Tag Archives: truth

Di-Vesting Authority

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Christian, however,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zizoulas goes on to suggest that

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

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

Jürgen Motlmannʼs ecclesiology offers us a helpful addition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Chapter 73: all perfection is not herein attained


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

Isn’t this just about being a Christian?

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

Isn’t this just about being a Christian?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 72: the good zeal monks should possess


Monks should practice this zeal with ardent love…

What has happened to the UK?

We live in interesting times!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are passionate about their beliefs.

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

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

When you sow in division, you reap in division.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 71: the brothers ought to obey one another


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Esther de Waal suggests,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come, Lord Jesus.

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


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

How should we teach?

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

Well, thank you very much!

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

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

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

He smiled and replied,

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

It was one of the best lessons I learnt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Come, Lord Jesus.

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


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

Can we change?



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

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

My heart knows what is good for me.

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

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

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

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

You are who you are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Come, Lord Jesus

Chapter 65: provost of the monastery


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

Is it democracy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Lord, have mercy upon us.

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

Come, Lord Jesus

Chapter 58: the admission of new brothers


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

What does it mean to be a ‘Christian’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes. You were christened.

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

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

No, it will not do, for me!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 55: clothing and shoes


Suitable clothing shall be given the monks…

Are you seriously going to wear that?

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

preaching scarf

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

When do I wear what?

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

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

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

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

Weddings are up for grabs at the moment!


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

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

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

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

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 48: daily manual labour


…the brothers should be occupied according to schedule in either manual labour or holy reading.

What is work?

Why is it that after time off from ‘work’, feeling refreshed and think clearer, you begin work and almost immediately feel exhausted? The phrase ‘back to the grindstone’ is so apt at these times. I am just starting back at work after a week of relaxation and rest and for some reason find myself asking,

Why can’t I find the peace of rest during my working week?

It is not sustainable nor logical, I think we can all agree, to work until you’re exhausted and empty and then recoup the lost energy only to spend it all until the next break. The constant emptying and filling puts our nerves on edge as we live at extremes. In this narrative work becomes draining and rest becomes fulfilling. We immediately start to talk about work/life balance as if work and life are separate. We see work as a means to afford to live; life happens after work.

E.F. Schumacher, in his wonderful book ‘Small is Beautiful’, describes the West’s fundamental understanding of work.

There is a universal agreement that a fundamental source of wealth is human labour. Now, the modern economist has been brought up to consider ‘labour’ or work as little more than necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a ‘disutility’; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment. (E.F.Schumacher, ‘Small is beautiful:a study of economics as if people mattered’ (London: Abacus, 1988) p.44-45)

I remember when I first read this section of Schumacher’s book and having an intellectual light switched on. I looked at the economic problems facing the UK at the time (and which have not gone away but got worse!) and it made sense: The government, both then and more so now, in trying to balance the books, needs more money coming in than going out and so they want to increase exports whilst cutting costs. What is the greatest cost? Wages. That is why, when money is tight people get laid off or made redundant. People are just a cost, a necessary burden. If we could work without having to pay them then we’d make more money or if we can get one person to do three people’s job then we’d make a massive saving.

Why do we need more money? So we can pay to not work?

Work is seen by the workman, i.e. those who work, as task to be done in order to be able to pay for leisure. The shared vision of work/labour is to earn money to be spent on leisure pursuits outside of work. In the current economic climate, however, people are fearful for their jobs and so, to avoid redundancy and still be able to pay top price for mortgages, cars, leisure activities which are going to make you feel that slaving away was worth it, you work harder and longer hours to show your bosses that you are willing to sacrifice more than others and therefore you have no time for leisure. Work is sacrifice! Those who sacrifice more, appease the economic ‘gods’ and so are safe for another season but the ‘gods’ are never appeased… I digress!

Schumacher goes on to suggest,

If the ideal with regard to work is to get rid of it, every method that ‘reduces the work load’ is a good thing. The most potent method, short of automation, is the so-called ‘division of labour’ and the classical example is the pin factory eulogised in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Here it is not a matter of ordinary specialisation, which mankind has practised from time immemorial, but of dividing up every complete process of production into minute parts, so that the final product can be produced at great speed without anyone having had to contribute more than a totally insignificant and, in most cases, unskilled movement of his limbs. (Schumacher, ‘Small is Beautiful’, p.45)

Here is where I have a major problem with the current governments approach to the welfare problem: it is based on this notion that we can continue to see work in the way outlined above and yet force people also to do it more and for less money. People who don’t work cost the government money and don’t pay any money into the bank. To create money and balance the books we must cut the number of people we give money away to and encourage them to give more to us. If they worked, then they’d earn money and pay tax, they’d also not need money from us to live off. Why don’t they work? Why would they work if they get the money anyway? The mantra, therefore, ‘making it pay to work’, is employed.

This is nonsense, however, when jobs are being cut and the jobs being created are so unskilled that no takes pride in what they do. People aren’t at work because they’ve been made redundant or they’ve not been trained with a skill that is valued. We cut the pay of teachers and they feel unvalued and so struggle to commit to their vocation of training our children to achieve. We cut the pay of nurses and they feel unvalued and so can feel unenthusiastic to work beyond the bare minimum (thankfully many fight this urge!)

I sit each week volunteering at a Food Bank and I hear the same stories again and again. People who are trained in one trade/skill, who have worked for years find themselves laid off because money was tight or they’re pay has been cut or is static against the raising prices and are unable to pay the essentials to live. Cheaper labour can be found and so we become wary of foreigners coming in and being willing to work for less because they’re just happy to work but we don’t want to work because work is about earning enough to enjoy life outside of work.

The other thing wrong with the mantra ‘making it pay to work’ is that it still sits within the understanding that to get someone to work the incentive is money. Money is the system of value, in other words, we judge our value in the world by how much we get paid; this is why the celebrity culture is so big, we look at them and how much money they have and we subconsciously or consciously judge them to be valued more in society. Our teenagers all want the jobs that pay more money and be famous because they are desperate to feel valued by others. When they are completely starved of that sense of value they ‘settle’ for ‘menial’ jobs and accept that they are not valued by society so why bother contributing to it. In fact, why bother even working? They say to themselves,

I will never amount to anything of value (being paid money) so I can take that value (money) without working.

I think there needs to be a change in language around work. The culture needs to change to see work as something you do to connect with other people and to develop as a human being. The major difficulty with this is that a new vision of work requires the death of the major shackle we have to the capitalist materialist view of labour: consumption.

I was not accurate when I said that we find value in how much money we have; to be more precise we find value in how much we consume and in order to consume we must pay. Advertising is driven by the need to increase consumption so that people give more money so that others can consume more so that others can consume more, etc. This is another area of our society where we are lost and broken. Is there any hope?


This is the message of grace: Forget the system of sacrifice and trust in God who provides. God grows the plants in the field and has created food to sustain us. He gives us what we need for free in order that we might enjoy the world and life with him. In this world of grace work is another opportunity to be with God. We are called to be co-labourers with God in his world; from the very beginning we are to work alongside God not because He couldn’t do it on his own but because work is more about relationship and process than the end product. We feel fulfilled when we enjoy good relationships with others. Work within the understanding of grace is to be celebrated and enjoyed as a complimentary part of life with God and others. It is to fit equally beside prayer/worship, rest and play.


Reading and study

There’s so much to say about work that I’ve neglected to even talk about what most of this chapter in the Rule of St. Benedict spoke on; reading!

Here study and reading is as much part of the day as prayer, work and eating. As an avid reader my heart jumps for joy to know that reading/study is marked into the day as a task that is expected to be done, so much so that someone will come round and make sure I’m doing it! The pressure I feel when I’m not ‘working’, fulfilling the expectation of those who pay me money, should equally be felt if I fail to read a book and study.

I often feel guilty when I sit down and read or study. I even feel guilty writing this blog because it is technically not part of any job description I have, but then my job description doesn’t really exist because, again that is not part of the world of grace…

Why do I feel so much pressure to be seen to be doing something? It’s because I want to know that I am valued. Our society values someone by what they do and contribute and so I must do or contribute something. This is not grace…

I feel I am indebted to others whose money goes to ‘pay my bills’ and to I am then shackled to them as a slave. What will reading and study do for them. I feel that if they pay me then I should perform my duties to them. This is not grace…

Some might say,

Other people can’t afford to not work and to spend their days reading and studying. What gives you the right to be given money by others to sit about and be lazy?

I’d challenge that. There is always time for reading and studying if you prioritise it. There is also an assumption that reading and studying has no value because not many people would pay you money to read and study. If we need to earn the right to stop generating income and ‘waste time’ participating in a task which cannot be valued then we are slaves to a world outside of grace…


I feel guilty about my life as full-time minister. I feel the judgement of others as they look at me, in my free house, with my stipend,

Am I worth it?


What differentiates me from those who don’t get this?

The problem begins when we talk of what I do as ‘work’ in the sense of what it is widely understood to be. I don’t do what I do in order to pay for leisure; I do what I do because I feel God is growing me in the tasks of this ministry. My ministry is my life not a means to a life. Every disciple should be able to say that. My worth, in the world of grace, comes not from what I do or achieve or ‘earn’ but by the unending love of God. I work not to earn value or worth but as a vehicle to experience value and worth. I work because I am blessed because it is part of the gift of life.

Take my wife as an example. She doesn’t get paid by a pay check for anything she does. In the eyes of the current society is is a sponging, work-shy slacker. She costs money to stay alive, with her food, heating, shelter and (in my wife’s case) medicine (lots of it!) What does she contribute to society? A lot. Does she generate income? No. Nothing she does adds money into the bank. She is of little value to society in this sense.


She does contribute to society. She spends her days caring for others, encouraging others, giving people value outside of the purely materialistic understanding of existence. She is able to do that because she herself has received that same love and value from God as a gift in His pure grace. Without people like Sarah, the world would be a poorer place. She is my partner in ministry; it’s my name on the pay-check but it’s our money. If Sarah didn’t do what she does in the way she does it I wouldn’t be able to be the person God wants me to be in the place where he wants me.

I contemplate my life without Sarah a lot and I’m genuinely scared. How will I function without her beside me? I know, however, that what my life with her has taught me that life is a gift of grace from God that is meant to be shared with others. We must begin any understanding or study of life with the understanding of ‘grace’. God provides out of love for us and we’re called to participate in its delivery in order to draw close to him. The money I receive is not a deserved outcome of a sacrifice I have made, it is a gift to ensure I am able to live the life God has called me to. The gift comes first, the rest is a response.

Sarah lives by grace. I want to too.

The Christian community should be a place where all resources are shared, not out of duty but out of love. This means to have an attitude to all things as gift and to and to eradicate discussions of earning, sacrificing, etc. In this community reading and studying is another activity that is done; it has no less value than the creation of goods which can be sold to purchase other goods. In this community prayer is not a luxury which must be done after you have earned enough money to stop working.

I am fortunate to live the life I lead but it is a life that I invite others to live too, not because I don’t work but because work is another way I get to be with God. I am free to choose to follow God in everything I do. I share all I have with anyone who needs it. My house has been used to house others so they don’t feel the need to sacrifice life to just survive.
I share my table to help people who have none. The money that comes into my bank account each month is a generous gift from others which I pass on to others, through charity, relational gifts and blessing.

If you live in York and would be interested in living a life of grace why not get in touch and join Sarah and I in trying to work out what that looks like for us. We want to structure our lives around ‘prayer, study, dialogue and worship’ (Alan Roxburgh, Missionary Congregation, Leadership and Liminality (Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1997) p.66).

Prayer is a life shaped around times in the presence of God establishing identity in his grace. By study I mean exploring and seeking out the truth of God where it may be found. By dialogue I mean real and deep, committed relationship with others that leads to wholeness, healing and reconciliation and by worship I mean activities which honour God, using our body and skills to communicate our love and acceptance of his grace.

Gracious Father, Thank you. Thank you for all your gifts to us. Thank you for your acceptance of us and desire to see us grow in maturity of faith. Thank you that everything in heaven and on earth is yours and of your own do we give you.

Come, Lord Jesus