Tag Archives: God

Chapter 73: all perfection is not herein attained

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For what page or word of the Bible is not a perfect rule for temporal life?

Isn’t this just about being a Christian?

I sat amongst the emerging community holding the proposed Rule of Life for the possible Society of the Holy Trinity, a New Monastic Society aimed at bringing together communities across the UK (and hopefully further afield) under a common rule and constitution. As we read the prologue to this Rule and reflected on what it said, there was an obvious thing to say,

Isn’t this just about being a Christian?

I had sat with Ian Mobsby, Gareth Powell and others for three days a month before and shared the stories of our different communities as they grew and developed. The Rule of Life, mainly written by one of the communities, had spoken to the other communities represented around the table. In our discussions we were clear that we needed this Rule to be a broad umbrella so that communities from across the Anglican communion may gather under it but it couldn’t be so broad as to lose any definition.

In a paper I was asked to write for the upcoming New Monastic Conference, entitled ‘An Understanding Of Religious Life Based On “New Monasticism: new forms of missional & religious life in the 21st century”’, I attempted to articulate what the New Monastic movement understands by a ‘Rule of Life’.

A Rule of Life is fundamental to the identification with the New Monastic movement. A Rule of Life is not just an agreed statement of belief or purpose but a set of commitments which are formally accepted by way of promises/vows. For all Christians, for every community, every monastery, every intentional grouping, the Gospel is the Rule of our life, the measure of our faithfulness to Christ. In this sense, no other rule is necessary. The tradition of the monastic Rule evolved as the deposit of the Gospel for a particular group at a particular time. Thus intentional communities need to be clear about the way in which they respond to the call of the Gospel. There are many possible ways: a community may feel called to follow a classic Rule; another may have felt called to write a Rule that is, for the members, their invitation to the Gospel life; another may have evolved a covenant document that identifies certain key practices that hold the members in their common vocation. (Ned Lunn, ‘An Understanding Of Religious Life Based On “New Monasticism: new forms of missional & religious life in the 21st century”’, Position Paper for ‘New Monasticism: a UK gathering of new forms of missional and religious life’, 14th April 2016)

With this understanding it is a natural response when reading any Rule of Life to say, ‘but that’s just being a Christian’ but the reality is many Christians struggle to specifically embody the gospel in their lives. The life of faith demands to live and move within context. The Spirit of God does not calls us to live anywhere but calls us to live in the time and place we find ourselves. Jesus lived in history, at a particular time and in a particular culture.

One of the ways in which the Society of the Holy Trinity distinguishes our specific vocation is to acknowledge that we are all communities living in urban contexts. This is not to say that we refuse to engage in the gospel elsewhere but the reality is we experience the life of faith is in the city environment. God has called us to live out the gospel in the City and so we have different questions to ask and a unique perspective on God’s vision for the new creation from communities who exist in the countryside.

I was initially uncomfortable with limiting the Rule of Life of the Society of the Holy Trinity to urban life but God showed me his specific call to bless the city. Living in a context requires us to continually return to the specific questions God asks of us and we must ask of each other. ‘How then shall we live here and now?’ It is easy to lose focus and to shift it from one thing and then to another; a Rule of Life forces us to sit with questions longer than we would naturally.

The Early Church wrestled with the question of context. St Paul argued pragmatically that Christians living in the Hellenistic cities of the Roman Empire as slaves and wives of Greeks or Romans did not have the luxury to distance themselves from the company of Gentiles as the Jewish Christians would want. It was easier for new Christian converts to live the Jewish life in Jerusalem but it was not practical or reasonable to ask those elsewhere to live to that standard. The Early Church discovered the need for some contextual common sense in the discipleship of new Christians.

The danger of context, however, is that we err too far the other way and use the charge of ‘context’ to encourage individualism. There is a risk that by adopting the ‘that’s alright for you but I am different’ subjective approach to life that we are never challenged by the cost of discipleship. There are some who are exploring New Monasticism who feel they can tailor make their own Rule of Life so that it works for their life as it is. When this Rule of Life starts to cost something of our life and comfort, they re-assess and change it to suit new priorities, etc. This makes me feel particularly uncomfortable. A Rule of Life must be shared with others to ensure that iron sharpens iron. That is why, even though there are some parts of the proposed Rule of Life of the Society of the Holy Trinity that I am not keen on, I’m happy to sit with it and would love, in the future, to vow to live by it.

A Rule of Life, like the Bible, demands of us to wrestle with the text and seek to hear God reveal himself through the tangible words. A Rule of Life is a lens we use to help us to hear and understand God’s life-giving story as it calls us to participate in it and it is a lens which we need to share with others to ensure we don’t impose our own agenda and distorted ideas onto it. A Rule of Life must not become an idol, formed into our image, but rather must point us to the revelations of God’s love and grace towards us and the world around us.

Esther de Waal, who I have enjoyed journeying with through the Rule of St. Benedict, puts it beautifully at the end of her book ‘A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the Rule of St Benedict’,

The rule of Benedict is a way of life, a life-giving way. To encounter the text in all its fullness and complexity is like a source and stream, always the same and yet always different, or like a tapestry where I follow first one thread and then another and so get different glimpses of the whole. I return to it time and time again throughout my life. Benedict and his practical manual of the love of Christ are always there to help me on my journey, the coming home of the prodigal to the loving embrace of the father. (Esther de Waal, A Life Giving Way: a commentary on the Rule of St Benedict (New York: Continuum, 1995) p.215)

Reflection

Christianity is not a spirituality because it forces us to embrace our humanness; the fleshy, tangible life. We are not dualists, yearning for the separation of our souls from our bodies. We are not a people focussed on some spiritual nirvana achieved by asceticism or prayerful meditation in the hope of transcending our flesh. We are bodily present, rooted in history and geography, in the world we see, hear and breathe in.

The gospel is about the redemption of the world not an escape route from it. Rowan Williams writes,

The only history to be taken seriously is bodily history; and so the redemption of humanity must be located in bodily history. (Rowan Williams, The Wound Of Knowledge (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1990) p.28)

The beautiful revelation of God through Jesus Christ is that God cares for this world and his eschatological plan is bound up in the atoms and particles of creation. The incarnation is good news for us that our earthly lives are not accidental but have a divine purpose: redemption.

The parish system should help us to remember the particularities of our life. Where we live is important. Our neighbours lives demand our attention. The communities of which we are a part are not distractions but the priority of our God who walks that landscape seeking out the lost and proclaiming another world is possible. We can easily forget these truths and realities and that is why a Rule of Life is helpful to hold us in that place of asking the question, ‘how then shall we live?’ How do we live out the gospel in this place at this time? It will be different from those in different contexts but the challenge is, as it has been since the early Christians first discovered God’s vocation given to them by the Holy Spirit at their baptisms, how do we remain united in the demands of different contexts?

Almighty God, through your Holy Spirit you created unity in the midst of diversity;
We acknowledge that human diversity is an expression of your manifold love for your creation;
We confess that in our brokenness as human beings we turn diversity into a source of alienation, injustice, oppression, and wounding. Empower us to recognize and celebrate differences as your great gift to the human family. Enable us to be the architects of understanding, of respect and love; Through the Lord, the ground of all unity, we pray. (“Prayers for Diversity”, Jesuit Resources, http://www.xavier.edu/jesuitresource/online-resources/Prayers-for-Diversity.cfm)

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 72: the good zeal monks should possess

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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?

Love.

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)

Reflection

…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 67: brothers sent on a journey

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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.

Reflection

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

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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.

Reflection

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?

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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.

Stability

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.

Conversion

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.

Obedience

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

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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)

Reflection

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

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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.

Chapter 63: rank in the monastery

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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.

Reflection

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

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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.

Reflection

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.

Parish Monasticism: an update

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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.

I started this blog at the end of 2013 as a learning project. I had no plans of what I would learn but would journal an intentional study programme of the Rule of St Benedict. I called is ‘Parish Monasticism?’ The question mark was important as I didn’t know if such a concept would work or be helpful to frame my reflections.

Well, 1 year and 9 months later and ‘Parish Monasticism’ is a thing! Who’d have thought it. By ‘a thing’ I mean other people are using the term independent from me. I had a parish priest who met me at a training event early this year use it and ask if I had heard of the idea. I asked him where he had heard it and he told me he had been told about it by a friend and that there was a Facebook group called ‘Parish Monasticism’ (no question mark). It’s funny how things develop…

I began this blog with a hunch; a hunch and a challenge laid down by Rev. Pete Askew at the Northumbria Community during a placement I did at Nether Springs in Felton. He said to me,

It’s impossible to live the way of life we live here at Nether Springs and be a parish priest. You’d have to be very stubborn to achieve it.

I don’t know if it is my stubbornness or something else but an increasing number of parish priests and ministers are not only discovering the benefits of monastic principles to ministry but also feel a sense that God is calling them to commit to the location in an intentional, communal way with other disciples.

This is at the heart of what ‘parish monasticism’ is, I feel. What I’ve been discovering in theory and, only in some parts, in practise is a way to effectively minister and transform neighbourhoods and communities through these basic monastic principles. No, it’s more than that. Parish monasticism is about reformation of the parish system to an explicit commitment to discipleship. I’ve discovered that the lack of effective mission and evangelism is a result of faulty discipleship. As I wrote before,

If a community is not engaged in mission then their discipleship is faulty; mission is the fruit of the tree of discipleship. There is no point in just forcing a community to ‘do mission’ and expect it to work. It would be better to go back to the basics of discipleship, correcting that and the fruit of mission will grow. You judge discipleship by the mission. (Ned Lunn, ‘Chapter 49: observance of lent’, Parish Monasticism? (Jan 17th 2015))

As the Church we have lost sight, as it did in Germany before World War II, of the cost of discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s observations and reflections on the antidote to this is what has fuelled the New Monastic movement and I think we are now beginning to discover that it must be planted within the parish system.

It must be within the parish system because there is something deeply counter-cultural for the increasingly urbanised 21st century Britain where transport is easy and more people consume worship and community rather than create/live it. Where we have no strength to withstand the temptation to make everything into our own image and just as we want it we justify or sanctify our freedom to choose where we go and what we do/allow in our lives. The parish system challenges that ego-centric part of each and everyone of us who refuses to allow something external to change our inner life.

This journey of discovery has unearthed the interconnected roots of the saints of old who speak so clearly to me; St Aidan, Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Shane Claiborne to name a few. In focussing my reflections I have discovered a call deep down within me that sings of a theology rooted in Ash Wednesday and the creation story; we are made of dust, we must fully grasp humility and acknowledge we are nothing without the tender touch of our Loving Father God, humanity needs transformation and grace. From this root it grows into an acceptance of God’s mercy and love reaching out to lift us up from humble beginnings to healing and salvation as God adopts us and works on us so we can conform to His Son, the perfection of humanity, Jesus Christ. When we give ourselves totally to this process of redemption in every part of our life He seals us with His Holy Spirit to equip us for the task of heralding in His Kingdom in our lives and the lives of those around us like the first discipleship at Pentecost.

It all begins with humility.

It all demands obedience.

It all leads to community.

Parish monasticism, for me, is an emerging call to intentional, radical discipleship that seeks to convert our entire life to that of Jesus and heals us of our capitalist consumer, neoliberal culture that Stanley Hauerwas critiqued 34 years ago. Are we willing to be a stumbling block to both poles of the political and moral map found in the UK today? Parish monasticism is not about being ‘relevant’ which is banded about so much, it is about being faithful to the distinctive call to follow Christ who came to heal and healing means things change! We look at the complexities and crisis facing us on every side of our world today and we keep kidding ourselves that we know how to solve them: we don’t! We desperately want our situation to change but Jesus changes situations by changing us… and that means you and me.

Thomas Merton, who I return to whenever I reflect on our self-identity crisis in our society, continues to inform me,

The reason we hate one another and fear one another is that we secretly or openly hate and fear our own selves. And we hate ourselves because the depths of our being are a chaos of frustration and spiritual misery. Lonely and helpless, we cannot be at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we cannot be at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God. (Thomas Merton, The Living Bread (London: Burns and Oates, 1976) p.9)

This is the root of our problem. This is where real conversion and deep discipleship works out the healing and salvation of God’s grace, mercy and love for us.

So let us humbly acknowledge our total need for change. Let us obediently follow our healer’s instruction towards salvation and let us be adopted, by grace, into his family and live in true peace with him, ourselves and with others.