The New Monastics: not, as you might have imagined, a pop movement from the 1970s and 80s, but something which is happening in 2017 in the Church of England. Earlier today I noticed a post on Twitter announcing that the Diocese of Leicester were looking for a Prior of a ‘New Monastic Community’. This follows on the heels of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Community of St Anselm, which I believe has been going a year or two. It seems there is a general feeling in the CofE (and the wider church) that monasticism is a good thing and is what is needed in the church right now.
I find it somewhat ironic that this is all happening around the 500th anniversary of the reformation: Martin Luther had himself been a monk before becoming unhappy with issues in the church and posting his 95 theses. Luther was critical of the monastic lifestyle, as were his fellow reformers such as John Calvin.
I think it would be worth revisiting some of these arguments: it seems to be becoming a bigger issue in the church than it was in recent years, and it’s good to think these things through rather than simply assuming the status quo is correct.
Monastic communities are comprised of people who have in some way withdrawn from the world in order to focus on God and spiritual things – for example prayer, worship, Scripture, etc. Many monastic communities down through the ages have been ascetics, in that they have put aside earthly things (possessions and physical pleasures) in order to focus on spiritual things. It’s somewhat difficult to talk about ‘monasticism’ as a whole because there have been different expressions of it down through the years with different rules.
I have a number of issues with monasticism and I find it troubling that the CofE in particular seems to be going down this road on this anniversary of the reformation.
1. The ‘higher life’
One of the main presuppositions with monasticicm is that it is a higher or more spiritual kind of life than the kind regular people have. Taking oneself away from the concerns of the world so that one might focus on the Lord. In some ways I think this sounds eminently sensible and laudable, but for that exact reason I think it needs to be challenged.
In our home group, we’ve just started looking at Genesis 1-12. We’ve been discussing what it means for God to be our Creator – to have made a creation which is ‘very good’. Throughout history many people have tried to make out that the body / the world are bad things in some way – that we need to get past that to the real spiritual business. This is a kind of dualism – body = bad, spiritual = good, and it has no place in Christian theology.
One of the implications of God creating a good world is that we have to affirm the goodness of creation – fallen, yes, but good. This means that there is nothing more godly or spiritual about putting the bins out, changing a nappy or working at a desk than reading the Bible or praying. Mankind was created to be in relationship with God all the time. Paul said these words in Colossians 3, addressed to slaves but could equally apply to any employees now:
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Colossians 1:23-24
“It is the Lord Christ you are serving” – those are amazing words, aren’t they? Think about the work that you do – ultimately it is not your boss, but Christ who you are serving. Similarly – God has given us things to do in life: families, jobs, friends. God is sovereign over all things and we serve Him by being godly families, workers, and friends.
Monasticism has a certain appeal – getting away from normal life to be more spiritual. But I think it is dangerous precisely for that reason: it tempts us to get away from the bits of life where God does call us to be spiritual. God asks us to be spiritual in our normal lives, all of it – there isn’t a time when we’re not called to be spiritual! Day by day, hour by hour. As Paul says in Ephesians 6:18, “pray in the Spirit on all occasions”, and in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “pray continually.” Our whole lives are to be lived as an offering of thanks and praise to God, not just the spiritual bits.
2. Spiritual Growth
Closely linked with #1 I think is the idea that real spiritual growth happens when you get away from normal life and come instead to the spiritual life (even if temporarily). I also think this is one of those ideas which has a certain appeal but must be treated carefully.
The Bible never envisions spiritual growth happening (1) in isolation from normal life; (2) in isolation from the church community. One of the points of the Community of St Anselm’s Rule of Life is sanctification – the process by which the Holy Spirit works in us to make us more holy. I think the idea is that to take a year out to pray and devote oneself to the Lord in a particular way will help with sanctification. I’m not convinced by this.
One of the epiphanies I’ve had over the past few years about marriage is that marriage is designed to teach us to become more holy. If you’re married you are confronted by your flaws almost every day – especially when children are involved. You can’t live a selfish life and have a good marriage. The thing is, this is what you might call ‘active’ sanctification – you don’t have a good marriage by taking a year out from your spouse in order to devote yourself to prayer. You have a good marriage by asking for the Lord’s help day by day to help you overcome your innate selfishness – depending on him as his power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Sanctification happens in normal life. Walking in step with the Spirit, being transformed by the renewal of our minds – these are things which happen as we walk with the Lord in our normal, every day lives. Michael Horton wrote a book called Ordinary a couple of years ago which I found really helpful on this and is well worth reading.
The New Testament never envisages a Christian outside the church. Such a thing does not exist – believers are simply part of the church, and the responsibilities that entails. Being part of a church congregation is not an optional extra for Christians – something I try to impress upon families who come to us who want their children baptised! Christians have a responsibility to meet with their fellow believers and not to give up (Hebrews 10:24-25). If you read through the letters in the New Testament, you will see that the phrase ‘one another’ comes up again and again. Christians have a responsibility to one another – to encourage, teach, look after, befriend, and so on.
And the church is (also) the place where spiritual growth happens: as we hear teaching about Christ, hear the Word of God, pray, speak the gospel to one another, we become mature. A few weeks ago I was listening to a talk by Glen Scrivener on evangelism through the local church. One of the things he said really struck me – evangelists can often be very hard on the church with people saying things like “The church is going to miss the next big move of God in the world.” His reply? “The church is the move of God in the world.” The church may not be perfect, but it expresses the wisdom of God (Ephesians 3:10).
How does this relate to monastic communities – surely, the point is, they are communities? Sure. But what worries me is that they are new communities – taking people out of existing churches and forming a new community, new church, of likeminded people. I’m not sure this is how the church is supposed to be: the church is supposed to be comprised of all believers, not just a small subset of them.
When I was at theological college, I really valued my time there and all the conversations we had which you wouldn’t have in ‘normal’ church! But, at the same time, we were required to be members of a church outside the college – the college community was a bubble, and we were very aware of that. The college community had many strengths, but it was important to be part of church in its fullness.
I appreciate this is not an issue confined to monastic communities – there are some churches which would suffer from the same kind of problems – but I’m not sure of the wisdom in intentionally creating such a community.
Every Christian has a duty to play a part in the great commission – to make disciples of all nations. I’m not sure that a community which is taken out of the world is going to do a good job at fulfilling that. The community of St Anselm talks about serving others – this is a good thing. But the message of Jesus requires us to do more than serve others in practical ways – we are to proclaim the good news of the gospel, to call people to repentance and faith. Are we to leave the world (1 Corinthians 5:10)? Or are we to call people to follow Jesus wherever we are?
I don’t believe, given these reasons, that monastic communities are a good thing. I think it would be very hard to justify a monastic community from the Bible – the standard picture really is church more or less as we know it today.
I want to proclaim to people in Great Clacton – and wherever else I am a pastor – you can serve God where you are now. You can grow as a Christian where you are now. There is nothing less spiritual about an ‘ordinary’ life – in fact, that is precisely where God has put us in order to serve Him.
“And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Colossians 3:17