Tuesday, March 04, 2008

New Monasticism - fad or future?

The Church in the UK still makes the headlines occasionally. Take "GAY BISHOP RESIGNATION CATATROPHE" for instance. Then there's "CHURCH COULD SPLIT OVER WOMEN BISHOPS". Or (steady yourself) "ANGER AS VILLAGE CHURCH BELLS SILENCED". The uncomfortable truth is that most average Brits see the Church as at best quaint or - more likely - completely laughable. There is not much to resemble the Church in the book of Acts which "enjoyed the favour of all the people" or whom "no-one dared join". Today's UK Church is rarely loved and hardly ever held in awe.

It is partly in response to this withered Church that many Christian leaders are now looking back to a more muscular past to find inspiration. In the face of compromise in their day, heroes like Antony in Africa, Benedict in Europe and Aidan in Britain pursued a way of holiness and sacrifice. Theirs was the way of monasticism, a disciplined and rugged life centred on vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. These monks took the words of Jesus about "forsaking all", "renouncing marriage" and "laying down your life" at face value. As one writer put it, they "swam for their life" against the disastrous tide of worldly culture. The result was a Christianity with the integrity and the tenacity to change the face of their times.

There's a groundswell of interest in monasticism in evangelical circles in the UK. Many are looking into ancient monasticism as a blueprint of effective Christianity. There is a lot of interest in those who first brought the gospel to Britain: Celtic monks, such as Aidan. The Northumbria Community in Chatton, Northumberland, promotes a Celtic-style "new monasticism" which involves "a single-hearted seeking of God". The youth prayer movement "24/7 Prayer", with its "Boiler Rooms", is now using the monastic language of "vows" and "abbots". Even John Stott, the elder statesman of British evangelicalism, has remarked that if he were young and beginning his Christian life again, he would establish a kind of evangelical monastic order for men vowed to celibacy, poverty and peaceableness.

And the big success of the BBC's documentary The Monastery, which followed the experience of five not-very-religious men who tried living as monks for forty days, demonstrates that interest in monastic spirituality is wider than just the Christian sphere.

But is the present attention being given to monasticism really going to turn a feeble UK Church around? A lot will depend on whether its challenges are truly met. For all the talk of vows and the like, it seems horribly possible that many Christians, including leaders, will dodge the real issues and just flirt with monasticism without taking the real - and scary - steps that the early monks actually took.

There is such a danger of flowery religious waffle. One article on new monasticism in a prominent Christian website quoted a leader who had "felt the Lord" say, "I'm not looking for poverty but for a prosperity of contentment, whether someone has a lot or a little… I'm not looking for unswerving obedience to a spiritual director or to a person or to an institution, or even to a way of doing things; rather, I desire a mutuality of submission."

Can anyone really imagine wild Antony or dangerous Aidan (or, for that matter, Jesus of the Gospels) asking for a "prosperity of contentment"? And while "mutuality of submission" may be well and good, it is so vague as to lead almost inevitably back to each person doing as they please.

The article goes on to describe the city of God being planted not "on a hill, but right in the midst of the 'city of man'". Not only does this flatly contradict the words of Jesus, it also reverses the core of monasticism. Without holy, distinctive apartness what is there left of monasticism at all? Monasticism starts with the premise that the only way to save the world is to demonstrate something fundamentally different.

It gets worse. The online "blog" of one fairly prominent British "new abbot" contains reflections on the latest film he's watched and some family photos - and not very much else. You may ask: is there anything wrong with outings to the Showcase and family albums? After all, isn't that what every nice middle-class family does? But if "new monasticism" is going to bring to comfortable UK Christianity anything other than just a shallow makeover then surely its "abbots" must demonstrate something totally different to the cosy norm.

The early monks did. For them, monasticism was not a romantic dream (with the faint sound of a Hollywood film score in the background). It was tough; sometimes agonising. It meant hard decisions and sacrifice. They didn't embrace poverty, chastity and obedience because they liked them: they saw that there was no other way to impact an infected society with the drastic and vital truths of the Kingdom.

So: today in the UK? Will people abandon personal wealth and home, move in together and share their possessions, owning nothing? (The neighbours would be bound to notice, let's face it.) Will people pioneer drastic purity, some of them choosing not to marry in order to be free "for the Kingdom"? Will people commit themselves together in a permanent and binding vow of brotherhood?

The reality is that it will take more than a trendy historical fad to turn the UK to God. Christian consumers, shopping in the mall of history for packaged titbits, are not going to be enough. Only if Christians - lots of them - take some drastic steps will the Church stop being ignored.


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