Amidst the ruins of World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi theologian, wrote about the need to practice “a new kind of monasticism” in the church. There was a need, he wrote, to find creative ways of practicing “life together” as disciples of Jesus.
Two professors of evangelism in The United Methodist Church, Elaine Heath (at Perkins School of Theology) and Scott Kisker (at Wesley Theological Seminary), also write about the need to practice a new kind of monasticism. In their book Longing for Spring, they share how The United Methodist Church needs to explore new avenues of living out the call to discipleship.
Heath and Kisker want to engage United Methodists in how a new monastic movement among laity and clergy may contribute to renewal. There is a desire, they insist, to address the longings of those who want to practice the “rule of life” taught by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Their work grows out of the conviction that the Wesleyan revival was a form of monasticism that brought people from all walks of life into a deeper relationship with Christ.
To persons who may have thought that monasticism was for those who secluded themselves from the world, it may be good to remember within Protestantism there have always been intentional communities that practiced what we might call a monastic rule of life – Brethren, Puritan and German Pietist groups come to mind. Of course, the early Methodists were very intentional about practicing the General Rules in highly disciplined bands, classes and societies. The Rule of “doing no harm, doing all the good you can, and practicing the ordinances of God” only makes sense in a visible community of accountability. Holiness in Wesleyan terms is always social holiness.
What might a new monasticism mean for United Methodists today? According to the 2004 United Methodist Book of Discipline (Para.161.b), we discover support for forms of monasticism, such as Koinonia Farms and “other religious orders and corporate church life.” United Methodists are encouraged to find “ways of understanding the needs and concerns of such groups and find ways of ministering to them and through them.”
Interestingly, this paragraph was removed from the 2008 Book of Discipline. However, as an example of a monastic community, Koinonia Farms is an example of the kind of disciplined church life supported by United Methodists. We also may recall how Koinonia Farms was the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity and other ministries of racial reconciliation.
What about a monastic movement in the church? Might the General Conference in Tampa this spring encourage and engage such a movement? What might it mean for a bishop to appoint a person to a monastic community created by United Methodists? How might students and faculties on college campuses practice the Wesleyan “rule of life”? In addition, how might local churches act as “anchor churches” to support those who want to minister in a Methodist Order along the lines of say Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity?
Sound improbable? The late Albert Outler suggested years ago that Methodism at its best was an “evangelical order” within the wider church, providing the means whereby persons could grow in holiness. Having participated in the Walk to Emmaus, the Academy of Spiritual Formation or Covenant Discipleship Groups, United Methodists may have some notion of what a new monasticism might look like, as these opportunities provide occasions to learn the way of discipleship. Such avenues also offer the kind of support that can order the Christian life toward mission and service.
Those who want to learn more about the new monasticism will want to attend one or more of the following sessions in 2012: Shane Claiborne will be at St. Luke’s UMC in Indy on Feb. 16-17, and Elaine Heath will be coming to St. Andrew UMC in West Lafayette on March 18; Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove of Rutba House in Durham, N.C. will be at the United Methodist-related University of Indianapolis on March 22. All of these individuals are involved in practicing the kind of wisdom Methodists have cultivated from the beginning. More importantly, they all address the deep longings of the heart that make discipleship the journey it is.
Andy Kinsey is pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Franklin, Ind. and Indiana Conference’s Wesleyan Scholar.