Nearly ten years ago, Christianity Today highlighted the emergence of “the new monastics,” referring to them as an “intentional community” of “new friars.” The September 2005 article traced the birth of the new monasticism to a conference in June 2004 where participants drew up a voluntary rule consisting of twelve distinctives that would be the guide for those communities who were voluntarily associating themselves with the movement.
The new monasticism, characterized by Robin Russell as individuals and families who “commit to follow a ‘rule of life’ . . . and they immerse themselves in community life and service,” is without a doubt an important movement in the North American Protestant church, and there is much to commend in it. The name, though, in some ways obscures our impression of historic monasticism—the diverse worlds of the Benedictines, Cistercians, Franciscans, and Dominicans. Though scholars and practitioners of monasticism debate, at times, the very definition of “monasticism,” there is general agreement that married and single people living in some form of close (or even loose) community, even if they follow a rule, is not quite the historic monasticism of the Christian Church, being closer to “intentional community.”
Ten years on it is worth asking why the new monastics prefer something “new” to something historical. Though only adherents can answer this question completely, I will hazard a few guesses: Historic monasticism expects/demands singleness and (by extension) celibacy, whereas many of the new monastics (including some of its main leaders) are married. “Marriage,” of course, is not the antonym of “monastic” but it is somewhat foreign to the institution of monasticism historically.
Historic monasticism also expects individuals to place themselves under a strong authority figure (an abbot/abbess or prior) whose power and authority derives from the community’s rule (e.g., the Rule of Benedict) and customs. Finally, historic monasticism mainly (though not exclusively) focuses on a life of prayer with work viewed as a means for continued praying. Much of the new monasticism is actively engaged in what might be called social justice activism.
There are a handful of historically-oriented monasteries in the Anglican Communion and the Lutheran tradition (and a few ecumenical houses, such as Taizé in France and Iona in Scotland), but there needs to be a larger vision for the reintroduction of monasticism, in its historic forms, into Protestantism. Though full justification for this claim goes beyond the scope of this article, my book Reforming the Monastery: Protestant Theologies of the Religious Life (Cascade Books, 2014) provides a number of arguments from Protestant authors as to why monasticism should be re-introduced into the Protestant churches or, more properly, why it should have never been discarded in the first place.
A sense that monasticism had its place in the Church and even remorse that the institution itself was discarded during the Reformation was never completely absent in Protestant writings of the past five hundred years. Whether it was the Little Gidding “monastic” community of the Ferrar family in early seventeenth century England (made known again by T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets), the Serampore Brotherhood of William Carey in India, or the Finkenwalde seminarians under Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany, the spirit of monasticism (if not the institution itself) has been alive and well in Protestant communities.
In 1833, Anglican priest and Oxford fellow Richard Froude wrote to then-Anglican John Henry Newman that “the present state of things in England makes an opening for reviving the monastic system.” Those seemed like original words at the time. Yet monasticism is one of the most ancient and enduring institutions of the Church. It reached its zenith during the High Middle Ages, but the Reformers weren’t as opposed to it as is commonly thought. Indeed, the late Reformed theologian Donald Bloesch is the most recent advocate for it, but he was only expressing sentiments found in Luther, Calvin, and Barth.
Luther and Calvin both saw value in the institution of monasticism provided it did not involve life-long vows (especially those made indirectly to the pope), was not seen as a superior form of the Christian life, and did not displace baptism. Thus, monasticism was not a superior form of life since all Christian believers were called to the same high standards of holiness. In the words of Luther, “When a [monk] takes his vow he vows nothing more than that which he already vowed at the start in his baptism, and that is the gospel.” Monasticism was simply one form of the Christian life along with non-monastic singleness or parenthood.
By the nineteenth century in England no one was that concerned monasticism would be seen as salvific, and John Henry Newman’s argument found a hearing: “Clergymen at present are subject to the painful experience of losing the more religious portion of their flock. . . . They desire to be stricter than the mass of churchmen, and the church gives them no means.”
In Newman’s thinking these more spiritually inclined church members would convert to Roman Catholicism if they were not offered the same opportunities in the Anglican tradition. Additionally, Newman believed that the antiquity of monasticism was grounds for its presence in the Christian Church. Not everything old belonged in the Church, but monasticism certainly did.
Why? Donald Bloesch offers two convincing reasons: First, an Evangelical monastery “will be a center for evangelism and world mission”; second, the Evangelical monastic community will serve as its critic and be a source of its renewal.
But I would add a third reason: God has been calling individual believers to the monastic life for nearly two thousand years—so why would we presume that he is not still doing so today, even among Protestant Evangelical Christians? If God is calling some to this life then the Church should provide them with the monasteries necessary to live out their calling.
Greg Peters is Associate Professor at the Torrey Honors Institute of Biola University.