New Communities, Monastic Memories

Ancient Faith coverGraham Cray and others, editors, Ancient Faith, Future Mission: New Monasticism as Fresh Expressions of Church, London: Canterbury Press, 2010.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Published in Anglican Messenger, May 2011

From the time of Jesus, some Christians have felt impelled to express their faith in community. The early Christians in Acts 2 “were together and had all things in common.”

In the 3rd Century, desert hermits began to share their lives. By the 6th Century, Saint Benedict founded stable communities in Italy to become exemplars of true Christian living. The 11th and 12th Centuries saw an explosion of lay penitential communities. The friars, both Franciscan and Dominican, took the Gospel on the road.

Monks and friars flourished in England until their violent suppression by Henry VIII. But the impulse to make community did not die: post-Reformation foundations in England include Little Gidding, and William Wilberforce’s Clapham Sect. The Oxford movement re-seeded the idea of religious Orders: Bishop Charles Gore founded the Community of the Resurrection in 1892; James Adderley founded the forerunner of today’s Society of St Francis at about the same time.

Communities have been tried in Perth too. In 1977, for example, Canon John Abraham and an intentional community planted the new parish of Leeming. A group of priests and lay people last year inaugurated the Community of the Beatitudes.

Ancient Faith, Future Mission makes the argument that community living is essential to Christian faith: an argument with bite in the 21st Century where our individualism makes us vulnerable to the twin evils of consumerism and militarism. Communities make us accountable to others and inspire us to express the Gospel more fully.

The chapters of this book introduce readers to a number of UK and US contemporary communities, particularly those who illustrate novel ways of being church. Thus 24/7 Prayer Rooms practise hospitality to marginal city-folk. The Archbishop of York’s The Order of Mission is both centred on a home-base and is also dispersed. Maintaining a rule of life and rhythms of common prayer are vital building blocks for these communities.

Ancient Faith, Future Mission is heavily coloured by its English context. The communities portrayed in it would need adaptation for our Australian idiom.

These new communities clearly have both similarities to, and differences from, the traditional religious orders of the Anglican community. The book assumed that readers know about the Orders and their place in Anglican life, and was in places dismissive of them. The book would have been richer had more of its writers seen the contemporary Society of the Sacred Mission, the Order of Saint Benedict and a dozen others as resources rather than in “terminal care”.

The memory of “old monasticism” provokes “fresh expressions” seeking to find better ways of being Christians in a world full of challenges to Gospel living.

Author: Ted Witham

Husband and father, Grandfather.Franciscan, writer and Anglican priest.

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