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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Emergent Monastic Communities

Tomorrow, at 11 AM, I will be at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Wayne, PA to preach for the Installation of Sr. Barbara Clare (AKA "Ms Conroy") as Abbess of the Anamchara Fellowship.

It's a fairly daunting task, this business of preaching for an Abbess - my first one in 26 years of ordained ministry - but made even more especially so by the fact that I'm preaching for someone I've known and with whom I've shared more than half my life.

My sermon is done but more than three-quarters of what I've written is crumpled up in balls of yellow lined paper and in the trash bin.

Part of what's there is some research I did on monastic communities in general and what I'm calling "emergent monastic communities" in particular, as well as the whole "emergent church movement".

From all that I've read, most of the communities that are popping up, here and there all over the map, are based on the Benedictine idea of stability.  It seems to be in response to the great hunger for community. The need for community is felt all the more deeply because it's lacking.  There is a perception that some have been starved by American individualism into a desperate hunger.

Community is something that churches profess to offer but, for some, either do not go deep enough or fail miserably. The longing - hunger, desire - is for a sense of "neighborhood" where people (the ones Jesus called "neighbors") live in close proximity to each other and share resources, care for one another, and pray together.

It's an ancient form of communal living which has found its way into a modern application without the monastery or convent or even habit or vows of celibacy. Indeed, most of the members of emergent monastic communities are married with children.

But, there's more than just "spiritual hunger" involved in this rise of emergent monasticism. Perhaps the most decidedly unflattering and unflinchingly honest and bold statement about this comes from Elaine A. Heath in her book, The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach.
". . …there are other, deeper indicators of a loss of vitality in the American church. The accommodation of the church to the consumerism, competitiveness, and individualism of postmodern culture is pervasive, from the opulent lifestyle of prosperity gospel preachers to the ubiquitous “worship wars” to pseudoevangelistic “transfer growth” as churches cater to Christians who shop around for a better deal.

The fruitlessness is experienced by renewal-minded pastors who are appointed to dysfunctional congregations, where they experience abuse and contempt; by evangelistic and prophetic lay people who are stifled by insecure clergy; by pathological church board members who think that because they are “big givers” they own the church and the pastor; by a frenetic grab for every new church-growth program and strategy that comes along because [everyone] knows that if the trend continues their church will not survive; by broken women and men who long to find a spiritual community and come home to God, only to be rejected for the unforgivable sin of divorce; by women who are called and gifted by God for pastoral ministry, only to be silenced or driven out because of gender.

Aridity and fruitlessness are found in the consumeristic objectification of prayer, as if prayer were something that should be “tried” because it “works.”

In the midst of this desert we find ourselves face-to-face with our attachments, with the pantheon of religious idols, large and small, that have supplanted the God we claim to worship. "
Some are walking away from "organized religion" because of this. Others are not convinced that "there is no health" in the institutional church and find refuge and support and nourishment in emergent monastic communities which allows them to continue to be members of congregations.

The Anamchara Fellowship is one of these. Based in Celtic Spirituality (Anamchara is a Gaelic word for "soulfriend"), professed members take three vows:
Simplicity of Life: seeking to live without a spirit of accumulation and using all things with gentleness and respect.
Fidelity: living with integrity and faithfulness in the state of life in which God has placed you, striving for peace and mercy for all.
Obedience: being under the authority of the ecclesial jurisdiction of one's denomination and following the guidelines, customary and constitution of the Fellowship.
The thing is that a few of the members live in small community but they are scattered all over the map and in all four directions. In a way, they are a "fellowship" of small communities who gather several times a year regionally and once a year in one place (this year, it's PA, next year, it's MI).

They take full advantage of technology - praying Compline together via Skype once a week, "chatting" online via a listserv, and doing evangelism on their web page.

Everyone must be self-supporting, a member of a church (some are ordained deacons and priests but the great majority are members of the laity) and have a ministry they practice where they are. Some are teachers and nurses and social workers, others are catechists and spiritual directors and pastoral counselors. They are, as they say, " bound to each other by common ideals and a commitment to prayer and service".

Rev'd M. Sterchi and Bp. Brookhart
Anamchara fellowship has received canonical recognition by the House of Bishops' Committee on the Religious Life.

Their Bishop Visitor is The Rt. Rev. C. Frank Brookhart, Diocese of Montana. Their Anamchara is the Rev'd Margaret Sterchi of New Jersey.

There are many "emergent Christians" who share the same affectionate bonds: Phyllis Tickle, Tony Campolo, Brian McLaren, Shane Clairborne, Tony Jones, Diana Butler Bass, Carl McColman, John O'Donohue, Doug Paqitt, Jay Bakker, Richard Rohr, and Jim Wallis of the Sojourners Community - to name just a few of the more contemporary ones. 

Some even include Rob Bell, the evangelical 'upstart' who has openly and publicly suggested that non-Christians like Gandhi and Buddha are, in fact, in heaven.  Imagine!

They have their critics - especially those who find ideas like Celtic or Thomas Merton's spirituality failing in the orthodoxy known to many churches and monastic communities. 

"Squishy evanjellyfish" is one term applied to Tony Campolo and they criticize emergent Christianity as a "perversion of the Christian faith", a "postmodern progressive de-formation of the Christian faith" - as if that were a bad thing - and "a spiritual free fall out into the delusion of creating your own Christianity with a mystic mush god made in your own image".

It's endlessly entertaining to me that, whenever I hear "orthodox Evangelicals" criticize the ideas of others about God and gasp breathlessly that these "neo-pagans" have created a god in their own image, they seem to lack the insight that no one "owns" an image or understanding of God.  Not even them.

Their objections unintentionally reveal a transparent idolatry to an image or understanding of God whose only real credential is that it is ancient. Never mind that Jesus, Himself, shattered ancient images and understandings of God as an angry, punitive, god of retribution. If you want to know God, He said, look at me. Look through me. See that God is love.

One of the ideas of Celtic spirituality that I'm especially fond of is their expression of the Trinity.  "Friendship is the nature of God. The Christian concept of God as Trinity is the most sublime articulation of otherness and intimacy, an eternal interflow of friendship. Jesus is the secret Anamchara of every individual," writes Celtic spirituality author John O'Donohue.

The 'triquetre' or Celtic trinity knot is prominent in all the Anamchara Fellowship literature. Their profession cross, in fact, has a triquetre.

I love the Celtic imagery for the Holy Spirit - a Geadh-Glas - the Wild Goose. Celtic spirituality teaches that the Holy Spirit is the representative of God’s femininity. It provides a wonderful balance, I think, to the heavily male-dominated understanding of God.

In many ways, emergent monastic communities like Anamchara Fellowship are on a "wild goose chase" - in search of the Holy Spirit to renew and revitalize their souls and, in so doing, rediscover the radical roots of Christianity in community.

Oh, to be sure, they are sillies and fools, as those who chase after wild geese - or tilt at windmills or dream the dreams of God for a 'beloved community' - often are.

I can't imagine a better endeavor for those who follow Jesus - nor a new Abbess to lead them in their quest.


Kay & Sarah said...

Oh, my. I had tears in my eyes as I read this. I am a member of an Episcopal church. I feel a deep trust and faith in God but for the past 3 years there has been such turmoil in our church. I feel a commitment there but so much is wrong(for openers the priest appointed her husband bookkeeper, people left) and it is going downhill from there. To connect to something like this could be wonderful. This is food for thought. Thanks.

RevMama said...

From the very beginning, and even before the beginning, the Anamchara Fellowship has clearly been a response to a call from the Holy Spirit. Truly "a wild goose chase," as you said. I have known Julian and Margaret for years and was privileged to watch this community grow from an idea into reality. While I feel no call to be a part of the fellowship (I've tried, but it just isn't there), they are always in my heart and in my prayers. The true test of any religious community is when the leadership passes from the founders to the next generation. I have no doubt that Sr. Barbara Clare will guide the Fellowship in its journey. May God bless the new abbess and the community in their common life and in their mission and ministries.

Matthew said...

Fabulous! But, I thought you were supposed to be retired and yet you work more than most working stiffs I know.

My current parish was led for 3 decades by a Deaconness-in-Charge (because we could not afford a priest). TEC got rid of that order with womens ordination and I get that, but the deaconnessess were an "order" not ordained ministry (this was 1940's, 50's, 60's) and they had their own community, community rules, habits, etc which was all lost with ordination. Makes me wonder if we tossed the baby out with the bathwater. Lutherans still have deaconnesses, woman only orders and those communitarian bonds. But I do like that Anamchara is not single sex.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kay - check out the website. You may find some healing and nourishment for your soul.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Rev Mama. I, too, have watched this community grow. I have not felt a call to it - which may be a blessing - but I deeply admire what they have accomplished.

Let's hold them all in prayer.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - there were many forms and variations of Deaconess which was part of the problem. They were trying to survive in an institutional structure that was neither welcoming nor respectful of their work or their orders. In some cases, we did throw the baby out with the bath water, but, in many cases, the baby was drowning in a swirl of confusion.

If you think I work hard, you should have seen me in the parish. My staff referred to me as "the blur in the hall".