A Methodist rule of life?

by Roger Walton

New monasticism is a term widely used to describe the emergence of various communities and groups who express their Christian faith through patterns and practices that resemble the rules and rhythms of earlier monasteries. Sometimes these communities are people living together in a physical space or location, often identifying with those who live in poverty or who are homeless. Others are dispersed, held together by a pattern of prayer, a series of commitments and a rule of life.

There is, currently, much talk of new monasticism in Methodism. The Methodist Diaconal Order, as a religious order, lives by a rule of life. A number of Methodists are members of the Iona Community; some belong to the Northumbria Community and a few are third-order Franciscans. Several ‘fresh expressions’ of church and pioneer groups have adopted this language and developed simple patterns of daily, weekly, monthly and/or annual commitments. In the discussion initiated by the Faith and Order Committee, we are to explore whether Methodists other than deacons might share in a rule of life. My impression is that many would welcome such an opportunity.

This may be a good moment to reflect on what new monasticism might offer for Methodism.

Just as Anthony, and later Benedict, pioneered monasticism as a response to changing times for both church and culture, so new monasticism is seen as a response to the end of Christendom, postmodern culture and growing hostility towards Christianity.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, credited with coining the term ‘new monasticism’, wrote his famous and widely quoted note in the face of the rise of Nazism and corrosion of the church in colluding with the regime.

‘The restoration of the church will surely come from a sort of new monasticism, which has in common with the old only the uncompromising attitude of a life lived according to the Sermon on the Mount in the following of Jesus.’[1]

This particular failure of the church, identified by Bonhoeffer, seems to many to have been prophetic in relation to the end of Christendom. Stuart Murray writes:

‘New monasticism: rules of life and rhythms of worship may be essential to sustain communities of resident aliens in post-Christendom.’[2]

In relation to culture, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981) was significant. Writing, as he saw it, in the context of the breakdown of moral discourse in modern society, MacIntyre ends with a call for a ‘new Benedict’. Jonathan Wilson developed this idea in Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World (1998). All writers on this subject emphasise the need for Christians to be counter cultural in the face of corrosive consumerist culture.

So new monasticism offers Christians a way of living out faith in Christ in a radically changed and sometimes hostile culture.

Methodism developed at a time of change for church and culture. There is much evidence (but not enough space here) to argue for early Methodism as a form of new monasticism. John Wesley’s rules and aphorisms gave shape to the societies. Their watchnights, love feasts, preaching services and annual covenant service, alongside attendance at band or class, supplied the rhythm. Together these formed communities of Christian disciples. Those early Methodists lived by a rule of life and a rhythm of worship and witness.

What might a modern Methodist rule of life be like?

We could develop one from the Our Calling statement, emblazoned on our membership tickets. My sense is, however, that this is more of a reminder of the breadth of our discipleship than a rule of life, and we have no inbuilt accountability structure for how we are attending to it. More could be done.

But maybe we are no longer in a top-down culture. Even if we could develop a rule of life for all Methodists, our natural non-conformity would resist it. In any case, it may not go far enough to touch our daily activities and individual sense of calling. Perhaps what we need is rules of life around particular callings – local preachers, pastoral visitors, youth workers, those who exercise their discipleship in the health service, industry or the home. They could be developed by those who sense this calling and devised not individually but together with others, so that there is prayer, support and accountability for all.

Perhaps we could work at both levels, so top-down and bottom-up might inform each other.

[1] Bonhoeffer, D., et al. (1995). A testament to freedom : the essential writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. [San Francisco, Calif.], HarperSanFrancisco.

[2] Murray, S. (2004). Church after Christendom. Milton Keynes, Paternoster.

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8 thoughts on “A Methodist rule of life?”

  1. Link doesn’t seem to work this week.

    A.

    Revd Dr Andrew J. Lunn | District Chair The Methodist Church | Manchester and Stockport District 77 Green Lane, STOCKPORT. SK4 3LH 0161 442 8121 Website http://mandsmethodists.org.uk/ Follow me on twitter @Andrew_Lunn

    The Methodist Church – A Discipleship Movement Shaped for Mission Methodist Church House, 25 Marylebone Road, London NW1 5JR | +44 (0) 20 7486 5502 [Helpdesk] http://www.methodist.org.uk Registered Charity no. 1132208

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    1. Apologies – blame a novice stand-in editor, who hit ‘publish’ by mistake, before it was ready. It will be published on Monday, as usual, by which stage hopefully I’ll have got to grips with the technology!

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  2. How much is New Monasticism a packaging for an older spiritual need within Methodism?

    Reading Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain it seems to me that we have always been seeking for a true way of life which allows us to develop our intimate relations with the divine and try to express it meaningfully in an indifferent (if not hostile) world. History, art and littérature are a testimony of this need existing across centuries and cultures.

    New Monasticism is a re-discovery of connexional faith. New Monasticism has only a meaning if collective. Its expression may be individual but it is embedded within a collective of individuals sharing a similar path to God and experience.

    To re-explore Our Calling as a potential start for a New Monasticism with a Methodist identity is tempting but I agree with Roger there are initiatives (older and newer) who have successfully developed this form of spiritual expression and discipline. Can Methodism be part of these initiatives and offers a Methodist input or do we have to start from scratch offering a New Methodist Monasticism?

    Classes or Small Groups were and are a good start. Is it time to revive them as a form of New Monasticism? The fact that some Methodists are seeking New Monasticism outside Methodism are a signal of a spiritual need and directions. Over the years several Methodist initiatives have worked in that direction but some seem anecdotal and patchy. Is it time to re-energise Small Groups as a Methodist expression of New Monasticism… we have all the various elements needed within our own tradition. I understand that the grass is always greener in the other fields but what are we missing?

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  3. This is a very interesting contribution. I have argued previously that some other forms of service would benefit from recognition. However, I am becoming more sceptical about that.

    A concern is that other orders serve not just to recognise but also to separate. Ministerial orders for example do recognise Calling but then serve to exclude others (with exceptions) from performing certain functions. In a large organisation this is inevitable but with separation there also follows in some eyes the application of virtue.

    Similarly I am concerned that monasticism for some people (and possibly unjustifiably) implies separation (from the world). I know this is a huge generalisation but new monasticism rapidly becomes an old monasticism- recognisable by peculiarities of habit ( deliberate pun) and ruin.

    I could and will say more, but surely discipleship is more apposite.

    Two other comments:

    a. If there is to be such dialogue in the near future, please let it be ecumenical

    b. even more challenging, let it be interfaith.

    How can we give identity to those people of goodwill who want to live their lives and express their beliefs for the good of all and for the earth on which we live.

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  4. I wonder if I might be allowed to add an afterthought?

    If so, it would be this.

    Let us ask our young people to think of how they could be affirmed for their life in the future and follow their guidance. They will lead very different lives to us (I am now 71). Climate change, AI, radical new approaches in biology and medicine, transport and communication are examples. But human nature may not/cannot change. So how must they live and what will support them, give them identity and confidence.

    So often, those of us who reach the age where we can change institutions and organisations, choose to address the problems of yesterday and not tomorrow.

    I am not saying ‘a new monasticism’ is the answer to yesterday’s problem, but the way we understand the question and respond to it may well be unless we take care.

    (I suspect my email address was mistyped last time – apologies)

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  5. I now suspect my afterthought is no longer that – because my original response seems to have disappeared. Possibly due to my email address error.

    It was a long reply and I will not try to recall it. But I was concerned that any such development does not prove to be another stratification in an inclusive church and isolate function (and virtue) in a new order. I also was concerned by the word ‘monasticism’ – I understand it’s origins but it also connotations. Discipleship seems to me to be more embracing and active.

    Separation would be a huge indulgence.

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  6. I got quite excited on Monday, reading this post by Roger Walton. I had never heard of new monasticism but it sounds very feasible as a way of re-defining Methodism and moving forward, maintaining our Holy habits in an increasingly secular world. By the end of the piece though I started feeling a bit uneasy. Not sure why but it was something to do with the words ‘top’ and ‘bottom’. I decided not to comment because I wasn’t clear in my mind what I wanted to say or why my peace was disturbed.
    Then this morning, while reading from my book of daily meditations by Fr Richard Rohr, I came across this:
    ‘Compassion and patience are the absolutely unique characteristics of true spiritual authority, and without any doubt are the way St Francis and St Clare led their communities. They led, not from above, and not even from below, but mostly from within, by walking with their brothers and sisters, or “smelling like sheep” as Pope Francis puts it.’
    This makes sense. Perhaps there should be no ‘top’ and no ‘bottom’ but just little flocks of sheep, all smelling like sheep, and all being led by the best Shepherd of all, our Lord Jesus Christ.

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  7. Thanks for the various contributions to this conversation. (I look forward to Andrew Lunn’s 7 thoughts on new maonasticism which didn’t seem to make it onto the comments page.)

    This is just the beginnings of some sustained work on what might new monasticism offer to Methodism – encounters, research and reflection. Several of the points offered here have me thinking already.

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