New Monasticism as Fresh Expression of Church? Book Review

image What’s new monasticism got to do with the emerging church? That’s a question that receives a variety of answers in a new book edited by Graham Cray, Ian Mosby and Aaron Kennedy, Ancient Faith, Future Mission: New Monasticism as Fresh Expression of Church (2010, Canterbury Press).

But the first question raised by the title of this book may very well be: what is ‘new monasticism’ in the first place?

As several of the authors of the chapters admit, new monasticism isn’t exactly ‘new’. It is rather old, in fact, in that it self-consciously draws on ancient traditions in the wider church.

What seems to me to be new is the realisation that the insights of monastic life may be especially well-suited for engaging in a Western, post-Christian culture in which parish structures, evangelical tent meetings and altar calls no longer resonate with the ‘unchurched’ and the ‘de-churched.’ There also is a sense that more new monastic communities have been formed, both in the UK and the US, within the last generation.

For those involved with this movement (the authors of the chapters are all to some degree embedded in new monastic communities), new monasticism offers both a more meaningful and engaged spiritual life, as well as a better method for mission and evangelisation of post-Christian cultures.

To give the readers a sense of what new monasticism looks and feels like, in his chapter Mosby identifies ‘three forms’ present in the movement:

  1. A group ‘inspired by monks and nuns who have established new places for prayer and contemplation, gathering communities of people for worship and loving action in the local community with the de- and never- churched’ (i.e. Contemplative Fire in West Sussex and Sheffield, mayBe in Oxford and the Northumbria Community), p 13-14
  2. A group that identify with the ‘friar tradition’, which lives together in an intentional community in ‘rough and unsafe places where the majority of local inhabitants are never churched’ (i.e. Simple Way in Philadelphia, the Sojourner Community in San Francisco), p. 14
  3. A group that ‘combines both the monk and friar models’ (i.e. 24-7 Boiler Room communities and the Moot Community in London), p. 14

This book directly identifies new monasticism with ‘fresh expressions’, a moniker used widely in the UK to refer to what in the US is usually called the emerging church. Perhaps most closely identified with the Church of England, the Fresh Expressions website puts it this way:

Fresh Expressions encourages new forms of church for a fast changing world, working with Christians from a variety of denominations and traditions. The initiative has resulted in hundreds of new congregations being formed alongside more traditional churches.

My own gut feeling is that new monasticism is at least a close cousin of other forms of the emerging church. And, like the wider emerging church, I think the new monastic communities can bring a lot that is of value to the wider church.

In this book, three chapters stood out for me for the messages that they have for the wider church:

Shane Claiborne: ‘Marks of a New Monasticism.’

I recently had a Facebook exchange with a friend who asked:

Is the emergent church bourgeois? What is its engagement with, understanding of, or presence in politically or economically marginalised communities? Discuss. heheheheheheh…

I replied: To attempt to answer that, it would be convenient to claim the likes of Simple Way (Shane Claiborne) types for the emerging church, but not sure if that’s exactly right either …

To which the next reply was:

Whether Claiborne would consider himself part of the emergent conversation is open to debate, I guess. He’s usually the name that is mentioned when I bring this up, leading me to believe that he fulfils the same role in making the emergent movement ‘socially conscious’ that St. Brigid does in making the early Irish church ‘feminist’.

I can certainly see the point that my friend was making. The Simple Way vision of living with the disadvantaged in the ‘abandoned places of the empire’ is a compelling one that seems to me to get to the very heart of what Jesus’ ministry on earth actually was like. The challenge is that so few Christians, including myself, really live this way.

Pete Askew: ‘Pilgrimage: A School of Transformation’

Askew’s chapter draws on his experience in the Northumbria Community, which, like some of the other chapters, advocates Christians adopting some sort of ‘rule’ to guide their lives. Askew’s rule of life includes:

  • a discipline of prayer
  • exposure to scripture
  • willingness to be accountable to others in ordering our ways and our heart in order the effect change (p. 95)

I also appreciated that Askew didn’t try to claim that the Northumbria Community, the new monastic movement, or the emerging church was there to be a haven for super-Christians or some sort of super-Church. He says:

‘… we don’t see ourselves as creating a full expression of church, much less a mature one, with the sense of arrival this can imply; we need the rest of the body of Christ. Never having recruited members, we find that some o four folk belong to local denominational church congregations, others have left the denominational churches, and some have found faith through the community and have never been part of a denomination. This, of course, disturbs the past boundaries of what is church, but that is where a commitment to be ‘church without walls’ has taken us, and where the monastic and mendicant traditions have been for generations.’ (p. 99)

Ray Simpson: Celtic Monastic Inheritance and New Monasticism

I was captivated by this chapter, and its account of the lives of St Martin of Tours, the Irish monk Aidan, and St Hilda of Whitby. Simpson is trying to reclaim something of the Celtic monastic heritage for the church in England, arguing that this history is not just overlooked but could also serve as an inspiration for the present. He sees the Celtic-inspired Lindisfarne Gospels as a ‘first manifesto of the English Church,’ writing that:

‘The three Scripture passages highlighted focus on the Beatitudes, Jesus’ desert testings and the parable of the Father’s hospitality. Were these three monastic values: the simplicity, the desert and the hospitality intended to be the birthright of the English church?’

I would add, for that matter: were they intended to be the birthright of our universal church?

(The Moot Community in London has a series of podcasts discussing this book, available here: Part 1, Part 2.)

One thought on “New Monasticism as Fresh Expression of Church? Book Review”

  1. Very interesting post Gladys – I wonder if the Corymeela community would in the broadest sense fit into these movements.

    I have spent time on retreat with the Northumbria community and been very impressed them…..certainly they have much to teach the protestant churches in genral


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