specifying ‘Ordained Pioneer Ministry’ from the ordained ministry has caused many to feel excluded from the work of contextual mission.

I have always and continue to argue that Ordained Pioneer Ministry is a necessary move by the Church of England in order to raise these questions and conversations and I feel we should be looking to use the questions to solidify our view of the three fold order of ministry. The experience of Ordained Pioneer Ministers should be helping to release and encourage ‘Non-pioneer Ministers’ to be pioneering. Whether this pioneering is done by laity or ordained ministers is a real question. For what it’s worth I suspect most of it should be done by laity but that does not release clergy from the responsibility to participate too.

If I was to be bold in putting forward a real pathway to fruitful debate it would be to propose that all disciples should be pioneers as we respond, through the Spirit, to the call of God to all his people to share the good news and herald in his kingdom. All disciples ordained or not should be looking at ways to do mission and evangelism in their particular context. Once our discipleship bears its fruit in the form of outreach and kingdom building we can then re-examine the role of deacons, priests and bishops within that.

As it stands we are trying to solve a problem in the wrong part of the system!

Like St. Benedict’s monasteries, the call to the priest comes from an established discipleship programme where everyone is subject to the same training and discipline. From this place, 62 chapters in, we then discuss the practical role of presiding at the Eucharist and leading the disciples in prayers. The role of priest does not change their need to follow the discipline of the community. They are priest at the table.

Here priesthood is not the same as leadership.

To be a leader you do not need to be a priest. It is thought that the abbot was not necessarily ordained as a priest and this makes for a fascinating insight into hierarchy in these religious communities. The abbot remains as spiritual leader whilst the priest has a different function. Terence Kardong explores this differences in his book ‘Together Unto Life Everlasting’, proposing that,

…the power of the bishop/priests is of sacramental order, that of the abbot is charismatic. The first power comes from the church: the second comes from the Holy Spirit. (Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the rule of st benedict (London: Continuum, 1995) p232)

That distinction is worth noting. I have been struggling to articulate that feeling for some time. My understanding and call to the priesthood is a sacramental order, a function of sorts. My call to specific areas, people or contexts is a charismatic one. All disciples are called to charismatic ministries; ministries that are contextual and unique within the shared call to share the gospel. Some are called to sacramental roles and that is a church function.

The Church, in my mind, should explore specifying better the three fold order of ministry so that those not called to a sacramental role are still encouraged in participating with equal anointing to the life and mission of Christ’s Church. There must be a greater articulation that those given an ordained office in the Church are not seen as of a higher rank or calling. They remain disciples but with a particular, sacramental role. Other disciples are called by the Holy Spirit with charismatic roles which should be honoured and encouraged.

There are parts of my job which I do because it’s my office (presiding at Holy Communion, visiting the sick and baptizing new believers, etc.) but there are other things I do because I feel the Holy Spirit calling me to do at that time and place (community chaplaincy, encouraging artists in the city, gathering and leading a small home group, etc.). Some are tasks that I alone can do in our community because they are sacramental, but many other tasks that I do as a disciple and not as a priest to which others may also be called to do. The specifying of these different tasks needs to be done more intentionally to release disciples into the work that they are called to do as disciples, ordained or not.


As I contemplate moving from my curacy into a parish of my own, I think about how I will minister in the new context. There will be sacramental tasks I am called to do because God has called me to be a priest and the Church has acknowledged that. There will also be other things that I will discover God is calling me to, not because I am a priest, but because I am a disciple.

Our question should be, within the parish, should there be a distinction between the abbot and the priest? I would argue there’s room for this framework. It would require a rethink of how the Church views and discusses ordained ministry and that of lay ministry. I think God is already moving in this area as increasingly stretched ordained ministers find themselves forced into ever-widening job specifications and expectations. As more churches find themselves in longer interregnums and more multi-parish benefices are created, less ordained ministers feel ‘called’ to the struggling (mostly rural) contexts due to the ‘killer workloads’ and overwhelming pressures, as well as not fully understanding the discipline of discipleship. I speak from personal experience, here. It was in the intensity of college that I discovered the cost of discipleship (and I came from a ‘successful’, growing church).

We can any longer hide the charismatic call of all disciples to contextual mission in its infinitely varied forms. The praise and holiness of ‘leadership’ and the pursuit for better equipped leaders is futile as we increasingly discover that what is being asked of them should be the work of all disciples. To require a title like ‘leader’ or to need ordination to encourage someone in doing the work of the kingdom is a failure on our discipleship. Leaders come from a fully functioning discipleship programme (as we’ll explore in two weeks time). Naming someone a leader and then asking them to find followers is illogical to me.

You’ll be aware that I am convinced that only a focussed, intentional re-examination of the real life of discipleship where commitment is paramount and better more systematic re-ordering of God’s Church to ensure the discipline of humility is at the heart of all we are and do is needed!

Loving Father, gracious and powerful, you call us to be converted from our old life to new life in Christ. You have adopted us as your children and grant us true peace, found when we know our identity in Christ. Continue to call us closer to you that we would live in the freedom of your grace and that others would see your good work in us that hey to would respond to your call on their lives also.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 60: priests who would live in the monastery


Should a member of the priesthood wish to enter the monastery, permission is not to be immediately granted.

What is it God is calling me to?

Having discussed general principles of vocation and commitment for the last few weeks and having spoken earlier about a potential monastic understanding of vocation, the Rule now causes me to reflect on my own personal discernment. It’s been hard reading this chapter on the acceptance of a priest into monastic orders partly because it forces me to see my sense of calling to a form of monasticism from the other side.

This week I sat in front of a panel and answered questions of vocation. I think it went well. I answered as openly and honestly as I could but there will always be a small sense of disappointment in these situations due, in part, to always being unable to discern, precisely, the will of God. Discernment, for me, is a corporate activity; it is best done within a community listening to God together. This ensures personal agendas and egos are balanced and the Spirit can confirm itself through the Body of Christ.

What is it God is calling me to?

I have been asking that question for a year and a half now. My prayers have circled round this question as I have sought God’s leading for Sarah and I post-curacy. There have been some encouraging glimpses as God uses all the vehicles of communication to show us his plans and purposes.


All of those glimpses are potential and not actual. Dreaming is easy (I can do it in my sleep!) walking them out is hard. Reality is a cruel beast with a seeming will of its own not easy to tame with our desires. The stirrings of my heart are one thing but what will happen may well be quite different.

There comes a point in the journey of discernment (and I have reached it now) where one falls on the mercy of another, usually a person in authority. This is an act of trust. In vulnerability one offers the dreams, the stirrings, the private wisps of conversation between ones heart and God and ask another to decide the path to take. This is never straight forward and the person to whom you pass those cherished fragments of one’s inner life to must handle them with great care. To trust that person with such treasure is made easier when it is done in relationship.

At some point in June/July I will head to my bishop with the fruit of my wrestling with God and ask him to discern my next step.

How do I communicate what I feel God speaking to me about?

Our lives, our vocation, everything that makes up the cocktail of what makes ‘me’ me is like a tightly knotted ball of odds and ends which are so intrinsically woven to discern what to do with it takes care; a mixture of gentleness and love alongside bold and decisive cuts. It is not something to hand over easily but, sitting with it in your lap won’t help either.

Yes, I feel called to ordained ministry as a priest. Yes, I feel called to the Church of England (for whatever reason!). Yes, I feel called to married life. Yes, I feel called to sit on committees/ strategy groups, Synods, etc. Yes I feel called to the ministry of reconciliation. Yes, I feel called to the wilderness context. Yes, I feel called to serve in the ordinariness of life and, yes, I feel called to monastic life, intentional community, a contemplative rhythm of prayer and action. What does this particular concoction of callings look like in practice? How do they connect and work themselves out? I do not know… and so the ball of confusion gets passed with great trepidation to the bishop with a prayer that God’s will be done in my life.

In the Rule of St. Benedict there is a sense that the call to priesthood is to be set under the call to be a monk. That monastic call supersedes the call to priestly ministry. This, for me, makes me reflect on how I see the priestly ministry. I still find myself considering it as a function rather than an ontology (a question of being). I see myself as being a priest in that I am someone who instinctively inhabits the ‘between places’ but I increasingly feel I am a monk in that I think I am at home in the wilderness with a gathered community of other desert dwellers.

The key question for me, as I wait for the call to move,

Where then is my home?

My answer (if I am forced to be so bold) is identifying the wilderness that is all around me and building the altars there. Abraham meets God in the journey and is called to encounter him there. There are increasing number of people who feel a similar call to establishing community of intentional disciples pitching a tent and setting up a place for God’s presence to be amongst them. Will the Church recognise this move of the Spirit which seems to be birthing monastic communities within the wilds of 21st century western civilisation?


It can feel like what I am envisaging is having my cake and eating it! This chapter has highlighted that.

You want all the pleasure of being a monk without any of the cost

The New Monastic movement is criticised on this point, I know. How is it monastic if you’re not alone? If you rarely have to face the cost of poverty and chastity how is it any form of monasticism?

I do not have an immediate answer to that but I know that we will only come to an answer by living in those questions rather than jumping to some theoretical answers. The Desert Fathers and Mothers didn’t write out a plan, a strategy, a theory; they moved into the edge lands and lived, struggled, failed and persevered.

I want to end with a picture that I have begun to own for myself; the bear.

The bear is often a solitary animal but is fiercely social as well. They live in the wild and gently plod around existing in quite extreme environments. When you bring them into a different surrounding you have to cage them because they cannot be contained. They are wild, strong and dangerous when caged or cornered. They are resilient in their natural habitats but their defence mechanisms kick in when they are out of it and God have mercy on those who are on the receiving end of their fury.

As I wait in a context I don’t feel naturally comfortable in, my prayer is simple,

Father, lead me. Meet me. Strengthen and defend me.

Come, Lord Jesus