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.’
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.’
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.
 Bonhoeffer, D., et al. (1995). A testament to freedom : the essential writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. [San Francisco, Calif.], HarperSanFrancisco.
 Murray, S. (2004). Church after Christendom. Milton Keynes, Paternoster.