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On Discipleship Within The Monastic Tradition

This is the text of a paper presented at the first Postgraduate Research Morning hosted at St Hild’s College in Sheffield on Monday 5th June 2017.


I want to talk about discipleship today from within, what many are calling, ‘the New Monastic Movement’ of which I am part. This movement has emerged out of a protest against the steady increase of individualism prevalent in our Western culture. Many would argue that the individualisation of our society began in the Enlightenment with philosophical thought becoming more introspective and focussed on the subjective interpretation of reality famously summarised in René Descartes, “I think, therefore, I am.” The Church has not been immune to this social deconstruction and this has led to a powerfully individualised faith experience. This erosion of the corporate understanding of faith has impacted the Church’s discipleship and life together.

With the secularisation following on from the Enlightenment project and the further mechanising and fragmenting of all aspects of our lives, the place of community has diminished. In the late 20th century, with the Church increasingly  unwilling or unable to offer intensive forms of Christian discipleship, some have gathered together to re-discover what it means to live out the communal life as described in the New Testament. The faithfulness of the monastic and mendicant saints throughout history became wells around which these small groups were nourished, inspiring them to live counter-culturally. These ‘pioneers’ discovered that the shared life they dreamt of had long been practiced by communities like the Franciscans, Benedictines and the Jesuits, among many. Others arrived at a similar place by a different route, having sought, in the first place, to rediscover the spiritual fortitude and charisms of the very same saints of old and so to re-dig wells of Grace in the ‘places’ where God has worked for generations before. Regardless of the path towards a contemporary articulation of the monastic way of life, they all learned that the historic forms were in need of some re-imagining for the new context in which we now live. In this way these expressions of communal discipleship can all be reasonably described as ‘new monastics’.

The term ‘New Monasticism’ was first used by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a letter he wrote on 14th January 1935. This is what he said,

the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ.  I think it is time to gather people together to do this. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Testament to Freedom (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), p.424)

Two years later, Bonhoeffer published ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ in which he seems to expand on his view of classic monasticism. He writes,

The expansion of Christianity and the increasing secularization of the church caused the awareness of costly grace to be gradually lost…. But the Roman church did keep a remnant of that original awareness.  It was decisive that monasticism did not separate from the church and that the church had the good sense to tolerate monasticism. Here, on the boundary of the church, was the place where the awareness that grace is costly and that grace includes discipleship was preserved…. Monastic life thus became a living protest against the secularization of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003) p.46-47)

This ‘toleration’ of monasticism by the Church, however, relativized the discipleship lived out in the monastic houses. The Church was able to avoid the criticism of secularisation by living the life of holiness vicariously through the achievements of these monks who obeyed the radical call to forsake all earthly things and follow Jesus Christ in discipleship.

Bonhoeffer argues that Martin Luther’s journey through the monastic life led him to see how the monastic life had failed the Church by perpetuating this lie that Christians could pay others to be ‘disciples’ on their behalf. The monastic houses had become, by the time the Reformation began, propped up by the financial donations by the Roman Church paying a select few monks to be obedient for the rest of God’s Church. Luther’s protest was an attempt to release the radical  obedience to follow Christ, found in the charisms of monastic life, and invite all Christians to participate in this form of devoted life of monasticism.

I say all this, yes, in order to justify the New Monastic movement as a continued protest for the Church to embrace the way of life outlined in the founding documents of the Benedictines, Franciscans, Jesuits and others. But I also say it in order to acknowledge and outline the popular portrayal of monastic life and the criticisms that it therefore receives. I want to argue that it is the early monastic life, articulated most purely in the Rule of St Benedict, that holds the key for us todayas to how to live as ‘a living protest against the seculariztion of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace.’

Listen, my son, and with your heart hear the principles of your Master. Readily accept and faithfully follow the advice of a loving Father, so that through the labour of obedience you may return to Him from whom you have withdrawn because of the laziness of disobedience. My words are meant for you whoever you are, who laying aside your own will, take up the all-powerful and righteous arms of obedience to fight under the true King, the Lord Jesus Christ. (RB Pro:1-5)

Thus starts the Rule of St Benedict. It begins with an unswerving command to obedience, not a popular command in our individualised, self-autonomous culture but the monastic life centres on the vow to stability, obedience and conversion of life. Columba Cary-Elwes helpful highlights that ‘the very word obedience has a treasure hidden in its history.’ She writes,

If you unpack it, ob audiere, to listen intently is the language of love. When you really love, you listen intently to know what the one you love wants to happen. (Columba Cary-Elwes, Work and Prayer:the rule of St. Benedict for lay people (London:Burns & Oates, 1992) p.182)

This understanding of obedience is acceptable in the context of our personal relationship with Christ but it becomes problematic for many in our post modern, subjective culture. To love and obey another is seen by our self-autonomous society as oppressive and open to all manner of abuse. In outlining the role of the abbot in his Rule, St Benedict, on more than one occasion, however, quotes Christ, “Whoever listens to you, listens to me.” Christ imparts authority to his disciples in order that they may speak on his behalf to others. The abbot in the monastic community is to represent Christ to his monks. The risk of abuse to that kind of power is real and Cary-Elwes acknowledges as much when she states,

No doubt also an abbot can go beyond his rights, and what is wrong or evil should not be obeyed. Yet all that happens is under divine providence and God’s wise guidance of the world, and this includes commands of superiors. (Cary-Elwes, Work and Prayer, p.40)

St Benedict spends many chapters portraying what an abbot should and should not do; he spends so much time that it begs the question, “why is it so important?” It is important because the role of the abbot directly impacts the discipleship of the rest of the community. ‘The first thing that defines the abbot,’ Esther de Waal writes, ‘is not the position at the head of an institution but his relationship with sons’ She links this with the model of discipleship undertaken by monks.

The learning process is more analogous to that of apprenticeship by which one person learns a skill from another. In the ancient world skills were handed down from father to son, and so apprenticeship also carries with it the implication of a father-son relationship. It involves imitation and long, patient watching and copying, a shared learning that owes much to the fact of daily living together.(Esther de Waal, Seeking God: the way of St. Benedict (London: Fount, 1985) p.130)

Discipleship, within the monastic tradition, begins with obedience; to listen intently to God through His Spirit and His people under authority. Rowan Williams paints a beautiful image of this model of discipleship as he suggest that being a disciple ‘is a state of being in which you are looking and listening without interruption.’

You are hanging around; you are watching; you are absorbing a way of being that you are starting to share. You learn by sharing life; you learn by looking and listening. (Rowan Williams, Being Disciples: essentials of the Christian life (London: SPCK, 2016) p.3)

‘Obedience is not an imposed subservience to an external authority but a condition of inward growth,’ as Dominc Milroy writes,

The monk who is not authentically obedient to his abbot and his brethren will not be a happy monk; the carpenter who is not obedient to the laws of governing joints will make an unreliable table. All disobedience represents, in this sense, the pursuit of illusory freedom which obstructs the acquisition of real freedom. (Dominic Milroy, “Education According to The Rule of St. Benedict”, Ampleforth Journal, no.84 (Autumn 1979) p.4)

As well as obedience, discipleship, within the monastic tradition, also begins with stability. Brian C Taylor says,

The Benedictine vow of stability is a vow to a community of people… In this sense it is a marriage…The grass is not greener “over there”: one must work out one’s problems with this person because, if one doesn’t, one will have to work it out with that person. This is precisely what is so freeing about the vow of stability, both in monastic life and family life. To have to work it out is to demand growth, as painful as it is, and that is freeing. Faithfulness is a limit that forces us to stop running and encounter God, self, and other right now, right here. (Brian C. Taylor, Spirituality For Everyday Living: an adaptation of the rule of St. Benedict (Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1989) p.17)

Or to put that more succinctly, Meister Eckhart wrote: ‘The meaning of stability: God is not elsewhere.’

If obedience is about listening intently, then stability aids our silencing of unnecessary distractions ‘for stability says there must be no evasion.’ There must be no escaping into a fantasy world or the day dreams of how we’d do great things if only… ‘At the heart of stability,’ Metropolitan Anthony bloom suggests, ‘is the certitude that God is everywhere, that we have no need to seek God elsewhere, that if I can’t find God here I shan’t find Him anywhere.’

Both obedience and stability combine with the commitment to seek out the conversion of our lives and gives the framework within which discipleship occurs in the monastic tradition. Conversion of life is about life-long, inner transformation which ensures discipleship is not a course to complete but a way of life to journey deeper into. Thomas Merton argues that a commitment to total inner transformation is to be regarded as ‘the end of the monastic life, and that no matter where one attempts to do this, that remains the essential thing.’

The Rule of St Benedict is immensely practical and pragmatic and can be used as a manual for a devoted life to following Christ. What we need to learn from it and the wider monastic heritage is the communal necessity of this way of life. Discipleship for Benedict, Francis and the other monastic fathers and mothers can only be done with others. Love can only be practised in the cut and thrust of community life. If the vows to stability, obedience and the ongoing conversion of one’s life can be seen as the soil in which monastic discipleship is rooted and from this the tree of discipleship can bear good fruit then we must acknowledge that all three require other people to be faithful and obedient to and to be changed by.

The monastic tradition has always rejected a form of life that attempts to replicate the religious life outside of a communal setting. John Cassian describes a type of monk called Sarabaites in a derogatory manner,

They… go on living in their homes just as before, carrying on the same work; or they build cells for themselves, call them ‘monasteries’ and live in them as they please… Shirking the austere rule of a community: living two or three together in a cell; under no direction: aiming above all else at having freedom from the elders, of going where they like, and of satisfying whatever passion they like. (John Cassian, The Conferences of Cassian, “Conference 18: Conference of Abba Piamun on the three sorts of monks”, Owen Chadwick (trans.), Library of Christian Classics Volume XII: Western Asceticism (London: SCM Press, 1958) p.268-269)

St Benedict also depicts this type of monk as,

…unschooled by any rule, untested, as gold is by fire, but soft as lead, living in and of the world… They live together in twos or threes, more often alone, without a shepherd in their own fold, not the Lord’s. Their only law is the pleasure of their desires, and whatever they wish or choose they call holy. They consider whatever they dislike unlawful. (RB 1:7-9)

The monastic life, I would argue, is still ‘a living protest against the secularization of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace.’ But in our modern context this requires us embracing the challenge of community life as outlined in the Rule of St Benedict. In this portrayal of community life discipleship is intrinsically linked with the submission of our self wills to the discipline of the larger community’s apprenticeship training. This is not the romantic, sentimental community life that we all easily describe in our dreams of missional communities but a very real and costly life which demands obedience and stability in order to enter into the inner change of discipleship.

Without this ultimate commitment to the other monks, to wife or husband, to child or parent, change is difficult at best because it lives under the threat of abandonment. With a commitment to stability, change is no longer a threat but something to be undertaken together. One can change or ask for change in the other when one knows that one is loved and that this request will not drive the other away.

What the monastic tradition offers the Church today is a communal way of life that challenges our cultures hyper-individualism by demanding the sacrificing of the idol of self and ‘a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ.’ We must discover that on the boundary of the Church today the monastics still preserve ‘the awareness that grace is costly and that grace includes discipleship.’

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 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.

Chapter 68: when a brother is asked to do the impossible


If a brother is requested to do something difficult or impossible he should, at first, accept the command meekly and obediently.

Can we change?



Again I’m forced to ask the ever penetrating questions: how to respond to authority? and how to exercise authority? These two issues have oscillated throughout the Rule of St. Benedict and has raised obedience as the vow which cuts through the individualised, libertarian ethic of our age. Obedience is the virtue, the practice, I think, that challenges us most because it seems to our ‘progressive’ minds a reversal into authoritarian state which birthed both fascism and communism.

We want freedom. We want to be released from what others think of us. We want to be able to censor the oppressive demands placed upon us.

My heart knows what is good for me.

We want to be autonomous, in control, because the alternative is perceived to be unsatisfying and, at worse, abusive. We want freedom to choose because choice is the goal of our culture. We are told,

We can do anything if believe strong enough. We can achieve whatever we put our mind to. If anyone tells you can’t do it, they are wrong.

Our televisions project stories of people, ‘achieving their goals’. The contestants speak out in un-ironic parody the same statements of self belief. They’re ‘expressing themselves’ and ‘no one will stop them.’ It all sounds so positive and encouraging but under the surface lies a slightly more sinister tone of captivity.

Underneath the statements of ‘knowing self’, of finding ‘true self’ is an oppressive narrative which holds people in an identity which is unable to change;

You are who you are.

In this reality we need to discover who we are as static personalities and express it. Our gender and sexuality, our personality strengths and flaws all set in stone by a Creator who likes diversity no matter what the impact on others. Mistakes can be blamed on genetics and change of behaviours subtly denied because if we can change then we don’t know what we want or need and therefore choice becomes trickier to make.

In this consumerist narrative of free choice, we hear the call to obedience to something outside of our own choice as foreign. The truth is obedience opens our eyes to see the potential conversion of our life. It is only in obedience that we can be transformed from an old life to a new life but we must trust that which can lead us through the painful sear of true freedom into the fullness of life. All other freedom than that discovered through a commitment to obedience is false, a mirage that will blind you.

True liberation is a mystery many do not fully find because the false liberation is more appealing. The temptation makes more sense to us because we ask

why would freedom be difficult; it is the absence of pain, is it not?

True liberty does violence to self and, like Christ, who disregarded that he was sovereign becomes a slave to serve others. (Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love (Pennsylvania: The Plough Publishing, 1988) p.40)

It is this liberation and conversion that St. Benedict calls monks to through the consecrated life. Ultimately, this life is ‘impossible’ without the faithfulness and stable love of God. It would be wrong to enter the monastic life thinking that it is achievable, it is within our capabilities. Many decide not to pursue the monastic life because they see it as impossible with their personality or who they are. The truth is: it’s not about you!

It doesn’t matter who you are, or even think you are because that, hopefully, will change; in fact, it must change if you are to live the life of discipleship and true repentance. It matters not if, when you think about the expectations the Rule places upon you, you cannot imagine yourself being able to ‘succeed’ at being a monk. It only matters if you trust that God can and will transform you from the life you live as you enter into a being ready for eternal life with him.

The superior, the authority of the abbot, is not forceful here. Again we see the gentleness needed in instructing a monk into the possibility of change. There is room, for St. Benedict, to go together, abbot and monk, as brothers into the presence of their all loving Father to seek his will. Both are equal under God and it is his will that they both must obey. Norvene Vest reflects beautifully on this approach to authority,

I resonate with the image suggested by the Latin word translated “gentleness.” The word is mansuetudine, meaning “accustomed to the hand,” and refers to training wild animals. I have a vivid sense of a small colt, standing shivering in cold and excitement as an attentive trainer approaches and gently caresses it. I often feel that way in the presence of God: fearful and shivering both with anxiety and eagerness, but willing myself to do all I can to respond, which is often simply not to run away. Instead, I tremble, and await the hand that touches me in love. (Norvene Vest, Preferring Christ: a devotional commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict (Pennsylvania: Morehouse Publishing, 2004) p.261)


We as the Church must not be lured into the social narrative of consumerism and individualism. We must proclaim the truth and reality of conversion. This is not some political ‘change’ that is preached during election season. This is deep and painful change that leads to meaningful relationships of trust and hope.

The church must suffer for speaking the truth, for pointing out sin, for uprooting sin. No one wants to have a sore spot touched, and therefore a society with so many sores twitches when someone has the courage to touch it and say: “You have to treat that. You have to get rid of that. Believe in Christ. Be converted. (Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love (Pennsylvania: The Plough Publishing, 1988) p.27-28)

Our message of salvation loses all it’s potency if we collude with the morally liberal philosophies of this world or the dictatorial conservative world views which state that significant change of behaviour is not needed nor is it possible. We are all sick and distorted. We are plagued by faulty genes and personalities. We’ve all been infected and we all need healing! To heal the patient must be obedient to the process of change otherwise nothing will happen.

The church must become a place of real transformation and healing to all who come. Change must be on our banners and explicit in all we do but a change that rightly is rooted in humility (acknowledgement of the sickness) and obedience (the willingness to let go of the past and step into a new life.)

Loving Father, we submit. We submit to your gentle hand in obedience. We cannot see how we will live out the impossible but we trust that nothing is impossible for you. What we have always been can be redeemed for you, for the Kingdom, the glory and the power are yours, now and forever.

Come, Lord Jesus

Chapter 67: brothers sent on a journey


On the day of their return, they should prostrate themselves at the completion of each Hour of the Divine Office and ask the prayers of the entire community for any sins they may have committed by seeing or hearing evil, or by idle chatter.

Why not travel?

I have been reflecting on the different types of monks this week due in part to my reading of The Conferences of Cassian. In Conference 18, Cassian hears from Abba Piamun of the three types of monks that have developed over the monastic tradition. It is clear from reading this document that St. Benedict took much from the wisdom of the Fathers and used their work to construct his Rule.

Abba Piamun names the types of monks as cenobites (coenobites), hermits and Sarabaites. Cenobites are ‘monks living in a community under the government of a single elder.’ Hermits are ‘men who have first been trained in communities to the life of virtue and have then chosen to live a completely hidden and solitary life.’ Sarabaites, however, do not come out well.

The third, and culpable, kind is the Sarabaites… They are descended from Ananias and Sapphira. They do not follow the perfect way: they prefer to pretend to follow it. No doubt they want to be rivals of, and to gain the kind of credit given to, people who choose Christ’s utter poverty above all the riches of the world. They pursue true goodness feebly. They must needs become monks in order to gain the repute of monks, but they make no effort to follow their discipline, disregard the rules of the communities, are outside all control from the elders, fail to use the elders’ traditions to conquer their self-will. They… go on living in their homes just as before, carrying on the same work; or they build cells for themselves, call them ‘monasteries’ and live in them as they please… Shirking the austere rule of a community: living two or three together in a cell; under no direction: aiming above all else at having freedom from the elders, of going where they like, and of satisfying whatever passion they like – they are more busied about the necessities of life day and night than are coenobites. (Cassian, The Conferences of Cassian, “Conference 18: Conference of Abba Piamun on the three sorts of monks”, Owen Chadwick (trans.), Library of Christian Classics Volume XII: Western Asceticism (London: SCM Press, 1958) p.268-269)

And that is an abridged version!

St. Benedict’s treatment of the Sarabaites gives the same cutting critique.

…unschooled by any rule, untested, as gold is by fire, but soft as lead, living in and of the world… They live together in twos or threes, more often alone, without a shepherd in their own fold, not the Lord’s. Their only law is the pleasure of their desires, and whatever they wish or choose they call holy. They consider whatever they dislike unlawful. (St Benedict, Anthony C. Meisel and M. L. del Mastro (trans.), The Rule of St Benedict, “Chapter 1:the different kinds of monks and their customs” (New York: Doubleday, 1975) p.47)

Critics of the New Monastic Movement are right in holding these excerpts as a mirror on those of us who are exploring this emerging vocation. We who are undertaking a discernment to what God might be doing within his Church must take these dangers seriously and face up to the wisdom found within them.

St. Benedict also describes a fourth kind of monk: the gyratory monks.

All their lives they wander in different countries staying in various monasteries for three or four days at a time. They are restless, servants to the seduction of their own will and appetites, and are much worse in all things than the Sarabaites. (Ibid.)

The distinction, it seems, between Sarabaites and gyratory monks is the travelling. They move around and don’t remain in a place for long. They are nomads with no security from which to grow. It is in the light of this view that St. Benedict gives such a strict view on monks leaving the monastery at any moment or whim.

St. Benedict does not refuse travel but it must be necessary and even then, it is carefully managed by the abbot and community. Outside the monastery is seen as a barren place which is dangerous terrain to walk in. Monks should seek to return quickly and settle back into monastic life.


It is for the above reasons that the New Monastic Movement has adopted a model based more friars rather than monks. The friars, or mendicants, adopt a lifestyle of poverty, travelling, and living in urban areas preaching, evangelisation and ministry, especially to the poor. The mendicant orders have a Rule and an abbot figure called by various names depending on the different orders. The mendicants were released from the traditional interpretation of the Benedictine vow to stability giving them freedom to roam and preach where need is found.

I find myself caught between the monastic and the mendicant.

I am passionate about preaching good news to all who I meet. I want to see transformation in people’s lives brought about by a relationship with the living Lord. I want to see the Church equipped for the mission of co-labouring with God and seeing the Kingdom of God established amongst us. this life is one of journeying and going, meeting people where they are and dwelling with them.

I also feel, however, a deep yearning to remain rooted. I have spoken recently about this vision of a mountain goat being built for rough terrain and yet having a deep need for ‘home’. I am one who needs a tent/dwelling in the wilderness. Although I want to go out and work for the gospel I also need, in order to sustain myself, a stability in my life.

It is in the tension of these two calls that I find myself crying out to God to reveal to me, perhaps a new order that is a balancing of the monastic and the mendicant. I deep sense of a movement that has a deep understanding of the Christian as ‘tent-dweller’, both rooted and stable and yet nomadic.

The emergence of urban centers meant concentrated numbers of the homeless and the sick. This created problems for the parish churches who found themselves unable to address these issues. In response to this crisis, there emerged the new mendicant orders founded by Francis of Assisi (c.1181-1226) and Dominic of Guzmán (c.1170-1234).(“The Mendicant Orders”, University of Saint Thomas–Saint Paul, Minnesota, 2003, http://courseweb.stthomas.edu/medieval/francis/mendicant.htm)

It is as I come to the end of my reflections on the Rule of St. Benedict that I discover a ‘monastic’ response to crises felt within the parish system. This is not to say that the reflections on the Benedictine Rule has been wasted, in fact I feel that the New Monastic Movement may be becoming a potential answer to my personal questions in a blending of the mendicant and monastic. It is this reconciling of the two which, I feel, is the unique charism for our time and this movement. This is the new thing that is emerging amongst us in the Western Church. From both these ends of the spectrum we can learn and discover the balance we seek.

These conversations between those who are more mendicant in their vision and vocation and those who are more Benedictine will be rife with misunderstandings and divisions of purpose but I feel that if we can remain faithful to one another, there is a space that is evolving where all can serve together. These conversations must be done with the utmost prayer and sensitivity of the Spirit. There must be a deep commitment throughout the discernment and conversations to faithfulness, inner change/conversion and obedience to the Lord who directs and guides us. Over the next few years I desire to see the New Monastic Movement come together from the different backgrounds and shapes and dedicate themselves to prayer, study and mission and seek to find the commonality which will unite us and see Lord bless and heal our world.

Holy God, who calls all things into oneness yet holds difference within, bring forth from amongst your people a vision for the future of discipleship and mission. May we discern from the movement of your Holy Spirit how you are redeeming and healing the brokenness of your Church to grow in the likeness and obedience to Jesus Christ our Lord.

Come, Lord Jesus 

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

Where Next?


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 joined, as I have journeyed through the Rule of St Benedict, by increasing numbers of companions whose path happens to meet with mine and/or mine with theirs. Some of them have made commitments to particular monastic houses in different traditions, others are parish ministers who seek deeper community and discipleship within that service and others are those exploring what has come to be known as ‘New Monastic’ communities.

The New Monastic movement in Britain is a loose collection of groups who have identified a desire for more intentional community than that which is offered through traditional forms of church gathering. There is no stringent entry policy to this ‘network’/movement; it is better seen as an association. Even when a group identifies themselves in the category of ‘new monasticism’ it doesn’t bind you to another group who have also chosen to name themselves as such. In this way the movement remains self governing and flexible.

It works… sort of.

Accountability is covered for most of these groups through independent means but is not enforceable. Communities should seek to have an outsider to oversee or converse with the community to ensure safeguarding of its members and that relationships remain healthy as the group grows and evolves together. These relationships are based on trust and so the selection of a spiritual companion for a community can be a risky one.

The connection between individual groups and communities is a free choice. A group can, if they choose, be independent and get on with doing what they’re doing and being what they’re being without interaction with another group (many do). This choice, however, can lead to a sense of isolation and/or blind egotism, not to mention the spending of energy re-inventing of the metaphorical wheel! Many want to learn from others and become acutely aware of the challenges that face intentional community. At these times they reach out and discover the joy of journeying with others who share something of what they are living through.

Again, these relationships between groups/communities are self-selecting and so carry with them potential dangers. The concern I have is that of the blind leading the blind when there are communities that, although still learning and emerging, have journeyed terrain before and so can steer with wisdom and experience.

At the heart of my concern around the New Monastic movement is that we want to remain connected with the world in some areas of our life but not in others and we want to remain in control and choose the sacrifices and changes we experience. The sacrifice of the community is self selecting to suit our individual needs and what we think is right for us. Are we falling short of the ultimate hurdle which distinguishes a normal life and the monastic life? Does New Monasticism encourage people to remain individualistic consumers whilst giving the impression that we’re living radically different lifestyles? Do we just want to be different?

I’m more than aware that we all have unique vocations due to what God wants of us in our different contexts, with our personalities and experiences. Some of us are ready and blessed to be called to traditional monastic life in the different traditions. Some of us are called to that way of life but find ourselves in families and relationships which also seem to be permanent. Some of us are called to ordained ministry and some form of more intentional life. There seems to be several different shapes and models emerging all naming themselves something slightly different in order to distinguish themselves. ‘Missional Communities’, ‘Hubs’, ‘Home Groups’, ‘Organic Communities’, ‘Parish Monasticism’, ‘New Monasticism’, or any other unique name for a group who have a particular shape and call on its members. Some would say,

It works… sort of.

Discipleship and mission must be contextual. Where you find yourself must impact how you live out your faith and mission. The Holy Spirit calls us to particular tasks at particular times in particular places but the source of strength and call must remain fixed in the same God. Although the expression of faith has adapted to different cultures and language the faith remains steadfast. It is the tension between the rootedness of tradition and the fresh expressions of faith and mission which keeps a sense of life. A balanced life is one lived in tension.

I am an advocate of uniting all these different expressions of discipleship and community and I know that many others disagree. I can see that there may be some who feel uncomfortable ‘pinning down’ or ‘fencing in’ these exciting, new discoveries. ‘Organic’ and ‘adaptable’ keeps the thing streamlined and efficient, able to move to new places but I am extremely cautious about this view. It strikes me that there’s an addiction to novelty and being different. Maybe I’m being too cynical but is there not still an ‘attractional’ mindset underneath this approach to move with the times and the people we want to connect and bring into the group/community?

I agree that the Spirit blows where it will and the Church has suffered by its slowness to catch up with God. I agree that definition can exclude some who might have otherwise moved further in if they were encouraged to, or rather if they were not discouraged by boundaries. I agree that most communities who identify with this ‘monastic’ call, whatever that means for them, remain fragile and embryonic. And I totally agree that the reason traditional church doesn’t work for increasing numbers of people is because of our culture’s anxiety, fear and disapproval of institution.

It still comes down, for me, however, to a desperate need for the gospel to challenge individualistic consumer culture and not collude with it. Structure and framework is needed for a sense of security and refuge. It is not sustainable to constantly live in uncertainty, risk and vulnerability; we need shelter, even if it is just a tent which is moveable.

This is why I have found reflecting on the use of tents in the Bible encouraging. Tents give people a resting place in a landscape of wilderness. Tents are used as ‘home’ when you are being called to be nomadic. Tents give you the space to feel safe when the rest of your life is danger and risk. Paul uses this image to describe our earthly bodies on earth and to encourage us to see ourselves as belonging to another place.

I have shared before this prophetic picture someone once saw for me of a mountain goat living in rocky terrain, barren and wild. The words that accompanied that picture were, “You were built for this terrain.” I often find myself in spiritual wilderness, barrenness. I find myself in conflict and rough seas. When I do find a settled place, a place of comfort, I get uncomfortable. I thrive in the wild but even I need times of peace and rest. I survive but in a different way to how the sheep of the green pasture survive down in the valley.

I was reading Psalm 104 last week and then a verse sprang out as an encouragement for me,

The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the coneys. (Psalm 104:18)

What struck me was I was built for one context which is not shared for others but I still need refuge and places to recuperate. Graham Cray, ex-bishop of Fresh Expressions UK, when I shared this picture with him told me to hold onto the monastic practices to sustain that call to those contexts.

The Church is in exile; divorced from mainstream culture. The passionate discussions over calling the last Fresh Expressions’ Conference ‘From Margins to Mainstream’ focussed many people’s concern on where do we want to see ourselves. Some like being margin, periphery dwellers, others like to be anywhere but ‘boring mainstreamers’, some like the comfort of the known and others are anxious but uncertainty. Whatever is mainstream for one is margin for another; it depends on where you’re standing and how you see yourself.

I am one who finds himself, more often than not, in isolated viewpoints. I don’t fit. This always runs dangerously close to my obsession with being different and contrary and I am on constant watch to not fall into that trap. I know that is part of where God must hold me close and is part of my spiritual practices.

Rules of life are meant to be way markers not straight-jackets. I have explored different rules of life and studied the charisms of different communities what fascinates me and excites me is that despite being different they share similar central calls; they name them different things but they’re essentially the same. I’m talking about principles or virtues they live by not the practices they perform. Ian Mobsby and the Moot Community named these principles, ‘postures’.

I wonder what might happen if we acknowledged together, a sense that the monastic call is commitment to ‘stability, conversion and obedience’ (words used by St Benedict in chapter 58 of his Rule)? Some may want to interpret them as the traditional vows of ‘chastity, poverty and obedience’ but I see them as interchangeable.


A desire to remain rooted somewhere or with someone; no matter what the spiritual weather is like, no matter what temptations afflict you, you stay and remain faithful.


A desire to change, to turn away, step by step, from the things of this world to the Kingdom of God. To seek, in different circumstances and in different ways, to become more and more Christ-like, poor and dependant on God.


A desire to place yourself under the decisions of something or someone else. To seek to curb that deeply human temptation to be in control of ourselves and our decisions; to hold onto the power in or own lives.

Over the next few weeks I want to develop this motif and offer some potential suggestions how, in different contexts, disciples can adopt these three shared vows whilst remaining contextual and flexible in practice.

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

Parish Monasticism: the conference


Suscipe me, Domine, secundum eloquium tuum, et vivam; 
et non confundas me ab expectatione mea.

Receive me, O Lord, according to your word, and I shall live: and let me not be ashamed of my hope.

Emerging communities. Missional communities. Alternative Worship. New Monasticism. Parish Monasticism… What’s in a name?

I must confess that in my deep desire to be validated by others I relished the idea of having a day, gathered by a Diocesan Training Team, named after a term that I coined through this blog. I wrote about it being a ‘thing’ and it was great but ‘pride comes before a fall’.

The temptation to arrogantly believe that this blog had made an impact on the national discussion around New Monasticism was too much and I approached the day discussion this week with a divided heart. I vainly hoped, I admit, that I would be looked upon with admiration or asked to give an authoritative voice on the topic. When it became clear that I was not invited to come and offer any thoughts on the concept of ‘parish monasticism’ I sinned in my heart and dismissed the day as misguided. I booked my place with some misplaced notion that I might still be able to speak into the conversation my pearls of wisdom and insights. It tapped into my sinful pride to be seen as an expert.

Lord, have mercy upon me.

At the same time I did want to gain from the experience of others who are also exploring this ‘move of the Spirit’ to develop some monastic principles within the parish context. I desperately wanted to see people practically working out the theories I have been mulling over for nearly two years and celebrate and learn with them.
I’m going to be honest, it was difficult sitting in a circle of people, most of whom were in the early stages of exploration for whom the phrase ‘parish monasticism’ had struck a chord but they hadn’t got further than that. The day began with the facilitator saying,

We were at a gathering in Whitby and discovered lots of us were wanting to develop monastic communities in the parish. I’m not sure where the name came from.

They then asked my friend who was sat next to me who had named a Facebook group Parish Monasticism. I’m saying this, not to gain sympathy for being somehow sidelined or underappreciated but rather to gain pity for my sinful response to this. In my frailty I angrily stewed on how I wasn’t being credited for working on this concept for years. I wanted recognition. I wanted to be known and respected.

Lord, have mercy upon me.

Once I subdued my pride and arrogance the day continued with an interesting presentation on the national perspective on culture by Chris Neal and I had a series of short conversations with Mark Berry who has been part of the New Monastic conversation for many years. The conversations going on throughout the day, however, led me to ask more questions of what this thing, ‘parish monasticism’, is.
What is distinctive between this and New Monasticism? What is distinctive between this and Traditional Monasticism?

This question of distinctiveness tapped into my own desperation to be recognised as something ‘new’ and novel and this suddenly felt totally wrong. The question mark in the title of this blog became more and more important to me as the day went on. Do we need ‘parish monasticism’ as distinct from ‘New Monasticism?

I was deeply humbled by the members of traditional monastic orders who came to listen in on this conversation. I wondered what they made of this discussion, novices thinking they are discovering some revelation and new movement of God when in fact it is written into the history and tradition. I suddenly felt like a child who had understood the principle of causality for the first time and went around showing anyone who would watch. I’m sure they wouldn’t have had such a patronising and cynical thought but I still found myself acknowledging my own naivety.

At the end of my day of sustained thinking on this concept of ‘parish monasticism’ I had a deeper sense of engaging with the historic tradition. There is a huge danger with Fresh Expressions and all its offshoots that we jump to revolution and innovation rather than renewal and reform. There is value in innovation and novelty but I find it more satisfying if it is what improvisers would call ‘reincorporation’. I was reminded how Martin Luther and the Wesleys held onto their deep desire for renewal of their tradition and from that a new movement appeared. Have we really understood the historic narrative and improvising from a place of respect or are we improvisers who are too interested in being distinct and stand out but to the detriment of the relationship with other improvisers?

Is our culture too keen on finding the new, world changing idea and will pay any price?

Yes, our tradition needs renewal and reform but my deep concern is that under the name of ‘context’ we cut off a history that unites us with our past and gives us an authority that will ground us and humble us. What is it that connects us with the Early Church, the Patristic Saints, the Reformers? In our desire to be relevant to the present, I feel, we have sold our inheritance and we have no sight on our descendants. Are we Esau who sells his inheritance for short term gain?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer presented Martin Luther’s reformation as moving the cloistered monasticism into every neighbourhood. He did it from a desire to correct the vicarious religion of that age, where Christians could dismiss the call to holiness and faithfulness because the monks performed that role. In our own day we have returned to a vicarious religion for the English people and there is a genuine concern that, if we develop ‘parish monasticism’, this issue is not solved; are we not just creating a spiritual elite within a congregation?

I’m grateful for the discussion day for guiding my thoughts on the real heart of my parish monasticism question: it is this Lutheran desire to place the monastic discipleship in the heart of every neighbourhood with a missional imperative to never be satisfied with any vicariousness of faith. This desire is not new and the practical suggestions put forward by this blog are not new. The fact that I am reading St. Benedict and applying those principles to modern parish ministry is not innovation it’s rediscovery.

So what do we do, those of us who have this thought that monastic discipleship might be important in any parish church? Do discipleship. What do we call it? We call it discipleship. Is there a place in the church for distinctive calls? Yes; George Lings identifies ‘sodal’ and ‘modal’ but I will always be deeply uncomfortable with any division or branding within the church and for my part in that by this blog…

Lord, have mercy upon me.