The New Monasticism: Observations on an Oxymoron

our lady of the new monasticism The first thing that you discover when beginning to explore the phenomena of the New Monasticism is that it is impossible to pin down as either ‘new’ or ‘monastic’. In order to make any definition about what one means by ‘new’ one must set rigid linguistic and ecclesial parameters before doing so. By changing these parameters there are several different movements that can lay claim to the definition each with an internally coherent justification for doing so. I have come to the conclusion that the proliferation of these, often widely divergent, groups in so many aspects of Western Christianity in the modern world that the term ‘The New Monasticism’ is both misleading and obscures the wider picture. The use of the word makes it almost impossible to see the forest at all as one does not recognise that these other aspects are trees. The purpose of this paper is to try and expand the current parameters of the definition and then place the movement commonly referred to as ‘The New Monasticism’ within this wider framework. It is in understanding the ‘New Monasticism’ of the Roman church and the Anglican Communion, the two main Western ecclesial bodies with Religious, that one can begin to understand what is meant by the term.

In order to compare and contrast the New Monasticism in its various forms it is crucial to have an understanding of what ‘old’ monasticism is and how it has continued down to us today. The lack of knowledge of the Religious Life in the West is apparent in the writings of the New Monastics. The term monastic in Christianity is technically reserved for those who have a vocation to a very specific form of Religious Life. Monasticism is the oldest form of the Religious Life and can be seen in the ascetic movements of the early church. There were two major forms of monasticism: the eremitical life (the solitary life of a hermit) and the coenobitical life (common life in community). The Church Father St Antony (251-356) is generally held to have been the founder of the eremitical monastic life whilst the Church Father St Pachomius (c.290-346) is considered the founder of the coenobitical monastic life. The monastic life required celibacy, the renouncement of earthly goods, and some form of seclusion from the world. A monk’s life was dedicated to Opus Dei through a strict regimen of prayer both publicly in the Offices and privately in contemplation and study. Unlike other forms of the Religious Life there are no secondary purposes in the monastic life. Although the early Eastern tradition of monasticism significantly shaped Celtic monasticism in the 6th century and, in turn, the Rule of St Columbanus was used widely in Europe during the early days of the Western flowering of monasticism neither came to persist or have any lasting influence. Rather the Rule of St Benedict came to be the dominant manifestation of the coenobitic life in the West. It is worth noting that it was so prevalent that the only monastic order in the West that did not follow the Rule of St Benedict was the Carthusian order of St Bruno in the 12th century whose members led a type of eremitical life (as they still do).

The Western expression of monasticism is so specific that it is almost impossible to redefine it in a way that cannot be justified from the Rule of St Benedict itself. This is way that the reform of the monastic life has been carried out in the Western church. However, many people, including professional ecclesiastics in the catholic churches as well as many protestants, do not understand the specificity of the term. Most will use ‘monk’ and ‘nun’ to refer to anyone who in the Religious Life. This may in part be because the Western Church has used the term ‘Religious’ to describe those who live under vows in Religious Orders. As most would consider themselves ‘religious’ in the regular sense of the word it is not surprising that the technical sense of the term is lost on many. It is also confusing to speak of ‘Religious Orders’ as referring to those under the threefold vows and ‘Holy Orders’ as referring to those ordained to the threefold ministry in the catholic churches: Deacon, Priest and Bishop. Still the term is ‘Religious’ is specific. It is a collective noun for the many groups who take the ‘Evangelical Vows’ of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience or variations thereof (Evangelical Counsels: Math.19-10-12, Math.19:16-22, Mark 10:17-22, and Luke 18:18-23). This includes monks and nuns, friars, hermits, anchorites, consecrated virgins and widows/ widowers, and the brothers and sisters of the various Religious Orders and Congregations in the West. Each group is a specific manifestation of the call to a Religious vocation. Most Religious are, as it happens, NOT monks or nuns but rather work in the world to varying degrees.

We can already see that the proper sense of the word monasticism in the phrase ‘The New Monasticism’ is deeply misleading and historically a misnomer. As the new expressions of ‘monasticism’ bear so little resemblance to what the church has historically meant by the term I believe we can ignore the discrepancy and assume that the practitioners instead mean ‘Religious’. For the remainder of this paper I will assume that when the proponents and practitioners of the new movement use the word ‘Monastic’ they mean ‘Religious’.

Another very common misunderstanding about the religious life is the wide variety of forms that it takes in the modern world. The Roman Catholic Church has the most numerous forms of the Religious Life and yet seems to be the least understood. The Roman Church refers to those who take the Evangelical Vows as being in the Consecrated Life. The Consecrated Life is made up of those who are part of the Institutes of Consecrated Life. There are two main Institutes: Religious Institutes and Secular Institutes. There are two forms of Consecrated Life in the Religious Institutes: Religious Orders and Religious Congregations. The Religious Orders are those in the Consecrated Life who make Solemn Vows. Solemn Vows are considered absolute and are permanent – such as a Marriage Vow. Those in Religious Congregations make only Simple Vows. These are not taken with the same solemnity as the vows made by those in Orders but are rather considered binding whilst the vower is living the specific way of life. It is worth noting that those in Orders take simple vows when they are made Novices, and sometimes at First Profession and it is only later that Solemn Vows are made. The Consecrated Life also includes Consecrated Persons: Consecrated Hermits, Consecrated Virgins, Consecrated Widows and Widowers as was in practice in the early church.

Religious Orders in the Roman Church are made up of Monastic Orders, Mendicant Orders, and Apostolic Orders. I have already described the Monastic Orders. The oldest Monastic Order, the Benedictines, have slightly different vows than those of other monks. They vow stability, consecration of manners, and obedience. The second is taken to include the other two Evangelical Vows. The mendicant orders are made up of Friars. These are mostly Franciscans, Dominicans, and Carmelites. Although they live together they work in the world and traditionally begged for their sustenance. There are also groups of Canons Regular whose members are all clerics of some rank as well as Clerks Regular which is made up of Priests. The Augustinians are the best known of the former group. The most well know Apostolic Order is the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits were freed from the obligation of common life and common prayer so they could have more freedom for evangelical missionary work. There were also Military Religious Orders formed during the early Crusades and four still exist today, such as the Knights of St John of Jerusalem.

Many Roman Catholic Brothers and Sisters you will meet are members of Religious Congregations rather than Orders. They are divided into two major groups: Clerical and Lay. They take simple vows and almost always have a particular mission to which they give their life work to. A large number were founded in the 19th century as Apostolic Congregations. They dress and are styled like those in Religious Orders. There are around four hundred Religious Orders and Congregations in the Roman Church with a makeup of approximately one million members.

The Second Type of Institute of the Consecrated Life in the Roman Church is that of the Secular Institutes. The Secular Institutes are groups made up of members who take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and yet who live as part of the world and seek to transform it from within. There are at least two forerunners of the Secular Institutes: The Company of St Ursula in 1535 and the Society of the Sacred Heart in 1790. Yet it was not until 1947 that Pope Pius the XII canonically recognised Secular Societies. They have become more and more popular since Vatican II although most Catholics have never heard of them. This is partly because the vocation of their members is to be part of the normal world. Although most of those living the Consecrated Life in a Secular Institute live alone under a vow of chastity some Secular Institutes have married members. Most do not give up personal possessions but give over administration of them to their Institute. There are at least 60,000 members of about two hundred Secular Institutes.

Thus far we have seen that the Roman Church offers the following forms of the Religious Life: Religious Order (Monk, Friar, Canon Regular, Clerk Regular, Apostolic Order, and Military Order), Religious Congregation (Apostolic Congregation), Secular Institute, and Consecrated Person (Hermit, Virgin, Window/Widower). Yet there is one more major group although it does not fall under the grouping of the Consecrated Life. These are the Societies of Apostolic Life. These groups are made up of people who do not make Solemn or Simple Vows, and continue to own personal property and yet live together as a community for a common purpose and for sanctification of life. They usually take simple, private, annual, promises within their community. They are comparable to Communities of Consecrated Life and are regulated by the same Vatican body, The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Apostolic Life. Some of the best known Roman Catholic ‘Religious Orders’ are not orders at all but rather Societies of Apostolic Life such as the Oratory of St Philip Neri in the mid 1500s or the American Mary Knoll Sisters. Yet one of the most recognised, at least in the past, were the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul as they had giant wings on their wimples. The television show The Flying Nun featured the Daughters of Charity. Yet as I have explained, the Daughters of Charity are not even an Religious Congregation let alone an Order and far removed from a female monastic who would be entitles to be described as a nun!

The last Roman Catholic category worth noting is the Associations of the Faithful. According to Roman Catholic Canon 298.1:

“In the Church there are associations distinct from Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, in which the Christian faithful, either clergy or laity or clergy and laity together, strive by common effort to promote a more perfect life or to foster public worship or Christian doctrine or to exercise other apostolic works, namely to engage in efforts of evangelization, to exercise works of piety or charity and to animate the temporal order with the Christian spirit.” 1

The popular Community Chiming Neuf is an example of such an Association. It is an ecumenical group with members lay and ordained, celibate and married and of other denominations. It has members from Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and Protestant churches. They wear habits and operate ‘houses’ that to most people are indistinguishable from the houses of Religious Orders or Congregations. This community is quite active in my Archdeaconry and I have personal knowledge that the Roman Catholic authorities in the region do not have a clear understanding of their actual canonical status. Oblates, Tertiaries, and Third Order Members fall into this category.

Although there are some forms of the Religious Life in the Protestant Tradition such as the Lutheran Franciscans for Peace or the Taize Community, most of the remaining traditional Religious in the Western Church are found in the Anglican Communion. The existence of Anglican Religious in the life of the Communion for almost 150 years has not led to a widespread awareness of their existence amongst Anglicans in many Provinces of the world. The association of Religious Communities with High Church ecclesiology has meant that in parts of the Communion evangelised by High Church Missionary Societies the presence of Anglican Religious is well known whereas in those parts of the world evangelised by ‘low’ church missionary societies their presence is largely unknown. For example, in Southern Africa, evangelised by the two ‘High’ church missionary societies UMCA (Universities Mission to Central Africa) and SPG (Society for the Propagation of the Gospel), Religious played an active role from the beginning. The Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu was educated by the Community of the Resurrection and followed Archbishop Trevor Huddleston CR a Professed Member of that Community. He in turn had followed Archbishop John Selby-Taylor OGS a Professed Member of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd. These three men represent the main thrust of the Anglican voice against apartheid. No Anglican in South Africa is unaware that there are Religious in the Anglican Communion. However, if you go north to Uganda, evangelised by the ‘Low’ church missionary society CMS (Church Missionary Society) they would think a sister in a habit was a Roman Catholic.

The non centralised nature of the Anglican Communion means that there are some canonical irregularities throughout the Communion as to how Religious are categorised. For example my own community is canonically a Religious Order in two of our four Provinces and a Religious Community in the other two. For example in North America the body with oversight is CAROA (Conference of Anglican Religious Orders in America). This body comprises members from the Episcopal Church of the United States under Title III Canon 30 (Of Religious Orders and Other Christian Communities) and the Anglican Church of Canada under its Terms of Reference of the relevant Standing Committee (Terms of Reference of the House of Bishops Standing Committee on Religious Communities in the Anglican Church of Canada). The American Church makes a differentiation between Religious Orders and Religious Communities in much the same way as the Church of Rome including provisions for Consecrated Hermits, Virgins and Widows (although using different language) whereas the Church in Canada only recognises Religious Communities, which by their definition is restricted to Religious Orders.

This lack of uniformity is not much of an issue for Anglican Religious as many of the Anglican Communion’s Religious belong to international bodies and thus rely on International directives rather than Provincial ones. The main reference for this is Anglican Religious Life: A Year Book of the Religious orders and communities in the Anglican Communion and tertiaries, oblates, associates and companions. This replaces the old annual Anglican Religious Communities Yearbook. Here you can see the overall way the Communion understands the Religious Life. To begin with it is not as formal and specific in the way the Roman Church is. Each Province has a way of recognising and categorising Communities for canonical and legal purposes. However the Communion itself sees three distinct groups: Traditional Celibate Religious Orders and Communities, Dispersed Celibate Religious Orders and Communities, and Acknowledged Communities. A distinction is specifically not used to distinguish between the use of the word ‘Order’ and the use of the word ‘Community’ as all in the first two sections have Professed Members who take Solemn Vows. It is acknowledged that we have Communities of monks, friars, and those equivalents to the apostolic orders. As we are a small enough group we do not need a directory or a Canon to tell us the difference. There are currently 2,395 celibate Religious in the Anglican Communion in 110 different Communities.

We have now reached a point when we can begin to make some key comparisons between the two main Western bodies which posses Religious before moving on to analyse the New Monasticism. The first is that there is a substantial overlap in the way the two churches understand the Religious Life. There is a shared understanding about the difference between an Order/ Congregation and a Secular Institute as well as a further distinction for Associations of the Faithful. Although Anglicans do not spell this out in canon law to the degree Romans do in practice the same distinctions are made. Anglicans have all of the same categories as Rome just unstated: Monks and Nuns, Friars, Apostolic Orders (the Community of the Resurrection), Secular Institutes we called ‘Religious Communities’ in the USA, Societies of the Apostolic Life (the Oratory is quite similar being partially based on the Oratory of St Philip Neri although Professed Members may take Solemn Vows), and Associations of the Faithful such as the Third Order Franciscans and the Companions, Associates, and Oblates of the various Religious Communities. The Anglican Communion even has hermits (Harold SSF the Hermit of Northumberland), consecrated virgins and even two anchorites in the Church of England.

This completes the background and structural reviews of the two main Western traditions of the Religious Life. Yet there are new movement within both of these ecclesial bodies that are changing the traditional way of viewing the Religious Life. Each is seeing the beginnings of a ‘New Monasticism’.

Since Vatican II the change in the ordering of the Religious Life has been profound. Many of the Religious Orders relaxed their traditional institutionalism and began to concentrate more on evangelical work to the wider world. Most Religious Congregation ceased to dress in any way that would distinguish themselves from the laity (even if the taint of institutionalism was always there to be spotted by a trained eye). The traditional monastic practices of contemplation, meditation, lectio divena, and an ordered rule of life came to be seen as a way to build bridges with a society that seemed ‘lost at sea’. The resurgence in the spiritual writings of the Desert Fathers, especially John Cassian, began to be seen as an alternative to the new spiritualities arising in the West in the late sixties and early seventies. Some, such as the Benedictine Dom Bede Griffiths OSB and the Jesuit Anthony de Mello SJ, intentionally tried to build bridges with non Christian traditions. The writings of Thomas Merton OCSO, a great apologist for the monastic life, soared in popularity. The Benedictine John Main OSB and his disciple Laurence Freeman OSB began the meditation work with mantras that led to the establishment of the World Community for Christian Meditation. Although begun in the 1930, Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement, continued to grow as a radical way for intentional community living and to also engage with the tradition of radical hospitality and ministry amongst the downtrodden. Jean Vanier’s L'arche Community merged a radical acceptance of the stranger, community living, and care for the severely handicapped into one of the most powerful spiritual movements of the late 20th century. Although vocations to the traditional Religious Life began to drop significantly the rise of alternate forms of religious community began to climb. The final canonical recognition by the Roman Church of the Secular Institutes is a sign of this movement. The proliferation of radical Association for the Faithful operating under the old forms of Religious Congregations has also challenged the traditional role that the Consecrated Life has in the life of the Church. Lastly the social and political radical Liberation Theology propounded by many Jesuit and Dominican brothers in central and South America in the later part of the 20th century also shed new light on what the witness of the Religious Life could be. All in all, the change in the Consecrated Life in the Roman Catholic Church in the last forty years has been greater than at any other time since the Reformation and the rise of the Apostolic Orders or the 13th century with the rise of the Mendicant Orders of friars. Roman Catholics quite rightly refer to the proliferation of these new influences as ‘new’. They would not use the word monasticism, but they could certainly say the rise of the ‘New Consecrated Life’.

A rapid change in Religious Life in the Anglican Communion is also apparent. We too have seen the death of many of the older traditional Orders as the vocations for the traditional Religious Life dried up. Yet at the same time that the Religious Orders were facing their greatest threat many in the church came to see them as indispensable resources for the life of the wider church. The present Archbishop of Canterbury speaks consistently about the necessity for the Religious Life in the Communion. He worries that the lack of vocations to the Religious Life might mark the beginning of something dire, like the proverbial canary in the mine.

One of the marks of the revival of the Religious Life in Anglicanism is that the early communities lacked the confidence to just lead contemplative lives. They had to ‘prove’ themselves to a church hostile to this new Anglo-Catholic plot to take us back to Rome. So the early Orders worked tirelessly to justify their existence. We ran seminaries, schools, hospitals, ran publishing companies, and travelled relentlessly giving talks and leading retreats. It was only much later that we seemed to become settled and wished to concentrate on the true vocation that, the monastics at least, had. By then it was often too late and the pressures on the Orders had grow to the point that it was hard from them to ever just sit and be. For example, when my community established groups of companions and associates almost 100 years ago, it was to support the work of the Professed Brethren. They were to pray for us and assist us in our missionary work overseas. Although they kept a Rule of Life and reported to the Companions Secretary regularly, the rest of the Brethren simply relied on their prayerful and tangible support. Today most companions and associates belong to us because they desire Oratorians as their spiritual directors and confessors. Many seem to belong because we have both the contacts and the money to provide extraordinary annual retreat leaders from overseas. In other words the roles have reversed and the Professed now spend a great deal of our time supporting and encouraging the companions and associates!

The same changes to the Spirit of the Religious Life that were occurring in the Roman Communion also began to be seen in our own Orders. Most became less institutional, more laid back and informal. Many embraced the Liturgical Movement with enthusiasm and were radical in their reordering of the liturgy. The Society of St John the Evangelist became so different from the mother society in England that the two split and it is now difficult to imagine them as ever coming from the same source. The Society of St Frances began to move into the margins of society such as Bushwick in Brooklyn and engaged with the ‘drop-outs’ of the psychedelic age. Many monasteries, friaries, and religious houses that had been indistinguishable from their Roman equivalents a few years previously were now literally overrun with hippies and anti-war demonstrators. The photographs from the Mother House of the Order of the Holy Cross from 1969-1973 are shocking. Many seemed to see the Religious Life as a template for community living and went on to found their own experiments with community living in the communes. However the popularity did not last and by the time of the yuppies severe decline in the Orders was once again noticeable.

Yet the rapid change had left the Orders permanently changed. The spirit of the age of change was kept alive by the desire to explore traditional spiritual practices in a new way, an interest and dedication to environmental issues, and the shift from the deadening of the ego to the pursuit of authenticity and holistic being. I remember once speaking with the elderly Superior of one of the Communion’s oldest monastic Orders about the change that had taken place. I told him that I hoped he would not take offence but that it seemed to me that the motherhouse of the Order no longer seemed like a monastery but much more like a friary. I expressed my observation that the traditional values of ‘dying to self’ through intense contemplation, silence, humility, and obedience seemed to have gone. The monks were fun, relaxed, and had strong and distinct personalities. They had hobbies, watched TV and had personal computers in their cells. They also took bi-annual holidays. “That would be expected in Franciscans”, I observed to him, “but rather strange in Benedictines”. He was not insulted but rather sadly told me “there are no monks left in the Order we are all just brothers now.” This significant change in the spirituality of the Anglican Religious Orders can best be seen in the published new rule of the North American Society of Saint John the Evangelist. In no way am I criticising this new way of being Religious just observing that it is ‘new’.

The last significant change in the charism of the Religious Life in the Anglican Communion has been the rise of the technical ‘Religious Communities’ as defined by the canons of the Episcopal Church of the United States. Although other Provinces may not have the specific canons they do have the phenomena. In the Church of England the concept of lay religious communities similar to the Roman concept of Secular Institutes has been around in Anglo-Catholic circles since after the Second World War but usually attached to a Religious Order of the Solemnly Professed. Iris Murdock’s fourth novel, The Bell, takes place in a lay community, Imber Court, across the lake from an Anglican Benedictine convent. It is important to remember that these communities have existed in Anglicanism, albeit rarely, since Carolinian times. Nicholas Ferrar’s community of Little Gidding being the chief example.

However the new Anglican communities seem to be of two very different kinds. The first is referred to in many circles in the know as ‘two queens and a sewing machine’ referring to the punch line of the joke “what does it take to start a new Anglican Order?” As this particular phenomenon particularly irritates me the least said the better. It is the epitome of form over substance. Another adage in Anglican Religious circles is ‘the more elaborate the habit the simpler the discipline’, or something along the same lines. The significant complaint here is that many of those who are dressing in habits and using Religious post nominals after their names and telling everyone they can think of that they are a ‘monk’ or a ‘nun’ do not meet even the base requirements for any of these things. They do not renounce property or keep a common purse, do not live in community, and are not celibate! In some cases the man who looks like he just stepped out of Brother Cadfael novel, has a Rule of Life that is less strict that that of a Companion, Oblate or Tertiary of an actual Order. The fact that the church tolerates this type of spiritual romanticism is, to my mind, spiritually harmful both to the adherent and to those who might be tempted to also come and play dress up instead of joining an actual discerning movement. The often added overly romantic uncritical ‘renewal’ of Celtic spiritual practices does not add to the attractiveness of the package.

Luckily, although they are all too common in my mind, this is not the bulk of the new communities. The new Communities recognised by the Episcopal Church are similar to the Roman Secular Institutes. The only difference I can discern is that the Anglican groups do not seem to posses the same clarity of self identity the Roman ones do. The priest who happily informed me he and his wife were ‘in a Religious Order just like you’ when learning I was an Oratorian, I found disturbing. The community in question, The Rivendell Community (yes – named after the Elvin sanctuary in the Lord of the Rings) is a recognised ‘Religious Community’ of the Episcopal Church. Yet its vision statement is fuzzy and its use of vocabulary a bit faddish. It seems more like a group of like minded people comfortably finding community than some of the more radical Secular Institutes in the Roman Communion with very rigorous demands made on its members both in terms of finances and communal obedience. The other major difference is that whereas a few Secular Institutes allow for married members most do not and require celibacy, financial simplicity or poverty, and obedience. No Anglican group requires any of these things although many suggest it.

Taken together, the change in the spiritual disciplines of the traditional Religious Orders and the rise of the Religious Communities has changed the landscape of the Anglican Religious Life. We often speak about the ‘New Monasticism’ but we mean something very different by it.

What most people do mean by the term is the movement by Protestant evangelicals moving away from the world of the consumer mega churches to the ‘edges of empire’. The coiner of the term ‘New Monasticism’ is Jonathan Wilson who did so in his 1998 book Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World: Lessons for the Church from MacIntrye’s ‘After Virtue’. Alasdair MacIntyre ended his own book with the call for

“the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through dark ages which are already upon us...We are waiting for another – doubtless very different – St . Benedict.” 2

Wilson saw that a movement could stem from his own Anabaptist background and

“(1) it will be marked by a recovery of the telos of this world” revealed in Jesus, and aimed at the healing of fragmentation, bringing the whole of life under the lordship of Christ; (2) it will be aimed at the “whole people of God” who live and work in all kinds of contexts, and not create a distinction between those with sacred and secular vocations; (3) it will be disciplined, not by a recovery of old monastic rules, but by the joyful discipline achieved by a small group of disciples practicing mutual exhortation, correction, and reconciliation; and (4) it will be “undergirded by deep theological reflection and commitment.” 3

In 2004 some members of these new monastic communities came together and set out twelve marks of ‘New Monasticism’.

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 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

These seem to have been accepted by many within the movement even if they were not directly involved with drafting them. They have come to be seen as the expression of the charism of the movement.

One of the communities with the most publicity is the Rutba community in Durham North Carolina. This is where the twelve marks were drafted. The community was founded by the daughter and son of law of Jonathan Wilson who coined the term ‘New Monasticism’. The founders started off as peace activists in Iraq trying to stop violence and when they returned to the United States formed an intentional community in a poor area of the city. They share common meals, keep and common purse and use the book of Common prayer for communal prayers. Yet for all of their publicity the community has only 5 members. The Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston Illinois is the ‘grandfather’ of the movement having been in existence since the 1950s. This Mennonite expression grew to almost 150 people in the late seventies although it now has only 33 members. Although the lifestyle is similar to the Rutba community it differs significantly in that it owns a great deal of real estate and is quite wealthy. The Church of the Servant King in Eugene Oregon boasts 23 members of its community and began as a pacifist group. It runs bookstores and a publishing house for ‘New Monastic’ literature.

The constant theme that runs through the commentary on these communities is the support of the deep and radical commitment to going against the grain of mainstream American values. These groups value stability and seek to stop the pursuit of financial striving and moving widely to gain better jobs. They support community life and have a passion for social justice. The word that seems to pop up the most is ‘radical’.

The Fellowship of International Christian Communities’ website lists 84 Intentional non Roman or Anglican communities throughout the world. It lists another 93 as being ‘formed’. As far as I can discover this seems to be roughly the size of the movement of the New Monasticism. The membership of each community tends to be very small with only a handful of adherents in each community. A very generous assumption of numbers (as no figure exist), assuming an average of ten people per community and 5 for each forming community, would place the number of members at about 1300. This is a remarkably small number considering the other forms of community life already discussed.

This now brings us to my conclusion about the movement known as ‘The New Monasticism’. Nowhere in the literature of the movements or the descriptions of the communities is there any hint of a Christian life that is novel. To begin with, the focus on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre’s work on Teleological ethics, the recovery of an Aristotelian value system, or his attack on the post-enlightenment's moral worldview are in any way confined to these groups. MacIntyre, himself a Roman Catholic, is a widely read theologian in most mainstream Western traditions. His influence has been vast and to assume that Wilson is the only one to take up the challenge of coming up with a new St Benedict is naive. What is clear is that many reading MacIntyre’s After Virtue are already leading such a life in their own ecclesial communities. What is different about Wilson, to be blunt, is that he is a Protestant without the structural and theological framework already in place for intentional Christian communities.

From the perspective of an Anglican Religious the musings of the New Monasticism on the ‘radical’ move to live in community, to live simply and chastely, and with a view towards radical hospitality and social work seems ecclesiolgically immature. I do not mean this in an insulting way but rather as an ecclesiological and sociological observation. It is like watching a teenager discovering surrealistic art and thinking they have made a huge ‘discovery’. The immaturity lies in the fact that they do not realise everyone else already knows about it. The enthusiasm with which they speak of Christian discipleship amongst the downtrodden and the re-discovery (an often used word in this literature) of ideas on stability of living with the marginalised, and the spiritual practices of contemplation, and communal prayer is heartening but hardly ‘radical’ (unless all forms of the Religious Life are ‘radical’). The fact that they are so surprised by their new discovery speaks of an insularity and a deep lack of ecclesiastical sophistication (in the proper sense of the word meaning breadth of experience and knowledge).

Why is it ‘news’ when a Protestant group ‘rediscovers’ the centrality of the Eucharist, or the use of liturgy or the liturgical seasons, or the helpfulness in learning about the lives of the Saints? The Liturgical Movement has completely altered the liturgical expression of mainline Protestantism in the last forty years. It is no longer surprising to find Protestant bodies wearing liturgical vestments and keeping Advent and Lent. Indeed it is surprising if they don’t. Many evangelical bodies have yet to be influence by the Liturgical Movement but it is hardly radical when they are just the last to jump on the ship. It may seem new to them but surely any brief experience or study of modern movements in Western Christianity would make them more bashful about jumping around and making a big noise about it? The only way they could so unselfconsciously proclaim themselves as coming up a ‘new’ expression or ‘re-discovery’ of a way of Christian life is if they were so ecclesially myopic that they were unaware of the vast experience of Christians throughout the world. The writings of John Cassian are not new or re-discovered – they have been read by at least every Benedictine since the sixth century and have formed the core of the Novitiate classes of most monastic communities.

Noticeably lacking in the movement is any engagement with or comparison with the living Christian tradition in the ecclesial bodies that have maintained this form of life as one of its charisms. Each of the communities I looked at live in large urban areas that will have dozens of local examples of “intentional communities’ albeit mostly Roman Catholic or Anglican. Yet they make no reference to any that I can find. The prolific use of the internet for networking, a phenomenon they all share in common, makes the situation much more puzzling. Do they only look at Protestant evangelical sites? Would you not look at well established practical guidelines for ensuring the stability of such a community by looking at those who have survived the test of time? Would they not be just interested in those who share the same ideals? One of the distinct features of the Religious Life is that the members tend to think of themselves are transcending traditional denominational definitions. As such it is within the Religious Life that you find the most ecumenism. The National and International bodies of many of the Orders also include those who follow the same Rule of Life but hold to another ecclesial body. Thus the Anglican and the Roman Benedictines all belong to the same group, as it is with the Franciscans.

The Roman Catholic Church is by far the largest Christian body in the world, the Orthodox second and the Anglican Communion third. All have the Religious Life as part of their structure and spiritual life. To put it into perspective, out of the 2.1 billion Christians in the world today 1.6 billion of them are Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican (1.2 billion Roman Catholics, 286 million Orthodox, 82 million Anglicans). Thus ignorance of the traditions and structures of a central spiritual charism in the Church both East and West is difficult to explain. Yet I believe that, in the end, this is the key to understanding the ‘New Monasticism’.

I contend that there is nothing in the ‘New Monasticism’ that is new. The only thing that is new is that most of the practitioners are American evangelical Protestants. The tenants laid out in their twelve points are all foundational to Orders and Congregations that have existed throughout the Church’s history. Thus I believe the hype about the movement is just within the evangelical Protestant community and has little relevance to the wider church except as another example that many of the practices abandoned at the Reformation were done so too hastily.

One must be pleased with the recovery of the tradition of the Consecrated Life by any ecclesial body impoverished by the lack of them. They deserve support and encouragement. I am deeply aware that my response to the ‘New Monastic’ movement can be read as condescending ‘look the Protestants have rediscovered the Sacraments – how quaint’. This is not my intention. Rather I believe it is part of the continued influence of the Liturgical Movement to reequip all the churches with all the tools of the tradition of Church and not just some. The emergence of a New Monasticism is just one more tool in the toolbox.

Yet it is still difficult to know how to take the movement as seriously as it takes itself. It is difficult for me not to take offence at Scott Bessenger's book The New Friars: the Emerging Movement Serving the World’s Poor. He claims that there is arising a new movement of ‘monks’ with the same mission that the original ‘monks’ had yet in a new incarnation. This book is a good example of what I find difficult to take seriously in the movement. It is a summary of many point already made. To begin with friars are NOT monks. Monks did not and do not have a mission like the other Orders did. How can there be a ‘new’ incarnation of Franciscanism when Franciscanism is one of the most popular forms of the Consecrated Life in the Western church? There are already hundreds of thousands of Professed Franciscans committed to apostolic work amongst the poor of the world. There are 197 Professed Franciscans and 3181 Third Order Franciscans in the Anglican Communion alone. Yet Scott Besseneker describes only a handful of twenty-something ‘New Friars’ for the foundation of his book. He makes claims for the ‘New Friars’ as follows:

  • Incarnational: The new friars seek to be the gospel by becoming part of the communities of the dispossessed among whom they seek to serve, moving into their informal shantytowns and becoming, to a large degree, one of them.
  • Devotional: The new friars are organized around a set of spiritual commitments to govern their walk with Jesus, with one another, and with the communities of lost, poor, or broken souls into which they have moved.
  • Communal: The new friars live together and hold in common many of those things that they held privately before joining the community.
  • Missional: The new friars have something of the spirit of mission-driven monks and nuns in them, leaving their mother countries and moving to those parts of the world where little is known about Jesus.
  • Marginal: The new friars are on the fringe of the mainstream church and they seek to plant themselves amount people who exist on the edge of society (sex workers, street kids, orphans and families who are simply trapped in poverty). 5

    It is hard for someone like me who lived and worked with the Society of Saint Francis for many years as a teenager to not be taken aback by this. In the early 1990s between the age of 19 and 23 I lived with Franciscans in both the United States and Scotland. They always lived in run down houses and apartment blocks in the poorest areas of the towns where they existed. We rose at 4:30 in the morning to begin work in the Soup Kitchen for the very poorest of the poor and spent afternoon working in an A.I.D.S. hospice during the years of the most prejudice against those with full blown A.I.D.S. Being an ardent admirer of Franciscanism I am astounded by the lack of knowledge of what the ‘old’ Franciscans do. There is not one single solitary thing in the list that does NOT pertain to the ‘old’ friars.

    He goes on to say the ‘new’ friars are different from the ‘old’ friars in the following ways:

  • The modern movement is not predominantly a Catholic movement. It is, however, theologically broad enough for Catholics and Protestants to serve together.
  • The modern movement is not just for males. “Friar” is an exclusively male term, while the emerging movement is majority female and includes families.
  • The modern movement is vocationally diverse. The sort of transformation new friars seek in the world’s poorest communities requires them to become, or at least to integrally enfold into their communities, organizational executives, business entrepreneurs, policy advocates, lawyers and any number of professional roles not afforded the strictly dedicated life of a clergyman.
  • The new friar communities have not taken vows of celibacy. An ecumenical community of families and singles serving among the poor will produce an entirely different environment than a community of gender exclusive individuals committed to living their entire lives in a state of celibacy.

    Once again the claims he makes are simply ludicrous. There are many non-Roman Catholic Franciscan Orders: The Society of St Francis, The Community of St Francis, The Community of St Clare, The Little Brothers of Francis, The Order of Ecumenical Franciscans, The Order of St Francis, The Little Sisters of St Clare, The Company of Jesus, The St Francis Ecumenical Society, The Ecumenical Franciscan Society, The Kanaan Franciscan Brothers and the Evangelical Sisters of Mary, the Order of the Servant Franciscans and the Conventual Community of St Francis. There are also several Lutheran Franciscan communities. Has he not heard of any of these groups? Did he not do any research on Franciscans before writing a book on how to live like one? There have always been Female Franciscans they are simply called Poor Clare’s. St Francis founded them himself. Both the Roman and Anglican Church as well as many ecumenical communities also provides for female Franciscans who are not Poor Clair’s and have an almost identical rule as that of the male friars. The Anglican Franciscan community alone is most famous for the raising up of new members in Polynesia and Melanesia and especially Papua New Guinea. The Third Order Franciscans also have married members and lead secular lives. St Francis founded them for this very purpose. How then can the claim be made for ‘new’ friars when there is nothing that distinguishes from the ‘old’ friars except that they do not use the terminology and structures set down by St Francis himself? The ignorance of adapting one of the most ancient and beloved forms of Western Spiritual Religious Life, changing absolutely nothing about it, and then calling it ‘new’ is breathtaking. It is simply not ‘new’ just because you did not know it already existed and could not be bothered to read anything about it.

    In conclusion I, once again, content that the ‘New Monasticism’ is not ‘new’ and is not ‘monasticism’. Its claim to attention is that it is an example of evangelical Christians re-claiming pre Reformation modes of life and practices as part of the wider impact of the Liturgical Movement. The numbers involved are so small it and most of the communities are so new I found it impossible to discern if there is anything sustainable in the movement. The lack of any formal structures that unite the groups made the task much more difficult. Much more time needs to pass before the movement can be objectively analysed. The fact that there is so much material being published on the subject distorts the importance of the movement until one realises the fact that it is almost all being produced ‘in house’ and does not include any objective, analytical , or academic volumes.

    Instead I would claim that the significant change in the Religious Life in the Western Church in either the Roman or Anglican Communion or both would be better described by the term. There is certainly more there to digest. There is also the rise of the ‘New Monasticism’ in numerous ecumenical communities such as Taize that may very well be better described by the term than the movement it does describe.

    Phyllis Tickler was interviewed by Ian Mobsby, one of the main proponents of the New Monasticism in the UK, on the website Moot on the Christian Emergent Religion. She concludes her conversation about the New Monasticism with Mr Mobsby by hinting that perhaps Anglicans might have something to offer in way of guidance to these new groups. I would make that claim more explicitly.


    1) Code of Canon Law: Latin-English Edition, Canon Law Society of America, 1983, Canon 298.1.

    2) Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Notre Dame: The University of Notre Dame Press, 2nd ed., 1984, p.263.

    3) Jonathan Wilson, Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World: Lessons for the Church from MacIntyre’s ‘After Virtue’, Trinity Press International, 1998, p.69

    4) Rutba House, School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism, Cascade Books, 2005, p.xii, xiii.

    5) Scott Bessenecker, The New Friars: The Emerging Movement Serving the World’s Poor, IVP Book, 2006, p. 74,85,106,119,135.