Parish Monasticism

For some years now, I have been increasingly convinced that God is calling us to ways of being parish church which will take us into a much deeper form of community. Over the past year, I have discovered that many other clergy (and some laity) are thinking along similar lines and that a movement appears to be beginning around what we have come, tentatively, to call “Parish Monasticism”.

In this, my first post on the subject, I am beginning a journey of exploring how parish monasticism might work out practically in a Church of England parish context. I will be using this and future posts to help organise my thoughts on the subject, so what I say is tentative and feedback is welcome.

For other thinking on the subject, you might like to read Ned Lunn’s detailed exploration through the lens of St Benedict’s Rule. Holy Trinity Salcombe’s mon2sat and Walk the Extra Mile websites are also very relevant. If you wish to find other people interested in Parish Monasticism, you’d be very welcome to join the facebook group.

My exploration begins with a consideration of what “Parish Monasticism” means. I have come to this idea through reading about the “Fresh Expressions” and “New Monasticism” movements, in which a recurring theme is intentional community in which Christians share their lives deeply and grow and work together. Another feature of these movements is that they have largely happened outside of parish churches – as though this more extreme approach to Christian discipleship is some niche interest which is only for the crack troops. However, the more I read of these movements, the more I notice both that they are lacking some of the strengths of parish church and that parish church is lacking some of their strengths. Why could we not combine the two?

Another motivation for me is the description of the early church in Acts 2:42-47 (see also Acts 4:31-37). I recall, long ago, asking why my own church was not like the church described here. At the time, someone gave me a dispensationalist answer, explaining that this form of church was specific to the first days of Christianity and was no longer relevant or what God wanted for us today. Over years of Bible reading, however, this answer has rung increasingly hollow, not least because the very first question asked of newly baptised or confirmed Anglicans is “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”, which is a direct quote of Acts 2:42.

And then there’s my own experience of living in an intentional Christian community whilst training for ordination at Cranmer Hall. As an ordinand at Cranmer, we were all required to commit to eating together several times a week and to worshipping together daily, in addition to working together and living together. Much of the work of forming character of future clergy emerged through being part of this covenant community. It wasn’t always easy – after all we were a diverse group who were thrown together with nothing necessarily more in common than our relationship with Jesus – and this was a key part of the value of the community. Only when I am forced to love someone different to myself do I begin to understand my own world-view and motivations and to begin to ask questions about how these fit into God’s world-view. And, as a bonus, I was amongst kind and loving people, some of whom have become friends for life.

As I began to understand what was happening to me through being in community at Cranmer, I began to think that this, surely, is a must for the development of character and discipleship for all God’s people.

And then there is the guy at the church door after the service on Sunday begging for money and no one knows what to do with him and everyone is relieved when he finally gets to speak to the vicar who does whatever mysterious things vicars do on these sorts of occasions which makes the whole problem go away. The trouble is, of course, that someone in trouble really ought to be able to turn to the church for help. But the only time the church is ever a recognisable body is on Sunday morning when the church is, quite rightly, busy worshipping God. And as soon as the service ends, the church suddenly fractures into a bunch of individuals who soon go their own ways and there is no church for the rest of the week until next Sunday when the church suddenly rematerialises as the president says “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”, by which time it is, again, too late to disturb the church at worship.

What if the church existed 24/7? One body which was sometimes gathered and sometimes dispersed, but always in existence. What if the church shared some resources, like a guest house, where homeless people could be fed and possibly given a bed? Or, even, just plonked down in a living room and allowed to share the life of the church? Could such a church be more help to the guy at the door? Come to that, what about the alcoholic the vicar would love to help, but who lives in a run-down council flat with a door that doesn’t lock and to which her “mates” are always popping in with a six-pack of cider? Who has no hope because she can never kick her addiction until she is surrounded by a community which will love her and pray with her and share with her and never put the temptation of another tin of cider in her way.

A church like that would be worth being a part of. A church which can share the burden of caring for those in need because it exists as a definable body even when it isn’t gathered in worship.

Towards a definition of Parish Monasticism

So what, then, is Parish Monasticism? I think Parish Monasticism describes a church which is at least all of the following, and probably more besides:

  • A church which exists not just on Sunday, but on Monday to Saturday as well.
  • A church where relationships go deep enough to reveal the cracks that exist between us.
  • A church which holds us together in love despite these cracks.
  • A church with a strong, well-defined core and a weak, ill-defined outer edge. Hospitality practised inwards and outwards.
  • A covenant people who are accountable to one another.
  • A church which breaks bread together.
  • A church which worships and prays together regularly.
  • A church which works together.
  • A church which grows together in character and discipleship.

All of this has happened before

Reading this list, it is clear to me that a church would have to be very impoverished indeed – and deeply dysfunctional – to have no parish monastic character. And many church practices already place us on the road towards parish monasticism. Home groups, for example, are definitely parish monastic in character. Praying the offices together daily (whether gathered in one place or dispersed) is parish monastic in character. Sharing food together is parish monastic in character. Learning to love and forgive and be changed by an encounter with another church member is parish monastic in character. We’ve been doing all these things for many years.

However these things are but beginnings. A mark of parish monasticism is that these things will be practised as an intentional way of being community and that members of the church will commit to doing them. In short, these are done as part of a covenant.

This idea is also not new. Graham Pulkingham and Redeemer Church in Houston, Texas, were doing this in the 1970s (read “Gathered for Power”). A friend told me just this week that St Hugh’s in Luton did the same in the days of Colin Urquhart. (Although, in both these cases, there are lessons to be learned. More of that in future posts).

The idea is not new. But suddenly many of us are interested in it. We now need to ask where to start, what the pitfalls might be (and there are some serious ones) and what we can learn from the past and from other forms of intentional Christian community. At the same time, though, I do not think there will be any one-size-fits-all solution – we need, each in our own context, to be listening to the Holy Spirit and following his promptings.

3 thoughts on “Parish Monasticism

  1. Tom, good to read. I’ve been doing a lot of reading around Benedictine practice for a couple of years now. I have the Rule itself and several books by lay authors as well as some by Christopher Jamison. I am very interested in exploring how to apply such principles in daily life and would welcome the support a community approach would bring to this. I find the contemplative approach to be very energising.

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