(Reader) New monasticism and fresh expressions of church

Today’s changing culture calls for a huge diversity and range of fresh expressions of church. Graham Cray explores one particular flavour of fresh expression in an article from the Reader Magazine, November 2011.

Anglican priests and parishes have the ‘cure of souls’ of the whole parish, not just of those who go to church. So we at Fresh Expressions are challenging the churches to ask a key question. Who is not being touched or reached by the existing ministry of the local churches, whether that be through a neighbourhood ministry or through engaging with networks of common interest? As churches begin to engage with this question, they hopefully develop a discipline of local prayerful listening as they explore the possibility of establishing a fresh expression – a new congregation or church plant.

The whole point of a fresh expression is that it is appropriate to its context and is particularly for those not being effectively engaged by the churches already. Models that are being used elsewhere may be appropriate, but the most important thing is to work out what is appropriate for where you are. We have to be open to diversity and to imagining new things. You can’t simply ‘launch’ a fresh expression somewhere without any thought as to whether it’s the right shape for the context and culture it finds itself in.

A number of things are needed when looking to establish a fresh expression of church and that’s where the history of monastic movements can help us. Firstly, we are seeking to establish a community rather than an event. Church is a community of which we are a part, not an event we go to. Biblically of course Christians don’t so much go to church as they are Church. Sometimes they are Church gathered together and sometimes they are solitary, scattered as they go about their daily lives, but the Church is the primary community to which they belong. Sadly some people do attend local churches as no more than a regular event in their calendar but, properly understood, a church is a community to help people become lifelong disciples of Jesus, which is far more than attending services or staking their initial claim to faith.

We then have to consider how – in our sophisticated and in some ways novel culture – we form the habits of a way of life that will shape us as followers of Jesus? The evangelical tradition, among others, has put a huge emphasis on personal disciplines of daily prayer and Bible reading. These are vital, but to sustain them today I believe we also need something corporate; regular contexts of mutual encouragement, support and challenge. In our very individualistic society we need community if we are to sustain discipleship in our daily lives. The expression ‘one another’ appears frequently in the New Testament, 34 times in Paul’s letters alone. What a number of us are thinking is that every church member who is serious about being a follower of Jesus might be part of a small, mutually accountable group, where they are real with one another about the areas of their lives where discipleship is hard, and positive in encouraging and praying for each other. What we might particularly learn from the monastic movement is some appropriate rule or rhythm of life.

It is obedience to the Holy Spirit from day to day that grows the fruits of the Spirit, and the local church is the community which supports and fosters that growth.

The primary purpose of these small communities within a local church is to seek to live in daily obedience to Jesus. A group of Christian disciples know they face certain pressures at work, home and in different areas of their lives. By covenanting to meet regularly as part of a shared rhythm of life they can pinpoint, between them, the most challenging areas and support and pray for one another as they identify the personal and corporate disciplines that will strengthen them to make consistent godly choices.

Character formation is the object of disciple making. It is achieved through habit, through godly repetition. It involves spiritual disciplines, but also daily obedience to the way of Christ. This commitment to a rhythm of life is helpful but it needs to be light touch, not legalistic, and should be instinctive rather than dutiful. My interest in new monasticism is, in part, because I am convinced that this sort of character formation has a much greater chance of success in community.

New monasticism is vital for the mission of the church also. Some of the newer missionary orders around today, like The Order of Mission (TOM), have drawn on monastic vows similar to the Rule of Benedict and adopted them into principles of life – hence Poverty becomes Simplicity, Obedience translates as Accountability to one another and so on. Some of our partners in the Fresh Expressions movement, CMS and Church Army, are mission agencies which are becoming Acknowledged Communities within the Church of England for the sake of their missionary calling. Another partner, 24/7 Prayer is a missionary prayer movement with a new monastic character. We shouldn’t be surprised at the relevance of this approach and its effectiveness. In the era of the Celtic Church and from the time of Benedict, Europe was evangelised by monks.

I saw the results of this during an earlier period of my ministry as vicar of St Michael le Belfrey in York. York Minster, which was in my parish, was originally a minster, a community of monks who planted and later sustained churches around the area. The ancient-future nature of new monasticism means that there is much to learn from the monastic missionaries of previous eras.

The sheer scale of the mission field in Britain at the moment is immense. In England, Tearfund’s 2007 statistics on Churchgoing in the UK show that just over one third of adults aged 16 upwards have never had any significant link with church at all. If we include those of 15 and under we’re probably heading towards half of the population. It cries out for every local church to think about a ‘mixed economy’ approach (a partnership of our existing patterns of church and fresh expressions); planning something different to reach those they are not reaching.

Some of us feel that the Holy Spirit may be raising up some missionary orders again to reach where the churches do not reach. These orders are not to be freelance mavericks but instead operate in a community, investing in their growth and displaying accountability to the local bishop and denominational leaders. They should act as a pool and a resource to put into those leaders’ hands for the reevangelisation of our country.

There are orders which have come into existence in response to a call to mission, like TOM; and there are fresh expressions of church which sustain their life and mission by drawing on monastic sources, such as Moot in the City of London led by Ian Mobsby and Safespace in Telford led by Mark Berry. There is undoubtedly something bubbling up from the Holy Spirit and the heart of what fresh expressions is all about is seeing what God is doing locally and joining in.

I was Chairman of the Board of Readers for the Diocese of Canterbury and can see that much Reader ministry is very relevant to this new move of the Spirit, but it will also need to adapt. We need so many fresh expressions planted that the vast majority of them will be lay led. If we are dealing with people who have never been part of a church, the level of understanding of the faith is going to be quite slim – you can’t assume that people will know Bible stories any more. Readers’ ministry as teachers of the faith is becoming increasingly vital as long as those same Readers are prepared to use methods of teaching that are relevant to their audience. It will certainly be necessary to know how to interact with that audience and engage with their lives.

As ‘bridge’ people, Readers perform a number of roles. They bridge the text of Scripture and the congregation as teachers of the Faith, and they also bridge the Church and the world. Those with a Reader vocation who remain in employment outside the church have many responsibilities to balance in their daily lives, but thankfully they know what the culture outside church is like from their daily experience and calling; all of which leads to a very real possibility that Readers may be the key people in the planting of fresh expressions of church, perhaps in their parishes, but also in their workplaces. Reader ministry will have to be much more focused around the mission of the church not just in the future, we will also begin to see new Readers emerge from fresh expressions of church; in fact it’s already beginning to happen.

A while ago I attended a meeting that the Archbishop of Canterbury had called for bishops who were Visitors to a wide range of religious communities. Three different things could be seen to be happening in the monastic movement in England:

  1. Some Orders with a great history are clearly in their final years. These had become small communities as their members grew older.
  2. Other communities in better health are sometimes overwhelmed by people who want to come on retreats or find spiritual direction. There are very substantial demands within the Church to look at these communities for spiritual guidance.
  3. New monasticism. All sorts of groups are seeking to develop some rule of life. This is being considered at the highest levels within the Church of England and, as I have said, involves agencies working with Fresh Expressions. These include longstanding mission agency CMS which has already made the transition to Acknowledged Community status; Church Army is on the same road; Anglican Church Planting Initiatives (ACPI) is led by Bob and Mary Hopkins, guardians of The Order of Mission; and the 24-7 prayer movement. In Lincolnshire the chairman of the local council of churches, Pete Atkins, is now developing an ecumenical order. This all shows that the connection between discipleship, mission and a community rule is increasingly understood and valued.

Ian Mobsby, priest missioner of the Moot community and an associate missioner with Fresh Expressions, serves on the national CofE Advisory Council for Diocesan Bishops and Religious Communities. The Council is exploring the possibility of formally recognising Anglican new monastic communities as an official subgrouping of Church of England Acknowledged Religious Communities. Soon it may be possible for fresh expressions of church associated with the CofE to explore whether their missional community is of a new monastic form.

New monasticism is not automatically connected to a missional motive, but to the extent that it enables Christians to be authentic disciples in a changing culture, and sustain missionary movements, it can only enhance the mission of God through the Church.

+Graham Cray

Further Reading

Andy Freeman Pete Greig, Punk Monk: New Monasticism and the Ancient Art of Breathing, Regal Books, 2007

Graham Cray Ian Mobsby (eds), Ancient Faith, Future Mission: new monasticism as fresh expression of church, Canterbury Press Norwich, 2010

Ian Adams, Cave Refectory Road: Monastic Rhythms for contemporary living, Canterbury Press Norwich, 2010

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