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Chapter 72: the good zeal monks should possess


Monks should practice this zeal with ardent love…

What has happened to the UK?

We live in interesting times!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are passionate about their beliefs.

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

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

When you sow in division, you reap in division.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 52: the oratory of the monastery


The oratory is as its name signifies (a place for prayer). Nothing else is to be done or discussed there.

What’s so special about church buildings?

It is very cool and ‘progressive’ to be against church buildings. Who would want to have a church building?

All they do is bind a community to maintenance mindset and restrict funds! The church buildings were built in a by-gone era and are no longer fit for purpose!

The moment this conversation comes up amongst young, energetic activists who have the great desire to burst out behind closed doors to proclaim the gospel I begin to feel old, ultra-conservative. I am framed as someone who wants to maintain the status quo and am afraid of change and the great unknown. The problem with this is, that’s not true. I think that people attack the idea of church buildings because it’s an easy scapegoat for the lack elsewhere.

Buildings don’t stop mission/evangelism, people do.

It’s easy, in my mind, to blame church buildings for the lack of movement within congregations but I don’t think it’s the whole picture. It is more likely that it is people’s relationship with a building that is the issue into the building itself.

Buildings are important to me because space is important to me. As a theatre practitioner involved in design work and the creation of environments within which performances can take place, I love using the given parameters of architecture for the given purpose. Working with architecture is a creative process like all other arts. One doesn’t just impose ideas onto the material, one must work with the material and have a relationship with it; the artists must allow the material to contribute to the work. Too many congregations have an idea separate from their building, in the world of fantasy and then demand their building flexes to their desires. The issue is the materials they’ve got has a personality, a history and it is easier (and more fun) to learn how to listen to a space and create within it… You might have to trust me on that point!

In those regular discussions on church buildings and the overwhelming pressures they put on congregations I often bring it back to some basic questions:

What is their purpose? and what do they say to us?

Purpose is about function. If we are to judge something to unfit for purpose we should be clear as to what the purpose is. For me the answer to this purpose question leads us to ask another question: what was it built for? What was that original purpose?

Church buildings were built to accommodate the gathering of the Body of Christ, the disciples as they met to pray and worship together. That was the buildings’ purpose. Has that purpose now changed? The size of that congregation may have changed either that the people can no longer fit in or that it’s far too big for the numbers gathering. More often than not this is what people mean by church buildings being unfit for purpose (usually the latter unfortunately).

If the building is too big for the number of disciples gathering and, in actual fact, the group could meet in someone’s living room, then I’d suggest that be explored within the community. I’d suggest that maybe, rather than selling off the building too quickly a congregation may want to explore other ways in which the building could have a purpose, i.e. change the purpose of the building. What else could be put inside this building? What other purpose might it have for the wider society?

This leads to that second question, what do they say to us? If you look at the building what does it say to us and to others? what is the natural atmosphere of the space? What feelings are evoked within it?

There is no doubt that many congregations have treated the church building as a functional storage space which is also used for worship. The main body of the church building is cluttered with stuff that has not been used and is gathering dust. The church building hasn’t had a ‘spring clean’ for hundred years or so! The solution is not to sell the church but to tidy/clean and re-decorate. If we treat our church building like we would treat any home we wouldn’t abandon it so easily.

My answer to those basic questions lead to a creative process of ‘spiritual redecoration’.

What is their purpose? Prayer.

What do they say to us? Rooted peace.

To explain: The purpose of church buildings were to house the community at prayer. Yes, people can and should meet in homes throughout the week but in the past and potentially in the future there will be a community larger then any one home and it is a deeply spiritual experience to be surrounded by a multitude of pray-ers. Small communities are essential but there are times when you want to feel part of a large family and these buildings ensure there is a shared place where we can come together and celebrate and pray.

To get rid of them would be to create the question, where do we all meet which is shared amongst us? A nearby field? A hall? Ok but that then becomes the church building/the building which is shared by the church. We are privileged, due to the historic nature of our faith, that we have property which is to be used for that exact purpose.

If you ask most people when they go into a church on their own how they feel, they will say ‘peaceful’. They may have other feelings but people like the quiet atmosphere, the stillness (particularly if it’s situated in a busy city environment. People often talk about a place where they feel connected to history. It’s a humbling experience to be connected to a heritage.

People have been coming here for centuries!

Now we don’t want to keep them at that historical heritage position but connect them into the living heritage of faith through Jesus Christ. That is the work of the congregation. How do they use that historic connection and translate it to the living faith.

I am convinced that church buildings are a tool for mission if a congregation is intentional with how it creatively uses the resource. Redecorate. Reallocate funds. Be clear as to where things are placed what certain colours and textures say to people. Re frame the space to lead people into an environment where they can encounter the presence of God which is called down by the people of God in prayer and worship.


A parish church is still seen, even in this post-Christendom society, as a symbol of community, a focus of a geographical area. People know the local church building and have a bond to it (however frail that is). Churches, for many, still have connotations of refuge and safety, peace and stillness.

Many churches have been adapted to serve better as community centres and gathering places. This is great but we must be careful not to completely rid these spaces of that unique connection with the historic living faith. Church buildings lend themselves to places of contemplation and meditation, prayer and worship. If they become identified with just any activity then we will lose a rich resource which can easily be forgotten.

Holy Father, we thank you that you gather your people. We thank you that in these places you have met with your children and revealed your grace. We have been invited into your family and we meet in your household. May we always be inviting others to meet with you in these sacred spaces.

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.

Chapter 42: no talk after Compline


Monks should try to speak as little as possible.

Why silence?

There is an almost constant stream of chatter going through my mind most of the day; there are lists of things to do being calculated, reflections and processing events, creating ideas and writing exercises all being churned away inside my brain as I walk around, sit quietly and even when I pray. It sometimes feels like my brain is producing the Window’s hourglass or Apple’s spinning ball as I process the world around me.

When it comes to prayer, finding a silence in which to encounter and hear from God, is tricky (on some days nearer to impossible!) Before I begin the liturgy I try to quieten the inner chatter using a entering prayer like the Jesus prayer or repeating ‘Maranatha’ slowing my breathing down and settling into a slower rhythm. The chatter begins to slow (if I concentrate) and we begin the liturgy, familiar and comforting; it uses just enough brain power to focus me more and, at times, I fall into the silence.

Of course this doesn’t always happen and the chatter is so overwhelming that I’m lucky if I can even remember the liturgy. It is a common view that we live too frantic lives. I don’t want to add to the reams and reams of paper and the gigabytes of webspace dedicated to showing us all how busy we are and the need to slow down. I’ve said it to myself so often, I’ve heard people tell me, as if it were simple, I’ve preached it from the pulpit and I’ve written it in more than one article; why is it so difficult?

The inner chatter is comforting, I think; it is a form of company in moments of aloneness. We are naturally social animals and we crave companions and so when we are denied that fellowship we fill the emptiness with fictional voices or with our own creative thoughts. Even the dye-hard introverts amongst us fill the silence with dreams and thoughts because, the truth is, the silence is frightening. In the silence we must face our true self without any of correction or pretence; ironically the true self is the last thing we want to see.

If your life is centred on yourself, on your own desires and ambitions, then asserting those desires and ambitions is the way you try to be true to yourself. So self-assertion becomes the only way of self expression. If you simply assert your own desires, you may have the illusion of being true to yourself. But in fact all your efforts to make yourself more real and more yourself have the opposite effect: they create a more and more false self.This self assertion is false because it cuts you off from other people. (Abbot Christopher Jamison, ‘Finding Sanctuary: Monastic Steps for Everyday Life’ (London: Phoenix, 2007) p.85

The discipline set out in the Rule of St. Benedict should never be seen as an end in and of itself for that is a distortion of his intention. Discipline is used in order to steer the monk into a space where they can discover deep truths, hidden from others; it is this space of encounter with God which is the goal. Last week we discussed how cravings for satisfaction can drive us from real discoveries and here it is our inner chatter which is the distraction. Enforcing silence is to create an atmosphere where we are forced to face the silence, to fight through the dread and fear to discover the resurrecting new life beyond the deepest darkness and silence.

Ultimately the only way that I can be myself is to identified with Him in Whom is hidden the reason and fulfilment of my existence. Therefore there is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him. (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation’ (New York: New Directions, 1972) p.35-36)

The call to true silence is a dangerous journey and should not be rushed into. It is a treacherous path which requires, like all journeys, preparation, the right equipment and knowledge of the route. It doesn’t take much reading on contemplative prayer to know that this is a calling reserved for experienced and specific disciples. This doesn’t deny the rest of us an experience or a seeking after a form of silence but we tread that path with caution.
The rise of mindfulness classes, particularly in urban centres, concerns me. The basis of this, as far as my reading and experience shows, is based in focussing on self and creating a form of vacuum in which to exist. The danger with this, in spiritual terms, is that with no direction we can be seized by anything; demons, destructive thought, wayward emotions, call them what you like. In this way it is as Jesus describes it,

When a strong man, fully armed, guards his castle, his property is safe. But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away his armour in which he trusted and divides his plunder…
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.” (Luke 11:21-26)

To return to Thomas Merton’s words, we all seem so desperate to find our true self but this only exists in the existence of God and so, if we want to gaze on our true self, we must gaze on God. The abyss that we discover if we silence the inner chatter should not remain empty for into the vacuum will flood all manner of thing and in the place where mindfulness takes you you’re defenceless against the slippery darkness that can easily overwhelm. God abhors a vacuum and we must, if we are to engage in this sort of prayer, to invite God to fill it; even if it is with ‘the cloud of unknowing’ (a classic on this subject).

This is where the reading of suitable material aids the community into an atmosphere of silence. It may seem contradictory to say, in one breath, be silent, and in the other listen to readings from ‘the Collations, the Lives of the Father or something else uplifting.’ For those of us who struggle with the silence and are not equipped to defend ourselves in the darkness of our own souls, filling the silence with directional material to guide us the treacherous path to the edge of pure silence to gaze on God is considerably helpful.


True silence is hard to achieve for it is a form of death. In the centre of it we all discover the existence of God who grants, by knowing Him, knowing our true self, ‘in Whom is hidden the reason and fulfilment of my existence.’

Sometimes prayer, meditation and contemplation are “death” – a kind of descent into our own nothingness, a recognition of helplessness, frustration, infidelity, confusion, ignorance… Then as we determine to face the hard realities of our inner life, as we recognise once again that we need to pray hard and humbly for faith, he draws us out of darkness into light. (Thomas Merton, ‘Contemplative Prayer’ (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2005) p.40)

The path to such discovery is a dangerous journey and should not be entered into lightly or without the right spiritual equipment for the task. There are unfriendly foes to battle with, snares and stumbling blocks which can cause you immense damage and pain.

In the context of parish life this form silence is not to be completely ignored rather we should be practising it in order that we can control our inner chatter like we need to control our inner cravings. Discipline in prayer and contemplation leads us to discovery of who we are in God and is therefore, the path to the new life we proclaim.

Creating guided space to begin the process of entering into the silence is essential for nay Christina community. This should be, in my mind, begun with concentrated reading of ‘uplifting’ material: Scripture or spiritual classics such as the Collations or the Life of the Fathers. Each disciple who commits to exploring the inner life must be accompanied by an experienced traveller and these should be made available to each in the form of small groups leaders.

In this way we can begin to form our life together around prayer and study as we resource ourselves for mission and worship.

God of the silence, I invite you into the poverty and emptiness of my life to fill it with your presence by your Holy spirit. Fill the dust of my existence like you did in the very beginning. May I, my false self, decrease as you, my true identity, increase. I step into the silence fearful for it is your awesome presence I seek to gaze upon; that same presence which Moses desired and you blessed him by walking by Him.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Struggling with No-Man’s Land

I have, in the past, been a fan of the part ii’s, the part iii’s, etc. I was going to name this post ‘Fleeing to No-Man’s Land (part ii)’ but I realised that the verb was wrong. I am calling this ‘Struggling with No-Man’s Land’ because that better describes my honest, if not entirely correct, emotion at the moment. This post comes from my continued reflection on the community which I love, Burning Fences.

If you have not read my first reflection, which I remain completely committed to, then please read it here before proceeding…

Nomansland…Ok. Since I wrote that reflection there has been a growing sense of some footing being lost amongst us. We have felt, at different moments, that we have lost our way or the passion has waned. This has been due to various small events in the life of our community which have combined to create not a destruction or a despair but a niggle, a question to arise: what are we doing?

I, in a broken and fumbled way, attempted to voice this concern to my fellow fence burners to see if I was alone; I was not. I tried then to gauge where this ‘dis-satisfaction’ was coming from. It was not clear. We all had different theories and, therefore, different solutions. We gathered together for a weekend away and I ‘hosted’ the space. I didn’t do a perfect job but I tried my best but even at the end of this wonderful time together there was a niggle; quiet but persistent, like a headache which has become habitual, not debilitating but present, sometimes forgettable but, in the still times returns to remind and prompt attention.

After the weekend away I sent out an email to some to see if people thought it might be good to have an open meeting to discuss this ambiguous question of how to acknowledge what Burning Fences is.

This desire to define and name came with a great heaviness for me as I still believe that there is a danger in this course of action. With definition come boundaries to cross, requirements to meet, entitlement to battle with, etc. The temptation to do so is great and most follow it but seem to come unstuck by it. I wonder whether this is our challenge, as a community, to pioneer the narrow path away from it and lead others to a secret place of truly organic and free space. Is such a place possible?

And this is why this post is called ‘Struggling with No-Man’s Land’ because I am deeply torn. The call/demand on my inner being to follow suit and define this community is great. I have justified how we can do it without damaging the freedom we have enjoyed in not defining or acknowledging. Most of these justifications come from a deeply held understanding that with no markers we must be prone to float from one thing to another and there is no defence against any ‘spirit’ or idea which could equally destroy than strengthen, enslave as to liberate. There is, in this non-demarcated space no source of discernment accept our flawed concepts of reality and shifting judgments.

the_clearing_by_crossieA wise brother amongst us wrote a deeply honest and profound response to my call for a discussion. He named the beauty of Burning Fences as ‘a clearing’. He writes,

We run into problems when any one group tries to colonise the clearing.

That sentence struck me as deeply important. How? I’m not sure.

In a discussion about Burning Fences with someone on the periphery looking in we were described, by them, as either,

A secular space in which Christians inhabit and live out their faith.


A space created by Christians and where anyone and everyone is invited to come and inhabit.

Both have strengths and weaknesses. The first image has the strength of describing the Christian as a resident alien, a guest who honours the code of hospitality that guests have. It’s weakness is that it can easily be seen as an invasion or takeover. The second image develops a sense of hospitality. There is a basic assumption in good hospitality that the guest is free to make the space their own and the host serves them and welcomes. The problem comes when the power is mis-read and, no matter how much it is expressed, the space is never owned by the guest.

There are big questions here of our understanding of hospitality and one which we must wrestle with but both these images are not apt descriptions of Burning Fences because the space in both has an ownership by one party. Hospitality requires a power-game between host and guest. My wise friend and fellow fence burner is closer: it is a clearing which is not owned by anyone. It is ‘no-man’s land’.

The beauty of No-Man’s Land is that it is neutral territory where everyone is simultaneously both host and guest. The different parties come together and build together.

It reminds me of Vincent Donovan’s approach to his mission to the Masai described in ‘Christaianity Rediscovered’. He writes this,

…the unpredictable process of evangelization, [is] a process leading to that new place where none of us has ever been before. When the gospel reaches a people where they are, their response to that gospel is the church in a new place, and the song they will sing is that new, unsung song, that unwritten melody that haunts all of us. What we have to be involved in is not the revival of the church or the reform of the church. It has to be nothing less than what Paul and the Fathers of the Council of Jerusalem were involved in for their time – the refounding of the Catholic church for our age. (Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered (London: SCM Press, 2009) p.xix)

It was in No-Man’s land that peace came, for the briefest of moments during the Great War. It was in the middle of the deeply dug trenches that people were free to meet and experience peace in a simple game of football; neutral, no power games, shared. This is the beauty of such a clearing.

I begin to realise that my issue at the weekend away was the locus of hospitality was skewed. I, along with a select few others, were ‘hosting’, and others considered themselves ‘guests’. This has a definite dynamic in the relationship and how people respond to the space created. What I wanted was a shared ownership but I attempted to achieve this by ‘hosting’. This is where the invitation to a radically different hospitality comes into its own. One which I consider godly; where the host is the guest, the guest the host and service is from all to all in a beautiful mutually loving community.

But is it sustainable?

In this space, what is the source of discernment? What is the shared authority? What fosters peace and reconciliation? What is it that guards against colonisation? For me, as a Christian, what does it mean to see God’s Kingdom extend and grow in this place where no name can be spoken over it? Where does No-Man’s people move to?

orthodox-priest-in-kiev-jan-22-2014This is our quest: to inhabit, together, No-Man’s Land. To share the space making no claim on it for ourselves or the parties, agendas and personal empires which we are tempted to enforce. We desire, however, to build our home there for to be at peace one must feel a sense of belonging. To what are we committing and how can that be spoken in this between place?

I am convinced this is our challenge and one which, if manifested, will break a temptation that many groups have suffered under. There is a great weight to the task that lies before us and I pray to God for wisdom and boldness to enter in.

Chapter 18: psalms – order to be chanted


Monks who chant less than the entire Psalter, with canticles, each week are slothful in their service to God.

How much should I be praying?

For ten weeks now I have been praying and meditating on the place and structure of prayer in the life of a monastic community. During this time I have been asking myself, whether it has been communicated on this journal or not, what place does prayer take in my life? The answer has often been: I must try harder. This is a common response to prayer and Bible reading to many Christians, ordained, lay, within religious orders or not. It is easy to compare ourselves to others or to our perception to others or , even worse, to an impossible ideal. There’s a proverb within the church which says,

Prayer is like sex. Most people lie about how much they’re doing it and how well it is going.

It is easy to compare ourselves to others and to beat ourselves up on how lazy and difficult we find prayer, reading the Bible, service to the poor, etc. We do it instinctively. If it’s not the person sat next to you in church or your own priest or lay workers then there’s a renowned saint (for me it’s people like Shane Claiborne!) who we project onto heavenly virtues and exult them to ‘super-Christian’. I am reminded of Jesus’ last exchange with Peter in John’s gospel,

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” (John 21:20-22)

What is that to you?

Those words should ring in our ears when we find ourselves falling into a self-destructive cycle of despair. When you find yourself saying,

I should be reading the Bible as much as [insert name of idealised version of a fellow Christian here].


I wish I had their prayer life. They’re always praying.

Having said that we must be careful also to be realistic with our time. Most of us could prioritise prayer and Bible reading better but that’s the truth of priorities; you prioritise what you prioritise. We need to firstly acknowledge what we do prioritise and why. What is it that you consider more important than prayer? What do you turn to before you turn to prayer or reading the Bible? Why does this, or ‘these’, things take precedent? Are they easier? Are they more enjoyable?

For me, it’s TV, social media and work.

I justify TV because it’s important to rest and wind down after work. I justify social media because it’s important for me to know what’s going on in the lives of my friends, family and communities. I justify work because I’ve been called to it by God and people are relying on me to support them in their lives. But that’s all these priorities are; justifications. On their own and in isolation there’s nothing wrong with these activities and, yes, they need to be done and be a part of a balanced life but the reality is I minimise my time in prayer and reading the Bible in favour of doing those three things.

Added to that I lie to myself about my prayer life. I find myself saying,

I pray while I…(e.g. look at my Twitter stream/Facebook wall).

At times I do but that is not always a deliberate thing, a dedicated time set aside to speak with God. Most of the time it’s a one way dictation of things He has to do for me. The same is true for reading the Bible; I say,

I read the Bible today while I prepared for… (e.g. a sermon).

That’s not the kind of reading that feeds the soul; that’s work. I read it with a particular energy; I’m listening for that teaching point, that image which will help people to connect with the passage. I don’t always find myself asking those personal questions like,

What is God saying to me in this?

Don’t get me wrong, I do ok. At morning and evening prayer (and at times, midday prayer) I engage with Scripture on that level and I pray for a dedicated time but even these times are dry and distracted. These times are dedicated and disciplined for the very reality, for me, that I just won’t ensure I am praying as much as I should. This is not about comparing with those dedicated intercessors and pray-ers in the Body of Christ but a basic level for any disciple to remain rooted in God.

I’d suggest to ‘normal’, working (paid and unpaid) Christians engaging in the world, that at least one regular time of prayer a day is minimum. That time of prayer, what ever form it takes, should be undistracted and deliberate for a minimum of fifteen minutes. This is not an excessive amount of time. Consider how long it takes to drink a cup of tea? When you start to consider a regular time when, presently, you are doing nothing, you will begin to realise how much you fill your days with all manner of tasks without even considering the time you dedicate to it. I catch myself on a regular basis, unconsciously walking upstairs into my office and turning on the computer without knowing why. Habit and routine take over and I tell myself I’m busy and I create work for myself. It’s easy to do.


Rhythms of prayer

We who live in the world all need to acknowledge that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to dedicate the kind of time that a Benedictine community spends in prayer. If we add up the typical time spent in prayer for such a community it would be about 3 1/2 hours in Divine Office/communal set prayers then an hour of prayerful reading of Scripture and half an hour silent personal prayer we can see that a monk should be praying 5 hours a day. Be careful not to start comparing yourself and beating yourself up about how ‘lazy’ you are! Remember that that 5 hours is split up and goes into the night but even that would have a big impact on our energy levels if we are also trying to hold down a full time, or even part time job, possibly a family and commitments to a Church community.

For a New Monastic community who have to balance the everyday life of family and employment with prayer and service, a more realistic rhythm of prayer should be established. This will be different for each expression and for the lives of those involved in such communities but it will require, like that of St. Benedict’s, a framework which will hold the community accountable; a framework and guidance as to how much is possible and helpful for prayer to be a priority.

As I said, I find a set time time in the morning, before I start work, and one in the evening just as people are finishing their work. My work often stretches into the evening so that evening prayer is praying that the work of many in my communities will bear fruit for God’s Kingdom. A commonality between such ‘monastic’ communities is an established morning prayer either said at the same time by all the members and, if possible, in the same place. Some have a Night Prayer others an evening, some have midday prayers but each is flexible to help and guide the community to have prayer woven into the routine.

After about five years of a rhythm of prayer (which has changed and evolved) I feel odd when I am not praying at 8.30am a set Office (be that Common Worship or Celtic Daily Prayer). My wife knows that at 5.30pm I will be praying and we have set dinner time around that fact. I schedule meetings around this time and say to people who ‘need’ me,

I’m sorry I have a meeting then.

On occasions I need to adapt and move stuff but that must be done prayerfully and with consideration.

Starting a day with set prayers, for me who is not a morning person, is useful as I don’t need to be ‘up for it’. I turn up and I am quiet with god. I find I repeat the same quiet prayer before I begin,

Oh Lord, I am so tired, give me strength for today.

I then use this time to go through my day and as I remember all the things I have planned I invite God into them.

Lord, will you be with me as I meet with…

Lord, what is it that you want me to say to…

Lord, help me face this difficult challenge.

I find, as I perform the tasks of the day I remember my prayer that morning and repeat it before I begin, as I do it and after it is done. These are not dedicated times of prayer just quick short repetitions remembering God with me as I go about my business.


This part of my blog has slipped at times from what I had intended it to be. I had wanted this section to be a possible practical step I could take to move from theory to action. This week I want to ponder what this rhythm of prayer looks like in community.

In my parish we offer morning and evening prayer for anyone. Both times are not easy for people to make. There are many reasons why people can’t come but I suspect that anytime would be difficult because rhythms of prayer are not understood and challenge people’s priorities. I sit with one or two others at both times. We have a routine and we are flexible when necessary. I would love to build a community that came together each day to dedicate themselves to prayer together.

To do this in a parish would require a dedicated season studying and teaching on the subject and then a focussed discussion on what that prayer would look like for the members of the community there. I don’t think we ask what prayer looks like as the Body of Christ on a daily basis. This challenges our Sunday focussed life together and also what we see our role in society as.

Lord, call your people to yourself each day to hear and receive all we need from you. Take us from our lives and shape us into disciples, placing us back into those lives changed and equipped for the building up of your Kingdom in the places we are sent.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 13: lauds – ordinary days


Neither Lauds nor Vespers is to end without the Lord’s Prayer, said aloud by the superior, in a voice all may hear because of the thorns of scandal always springing – so the brothers, remembering their pledge in the prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” may purge themselves.

Why are we different?

After some continued emphasis on the use of psalms St. Benedict ends this chapter with a particularly clever device to ensure no member of the community forgets how community is truly built; forgiveness.

I’ve been reading this chapter during a week of extremely heightened emotions with various friends and family speaking on the contentious issue of same-sex marriage. Whatever anyone thinks on this matter we can all agree that it taps into a deep part of all our identities; if we are for the change in law then it brings out deeply held emotions for friends and family members and our understanding of happiness, justice and love. The same is true if we are against the change. It is a complicated issue, as the Archbishop helpfully highlighted on Saturday in Bury St Edmunds.

The difficult thing has been to be a part of a community, locally and on social media, where people are free to express their deeply held beliefs, which stem from deep seated conditioning, and create conflict, cutting others of different views. It is impossible not to state one’s view without upsetting or dividing from those that believe something different. We are all, at this point in time, acutely aware of all our difference. Is the solution, however, just to forget or minimise them and attempt to express similarities?

I have quoted John Milbank and Stanley Hauerwas many times in my blog and I return to a thought explored in Hauerwas’ book ‘Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence’. Here Hauerwas uses Milbank’s reflections on the Christian understanding of God as Trinitarian, difference united.

The fact that Christianity has always understood God as the God “who is also difference, who includes relation, and manifold expression” means that any conception of God as monistic is proscribed. (Stanley Hauerwas, “Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence” (London: SPCK, 2004) p.87, quoting John Milbank, “The Second Difference: For Trinitarianism without Reserve”, Modern Theology 2/3 (April 1986) p. 213)

Here we look to God who alone holds difference in peace. This activity is bound up in the eternal mystery of the reality of the Trinity and we do God a great disservice to speak of such incomprehensible truth in simplistic terms, as if we can understand and rationally and intellectually copy His Being. The truth is, however much we speak of tolerance and acceptance of difference, we do not live this out.

Difference “enters the existing common cultural space only to compete, displace or expel”; “in the public theatre, differences arise only to fall; each new difference has a limitless ambition to obliterate all others, and therefore to cancel out difference itself.” The best a secular peace can hope for, then, is a “tolerable” regulation or management of conflict by one coercive means or another. (Hauerwas, “Performing the Faith”, p. 88, quoting Milbank, “Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990) p. 290)

In the current issue of same sex marriage, I have been acutely aware of how we, as a society, have discussed (or not) and have spoken of difference. Despite a large amount said on ‘equality’, ‘respect’, ‘acceptance’, little has been demonstrated by both sides (me included). Equality has become ‘sameness’. Respect has become ‘live and let live’. Acceptance has become ‘permissiveness’. These values which we apparently share cannot be shared for the root and understanding of the terms are different. Let us not ignore that fact. Difference, if it is to be held, must also be acknowledged and held in the light. I said, early on in this process, that if we do not pay close attention to the how of the process then the deeper whats will remain unchanged. Yes we have same sex marriage but what is the cost? The church divided from society, people who are against are now ghettoised until they accept the status quo. If they do not then they are labelled ‘evil’, ‘unloving’, ‘bigots’. They are forced, through fear of being isolated from society, into giving up their views as wrong. The response for those for the change?

They will soon learn how backwards they are.

We will all look back on this and be shocked it took so long.

We have progressed. Have we progressed well, though? In all of this conflict, pain and suffering, division and vitriol, I’ve been meditating on these words from St. Benedict,

Neither Lauds nor Vespers is to end without the Lord’s Prayer, said aloud by the superior, in a voice all may hear because of the thorns of scandal always springing – so the brothers, remembering their pledge in the prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” may purge themselves.

Forgiveness begins with an open generosity to be willing to admit we are mistaken, even on issues of our own identity and sexuality. I understand my friends who are gay because I understand the complexity I have wrestled with in my own sexuality. Even as a heterosexual I am aware of my teenage life being confused with same-sex attraction. There was several boys in my school who I felt attracted to. Being from a liberal home and participating the arts which encouraged freedom of exploration and expression I was comfortable with the feelings I felt. In the end I decided to be heterosexual. I am more than aware of the more difficult and painful experiences of others and I am in no way trying to belittle those experiences all I’m attempting to do is to state my appreciation of difference, conditioning and complexity of how life shapes us through genetics, parenting and social norms.

From this point of acknowledging my unknowing I am able to enter into a knowing. Humility is that portal into which we step towards real community. Alongside humility is obedience; that call to, while waiting for clarity, to practice the art of life. I am wary, and have been for some time, the way in which a society now considers time. There is a fear that patience is seen as weakness and cowardice. There is the call to ‘make a decision’, ‘to act now’ which destroys any sense of the need for wisdom which only comes over time. I feel this pressure and the question it raises of integrity but obedience holds us, mostly in liturgical expressions, to try and move beyond the instinctive response, which we cannot tell whether they are good or bad or whether they will be constructive or destructive.

Being disciplined in obedience is perhaps the key virtue of a good and faithful performer. This is a skill that can be acquired only in communities that foster an ‘ecology of hope,” what Nicholas Lash calls “schools of stillness, of attentiveness; of courtesy, respect and reverence; academies of contemplatively.” (Hauerwas, “Performing the Faith”, p.100, quoting Nicholas Lash, “The Church in the State We’re In”, Modern theology 13/1 (January 1997) p.131)

Hauerwas goes on to say,

…the patience of a good performer requires a doing but also and equally important a suffering, an undergoing, a giving up, a receptivity, a capitulation. This giving up, however, is more a giving over or dispossession of oneself in the performance rather than a concession to fatalism… This ability to let go of oneself, to dispossess oneself in the very execution of the act, is a skill that is not learned quickly or easily and certainly not on one’s own. Indeed, if acquired at all, it is learned in communion and fellowship with others over the course of an entire Christian life. (Hauerwas, “Performing the Faith”, p.100-101)

This painful suffering of ‘ekstasis’ (the giving up of oneself) is to be done in a community where we are encouraged to do so. Many of you, dear readers, will immediately name one group who should learn to do this ‘giving up’ but there is our problem; we expect one group to without the other needing to. Those that are ‘wrong’ must learn to loosen their oppression of the other but which side is wrong? The traditionalists or the liberal progressives? True community is entering, together into the unknowing of human life and truth and giving up of ourselves, patiently bearing with one another in love AND truth.

This can only be practiced within a community which holds to an ‘ecology of hope’. Hope, in our current context, I would propose, has been replaced with Wish-fulfillment. Wish-fulfillment demands a particular action, a certain event to happen or object to be given. Hope, in contrast, is based not on specifics but on a trust to something beyond ourselves. For Christians this Hope is set in God and Jesus Christ. I have wishes that things turn out my way but I hope in God.

How then do we proceed in a society where there is no shared authority? I wish to have an intentional engagement with virtues; a teaching and sharing of ideas in a public setting. This is not going to happen and so I hope in God who holds and creates difference from His singular source of Divine Love which far surpasses our paltry imitations of the emotion. We, in community, must fall on our knees in silence and live and act in patience for wisdom and revelation.

…performance that is truly improvisatory requires the kind of attentiveness, attunement, and alertness traditionally associated with contemplative prayer. (Hauerwas, “Performing the Faith”, p.81)


St. Benedict knows the difficulty of living in community and so, even amidst the prosaic outlining of liturgical practice he reminds the members of the need for humility (‘Forgive us our trespasses’) and the painful suffering of obedience to a source outside of ourselves (‘as we forgive those who trespass against us’) In the parish context, we are part of a manageable group of people, linked, via the representatives (priests and bishops), to the global Church and to the neighbourhoods in which we live. In this more manageable community we should be working out how Salvation in Time through patient contemplation and action which stems from it. We must learn how to give one another space to be transformed and set free from our own perceptions of self, identities and sexualities (hetero, homo, bi, whatever).

Generous, Forgiving, Loving God, how far we fall from Your will and Your providence. How little we truly experience of Your Hope and rhythm of Time. Guide me, Your humble servant into Your presence to be shaped into the likeness of Your Son, who gave Himself up that I may know You and Your strength to save.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 5: obedience


The first degree of humility is prompt obedience.

Why should I listen?

There is a myth that ‘millennials’ (my generation who have grown up saddling the millennium) have no respect for authority. In reality I think we do have respect for authority but the authority must be earned before it can be trusted. This does lead to many of us dismissing first instances of authority, particularly if it is enforced with rigor; this is a dangerous tendency. Our primary authority is no longer in older figures, previous generations but rather in peers; this is an even greater danger for what it leads to is a narcissistic, blind belief in our own power, understanding and un-walked wisdom.

Blogger, Anna Mussmann, has written a really interesting critique on culture using the young adult fiction which is popular. The article is called ‘Millenials Think Authority Figures Are Untrustworthy Idiots, And Modern Culture Is To Blame’ and takes stories such as Hunger Games, Finding Nemo and Splendors and Glooms to explore what these books have taught and continue to teach us growing up in this culture. Mussmann argues,

…when young adult fiction encourages reliance on transitory, peer-based relationships, it casts off the unifying role that classic literature once played. Our stories no longer bind multiple generations together. Instead they divide them… we even structure young people’s lives in ways that decrease adult influence and increase peer culture: our children are separated by age at school and attend age-specific youth programs at church (often never participating in traditional services that are designed for all-ages). They listen to their own music and text in their own language. The qualities which unify a culture, such as music, etiquette rules, and stories, are all things of which youth have their own.

This article is fascinating when considering my own attitude to obedience to authority figures of older generations. The issue, in my eyes, is always with them. This is an unhealthy reaction to many older people who have lived and experienced many things. I don’t want to dismiss my generation too quickly though. I do feel there’s always been an earning of trust and some blame must fall onto the previous generation who, after dismissing their parents for the mess of two world wars and the violent climax of enlightenment and modernism, felt they should never impose obedience on their children. In this context is it any wonder that young people today have little to no moral compass to guide them through the chaotic adolescence.

If you are a regular reader of my blog then you will know that over the last two or three years I have been increasingly vocal about ethics and virtues and the nature of moral discussions (read On Secularism, The Hunch, The Compulsion and The Overwhelming Pain, The Pope is Dust Just Like You and There is No Majority). The heady mix of my generation with my parents’ generation when running a society, is a cocktail for increasingly isolated people with highly subjective opinions to right and wrong trying to co-habit a claustrophobic space which leads inevitably to an increase in violence, physical and political. Our politic is broken because we have taken a shared narrative away and allowed a vacuum to be created. We now happily worship the absence in true nihilistic fashion.

Many young adults, especially those from the less affluent backgrounds, feel that they live in a world where family and community have eroded to the point of dysfunction. Personal loyalty may be their only hope in a dark, chaotic, and existential world. This kind of loyalty is the same moral value on which both gangs and tribes are built, and in many ways, our culture encourages a new kind of clique-like tribalism. Paradoxically, however, such loyalty is also constantly mutating, because our peer-oriented relationships (friendships and marriages) are self-chosen and therefore dissolvable. In real life the group loyalties break and reconfigure under strain. Such single-generation tribalism is also incredibly narrow. G. K. Chesterton argues that families are far more broadening than self-chosen companions because they force individuals to learn to understand many kinds of people. (Anna Mussmann, ‘Millenials Think Authority Figures Are Untrustworthy Idiots, And Modern Culture Is To Blame’, The Federalist, February 4th 2014, http://thefederalist.com/2014/01/23/millennials-think-authority-figures-are-untrustworthy-idiots-and-modern-culture-is-to-blame/)

Through this millennial lens I read St. Benedict’s words on obedience. I have explored in the previous weeks the role and nature of the abbot and have wrestled personally with my own attitude to the leader figure. I would argue that it is right, at this time, to reshape our understanding of leadership to fit the culture. In order to do that a leader must become an advocate to the people under his/her authority and we should embrace a more flat leadership model, organic in nature. This does not mean that the leader must become a friend, homogenous to the group, for that complicates the role of wisdom and obedience needed in order for personal and communal growth to occur. Authority is needed and it must remain external to the self. Tribalism is not a healthy way to exist but there are elements of it that should be encouraged; togetherness, sociality, loyalty but in Narnia this balance between friendship and authority is beautifully portrayed in the character of Aslan who remains aloof and separate from the children who must negotiate the strange and dangerous world of Narnia. I return again to the model of the ensemble theatre company; there is a sharing of leadership and direction but the role of the director becomes one of facilitator and ‘story-keeper’. This role ensures that authority is named and placed in a specific place. The challenge comes when the person who takes on that role mis-uses it. This is why the selection of such a person must come from the group and is placed on them through a sense of vocation and discerned calling.

Aslan’s style is to be alongside, encouraging but at times to demand the respect and authority to, enigmatically at times, to guide the children into strange and unknown experiences. The children do not understand why at the time but they are encouraged to trust the authority of figure to do it anyway. My generation would instinctively baulk at such suggestion,

Why should we?

Who does he think he is?

He doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know what’s good for me.

When I think of my personal authority figures, the ones who know me and guide me and whom I respect and obey, most of them are of a previous generation. They have earned my trust but remain separate enough from me to be able to command me and my will.

The church, I feel, must reflect on this cultural issue seriously when we discuss the nature of leadership and authority. There needs to be an overhaul of our images and models of leadership and I am increasingly convinced that we must return to a ‘priestly’ model where reconciliation and spiritual depth are primary roles. Obedience is demanded like Jesus demanded it; not by His words first but by His character. He was obviously a man who commanded attention but where it came from, no one could tell. Jesus, of course, is unique but as priest’s we are called to be His ambassadors in His Body, the Church. We are called to stand in His place between people and places, heaven and earth. We are to follow Him closely to encourage the people of God to do likewise. We must commit our lives to being lead by our Master in obedience and to speak the commands we follow to those whom God calls us to.

Sacrificial Obedience

Not satisfied with calling the monks to obedience, St. Benedict takes it one step further and asks them to do so ‘without fear, laziness, hesitance or protest.’

Orders should be carried out cheerfully…God will not be pleased by the monk who obeys grudgingly, not only murmuring in words but even in his heart.

I am guilty of saying that I am happy to obey authority but doing so questioningly and with reservation. I act, in line with commands, suspiciously or creatively twisting the will of my superior to fit my own desires and will. St. Benedict is clear that true spiritual growth will occur when ‘These disciples must obediently step lively to the commanding voice – giving up their possessions, and their own will.’

I’m not sure if what I am about to suggest is skewed by my generational attitude to authority but I wonder if there’s an understanding here that the abbott himself is under the authority of the Rule and, prior to being called to the role of abbott has shown himself obedient to it. Thus his authority has been proved through his own discipleship. I wonder if his own discipleship and obedience must remain the hallmark of his leadership. The abbott must, in this understanding, follow and imitate Jesus, his Master, who followed and imitated His Father.


This week’s chapter has cut to the heart of some personal issues for me and I am convicted to pray through my attitude. There is a sense in which it is a nudging back in line with God’s will and not a whole hearted overhaul. In parish ministry at this time there is a large confusion about right and healthy distinctions between ordained ministers and laity. In the past there has been some devastating situations caused by those in authority in the church and this has destroyed much of the Church’s authority. To destroy the whole thing and dismiss the tradition is too risky and dangerous and is akin to throwing ‘the baby out with the bath water’. There is such a call to wisdom but, unfortunately, my generation in this culutre will struggle to find wisdom for we no longer ascribe to a shared cultural narrative and to any virtues of character. The characters we share are story-less, peer-guided and self selected. With no wisdom this self-selection is vacuuous and vapour and we will lead ourselves ever darker into the abyss of nihilistic existence.

Lord have mercy upon us all.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Fleeing to No-Man’s Land

bf_logo_brownI have had the privilege of being welcomed into a community over the last year which has had an ongoing and deeply transformative impact on me and my vocation as an ordained priest. The community are mainly in their twenties and would, at a cursory glance, be classified as ‘arty’ intellectual types, although this is not entirely true; not that they are not either of those things but that which unites this group isn’t those two general categories. It is only in the last month or so that I have begun to grasp the ‘charism’, the ‘je ne sais qua’, of Burning Fences.

I have come to realise that this gathering on a Wednesday night is a place between. What I mean by that is, it is a space which exists in no-man’s land between many human cultures, traditions, institutions and philosophies. Many are ‘de-churched’, meaning they have opted out of the church system. This does not automatically mean they have no faith in Jesus, but they are definite in their questions of institutional religion. Others are ‘de-society-ed’, meaning they have opted out of social institutions including politics, economic models and/or cultural pressures.

Whilst some are exiting church due to lack of a tangible truth to the statements trotted off each week, others are dismissive of social powers for the same reason. Capitalism: failed. Democracy: broken. Hierarchy: oppressive. Education system: stifling. In our community these things, at best, do nothing for us, at worst are an abuse. Church has hurt many of us and society has not done much better. We are all ‘de-something’, ‘post-something else’ and ‘anti-the other’ but…

We find joy.

a3257979419_10Before I stumbled through the doors one cold December night, this community had been meeting, singing and telling stories for a year or more. They had produced a CD of songs which they had developed entitled ‘Of Anthem and Ashes’. The images that were resonating with them then and remain reverberating through our times together are phoenix like resurrections; songs sung in the rubble, new plants breaking through concrete. These images have always resonated with me and it’s why I know I am a ‘fence burner’.

What’s unique, in my experience, with Burning Fences is we are not just angry rebels without a cause. I felt, at first, our position was always, first and foremost, against but now I appreciate that our primary position is for; it’s for joy, hope, faith, creative and transformative actions of love. We are for justice. We are for freedom. We are for foolishness. We stand up for singing and fairytales and we stand proclaiming the truth that we find in them; a truth higher than the ones incarcerated in creedal dogmas and policies from committees.

What unites us is not the borders we’ve crossed to get to Burning Fences, its the central tenants which have drawn us closer. It is not that we are all ‘de-churched’ or ‘post-capitalism’ or ‘anti-establishment’ it’s that we are dreamers singing songs from ages past with the fresh melody of our eternal youth.

We struggle to define ourselves, not because we cannot tell you what we do or why we do it (although we may amble around some wording) it’s because we don’t believe in definitions. Definitions limit and control; they create an object that is to be studied and understood. We, I think, want to rather express. Expressions manifest and present; they allow the subject to be encountered, however fleetingly. Groups and communities always get to a point where they organize. It’s at this point where a small death occurs. That which was new, organic, growing, evolving becomes marked and measured. It’s a necessary part of all groups some would say, but, I wonder, is it as necessary as we think?

Organization contains mechanistic tendencies, structures which are intentionally built to ensure all parties are protected and held. Organization does an important job of mediating between subjectivity of members and individuals can devolve responsibilities to the processes and structures put in place. The alternative, I want to tentatively suggest, is the organism.

Organisms are natural and, in some respects, self-evolving and responsive to environment. Organisms exist in constant fragility and transient ways and yet can endure much. The church has traditionally been associated with organic images; a body, a family, a vine, a tree. Ferdinand Tönnies articulates a possible contrast between these two models which he describes as ‘organic communities’ and ‘associative societies’,

…one can distinguish between ideal types of organic and associative social structures. A person is born into an organic social structure, or grows into it; by contrast, a person freely joins an associative social structure. The former is a ‘living organism’ whose parts depend on the whole organism and are determined by it; the latter is ‘a mechanical aggregate and artifact’ composed of individual parts. The former is thus enduring, the latter transient. In short, organic social structures are communities of being, while associative social structures are alliances for a specific purpose. (Miroslav Volf, ‘After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity’ (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998) p. 179)

concrete2The times when Church is most frustrating, for me, is in the ‘necessary organization’. What  irks me is the lack of convincing Biblical precedent. The Temple system failed and yet here we are in the 21st century rebuilding it. I get it, organic is messy and uncontrollable, unpredictable but it’s how the world functions. We human beings are devastating when we control and tinker with the organic creation. We’ve tried to organize the world and what we discover is we’re trapped in boxes which do not fit nor encourage us to flourish in the ways in which we should.

Take growth as one example:

Organizations grow but only when there is intentional distribution of resources in that area. Resources are limited and so constant supervision and analysis is required in order to maintain a healthy growth and balance with the repercussions growth brings (increase need for supporting the numbers and the work.) Growth is a task which is done. The temptation is also to continue to grow; to grow beyond the organisation’s means. When is the right time to stop growing? There is no reason to stop.

Organisms grow naturally; plants, animals, people. We do not need constant monitoring and an understanding of how it works we just do it. Yes, in order to remain alive we need protection from certain things but that’s not changing growth that just ensure an environment within which to grow. The purpose and identity of organisms can change and adapt, it’s inherent within the classification. It will be what it will be. Growth is not an intentional task its a natural process. Once it has reached a maturity the growth will inevitably slow down and settle into an identity (which still has freedom to develop) but even mature organisms continue to grow cells and reproduce.

Death is indeed part of the natural cycle of things but, like organisms there’s a continuity of energy from one thing to another and there is reproduction to ensure species continues. With the Christian tradition and narrative death is not to be feared. Despite us all passing through death, at the end we will all rise and live in resurrection glory (but that’s for another time.)plant-growing-through-crack-in-concrete

Burning Fences is an organism. It is one that understands itself as an evolving entity but not vacuuous of identity. Growth is occurring in different ways without us spending resources and monitoring to ensure that it continues because growth is a by-product of being. We have flirted over the last few months with basic organization but I am increasingly convinced that what this ‘Fresh Expression’ is doing, along with many others, is challenging the organizational model of church and society and telling the story of the church as organic. We are not the concrete instituition holding Man together and discovering we’re suffocating him instead. We are the plant life that persists in growing between the rubble of those falling idols.

As an ordained priest I do not want to be a manager. I do not want to be a systems analyst. I want to be one part of a network, a rhizome, of organic life that is fertile, naturally beautiful and expressing newness in the face of decay. I want to welcome the tired, weary, breathless, thirsty people as they run from the crumbling world into no-man’s land and host the party of endurance beyond death and decay. To feed them with nourishing bread and breathe new life into them. I want to tell the story of the world through the lens of a Creator who redeems and endures; coming and leading a people into the wilderness to find miraculous bread falling from the sky.

Burn those fences. Break down the walls and flock to the well where the water never dries up and to a table where the bread falls from heaven.

Chapter 4: the instruments of good works


…If we always remember and use them, and give them up only on Judgement Day, the Lord shall reward us as he promised…

How do we live this?

How we could meditate and reflect on each of the 72 ‘instruments’ independently and bear much fruit from doing so. Many more experienced and suitable scholars and practitioners have divided this lists of thoughts up into manageable chunks and I commend them to you (search for them online). I, however, want to continue my more general reflections on reading the chapters of the Rule of St. Benedict and this week I will try and voice my overview of this chapter. I must remind you, the reader, and myself of my task in doing these reflections: I am wanting to discern how monasticism may factor into parish ministry and what that approach to the life of faith, lived out by monks/nuns, has to say to those outside traditional monastic communities.

With that in mind my first thought about this chapter is how overwhelming each short ‘command’ is. Few of them don’t leave a mark of some description on my conscience and all of them challenge the state of my inner life. To hold them all and to ‘always remember and use them’ is an added challenge and I could easily stop reading the Rule of St. Benedict until that is obeyed but I continue to feel as I pray through this reading that there is an understanding of grace that is rarely mentioned but is necessary if this life is to be lived.

We have explored before the basic premise that we begin the spiritual life, humbled by God, our ultimate Master and Judge. That we throw ourselves on His mercy and from there be thankful for the work He does in our lives. Through this lens, reading these 72 commandments is like the Sermon on the Mount in that you are forced to ask,

How can we be saved?

Surely all of these are impossible to sustain and achieve.

The reply to that feeling is it does indeed seem impossible to achieve all of this on our own, for your own benefit. This sense of futility is another invitation to enter into humility and stand in the strength of God’s mercy and grace alone. Let’s be honest we all need a daily dose of grounding in the true state of our humanness.

I was reminded this week of our tendency to err on the side of one of two extremes when it comes to self-analysis: either we see ourselves as complete failures, deserving of nothing but the destruction that comes from our own mistakes and characters, or we deserve all privileges and ‘blessings’ for we are wonderfully and fearfully made. Neither of these are quite correct on their own. We should be mindful of both our inherent ability to self-destruct and to hurt others in the process whilst holding onto the truth of the gospel; God is merciful and just and His steadfast love endures forever.

It may be my Roman Catholic upbringing but I have preference to speak of my sin, my dirty junk that I carry in my life. I seek out punishment for the blatant and harmful mistakes I make. I call others to balance the current popular notion that human beings are essentially good and we are the solutions to our own problems. Despite my counter-cultural proclamations against humanist philosophy I cling to grace.

Bono was quoted as saying,

You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—in physical laws—every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff…I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep s—. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity. (Bono, excerpt from, ‘Bono: in conversation with Michka Assayas’, Christianity Today, January 28th 2014, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/augustweb-only/bono-0805.html?paging=off)

If I am to read, and even begin to attempt to live out, all 72 instruments of good works then I’m going to have to know grace and to trust it.

For all of my readers who err on the side of seeing themselves as ‘junk’: judgement is not from you but God, the merciful Judge, and if you call on the name of Jesus, that Judge will look on Him instead of you. You will be judged with Christ.

For all my readers who err on the humanist side seeing themselves as their own solution and to continue to try and live the perfect life all by yourself: you will be judged in that way. If you live by karma you will be allowed to be judged by karma… I wish you well.

If a community is going to embrace the message of the gospel of Christ then each member should follow Christ’s example and obey His commands fully trusting and knowing that discipleship is done in the strength of grace and mercy and nothing else. Without a message of grace then all ‘good work’ is rendered moot.

The Seclusion of the Monastery

Aside from reflecting on the necessity of grace whilst living the life of faith and growing in the spiritual discipline of conquering our own thoughts; I was struck by the final sentence of the chapter,

But the workshop in which we must diligently perform all these things is the seclusion of the monastery and our stability in the community.

For those of us not based within a secluded monastery, living and breathing a monastic life, this final sentence leads us to feel even more stranded. It is true that in order to diligently perform all these things you need to give yourself time and space. Everday life does not lend itself to spiritual discipline. Why not? From my experience there’s no ‘let up’.

When we begin any new hobby or craft or practice, we need the space and time to allow the inevitable failures to happen. One does not pick up a violin and become Niccolo Paganini, it takes work and failures to develop sustainable skill and aptitude. In the busyness of everyday and in our culture so afraid of failure we are called to be in control of our development. There’s no forgiveness for not attaining maturity overnight; one is either mature or not, there seems to be no process encouraged.

A true community is like a loving family; each member is allowed to grow and develop over time. Forgiveness should offered continually and inter-generational leading is encouraged. Those that have been through the early stages of frustration and mistakes must encourage and support the novices. True community, based on the humility being encouraged through the Rule of St. Benedict and the grace at the heart of Christian faith, is a place where failures are not only expected but encouraged for,

Failure… leads to quite artistic things, because if you are not afraid of failure you can try, you can experiment, you can search for new ways, whereas when you are afraid of failure you wouldn’t do it, you would do it the way you did it yesterday… (Lev Dodin in conversation with Robin Thornber at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 23rd April 1994, Michael Stronin (tr.), cited in Maria Delgado and Paul Heritage (eds.), ‘In Contact With The Gods?: Directors Talk Theatre’ (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996) p74)

Where is such space in parish ministry? How do we encourage this approach to life together? My BA dissertation* explored this idea in great detail (now is not the time to outline my proposal. If you would like to know more contact me and let’s chat!)


As we grow into a deeper spiritual life we must hold onto one thing, grace, and seek out another, community. With these two things we can begin to live out the Kingdom of God to which we have all been called.

I suspect most of us shy away from a deep acceptance of grace and resist a deep experience of community. I wonder what a focus on these two concepts and experiences would do to a parish church? I wonder what transformation or revelations would occur if a parish church scrapped all other activity and committed to a life governed by these two principles?

Most Merciful Judge, thank You for Your grace. Thank You that I am judged not on the law of karma but the law of grace. lead me to experience community which holds me, as I am to grow into Your likeness and to only cease in that search on Judgement Day, when You will look on Christ and pardon me.

Come, Lord Jesus.

*The title was, ‘The Divine Collective: how modern ensemble theatre practice can help establish creative Christian communities.’