New Monasticism Conference Reflections

Last weekend, I attended a new monasticism conference in London. My interest in new monasticism primarily concerns how parish church might be influenced and, in some way, become “new monastic” in character. These are my reflections, then, from a parish church perspective.

First, though, outcomes from the conference can be found here, including a very good reflection by Ned Lunn on what “new monasticism” means. As everyone generally agrees that the name “new monasticism” doesn’t really do what it says on the tin, Ned’s paper is very helpful and, in what follows, I’ll take it as read.

Trinity

I was struck, in the sessions I attended, by the observation that new monasticism is deeply grounded in the community of the Holy Trinity. I was reminded strongly of the book Being As Communion by the orthodox theologian John Zizioulas, which seeks to ground all church life in this community. In Zizioulas’s view, church should be a community sharing in the deep communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Zizioulas also speaks of our identity as being in relationships – indeed, not just our identity, but our very ontology. Our ground of being, argues Zizioulas, is in our relatedness as beings. Just as the Father is, ontologically, the one who sends the Son and from whom the Spirit proceeds and the Son is the one who is sent by the Father and the Spirit the one who proceeds from the Father, so it is with us when we become part of this communion. All other forms of identity are ephemeral.

For church, this view has significant implications. If our web of relationships is merely superficial (as it is in so many churches), then our very being becomes a fragile phantasm, a “morning mist that soon disappears”. We all need deep relationships with the Trinity and with each other, it is desperately important that deep community not be contained just within the religious orders. For the sake of our churches and, even more, for the sake of the people in the world about, this web of deep relationship, ground of being, sharing in communion, must exist all over the world and be accessible to all.

History

On the Saturday, we spent a lot of time exploring the history of the religious life so that we might come to understand how history informs the word “monasticism” in the “new monasticism” movement. As part of Ian Mobsby and Mark Berry’s presentation on this subject, we considered how Christianity has always had two branches, the centre and the margins, which have rarely existed comfortably beside one another:

Centre Margins
Bishops,
Diocese,
Parish Priests,
local Community
Abbots,
Friars,
Monastics,
Nuns,
intentional Communities

However, I think it goes much further than this. In truth, the church only divided into these branches with the advent of Christendom after Constantine became a Christian, taking the Roman Empire with him. Much of the literature on new monasticism and so-called “fresh expressions” starts with the observation that Christendom has, finally, had its day and that the church’s position at the centre is rapidly diminishing. Increasingly, Christianity exists on the margins – which is exactly where the early church existed. And so it is the branch which has always been on the margins which best informs the way forwards for the church; or, indeed, backwards to where we first began.

My week before the conference was spent on a clergy training residential where we wrestled with similar issues and a resounding theme was that the church needs to become less of an institution and more of a movement again. (Not to denigrate institution in itself, but rather to observe that institution should exist to serve the church’s primary identity as movement.)

Perhaps what most moves me about all of this is how much it is the institution which is encouraging the change. Many of the delegates at the new monasticism conference were, like myself, clergy – I’d guess about half of us. We were addressed on the Sunday by +Jonathan Clark, who encouraged us deeply. We know we have the encouragement of +Justin Welby, whose Community of St Anselm were represented at the conference. And, in my own diocese, it is the authorities at the very centre of the diocese, including +Paul Butler, who are asking us to move away from institution and towards movement.

Has there ever been a time in history when the left-hand column above has been so enthused by the right-hand column? The usual lesson from history is that the two sides exist in opposition. From the Desert Fathers to the Oxford Movement, the institution has never been comfortable with these new things springing up. Might it be said that we live in truly momentous times?

Why do we need it?

Part of the ongoing discomfort with the name “new monasticism” is the sneaking worry that we might succumb to the temptation become Benedict’s “sarabaites”, people who call themselves “monks” whilst, in truth, being far more accommodated to the world than to God. Or, worse, Benedict’s “gyrovagues”, flibbertigibbets always looking for a new thing. In short, are we cherry-picking the bits we like from the religious life whilst leaving the hard bits? “What is wrong with ‘old’1Perhaps not a positive word and one we’re reluctant to use of the Benedictines, Franciscans, Cistercians, Augustinians, Jesuits, and so many others, to whom we look with great respect. But ‘old’ is rather implied when we use the word ‘new’. monasticism?” is our constant challenge. Why can’t we, for example, join the Franciscan Third Order? Why do we need something new? And this, indeed, was a question I encountered last weekend.

Reflecting on this from the parish perspective, it seems to me there are at least two things we can say in response. First, my growing conviction is that some kind of religious life and intentional community is for all Christians. The most natural locus of such communities is locality, i.e. the parish, as is the calling: to the local neighbourhood. This must surely be part of the “charism” of any parish church expression of new monasticism. And I’m left asking whether this charism matches that of distributed orders such as the Franciscan Third Order. I am too ignorant to have a good answer to this question – however I have not encountered anywhere a clear call from any established order to a community of all believers in each particular place. Perhaps, then, the charism is different and, therefore, “new” monasticism does have some place.

Another difference in charism which springs to mind concerns longevity. I don’t see how any parish-based new monasticism could have any equivalent of the “life vows” of the long-established religious orders. But, just because a life commitment is not for all people, I do not see that some shorter term (say, a year at a time) might not still be very helpful to shared discipleship and very good for the world around. I think, for example, of St Paul whose commitment to proclaiming God’s kingdom in each place was always bounded in time, but nonetheless world-changing.

Second, I think, there’s the simple pragmatic answer: we have to start somewhere. When I was a young Christian, the religious life of any kind was simply not on the map. If it had been, my life may well have proceeded very differently. It is a deep hope of mine that the taste of the religious life in some form of parish-based intentional community will inspire far more people to consider joining life-vowed orders. May we become a “gateway drug”, as it were! I see this happening already – right now I’d find it hard to explain to a young person why they might want to join the Community of St Anselm at Lambeth Palace, but given the taste of it, I could easily see a youngster wishing to commit a year to this. And then, having lived in community alongside Chemin Neuf for a year, it will be an easy step for some into something more permanent.

But this is not just for youngsters. For all of us, a step closer to the richness of the religious life must have value. Perhaps it is arrogant to call it “monasticism” when it is really just one step towards monasticism. But let’s take the step regardless.

Experiments

A major benefit of conferences is the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with others. Quite a few people were interested in what we’re experimenting with a Greenside, which is a whole-church new monastic community. Many wanted to know what such a thing might look like. It seems to me that the key to this is to have a church rule of life. This is what we’ve been exploring as a parish church through targeted sermons on a number of potential rules such as “we commit to eating together as a community” or “we practice whole-life discipleship”.

The next question, though is how we have a rule of life that is not so minimalistic as to be meaningless but which also does not put up a barrier to entry for those on the fringes. This, too, is something we’ve been exploring. My hope is that we can become a church with a very solid, committed core but which also has extremely fuzzy edges. (I suppose this might be a bit like the composition of the sun, which is mind-bogglingly dense at its centre but is almost a vacuum at its surface.)

The mechanism we hope to use for this is to make each item in the rule of life optional. It is 100% invitation and 0% obligation. The plan is to borrow from the Methodists and have an annual covenant service (probably borrowing the covenant prayer too) at which we’ll all have a card containing all the items in our rule of life formatted as a checklist. Each person will check the boxes they feel are right to commit to for the next year. Hopefully each year we will allow God to challenge us about checking boxes we haven’t previously checked. Perhaps, too, it will be right in some years not to check boxes we previously checked.

One of the boxes will, hopefully, be a box anyone at all can check. Something like “we commit to exploring and growing”. This is the key because anyone who checks any box at all is part of our covenant community which is journeying together in discipleship. There is no rank, no in or out, all are equal, all are part of the great Christian movement.

This approach, hopefully, will also help us deal with questions of longevity. We will be explicitly a non-life-vowed community. We recognise that God may call any of us on to another place. We explicitly avoid developing commitments that will lead to a messy divorce. But for the time we are together, we commit to journeying with each other. And, hopefully, also to discerning together what God is calling us to in the future. I would hope there would no longer be the case that someone departs and it is a surprise to the community as a whole, but rather a joyous opportunity to send one of our number out to follow God’s call.

The other question I was asked last week, and it has been very helpful to reflect on this, is how we will hold each other accountable to our commitments. As I think about this, it seems to me that we cannot make our covenant cards a purely private matter. Others in the community must know what we have committed to and be there to ask how we are getting on with that. How we do this needs more thought – of all that we’ve considered so far, I suspect this is where we will encounter the most resistance as it is extremely counter-cultural.

A further thought about accountability is that we might hold something like a six-month and eleven-month review, perhaps make it part of our liturgy – the confession seems like a good place for it. The second of these reviews will then form the platform from which each of us will begin to speak with God about which boxes to check for the upcoming year.

Anyway, this is our plan so far. We will see how it goes.

Prison

The last thing that has played on my mind in response to the conference is something I have not heard anyone else mention. It is a particular interest of mine, though, because I have a side-ministry as a prison chaplain. I find myself pondering how a new monastic community of prisoners might work. Prisoners have some significant advantages in this regard: they already live in cells where they spend large amounts of their time cloistered away. They already live in a close community with each other, seeing each other every day. Those who worship as Christians already do it mostly together – there’s far less scope for picking and choosing your church as a prisoner.

Prisoners also have some significant disadvantages. They have very little control over when they will move on from the prison. They live in an often chaotic and confused environment where passions run high and most of their neighbours are not known for gentleness and wisdom. They have plenty in their own lives which needs a great deal of work of the Holy Spirit to unravel and heal.

But here and there in any prison, there are those whose lives are clearly being transformed by God. It is these people about whom I think and I wonder whether they could be formed into an intentional community with some kind of rule of life. I think of a recent conversation with one such man, who has, it seems to me, a prison ministry far far better than any I will ever have because he is on the ground 24/7 and shares the lives of those to whom he ministers in a way I never can. What if this man’s life were fuelled by the kind of communion found in, say, the Jesuit order? What, then, would not be possible?

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1. Perhaps not a positive word and one we’re reluctant to use of the Benedictines, Franciscans, Cistercians, Augustinians, Jesuits, and so many others, to whom we look with great respect. But ‘old’ is rather implied when we use the word ‘new’.

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