well i guess the journey of the last twenty five years or whatever it has been in exploring what it means to follow christ in mission in the emerging culture has had several chapters. some of those chapters (and i realise this is entirely from my perspective) have been
- relational or incarnational youthwork - this is where many of the questions arose in terms of culture and mission and church;
- alternative worship - exploring those questions but for ourselves and with adults, realising that issues in mission and culture were much wider;
- emerging church - what began with worship quickly spilled over into wider questions
- fresh expressions - the mainstream anglican and methodist church picked up on the new edges in mission to encourage the mainstream to become mission shaped
- missional communities - smaller often more organic communities recovering a sense of mission at the heart of what they were about
but the big surprise to me has been the resurgence of interest in monasticism. where did that come from and why?! if you had suggested 10 years ago that i would be a signed up member of a religious community in the church of england i would probably have either laughed or raised my eyebrows. language obviously chops and changes and i'm sure some people are thinking this is just a fad that will pass like the others but of all the waves that have come i think this has plenty of staying power and plenty within it to resource the mission imagination of the church into the future. that's not to say that the other things haven't got staying power - there are many themes that have been birthed through those movements. i suspect it's when you weave together the gifts of them all that something richer starts to emerge.
i know not everyone is on board - in fact i quite like pieces like dave andrews which lambast the notion of people taking themselves too seriously as abbots. it's always good to be reminded that there are always a range of perspectives and there's a danger of taking ourselves too seriously. and even though i am a member of cms i don't think of myself as a new monk or friar particularly though, some others think that language fits.
at a practical level i think the reason new monasticism has come to the fore is that the religious societies have discovered great wisdom over the years about how to live and sustain the christian life in community. there are many notions at the heart of it - one that has given us great inspiration in grace is the idea of ethos at the heart of community life that leadership guards and calls the community to (as opposed to a set of practices we must all adhere to - not that there is anything wrong with practices). another is wisdom about the rhythms of community itself - so much sought after and needed in today's culture. and then a word that seems to be bouncing back - discipleship - the challenge of living out a life of faith in consumer culture has proved a depper challange than pretty much anyone expected. monasticism has patterns of life, prayer and worship and the notion of a rule of life that community commits to together which have the potential to help form a discipleship in community that cuts deeper than doing the latest course.
this blog post started in my head as a book review so i suppose i ought to get onto mentioning that... new monasticsm as fresh expression of church is a great intro to this subject. i think it's a very good book - it has coherence and hangs together well even though it's a collection of chapters by different people. graham cray give an excellent introductory chapter and there are contributions from the likes of ian mobsby, mark berry, shane claibourne, ian adams that explore a range of themes. stuart burns gives a reflection at the end of the book - he is the abbot of burford priory and has been a source of great encouragement to the new kids on the block. he sees this movement as a sign of hope and i thought there was wisdom in his cautioning groups to not be too hasty to look for institutional/official recognition lest they lose their prophetic edge but to concentrate on community life following in the way of jesus christ. i know from cms experience that the institutional piece takes a lot of time and energy. i also welcomed ian mobsby's challenge to move beyond values to consider a rule of life for a community.
i want to come back to the title of the book because there is more to it i think than at first glance. it might seem that monasticsm is a fresh expression of church in the way that say moot or maybe are a local community living out of an imagination and rule inspired by monasticism - i.e. it's about fresh expressions of local church. but there is something else that's at play. there's an argumentto be made that church has always had a mix of local gathered expressions and missional spread out expressions. so in the new testament you have the travelling apostles and the churches in corinth and ephesus. monastic communities have at their best carried a challenge and a mission energy as part of church often in spread out ways. tim dakin at cms suggests that the mission societies needed to be born following henry 8th's dissolution of the monastries because this aspect of church was lost. in some ways the emphasis in church in our imaginations has never fully recovered the dual notion of the spread out and the gathered. we usually associate the word church with the local congregagtion or community within its hierarchcical structure/denomination. i am stumbling over words here. i don't know how to say it succinctly. if you want a piece of theory which i'm reluctant to mention because i can never remember what is what in it - ralph winter's work on sodal and modal expressions of church as two structures of god's mission makes the case. modal is the local gathered and sodal the spread out focused around a mission task (at least i think it's that way round!). so new monasticism as fresh expression of church in this way is for example what cms is about. we have moved from being an organisation (though there is still one) to a religious community that is in itself an expression of church and not parachurch (something subsidiary on the side of church). it doesn't mean that i am not going to be part of a local church community - grace - in fact part of my commitment within cms is to live out a life of mission in a local community. but church writ large has always been better understood when imagined as this dual expression. i'd welcome any thoughts on this or any pieces of theory that might shed light on it. this is a new way (for me at least) of thinking about the mixed economy of church so succinctly described by rowan williams in the intro to mission shaped church. it's not just a mixed economy based on locality - i.e. because one size no longer fits all we have various local expressions that reach out in mission to various groups (which has laid itself to criticism in various circles because it seems too co-opted to consumer tastes - is it incarnational or sold out?! discuss...). but it's a mixed economy in its modal and sodal expressions. if you are looking to live out a life of mission and are isolated in that you could look to join a community like cms which would help support and fuel your life of mission?! this isn't meant to be a sales pitch - you'd need to seriously digest the constitution and so on and see if it was a good fit - i'm more making the point around the mixed economy. in many ways networks, and communities of practice and other things are also part of the mix of the network/economy of christ. i think the difference that the monastic piece brings is much more intentionality and commitment. it's harder to just stay skating on postmodern surfaces.
congratulations to ian mobsby and graham cray and aaron kennedy and others for pulling together a great contribution to this current suprise in the ever emerging church of jesus christ.