Tag Archives: holy

Chapter 73: all perfection is not herein attained


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)


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.



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,

For me the Rule of St. Benedict is a guiding document for the balanced life of discipleship, whether you take vows or not. As the New Monastic movement evolves and emerges I am finding it interesting to observe the different commitments and the different Rules that are being lived out. I wonder whether there might be room for a generally accepted shape to the life of New Monastics (in contrast to the traditional monastic life) whilst giving space for contextual charisms and callings to be expressed too. I wonder whether there are some key principles around which different communities can gather and be shaped by and for the living out of those principles to be changeable to assist the different expressions across the country/world.

What follows is a hypothetical outworking of potentially using the phrases used in St Benedict’s Rule; the vow to stability, conversion and obedience.


The famous vows to ‘poverty, chastity and obedience’ are not explicit in the Rule of St. Benedict but the seed for these vows can be seen in St. Benedict’s choice of vows to ‘stability, conversatio murum and obedience’. I have already spelt out a possible correlation between these two sets of vows. In my framework stability is akin to chastity.

Stability is about faithfulness, commitment in relationship. This is absolutely key in living out a counter cultural life in a world where individual freedom is increasingly the central tenet in our society. Committing to another person or people no matter what comes with the baggage of historical examples of cults, abusive relationships, etc. and so is shied away from or seen negatively. Relationships are increasingly seen as good things until they ask you to hand over personal freedom.

Our society has a big problem with relationships. The whole topic is confused with different socio-political and philosophical wordlviews using the same language to describe completely different concepts. How Scripture describes loving relationships and covenants is very different to our view of more contractual, secular view of relationships and add to that the capitalist, consumer, neo-liberal and liberal political philosophy into the mix and it is no surprise that marriage and sexuality are such explosive conversations at the moment.

The English Benedictines released a very good video recently outlining the life of Benedictine monks. In the first part of this video Dom. Alexander Bevan discusses stability. He says,

In the first place, monastic consecration involves ‘stability’; persevering in the monastic life in a particular community. Stability, here, is connected to the people rather than to the place. (Dom. Alexander Bevan, To Prefer Nothing to Christ Part 1 – Consecration, English Benedictines, https://vimeo.com/153230237)

This commitment to others, persevering with them despite pain and heartache is picked up by Brian C. Taylor. I am indebted to Taylor for his insights into these Benedictine vows. On stability, he writes,

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

There is some richness in referring to a married partner as ‘the ball and chain’ (Sorry Mrs. Lunn!) because on a spiritual level that is what they are. Being bound to that person with no escape route is what gives the freedom outlined above. Yes, life-time commitments are incredibly risky; rife with potential pain and abuse. I’m not painting married life as glorious technicolour. There is an overly romantic vision of marriage which, although no one admits to agreeing with, still shapes our expectations.

There is a similar romantic vision of the monastic life which many see New Monastics as inhabiting. I’ve been told that what I want is ‘to have my cake and eat it’. There is the suggestion that those of us discovering this new monastic call are implanting a subjective, consumerist approach to the monastic life; choosing for ourselves the parts we like and are comfortable with and disregarding or reinterpreting the parts we don’t. This is a fair concern and one that I have wrestled with over the last six years.

All I know is that for me, I see the life discovered by the monastic saints of old and outlined in the Rule of St. Benedict and others as the stimulus for the holy life of discipleship. I am convinced that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his prison cell, began to see what St Odo, St Bernard, Martin Luther and many others saw as the failings of the monastic life (cut off and divorced from ordinary life) and the continued potential of that same life (deep discipleship and transformation). I believe that his unfinished book that he was working on at the point of his execution was an exploration and teaching on birthing a new ecclesiology and, therefore, a new missiology for a post war world.

The commitment to seek stability is rooted in the knowledge that we humans balk at pain and heartache. We learn and train ourselves to accept it as part of life and avoid it. The Church of England is learning to live out commitment and stability in a world crying out for more schisms, polarisation and chaos. The recent decision by the Primates a few weeks ago was another example at how trying to work out commitment and faithfulness in pain and heartache is met with frustration by our culture. The alternative was to choose sides and divide. A vow to stability is about disagreeing well and in humility.


So what might stability look like in different contexts across the New Monastic Movement?

I want to try and contain these suggestions into broad categories: sodal, modal and nodal categories. I won’t be outlining what it looks like in traditional monastic communities as they will know how they do that!


Sodality comes from the Latin root, Sodalis. This can be translated comrade, or using other words, all of which suggest closeness and active partnership: companion, associate, mate, crony, accomplice, conspirator, are all listed. Sodalitas was used for social and politics associations; religious fraternities; electioneering gangs (an interesting take on mission); and guilds. (Church Army, “Why Modality and Sodality thinking is vital understand future church”, 5th January 2016, http://www.churcharmy.org.uk/Publisher/File.aspx?ID=138339)

Sodal communities ask for an explicit commitment. They are communities made up of people who share a passion or desire to work on a particular task and forge new things. In religious terms they are usually spirituality and/or missional groups. Usually sodal communities are task orientated. This is not to say that there is no emphasis on relationships with others; in fact, most of these communities are highly relational but there is a purpose around which they gather.

Stability within these have been, on the whole, self-enforcing. People commit because they want to and that commitment is taken very seriously and is tested before entry to it happens. When there is a breakdown of relationship, however, people can move and many do. Some stay but become more task-orientated and there is space for that within many sodal communities. Those that leave can be tempted to set up a new expression of the community, either taking the name and visionary principles just with different people, or create their own association where they can have more autonomy and/or correct mistakes of the original group.

A vow to stability would fit neatly into many of these gatherings and would challenge members at the point of relationship breakdown. In order to limit the community with enforced stability, a group would need to adopt reconcilers/facilitators who will help to heal the pain and difficulties brought about in tough pastoral situations. The practice would need to be worked out within the group contextually.
The entry to these groups would change, no doubt, if the vow to stability was adopted. Not everyone is comfortable or ready for this level of commitment and so noviciate/discernment phases would need to be included. These processes will already be present in sodal groups and the explicit vow to stability would encourage sodal groupings not subtly morph into more modal expressions of community.


Modality comes from the root word mode. This in turn refers to the customary way things are done. One might say it is the default position, or prevailing fashion or custom. Mathematically modal is the greatest frequency of occurrences in a given set, and there is a corresponding sense socially that it is the most common way things are…Modal church tends to make minimal demands upon its members.(ibis.)

In Anglican terms, the parish is the modal community. Modal communities primarily sustain what is there. The comparison between Petrine and Pauline ecclesiology aptly depicts the difference between modal (Peter and Jerusalem Church) and sodal (Paul and Missionary Church). The Fresh Expressions Network is made up of sodal communities and they are now seeking to connect them into modal communities. It is this marrying together that many are suspicious and cautious of. At the heart of this disconnect, I think, is a feeling from sodal communities that modal communities are maintaining the status quo which is no longer sufficient at evangelising and spreading the gospel. There may be some truth in that view but it is by no means completely accurate. many modal communities are proving to be good soil for new converts and transformation of life.

The truth is many sodal communities are becoming modal as they seek to sustain the initial impetus of their grouping even if it was some ten or fifteen years ago. There is great pressure to continually change and reinvent to keep that novelty energy going and so many formalise and become modal. Likewise, many modal communities, in desperation to remain relevant and competing with the fervour of sodal alternatives adopt many sodal practices. Whereas sodal looks to conversion for church growth, modal looks at organic church growth through maintaining families and/or relying on people moving to the area and joining.

Stability within the modal (mainly parish) is more tricky. Modal is almost defined by the soft edge, non-explicit commitment of members. I would argue that my exploration into Parish Monasticism has unearthed the need for more sodal practices to be adopted whilst maintaining the historic and strength of modality. It is the balancing of these that I am advocating. More conversation would be needed about how to adopt these structures whilst not losing the heart of parish mission and ministry. How do you develop an explicit, committed core without excluding visitors and spiritual seekers? This is already being wrestled with in most parishes. Could the monastic life not help discern possible solutions with the use of vows/aspirations?

Nodal communities are hubs/ connecting groups. In many ways the New Monastic Movement is looking at becoming nodal and bringing together different groups. In this sense what has been discussed above fits in here as both modal and sodal gather into nodal groupings.

Stability for nodals is about commitment to dialogue and respect. Like the Anglican Communion Worldwide this not about centralising power but about relating and supporting one another. To be connectors, however, there will need to be arbitration policies in place to protect against disagreements and divisions but this is where a shared Rule of Life, allowing space for unique expressions to be worked out contextually whilst holding together in commonality.

Stability for religious nodal communities must come from a deep understanding of the Trinity. Stanley Hauerwas’ trinitarian ethics is key, I feel, to expressing a way forward for the New Monastic movement in this country. Using John Milbank’s view, set out in ‘Theology and Social Theory’, Hauerwas sates,

the Christian faith owes no allegiance to the idea of the univocity of Being, which can only uphold difference coercively and violently, but is instead moved by a trinitarian understanding of God, an absolute that is itself difference, inclusive of all difference, and thus able to affirm difference in a peaceful manner. (Stanley Hauerwas, Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the practice of nonviolence (London: SPCK, 2004) p. 87)

We should not fear homogenising the different missional communities by bringing them together under one umbrella grouping. If the said grouping is explicitly trinitarian in its understanding of membership then difference can be contained within it but there needs to be a singularity in Being as well. For me the vow to stability enables the discovery of that mystery to happen because inhabiting the life of the Holy Trinity is going to involve suffering.

Chapter 65: provost of the monastery


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

Is it democracy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Lord, have mercy upon us.

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

Come, Lord Jesus

Chapter 63: rank in the monastery


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

Where does power lie?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why would we want to do that?

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

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

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

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

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

Immediately he responded,

I would get rid of the magic wand!

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


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

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

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

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 61: reception of pilgrim monks


A stranger from a distant locale may be received as a guest for as long as he desires providing he does not make unreasonable demands but accepts the ways of the brothers and is satisfied.

Where is the sacrifice?

A friend of mine has recently done some research on theological education in the UK. The research aimed to uncover the reasons behind a person’s selection of one theological training institution over another. My friend has not finished writing up the findings but they were struck by how the primary motivation for selection was personal preference.

That may not seem, on the face of it, a shock,

Of course, it’s down to their personal preference!

Personal preference always plays some part in any decision but when this is the primary reason we may be in trouble. Personal preference is now outranking God’s call along with the potential cost that that call may have on one’s life. The responses may well assume that ‘personal preference’ means God’s will but that is even more dangerous and leads me to some thing I’d like to briefly explore again.

Our current culture is so individualised that we have again committed the heresy of assuming too much that God is made in our image and not the other way round. Every generation is tempted to commit this error in different ways; ours has fallen for it in the way we interpret Scripture and discern the will of God. In our heady mix of neoliberalism and libertarian morals alongside the deeply ingrained consumerism we have arrived at the place where our primary authority in discernment is personal, private emotions.

I know God and He loves me just the way I am and He wants me to be happy. He’s not clearly saying “no” to this behaviour and it makes me happy so it must be ok.

This subjective authority is of no use in a functioning society. Yes, the heart is important but, as Jesus himself said,

”For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23)

We are capable of great love but we are also capable of great evil and discerning the two is not as easy as we assume. Love can be contaminated with these evil intentions. We have this arrogance to think that we know what love is but we limit it and we make out it is easy to love. Jesus showed us that great love has a great cost and the way to be like Jesus is narrow.

Where is the talk of radical, costly discipleship? Where is the conversation about the narrow road, the immediately exclusive way in Jesus spoke about this path of transformation? Consumer culture has infected Christ’s body and we need to deal with it. God can easily be thought of as blessing us with everything we want and our faith crumbles when things don’t go our way. We act however we like and we all search the Bible to justify our actions. We freely choose to behave in ways that seem perfectly reasonable and we judge them to be right by the happiness factor.

In a very banal way, consider church hopping.

I’m not against searching out a local congregation that will feed and encourage us. The style of worship has a part to play in whether you are called there, as is theological roots and tradition. You don’t want to be in a place where you are always frustrated and tempted to moan and grumble about that group of people. This desire to fit in though must be held in tension with God’s work in you.

I chose to go to Cranmer Hall in Durham not primarily because the people were nice, or it was closer to family but primarily because I felt God calling me to train in the difficult, urban communities of working class people very different from my experience. I visited Ridley Hall in Cambridge and it was great. I could have trained there and I would have learnt a lot and would have loved the people I trained with but the swinging factor was I felt God asking me to step out of my comfort zone and stretch myself. That was scary but my wife and I trusted that God would grow and change us and ultimately surprise us with what he can do through us.

I feel God is challenging His Church to readdress the question of commitment. I think there is a great move of the Spirit towards an acknowledgement of ‘costly grace’ and I don’t think any of us really knows what that looks or feels like but I can assure you that it won’t be comfortable.

Rowan Williams, in his book ‘The Wound of Knowledge’, says,

Humanity is created in God’s image – created with the capacity for relationship to God in obedience: its fulfilment is in this relationship…But the image is potential only, it must be made into a ‘likeness’ by the exercise of goodness. Had humanity been created in perfection, it would have performed its good acts automatically. (Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1990) p.27-28)

The Anglican Church adopts a three fold authority structure to guard against mis-guided discernment: Scripture, tradition and reason. All three must play a part in the discernment process. This is why discerning moral responses to issues takes time because all three must be held in tension. In our current age we have, at times, thrown all three out of the window and adopted the authority of this world, private happiness.

Although it is not obvious, St. Benedict is talking about discernment in this week’s chapter. He talks about how a visiting monk should point out things he thinks are wrong and how the abbot should respond.

If he thinks something wrong and points it out humbly, charitably and judiciously, the abbot should circumspectly meditate upon it, for the Lord may have sent the stranger for that purpose.

Humility, love and wisdom. These should be our desires for ourselves. What does it mean to pray for humility? What does it mean to be loving? What does it mean to be wise? All of them are life-long journeys of discovery and our prayer should always be that God works these things through us and all of them will require that we change who we are.


There has been a really interesting report out this week from the Centre for Theology and Communities entitled ‘Deep Calls to Deep: monasticism for the cities’. In it they have explored monastic expressions from various traditions in East London. At the end of the interviews they share the following suggestion,

The stories in this report are challenging to our urban consumer culture. They are stories of people prepared to commit to something for life, living together in community, willing to forgo and to share money for the benefit of others, devoting their careers to pursuit of the Common Good. (Tim Thorlby and Angus Ritchie, Deep Calls To Deep: monasticism for the cities (London: Centre for Theology and Communities, 2015) p.43)

The reason I would argue that the New Monastic movement is an evangelistic and missional movement is because of this direct challenge to our culture at this time. I see many people proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord and coming to Church but there is little focus on the conversion, the turning away from a previous life.

I guess Shane Claiborne says it best,

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)

The New Monastic movement is, I feel, taking an interesting turn in the UK towards a parish focus. This parish focus reintroduces sacrifice into a movement that could have been seen as pic and mix spirituality. With an emphasis on location the new monastics are called to even deeper obedience and commitment that counters that consumerism that is ingrained in all of us. With the emphasis on committing to a particular community and a particular area, no matter how hostile or challenging, the new monastics are bringing the contrast of the disciplined life into the heart of a culture and changing it. The new monastics are living in exile in the midst of an alien culture and living an alternative lifestyle.

Loving Father, you are unchanging and steadfast but we are not. We thank you that the path of transformation is open to us and that we can change. Guide us by your grace and your Holy Spirit that we would be transformed into the likeness of your Son, Jesus Christ. May we grow to be steadfast in our commitment to you, that we would be more and more faithful disciples, humbly loving the world and seeking to establish your kingdom here amongst us.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 58: the admission of new brothers


Admission to the religious life should not be made easy for newcomers.

What does it mean to be a ‘Christian’?

It seems to me we have reached, in this chapter, another pivotal moment in the Rule. The issue raised in this chapter comes close to my central thesis (that sounds too pretentious) to this whole ‘parish monasticism’ project: what does it mean to be a ‘Christian’?

One of the trickiest parts of my role as a minister of religion in an established church is baptisms. You can choose any Anglican church in this country and ask the minister about their baptism policy and I can guarantee that they will speak, at some point, about it being ‘complicated’ or ‘disappointing’. It is on this single issue that I begin to consider disestablishment as a useful proposal!

I don’t want to go into my baptismal theology (it’s more Baptist than Roman Catholic but I understand the role of infant baptism) but I have never seen baptism as a legitimate evangelistic opportunity. The reason it remains disappointing is that we continue to delude ourselves that the majority of people bringing their baby to be ‘christened’ want anything to do with God. We invest time in ‘preparing’ babies to be ‘christened’ because we cannot refuse but in the end a small number of these families take the promises made at the baptism service seriously or anywhere close to understanding what they are committing to. The service becomes a theological farce in my mind and it forces me to ask: what is actually going on at those secular celebrations of our profound mysteries of God’s grace?

So, yes, I’m pretty distressed about this and easily slip into emotional rhetoric on the subject but to try and outline a positive response to the dilemma I will return to the question: what does it mean to be a ‘Christian’?

I ask this question at preparation evenings we host for potential baptism families. The phrasing of the question is important; I ask,

If your child, when they are 7 or 8 years old, comes up to you and asks, “Mummy/Daddy, are we Christian?” What will you say? And they ask, as they are likely to do, “why?” What will your response be?

From my year and a half of asking this question I have yet to hear any answer other than,

Yes. You were christened.

My heart sinks when I go month after month desperately hoping that one day someone will articulate in some way their desire to know Jesus. After they’ve answered I talk, quite passionately, about being a Christian, about following Jesus, wanting to be transformed into His likeness, to acting, speaking, loving like Jesus, to inviting him to direct my life, my behaviours and my attitudes. I, like many ministers, comfort myself with the only thing left to us: the ‘planting seeds’ analogy.

It is not that I don’t understand the sowing analogy but I have major theological issues when we’re sowing seeds at the point of baptism, our welcoming of new Christians into the Kingdom of God. Infant baptism, for me, relies, in part, on the faith of the parents and/or godparents. Of course, baptism relies on the grace of God and God’s relationship with the child but there remains big questions over whether salvation can be removed from someone; can someone turn away from God’s grace? It is about free will and choice in the matter of relationship with God. If choice is taken away from baptism then we may as well go round pouring holy water over people and proclaiming faith over them!

No, it will not do, for me!

Here, in the Rule of St Benedict, we hear of the admission to the religious life not being made easy for newcomers. In my heart I believe that baptism into the Christian faith ideally should be akin to taking up monastic vows. This does not deny infant baptism for the commitment made in that instance still takes the vows of the parents and/or godparents.

But, Ned, that’s monasticism and not ordinary folks!

Why do we still differentiate so much in this respect? Why can we not take the model of monasticism for general faith? Why must there be different levels of holiness, one level reserved only for the ‘monks’? Why do we not expect all Christians to be holy?

I have been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer recently and studying his views on ‘new monasticism’ as well as discipleship. I’ve recently been skimming through his ‘Letters and Papers From Prison’ in which he begins to outline a book he never had the chance to complete. In this book he begins to formulate a ‘religionless Christianity’. The argument, for me, is persuasive but, unfortunately, he never fleshed out the practical implications of his theories. If I ever return to academic study I would probably base my dissertation on Bonhoeffer’s use of monastic models in his view of Christian discipleship.

His use of monastic metaphors began well before his time in prison of course. It was in his book ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ that I first came across his explicit use of monasticism.

The expansion of Christianity and the increasing secularization of the church caused the awareness of costly grace to be gradually lost. The world was Christianized; grace became common property of a Christian world. It could be had cheaply. But the Roman church did keep a remnant of that original awareness… Here on the boundary of the church, was the place where the awareness that grace is costly and that grace includes discipleship was preserved. People left everything they had for the sake of Christ and tried to follow Jesus’ strict commandments through daily exercise. Monastic life thus became a living protest against the secularization of Christiantiy, against the cheapening of grace. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) p.46-7)

This whole section from the chapter on ‘Costly Grace’ jumps from the page and into our time. He attacks the division of the church into ‘a highest and lowest achievement of Christian obedience’. The work of the monks was used to justify the lack of discipleship of the many in churches.

But the decisive mistake of monasticism was not that it followed the grace-laden path of strict discipleship… Rather, the mistake was that monasticism essentially distanced itself from what is Christian by permitting its way to become the extraordinary achievements of a few, thereby claiming a special meritoriousness for itself. (Ibid., p.47)

Prior to his publication of ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ Bonhoeffer wrote to his brother and proclaimed,

The restoration of the Church will surely come from a kind of new monasticism, which has in common with the old kind only the uncompromising nature of life according to the Sermon on the Mount, following Christ. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Testament to Freedom (San Francisco:HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), p.424)

If you put these two writings together you can see Bonhoeffer beginning to formulate an ecclesiology which broke down the cloistered walls and brought the discipleship of the monastic life into the wider Church. Bonhoeffer goes on to use the biography of Luther, himself a monk, who ‘escaped the monastery’ to bring the discipleship to all the world.

By the time he reached prison, Bonhoeffer was grasping the implications of this ‘new form of monasticism’ which was based fully in the world. Part of Bonhoeffer’s argument for a ‘religionless Christianity’ centres on the un-biblical premise that Christianity is a cosmic escape plan from this world to heaven. In this schema Christianity is a religion interested only in metaphysics and individual salvation. His prison letters to his friend Eberhard Bethge, critiques our modern view of Christianity which desperately attempts to preserve itself against an increasingly forceful argument against the existence of God. In an baptismal homily written for Bethge’s son, Bonhoeffer writes,

Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christian today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among men. All Christina thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (London: SCM Press, 2001) p.105)

If the reality of faith in Christ that God does not desire us to leave this world or be concerned with other worldly things but to follow Christ in committing to this world in all its suffering and challenges then what place does something as religious and metaphysical as prayer have in this faith?

I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In doing so we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world–watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; that is how one becomes human and a Christian (cf. Jer: 45!)(Ibid., p137)

I know I’m quoting alot of Bonhoeffer but I think it’s important to show his thorough study towards an ecclesiology which I find helpful in pursuing this disturbing experience of baptising, wholesale, babies to parents who show no indication of any desire of relationship with Jesus Christ.

It is not with the beyond that we are concerned, but with this world as created and preserved, subjected to laws, reconciled, and restored. What is above this world is, in the gospel, intended to exist for this world; I mean that, not in the anthropocentric sense of liberal, mystic pietistic, ethical theology, but in the biblical sense of the creation and of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Barth was the first theologian to begin the criticism of religion, and that remains his really great merit; but he put in its place a positivist doctrine of revelation which says, in effect, “Like it or lump it”: virgin birth, Trinity, or anything else; each is an equally significant and necessary part of the whole, which must simply be swallowed as a whole or not at all. That isn’t biblical. There are degrees of knowledge and degrees of significance; that means that a secret discipline must be restored whereby the mysteries of the Christian faith are protected against profanation. (Ibid., p.369-70)

And so here it is, what I’ve been building upto!

Confession of faith is not to be confused with professing a religion. Such profession uses the confession as propaganda and ammunition against the Godless. The confession of faith belongs rather to the “Discipline of the Secret” in the Christian gathering of those who believe. Nowhere else is it tenable…The primary confession of the Christian before the world is the deed which interprets itself. If this deed is to have become a force, then the world will long to confess the Word. This is not the same as loudly shrieking out propaganda. This Word must be preserved as the most sacred possession of the community. This is a matter between God and the community, not between the community and the world. It is a word of recognition between friends, not a word to use against enemies. This attitude was first learned at baptism. The deed alone is our confession of faith before the world. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Testament to Freedom (San Francisco:HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), p.91)

Baptism is not an opportunity to teach people the faith. Baptism must remain the result/ the response to an encounter with the resurrected Jesus in this world. Baptism is the secret admission of another into the community which professes by its prayer and action the reality of God amongst us, reconciling and restoring this world.


I believe, now more than ever, the reformation of the Church will come through a new form of monasticism which breaks down the cloisters and is embedded in the lives of all Christians. By Christian I mean those who seek to know God in the world through the resurrection of Jesus Christ and his Holy Spirit. This means a Church which knows itself as disciples living contrary to the world around them but still remaining embedded in it as Jesus once did. Jesus remains enfleshed in the very reality of God and so there will never be any division between flesh and spirit.

Jesus also differentiated between the crowd and the disciples and was unashamed in the distinction. We are not disciples to sell Christ as a product. We are disciples to seek Jesus and to be more like him. The established church has lost this distinction in our baptismal theology and we continue to cheapen the power and transformation of grace by colluding with it.

Having said all of this, I fall into silence at the horror and pain of my feelings and pray earnestly for wisdom. I know that I am at the very first stages of understanding and may be heading down a treacherous path but still that dissatisfaction for where we are now.

Gracious Father, let me not be pushed down the wrong path but rather be led by your Spirit into your will and right thinking. May my mind be your servant as well as my heart and life. I pray, have mercy on us all and lead us into the path of righteousness for your Sons sake.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 56: the abbot’s table


The abbot will eat with guests and travelers.

What does it mean to have ‘a calling’?

I have spoken at length on my understanding of ordained ministers within the life of the whole people of God. The tension, it seems to me, is most obvious around questions of holiness. By holiness I mean ‘set apart-edness’ of the clergy from the laity. Some would say that ontologically, the very substance of the ordained is different from the non-ordained, while others see no division accept in the function of the clergy. It comes down to an opinion on whether the clergy are changed into something particular by God’s Holy Spirit, distinctive from the other members of the Body of Christ. Where you stand on that idea will mark out how you respond to the particular calling on certain people that differentiates them from others.

So what does it mean to have ‘a calling’?

The Bible is full of God singling out a particular person for a specific task. Some of these tasks are on a temporary basis (e.g. Moses leading the people out of Egypt to the Promise Land, Ananias welcoming Saul/Paul in Damascus) others are permanent (e.g. Abraham being the father of many generations, Peter to ‘feed [my] sheep’). God calls his people, as a collective, to particular tasks (to be holy, faithful, loving, etc.) but there are specific tasks to specific people.

It is clear from the Bible that God calls all people to himself to know and love him and to become his disciple. Once someone has responded to that call they are a disciple, allowing God to transform them, by his Holy spirit, into the likeness of his Son, Jesus Christ. After that God will call them to additional tasks or lifestyles to grow into alongside and in conjunction with the life’s work of discipleship.

What task, then, is given to those called to be ordained?

This is a contentious issue and it depends on who you ask. Some would say it is into a leadership role within the church, others would emphasise a pastoral, serving role, others will create a particular cocktail of various functions and characteristics which define ‘ordained ministry’ but there is no concrete definition because God calls many people to it from different backgrounds, upbringings, experience, personality types, etc. Ordained ministry will look unique to each person who tries to live it out.

The added complication comes when you distinguish, in the Anglican Church, between ordained deacons, ordained priests and ordained bishops. The Anglican Church ordains people into three forms of ministry and they have different functions, roles and some would argue, characters. We confuse it even further by ordaining one person as a deacon, a priest and (in some cases) a bishop, all of which are unique a separate callings but are held together. I am, for instance, both a deacon and a priest simultaneously.

God, it seems, calls us both into tasks (temporary and sometime repeatable) and into way of life (permanent and evolving). Trying to discern one of these is difficult enough but then distinguishing between the two becomes even more difficult. It is for this reason I struggle with the simplistic view of ordained ministry as synonymous with ‘leadership’. ‘Leadership’ is a task, a role. At some point you will cease to be able to function as the leader or you may find that in a particular context you are called to follow and not to lead. If you are ordained as a ‘leader’ then it means you must always lead or, otherwise, your status as ‘ordained’ must be able to be revoked when you don’t ‘lead’.

Take a hypothetical scenerio: you are ordained and you lead a church congregation. You go to a conference and are put in a group where you are being led by someone else. In this instance you are not ‘leading’ therefore are you ‘ordained’ if the definition of your status is ‘leadership’?

Ordained ministry for me is about a specific ‘way of life’. What that looks like needs to be clarified in general across the Church of England. We have fallen into a complicated situation of defining ordained ministry as so many different things that it is not any one thing; it’s subjective. The problem with it being subjective it can no longer be institutionalised and therefore anyone can say they are ordained. We have so many different forms of ordained ministry that I’m not surprised when people are dismayed when they are not selected to be ordained.

Throughout the Rule, St. Benedict distinguishes certain roles within the life of the community but establishes those roles within the way of life of the call to be a monk. The call is to be a monk and within that God may have a particular job, relatively temporary, to perform (e.g. dean, cellarer, infirmarian, etc.). The call of the abbot, however, seems to be different. In modern day Benedictine monasteries the abbot is clearly one of the monks with particular responsibilities and tasks to perform (outlined in the Rule). Here, in this chapter, it paints a picture of the abbot living a separate life to the community, welcoming guests in his own dining room.

Earlier in the Rule, St. Benedict indicated that the table was a symbolic place for communal life, it is around the table, as well as in the oratory, that the community grew. In separating the abbot from them at the dining table puts a division between the abbot and the other monks. I am glad to say that this chapter never really worked out and, in modern day monasteries it is not held to.


It is easy to fall into the trap of setting the ordained ministers away from the people. They are to be set apart for their particular roles, which the non-ordained may not, for unspoken reasons, participate in. It is all too easy to settle for the ‘this is tradition’ argument for why only the ordained may preside at Holy Communion or why only the ordained may baptize.

Having walked the discernment process through with several people now, and having gone through it myself, I have discovered the process is far from uniform. Some are ordained for one reason which, seen in another person, is the reason they are not ordained. The deep questions of calling have become muddy to the point at which it is harder to discern the difference between ordained and non ordained ministry.

For what it’s worth, from this ordained minister, I feel a re-examination of the parish church to fit a model of monastic life may lead to a greater understanding of ordained ministry from the ministry of the people of God. The abbot is the symbol of ordained ministry and the callings and tasks of other officers in the church are valued with equal honour.

Father, I abandon myself into your hands.
Do with me whatever you will.
Whatever you may do I thank you.
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me and all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul.
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart.
For I love you Lord and so need to give myself,
surrender myself into your hands without
reserve and with boundless confidence
for you are my Father.

Charles de Foucauld (1858–1916)

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 55: clothing and shoes


Suitable clothing shall be given the monks…

Are you seriously going to wear that?

Well it was bound to happen, wasn’t it? Sooner or later the conversation would come up about…


I have run a session on Holy Communion for two of our church’s home groups. The first part of these sessions look at why clergy wear what they wear. I am always keen to point out that its probably the practices came before the theory but that doesn’t negate the importance of the theory; if it worked for the Trinity it works for anything!

I hope, dear reader, you won’t mind me skimming through the major aspects of Anglican vestments as I understand them. I also ask that you, hold off judgement on the legitimacy and missional pros and cons of such outfits until I am finished. Do you promise?


I will start with my ‘everyday wear’: the dog collar.

The dog collar is so called, in my mind anyway, because it is a symbol of being led and, simultaneously, leading a walk with my master: God. At the end of John’s gospel Jesus says to Peter,

“Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (John 21:18)

When I made my vows and entered ‘Holy Orders’ I handed over my freedom to live as I wanted to live, to say what I wanted to say, to go where I wanted to go… well that was the idea. The problem arose when I failed to live up to that promise. In that way I allow God to lead me (and when I put my dog collar on I am reminding myself that God is in charge and will lead me to where I do not wish to go necessarily) but I also have a tendency, like a dog, to run on ahead and drag God to the lampposts and other dogs that take my fancy. There is, in the image of dog and owner, a beautiful give and take. The owner is in ultimate control but they allow the dog to explore but when they need to go somewhere particular the collar becomes tight and the owner drags the animal in a certain direction.

There are time in my life now where I know where God wants me to go and what he wants me to do but I resist. It is at these times the collar becomes tight and I want to throw it off. I always listen deeper at those times! To use a simple example: when I’m driving. Say another driver cuts me off or forces me to break the Highway Code and I want to swear at them and let them know my anger but I’m wearing my dog collar; I tend to resist the temptation from expressing my anger and instead smile and pray blessing on them. Or say I am walking down the street in my dog collar and I see a homeless person begging for money… That usual dilemma of how to respond, knowing that money is not necessarily what they need but a meaningful encounter with another human being who will listen to them and their situation and care for them, is multiplied for me. There are times when I’m rushing to get to a meeting and pass several homeless people on my way; without the dog collar there is less guilt (because I’m a broken and fallen person!) than when I pass them in a dog collar. The dog collar at those times becomes so tight that I know of other clergy who don’t wear dog collars in the centre of cities. I find myself stopping for each one and being late for meetings… In this way the dog collar helps me.

There are two camps in the Church: those who do wear them and those who don’t. Dog collars divide the clergy. Some feel they are a barrier to genuine relationship with strangers whilst others feel they invite relationship with strangers where otherwise there would not have been. The problem is that it’s a bit of both; sometimes the dog collar puts people off talking or opening up to you, the wearer, while other time it starts conversation. I don’t think there is a stand out winner for which it is more: it just depends.

For me, personally, I find it more helpful than I do a hindrance. I have had my fair share of abuse thrown at me because of the dog collar (or at least I think it was the dog collar). I have even had a can of coke thrown at me by a stranger but the conversations that the dog collar has encouraged far out way the negatives. I was on a bus in Leeds wearing my dog collar and a complete stranger started sharing about his wife who was suffering through chemotherapy and he didn’t know how to support her. I listened and tried to encouraged him. He asked if I would walk him to the ward as it was close to my destination anyway which I happily did. I prayed with him before he went to see his wife before parting company. I know that wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t wearing a dog collar.

Some clergy feel the dog collar asserts authority onto conversation which may seem oppressive. I can see how that might be the case but that’s where the character of the wearer must be challenged. If that is the motivation behind wearing it then you should probably pray through that and challenge yourself. The dog collar does set you apart from other people, other Christians as well but that’s the point. Philip Lawrence astutely tells us,

Today many monks want a clerical wardrobe, a monastic wardrobe and a lay wardrobe so that “they will not stand out” when they are with various people. This seems clearly against the thinking of Saint Benedict. We monks should always look like monks. We have only one identity and that identity is being a monk. (Philip Lawrence, “Chapter 55: The Clothing and Footwear of the Brothers”, Benedictine Abbey of Christ in the Desert, March 1 2015, http://christdesert.org/Detailed/926.html)

There is a theory that clergy should be just like other Christians and I agree, in the most part, with that sentiment. There is, however, a distinction between clergy and laity but I don’t think it is where most people think it is.

Yes, we are ‘a priesthood of all believers’. Yes, we are ‘a company of saints’. Yes, I believe the hierarchy in the established Church hinders change and can be restrictive and it is here that we must rethink the distinction. Being ordained is not about raising a person ‘up the ladder’ but separating them for a particular task. Being ordained, for me, was about being set apart as a public example of discipleship. Yes, all should be public examples of discipleship, but we aren’t and we need people to be disciplined to do it so we can all be encouraged.

It’s the same with marriage. Yes, we should all love others intimately and with complete selfless, faithful and unbridled desire for the flourishing of them and their transformation into the likeness of Christ, but we don’t. In order to protect that ideal, some are called to commit themselves to the discipline of chastity to another and work out how to be faithful through the chains of marriage and part of marriage is about this type of ‘slavery’ but it is through this we discover true freedom.

For the Christian to be perfectly free means to be perfectly obedient. True freedom is perfect service. (Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: toward a constructive christian social ethic (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981) p.131)

The dog collar is a reminder for me that I no longer have the freedom to shirk my discipleship. The dog collar is more for me than for others, to remind me that I am to learn what it means to be holy, set apart from the world.

I know that my view of ordination is monastic in character for this very reason and I’m still on a journey with this understanding.

Most of the other vestments, for me, stem from this basic understanding of ordination.

So a quick run down of what is what and why it is used. Bear in mind that people have different understandings of the symbolism behind vestments and this where the conflict in what they say to observers occurs. I will also only speak on vestments that I am asked to wear as a ‘low church anglican’.

cassock albCassock Alb: Is a white garment that goes over clothes. This symbolises a clothing of the wearer in heavenly glory. This is about identifying the role of the leader of worship and not the person wearing it. The leader of worship is an expression of the character of the whole company of worshippers; they are to be the spokesperson of the collective voice of the congregation. By draping them in white it is a draping of all the people in that resurrection glory.

cinctureCincture (girdle or fascia): Is either a strip of material that goes round the body above the waist (girdle) or a rope with tassels that is worn around the waist (fascia). This is meant to symbolise, like the dog collar, the being lead by God from John 21:18. I wear the fascia because it reminds me of my Roman Catholic heritage and has a monastic quality about it which I find helpful to remind me of my particular calling to ordained priesthood.

stolesStoles: Are the scarfs that get draped over the shoulders, for deacons in the ‘Miss World style’ and for the priests in the ‘Football Supporter style’. This sybolises the yoke of Christ being laid upon the shoulders of the ordained person. It originated in the Roman society as a symbol of ofice and responsibility and there’s still that element in the symbol today. We, who wear it bear the responsibility of leading the people in worship and voicing the communities prayers and concerns to God. You will find that these come in four or five different colours: white for times when we celebrate resurrection or the coming of God’s Kingdom into the present (Christmas/Epiphany/Easter/Trinity, baptisms, funerals (sometimes) and weddings), purple for times of preparation and penitence (Advent/Lent) (sometimes blue is used in Advent as the penitence is seen as different and it is more of a Marian focus but I use purple to see Lent and Advent in similar contexts) (there is also Lent Array which is unbleached linen), red for times where we remember the Holy Spirit or martyrs (Pentecost/Feast Days) and green for ‘ordinary time’ where we settle into the rhythm of the world and it is our natural position to counterpoint the points of celebration or preparation.

cassockCassock: Is a black garment similar to that of the Cassock Alb. At the reformation the Cassock Alb was seen as a symbolism of the abuses of clericalism where the clergy and those ordained were seen as being elevated beyond the reach of the laity. The reformers were keen to bring the work of the Church to the people and so they removed the symbolism. This reformation was focussed on the words used in the Church, hence the translation of the Bible into the common tongue. The reformation replaced the priest with the scholar, those who could read and interpret the Scriptures and the Cassock hints at the origins of being like the university gowns or the preaching monks (of which Calvin and Luther were).


Surplice: Is the thin white ‘dress’ which goes over the Cassock for the same reaon the Cassock Alb is white.

preaching scarf

Preaching Scarf: Is a black scarf that is worn with Cassock and Surplice and is a reformation alternative to the Stole which symbolises the office and learning of the wearer.

When do I wear what?

I tend to wear Cassock Alb, Cincture and Stole for any sacramental activity (Holy Communion and Baptism). I am on a journey here too as to my honest understanding of ‘sacrament’ so this is not fixed at the moment in my mind. I ask myself,

Is my role to be placed in a ‘between’ time/space, an altar moment where heaven will kiss earth? Where we, the people of God will have a foretaste of God’s Kingdom on earth?

If the answer is “yes” then I wear Cassock Alb et al.

If the answer is “no” but I still need to be identified as ‘ordained’ then I will wear a Cassock, Surplice and either Preaching Scarf or Stole (usually Preaching Scarf). This tends to be in civic services and funerals.

Weddings are up for grabs at the moment!


There is often much discussion and personal opinions around the conversation of a ‘uniform’ for ordained ministers and I think it betrays are lack of agreed understanding as to our language around ordination and vocation. We are all uncertain as to how leadership, ministry and vocation works because there are so many theories and schools of thought around the subject. All the different denominations pick and choose their own view of ordained/ lay ministry and it creates a big tension. I agree that it is a secondary issue but, like most secondary issues, this is highly emotive and people get confused as to why we feel so strongly about it. For what its worth I feel it’s about the personal response to distinction in vocation, history of who represents different ministries and how we have viewed it as an outsider. If you have been painfully hurt by the actions of an ordained person then that will tarnish your view of other clergy (understandably).

There is a complex cocktail of personal character and uniformed role going on with ordained ministry and therefore vestments articulate this tension within congregations. It is hard to hide from the confusion and different opinions when it is there for all to see. We can either get rid of the vestments and forget that different views are held or we can grab the nettle in our hands and patiently talk about what and why we think what we think.

There is an important conversation to be had about what it means to be ordained and what the alternative calls are on the life of a disciple. Maybe a more monastic view of ordination is worth revisiting and encouraging a distinction between church leadership and that of service through the priesthood and diaconate.

Lord, you call us all to be disciples, to lay down our lives and will to go where you want us to go. For some of us that will be a specific call to live out our discipleship in radical forms of obedience and to be an encouragement to others to pursue that holy life, set apart from the world but still loving and serving it. For others the discipleship will look very different and the role will be very specific in a particular area or to a particular people. Whilst we live in this complicated and fallen world may we hold out the hope that in the end we will all be transformed into the likeness of your Son and will worship together in Spirit and Truth at your heavenly throne.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 49: observance of lent


A monk’s life should always be like a Lenten observance.

Why wait?

This week I have mainly been… Writing lent material for our church family.

In May this year we celebrate the fiftieth year of the church of St. Aidan in Acomb and to help us mark this occasion we have decided to spend some time reflecting on the patron saint of our church to see if there is anything we can learn from his life and work (spoiler alert: we can!)

Writing this material has been an exciting and challenging task. It is exciting because there’s such potential that this time reflecting together, through sermons and small group material, will change us as people of God; grow us as disciples of Jesus. It is challenging because that potential is reliant, in a small way, on how I construct and frame the material to encourage that growth.

Lent is a great chance to focus our attention on one aspect of our Christian life. It’s like an annual MOT for our discipleship, a fine tuning of certain places where we ‘fall short of the glory of God’. Although we must remind ourselves that it is God who grows and transforms us into the likeness of his Son, there is a small part we must play in this work. We must allow our wills to be in line with God’s. The season of preparation before the great feast of the resurrection is an intentional focussing of our attention on our obedience to God’s will.

Lent is not the excuse for not doing this kind of spiritual work throughout the year but is merely an annual focus on it. Like an MOT we shouldn’t treat this annual checkup as an excuse not to look after a car, not fill it with oil or petrol. My wife has gone through times when she doesn’t take her medicine or do her necessary exercise and then just before a doctor’s appointment has tried to catch up with herself. It is equally unhealthy to store up developing and growing in our discipleship for the forty days of Lent.

A monk’s life should always be like a Lenten observance.

During Lent, St. Benedict suggests the community,

…devote ourselves to tearful prayer, reading, contrition and abstinence.

I wonder whether ‘tearful’ is solely describing the kind of prayer we do or whether we are also to do tearful reading, tearful contrition and tearful abstinence. I don’t think it really matters but there is a sense that when we dedicate ourselves to intentional focussing on our failings it should make us tearful in all aspects of our life. I wonder if this is why we are unable to maintain a Lenten observance all year round.

The Lent material I have been writing is looking at how St. Aidan went about evangelism and mission. His approach seemed to be about establishing and sustaining a intentional community of disciples from which mission will happen. Mission, for St. Aidan, is a natural outworking of true discipleship. 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.

I have continued to be struck by the Alan Roxburgh quote about discipleship which I have used before here.

Discipleship emerges out of prayer, study, dialogue and worship by a community learning to ask the questions of obedience, as they are engaged directly in mission. (Alan Roxburgh, Missionary Congregation, Leadership and Liminality (Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1997) p.66)

Here Roxburgh argues that discipleship comes out of mission but I would argue that mission comes out of discipleship as well; the one feeds the other and vice versa. This community ‘learning to ask questions of obedience’ should engage in ‘prayer, study, dialogue and worship’. These four things all lead disciples within community to engage in mission. Prayer must involve listening to the will of God and having our hearts tune into his heart and his heart is for people. Study must involve reading the Scriptures which clearly describe a God who is mission, sending his people to the world to proclaim his good news. Dialogue must involve us speaking to others as people of God about our life, lived out in relationship with God. Worship is any activity done with the intentional purpose of laying down control of our lives and allowing God to use us.

With this in mind I was struck when St. Benedict suggested that Lenten observances should be ‘tearful prayer, reading, contrition and abstinence.’ The first two clearly have a direct correlation with Roxburgh’s ethos (prayer and study). The second two actions (contrition and abstinence) may be less direct but I still see a connection with (dialogue and worship).

Contrition comes from the latin words ‘terere’ (to rub) and ‘com’ (together). Contrition is what occurs when two or more things are rubbed together. I see a connection with dialogue which requires two or more things to come together and impact each other. I’d guess that what St. Benedict had in mind, from a Roman Catholic perspective, is an engagement in the sacrament of confession where a person must face his sin with true sorrow and desire to repent. I see great worth in confessing sins in the presence of another and this form of dialogue leads me to acting out the amendments required for repentance.

Abstinence is the withholding from something, usually a great temptation for us. This is famously worked out during the season of Lent as many people give up chocolate or something that they enjoy which may be taking a focal point in their life rather than God. A disciple is encouraged to abstain from those things which are not God to move God back to the centre of our decision making. One could say that we can often worship something instead of God, idols such as money, sex, power, other humans. What we mean when we worship idols is we look to them to make decisions for us. Take a celebrity; if a person worships, say, Lady Gaga, we mean that someone allows Lady Gaga to be the model for how they live their life. If they want to make a decision as to how to act, dress, live, they must ask, “What would Lady Gaga do?”. If we say someone worships money then we mean that they’re end goal is to have more money, their thoughts are consumed with the being close to or attaining money. Abstaining from those things is a discipline because it must be an intentional rejection of a un-conscious behaviour. Abstinence is a deliberate denial of an inner desire to act in a certain way. Worship of God is always a form of abstinence because it is a deliberate action to place God at the centre of our lives and not another thing or concept.


Any Christian community must be a centre of intentional discipleship. From this life of discipleship comes a heart for mission. The focus is not how to do mission better but how to do discipleship better. We can tell people about Jesus until the cows come home but it won’t mean anything unless we do it all in complete obedience to God under his guidance by the Holy Spirit stemming from a life of prayer and study. We must be rooted in a life solely focussed on God.

Mission has often failed because people have sought to talk about God when they have not yet talked enough to him. It must be seen that they enjoy the presence and the love of God. They must show God is real, to be met and to be enjoyed. (David Adam, ‘Aidan, Bede, Cuthbert: three inspirational saints’ (London: SPCK 2006) p.33)

In a world of binging I see some of our approaches to Lent as a spiritual binging/purging. We live the other three hundred and twenty-five days of the year living life with no deliberate focus on the work of growing as disciples and then for forty days we sprint the race. Our whole lives should be intentionally aimed at allowing God to grow us by his Holy Spirit.

Loving Father, Create in us new and contrite hearts, open to receive from you mercy and grace. Bind us together, Lord, to be lovers of your tender guidance and teaching and by the power of your Spirit complete the heavenly work of our rebirth through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Come, Lord Jesus

Chapter 46: offences in other matters


If the cause of the sin is secret (hidden in the soul), the monk should confess to the abbot or one of the spiritual fathers.

Who can I tell?

When the Lord comes,
he will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness,
and will disclose the purposes of the heart.
Therefore in the light of Christ let us confess our sins.

This is a seasonal provision in Common Worship for an invitation to confession from the First Sunday of Advent until Christmas Eve. I’ve been saying this for four weeks as I’ve led services in different contexts. The wording is from 1 Corinthians 4:5 and is a great image of bringing everything into the light.

Darkness, after the initial shock, can be quite comforting. No one can see what you’re doing and so no one can judge your behaviour. You are alone with your thoughts and those probing eyes of others are gone; you can do whatever you like. You’re free. Darkness brings this sense of privacy where you feel in control, released from judgement.

Darkness is also scary, isolating and lonely. With no sense of sight your other senses are heightened and, those of us who are reliant on our eyes most of the time, struggle to interpret the sounds, smells and other sensations that we are now aware of.

I’ve been involved in many a party game where someone is blindfolded and asked to feel an object and guess what it is. Part of the thrill or anxiety that is created is the unknown, the unseen. What if the worst thing imaginable is placed into our hands? Not knowing what the object is means you cannot prepare yourself for the possible movement of the object or the danger that it might be. There’s a great wave of relief when you see, even if you don’t like it, what the object was. When it comes into the light there’s a fuller understanding of what it is you were dealing with.

St. Benedict has returned to discussing issues of mistakes, faults and offences in community life. We all make them, they all have an impact beyond ourselves and we should all be prepared to admit them and try and make amends. In this chapter St. Benedict reminds us again that there is no difference between what happens in the ‘sacred’ to what happens in the ‘mundane’; we are to behave in the kitchen, cellar, garden, bakery, refectory, etc. as we do in the chapel/oratory. If we make a mistake or offend God or neighbour then we should treat it as if we did it in a ‘sacred’ space such as a church building. We are to go and make a public admission in front of abbot and the community so that no one is left in the dark over such matters.

Like the previous chapter, we are encouraged to admit quickly before the issue becomes larger by deceit and covering over the fault. It is easy to try and keep mistakes private out of fear of being seen to have failed and stumbled but greater is the shame if you are found to be using the darkness to cover such mistakes. The darkness is easy to use as a tool to select what others see of you and to build the false image of yourself but this creates a kind of division within yourself of that which others know about and that which you’d rather hide from them out of fear you will be judged.

In our culture we demand that no one judges another but we do it all the time and judgement is a necessary part of growing and developing. Imagine education without anyone telling you when you get an answer right or wrong, the same is true of the development of character and behaviour. If you want to be a part of a society then you must act within the framework and worldview of that society, if you do not then you are not united in behaviour and outlook with those around you and the bonds are broken. Judgement helps us to connect with others and to learn how to live and behave with those around us.

The problem arises when mistakes and ‘failures’ are seen to be feared and resisted. This view leads to the inevitable hiding of faults and a desperate and futile attempt at being perfect in the eyes of others. Judgement, in this culture, becomes a devastating rejection of a person into the abyss of eternal damnation. The community portrayed within the Rule of St. Benedict, however, is one rooted and established on grace and a desire to be humbled (‘humiliated’ in the truest sense of the word.) With grace, mistakes and faults are to be expected and open to redemption by God who, when invited to, can cleanse us from all faults and make us perfect by his Spirit. Judgement, in this culture of grace, is seen as a diagnosis of a problem that is curable by the great Healer. The rejection of judgement is the resisting of full force of grace and healing within the Body of Christ.

In the issues of mistakes in the ‘mundane’ parts of communal life, St. Benedict is essentially saying in this chapter,

See above.

Although there is one difference in this chapter which has not been said in previous chapters,

If the cause of the sin is secret (hidden in the soul), the monk should confess to the abbot or one of the spiritual fathers. (my emphasis)

Throughout the Rule so far, the advice is to take confession to the abbot and he shall make judgement on the form and severity of correction. Here, however, there is the option of not going to the abbot but ‘one of the spiritual fathers’. When the fault is internal, i.e. not a tangible, which does not impact the community in a practical way, then the monk can go and admit it to another with authority granted to them by the abbot. This must be done, as with other sins, quickly before it becomes habitual or longer lasting.

This is characteristically practical of St. Benedict. I know that I have thoughts and temptations each day which pass, unseen by others, through my mind which effect my behaviour and attitude towards others. I can keep them private out of fear of being judged for thinking or feeling such things and no one would be any the wiser, their opinion of me would still be good and I wouldn’t upset or hurt them and thus cause them to reject me in some way. I justify the hiding of these mistakes by saying I don’t want to upset my brothers or sisters and cause them to act out of anger but it’s not the full truth.

In the Apprentice this year, one candidate made a mistake which cost the team dearly in the task. He was obviously ashamed of his failure and, instead of admitting it to the others, he ‘made a business decision’ and ‘for the morale of the team’ to not tell them: he lied. In the boardroom the truth came out and he continued to persuade the others, Lord Sugar and himself that it was solely for the morale of the team. I was surprised to hear, after he was ‘fired’, that others said this was a reasonable thing to do and was an established ‘technique’ in business. It was hiding in the darkness out of fear of the idol of himself he had made would crumble and he would be humbled.

Going to another and confessing the thoughts or inner sins stops us from building the idols of ourselves whilst, at the same time, protecting those who may not yet have the grace to forgive and pray for our healing from the mistake. The hearer of the confession may feel that the wisest thing to do in order to be healed is to go to others who may be affected by the inner mistake and admit it to them without involving others in the community. That other person may be the abbot and so it would be wise to time that admission for the danger is, the abbot still being human and able to fall themselves, might respond rashly out of anger or fear.


I had a good conversation with someone this week about the frustrations of church and they were keen to express their disappointment and anger at the irrelevance of church services to the majority of the population of this country. They had no problem with the Church, the people who make up the Body of Christ, but the worship services were a waste of time. I wonder whether the division between these two things is the problem here. What I mean is, if you don’t engage in the worship services of the Church then how do you engage with the other aspects of the Church’s life? You should have the same attitude when you go to a Sunday service (if your church meets on a Sunday) as you do when you meet together for social times because worship encompasses both activity/tasks and the devotion of time in the presence of God. God should be involved in all that we do, no matter where we are as individual disciples or with other Christians. We know this, so why is it that we say in one instance,

This particular group is my church.

and in another,

I don’t get that group of believers or how they express their faith (if indeed they have one)

The Church is the Church. It is, at it’s most basic level, a gathering of disciples of Jesus Christ. When we meet together we remind ourselves of the Body of Christ and we re-member Christ amongst us by his Holy Spirit. In this posture we humble ourselves before him and lay down our wills in favour of his and we worship, either by enacting his commands or proclaiming his greatness and majesty to position ourselves firmly beneath his will and command.

This should happen whenever we are with other followers of Jesus. Everything we say and do therefore should be worship in these two sense: reminding ourselves and each other of who we serve and to be humbled before him and also doing Christ’s work on earth/building his kingdom and not our own. The kitchen, cellar, garden, etc. then become places of worship because where ever we are we worship God.

If everywhere is sacred does this mean we no longer need specific places of worship? I would say that if we didn’t meet in one place we’d meet in another space and it would become sacred, therefore, we will always have specific sacred sites which we congregate in to intentionally praise and re-member Christ amongst us and receive from him. If we close our church buildings we’d need to find other buildings in which to meet for worship and if we moved we’d lose the connection with the two thousand year history and tradition of our faith and re-member with those ‘saints’ which have gone before.

Indeed, the whole of the worship service as passed down from generation to generation is a tool to connect with the saints throughout the ages to have relationship with the past, the present and the future. It is the mysterious work of God’s Spirit to bring us into the communion of Saints who will all stand, one day, in glory to sing God’s praises. Our worship services are, whether we feel it or not, a foretaste of this heavenly reality. We want to hold onto tradition, not because we are fearful of change, but because we want to honour our brothers and sisters before us and worship with them. It is a lesson we must heed in our time, to lay down our own preferences and choose to honour others before ourselves. This is painful and difficult thing to do because sometimes it feels like a one way street but we enter, in part, to Christ’s approach to us that when we were still sinners he came to meet us. He chose grace and became in the form of a servant and was obedient… to the point of death on the cross.

When we don’t appreciate the sacred in the mundane there is the danger that we will make the sacred, mundane. We stumble into our times of worship together and informality leads us to laziness and blindness. Samuel Beckett writes in his play ‘Waiting for Godot’,

But habit is a great deadener.(Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (London: Faber and Faber, 2000) p.83)

We all find it easier to differentiate between ‘work’ and ‘life’; we talk of achieving the work/life balance but in the life of faith everything is work and everything is life. When you head into the office, the school or wherever you ‘work’ you do not leave your discipleship at the door. You’re going to that place with the mission of Christ ringing in your ear. The priority for disciples, over and above the job description, is to build God’s Kingdom here on earth, to make disciples, to be light in the world. In this mindset we approach worship as a duty that we feel forced to do in our ‘spare time’, there is then the pressure of making it beneficial and for us to feel something. When the service doesn’t live up to that expectation we reject it and complain and grumble. If we were to approach it with the knowledge that we should always be worshipping and encouraging one another as disciples then whenever we meet it is a joining in of what is going on in all of our hearts. Worship then is not the shop window of the community but the factory, the powerhouse at the centre. We return to this place of communal re-membering of Christ to be fed and to be sent out. Inviting people into the community is through the thresholds of the community and via the waters of baptism.


This chapter is a bridge between two important points. We are moving from the discussion on the need for swift admission of faults and mistakes, firmly establishing an attitude towards judgement within the framework of grace and humility. We are moving to a discussion on the erasing of a sacred/mundane divide which protects us from the demands of discipleship. The establishing of a distinction between sacred and mundane is done for the same reason we find we want to maintain both light and darkness. In one we can do what we like and behave without judgement and shame whilst still being able to enter into the other controlling what others see and what they don’t.

Those who argue that darkness must exist in order to appreciate the light are trying to justify the maintaining of that small corner of our lives that is useful to feel comfortable and in control. The problem is, without the light reaching those parts we cannot appreciate the full force of grace which transforms and heals us to be the fully resurrected people of God. The Refiner’s fire must burn into every aspect of our lives and change us. This is a painful experience but until we go through it we cannot know the full brilliance of our God who we invite to lead us to holiness and peace.

Our communities must be rooted and established in grace. In this we intentionally seek to be humbled and then to see judgement in the right way as a means to be in the right position before our God who we worship in every aspect of our lives. This means to be actively seeking to be in right relationship with other Christians and trusting in the vehicle of grace: God’s Body, the Church.

If we are not channels of grace then we have no right to call ourselves church… The body of Christ the ultimate vehicle of grace. (John Barclay, a lecture on the wisdom of the cross in 1 Corinthians, Tuesday 4th June 2013, Diocese of York Clergy Conference)

Gracious and healing God, bring into light those things we long to keep hidden in the darkness. We invite your judgement onto us knowing that you are tender and loving towards those that fear you and you have come, in the person Jesus, to heal sinners like me. May our communities be places where mistakes and faults are dealt with quickly so we can experience more fully your grace and love for us.

Come, Lord Jesus.