New Monasticism for Quakers

Our London life is gradually being packed in to boxes. As our long goodbye picks up speed, London recedes into the distance, slipping like sand through our fingers.

Amidst the to-do lists, farewell drinks and creeping sadness, I want to crystallise some of the theory that will underpin our explorations over the year. Before we fly off to the States in a month’s time, I want to explain exactly what I understand New Monasticism to be and what British Quakers could perhaps gain from the ideas it incorporates. This feels a bit heavier than previous posts, but it’s something I need to get out of my system!

The origins of ‘New Monasticism’

Jonathan Wilson’s ‘Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World’, first published in 1998, coined the term ‘new monasticism’. In general terms, his book was a Christian response to the ideas set out by philosopher Alasdair McIntyre in his 1981 book on ethics, ‘After Virtue’.

What’s the problem?

According to Wilson, and following on from McIntyre, the contemporary Western church has become infected by the dominant culture, that of individualist, capitalist consumerism. We choose churches and styles of worship based on our own personal pleasure. We locate health and happiness in the realm of personal feelings and values. The old tools of the church, its language and symbols, have become meaningless and cannot be relied upon to communicate the Gospel. The cross has become jewelry; ‘oh my God’ has become so ubiquitous an exclamation that it is virtually punctuation.

What’s the answer?

Wilson writes that living faithfully captures the entirety of Christian mission in the modern world. The church needs committed Christian communities focused on creating transformed disciples, with the character of Christ as the destination.

What distinguishes a New Monastic community?

Wilson sees these communities as local in nature, with members living in close proximity to one another, committing themselves to the local area in the manner of a vow of stability. They practice open hospitality, sharing meals and possessions. Rather than withdrawing from the world, these communities are immersed in, and critical of, the wider culture of the society they inhabit.

Rather than the anti-establishment nature that characterized many communities that emerged in the 1960s and 70s, New Monasticism requires a reengagement with tradition. Wilson describes this as ‘submission to the Church’. This means rather than distancing themselves from the Church and its history (in the way that a Westerner might try to separate themselves from Europe’s imperial past through immersion in Eastern philosophy and New Age movements), New Monastics acknowledge their own sinfulness and the Church’s unfaithfulness through confession and repentance. New Monasticism seeks a disassociation from empire whilst acknowledging the Church’s historic collusion with empire.

Wilson highlights four features of New Monasticism. New Monastic communities are:
1) committed to a recovery of the telos (the end point), in that there is no division between the sacred and secular. Jesus is Lord of everything, not just particular aspects of our lives.
2) for the whole people of God. There is no division between the monastic and lay person.
3) disciplined. The contemporary church does not adequately support its members in formation of the disciplines required for living faithfully. We need a ‘restricted place in which the discipline of the church may be practiced’, such as intentional communities.
4) undergirded by deep theological reflection and commitment. These communities strive for orthodoxy (right thinking) and orthopraxy (right doing), one springing from the other.

I first came across New Monasticism in Shane Claiborne’s ‘The Irresistible Revolution’. He writes of The “Twelve Marks”, discerned in North Carolina in 2004:

1) Relocation to the “abandoned places of Empire”
2) Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us
3) Hospitality to the stranger
4) Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation
5) Humble submission to Christ’s body, the Church
6) Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate
7) Nurturing common life among members of an intentional community
8) Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children
9) Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life
10) Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies
11) Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18
12) Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life

A Quaker New Monasticism

What can Quakers take from this? There are aspects of the movement that resonate strongly with Quaker thinking, particularly there being no divide between sacred and secular, monastic and lay person.

There are aspects that challenge the Quaker community too. It is not uncommon to hear British Friends talking as if they are separate not only from the Church but our own Quaker history and tradition. When we do talk about our history, we paint a very rosy picture. As Craig Barnett writes, we have plenty to be ashamed of. Are we prepared to confess and repent? Can we tell our story truthfully? When it comes to discipleship, how adequately do our worshiping communities support us in leading disciplined lives? Wilson writes ‘if one or two hours of worship together each week is the whole of our life together, then the fragmentation of our lives will not be healed’. How might Quakers relocate to the “abandoned places of Empire”?

Those involved in the New Monasticism movement are under no illusion that they’ve hit on something wholly new. Rather they see it as a modern expression of a commitment that has been called for through the ages. Bonhoeffer’s ‘Life Together’ and Vanier’s ‘Community and Growth’ are seen as expressions of this call. Quaker’s may find a similar call to the life of the New Monastic in the words of Thomas Kelly. His 1939 lecture ‘Holy Obedience’ is included in his ‘A Testament of Devotion’, published posthumously in 1941. In it he writes:

‘In my deepest heart I know that some of us have to face our comfortable, self-oriented lives all over again. The times are too tragic, God’s sorrow is too great, man’s night is too dark, the Cross is too glorious for us to live as we have lived, in anything short of hold obedience. It may or it may not mean change in geography, in profession, in wealth, in earthly security. It does mean this: Some of us will have to enter upon a vow of renunciation and of dedication to the “Eternal Internal” which is as complete and as irrevocable as was the vow of the monk of the Middle Ages. Little groups of such utterly dedicated souls, knowing one another in Divine Fellowship, must take an irrevocable vow to live in this world yet not of this world, Franciscans of the Third Order, and if it be His will, kindle again the embers of faith in the midst of a secular world. Our meetings were meant to be such groups, but now too many of them are dulled and cooled and flooded by the secular. But within our meetings such inner bands of men and women, internally set apart, living by a vow of perpetual obedience to the Inner Voice, in the world yet not of the world, ready to go the second half, obedient as a shadow, sensitive as a shadow, selfless as a shadow – such bands of humble prophets can recreate the Society of Friends and the Christian church and shake the countryside for ten miles around.’

A lens to look through

A piece of advice repeated in many of the books on intentional community I’ve come across, is abandon any notion you may have of an ideal community. You’ll certainly be disappointed! I find the vision Kelly describes incredibly inspiring, but I will not be asking every community I come across to measure up to these standards. I will however be looking for the rekindled embers Kelly describes, exploring how closely the communities fit the New Monasticism mould.

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