John Bede, Modern Monks and Novel Nuns: A New Monasticism?, e-book self-published, on Amazon.com, ASIN: B00Y1F88U4. 2015. £2.22, pp. 122.
Reviewed by Francis Young, Ely, July 2015
John Bede’s short book is an interesting exploration of new monasticism, a movement that the author is careful not to define in one way but which usually involves consecrated Christians living under a rule of life and subject to spiritual discipline, but without the requirements of celibacy and community life. The author writes from a position of great knowledge and extensive personal experience, having been involved in the foundation of one experiment in new monasticism, the Order of St Cuthbert, in 1983. An Anglican priest and ‘abbot’ of the order, John Bede has written the book partly to tell the story of the Order of St Cuthbert and partly to introduce the reader to new monasticism more generally. John Bede sets new monasticism in the context of recent developments in the mission and spirituality of the Church of England, such as ‘fresh expressions’ and Celtic spirituality, as well as comparing the Order of St Cuthbert and other new monastic organisations with traditional and modern models of the religious life.
The author presents a critique of forms of new monasticism which are themselves presented as ‘fresh expressions’ and aim to draw people towards Christianity. He argues that new monastic communities should consist of committed Christians prepared to follow a rule of life under discipline (pp. 14–20). Their missionary purpose is to evangelise others rather than to admit people to membership as a means of evangelisation. John Bede offers an intelligent critique of new monastic communities that, in his view, claim to offer the benefits of monasticism but without the responsibilities of obedience these entail. The crux of his argument is that the commitment required of a religious is precisely what makes the religious life attractive and different (p. 22). He argues that although a new monastic community that requires less commitment may seem attractive at first, in time its appeal will wane. Moreover, he avers, religious life should be defined by following a rule and taking a vow (p. 9). Celibacy and community life within a particular physical space are not, therefore, necessary as defining characteristics of a ‘monk’ or ‘nun’.
John Bede traces the evolution of the new monasticism within Protestant churches from the writings of Søren Kierkegaard and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (pp. 27, 29), as well as exploring early examples in the Roman Catholic church such as the Benedictine monk John Main’s ‘Monastery without Walls’ in Montreal in the 1970s (pp. 30–34). However, the author is critical of the liberal reform of the religious life in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, and argues that traditional enclosed religious life, active religious life and new monasticism are three distinct strands all necessary to the health of the church (p. 48). He makes a convincing argument that the twenty-first century’s revolution in communication technology is just as significant as the social revolution of the 1960s, and ought to impact religious life accordingly (p. 41). One clear change is the fact that it is no longer necessary for a community to physically meet together for formation or in order to share a life of prayer.
The Order of St Cuthbert, as John Bede describes it, combines some features drawn from the Charismatic Renewal, such as the primacy of visionary prayer and words of prophecy, with other features traditionally associated with Anglo-Catholic spirituality: the emphasis on discipline and a rule of life, as well as titles such as ‘abbot’, ‘monk’ and ‘nun’. The author explains that, although ‘Celtic Spirituality’ was popular at the time of the Order’s foundation, the Order of St Cuthbert has distanced itself from some aspects of contemporary Celtic spirituality on the grounds that it represents a romanticised misinterpretation of the real practices of early Irish saints (pp. 51–8). On the other hand, John Bede defends some ‘Celtic’ practices such as the claiming of land for God, the endowment of a monastic order with revenues by the rich and powerful, and the practice of penance. Ironically, as the author points out, these were real ‘Celtic’ practices that have been set aside by the advocates of Celtic spirituality.
A strength of John Bede’s book is his contextualisation of new monastic communities within a broader historiography of monasticism. It is also clear that he has a strong understanding of developments in the Church of England with regard to ‘fresh expressions’ and spirituality since the 1980s. However, I feel that the book would have benefitted from the attentions of an editor, particularly in its organisation. An historical overview of new monasticism and its place within wider traditions of the religious life would seem the logical starting point for a book about new monasticism, but instead this is left to the second half of the book. Although John Bede draws interesting conclusions about the influence of Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer on new monasticism, there is little discussion of the relationship between the author’s model and similar, more ancient institutions such as Third Order Franciscans and Oblates. In order to accept that these are different from what John Bede is proposing, I feel we need to know more about what Tertiaries and Oblates are and how they developed. Furthermore, I hoped for a discussion of new monasticism in the context of specifically Anglican experiments with religious life such as Nicholas Ferrar’s Little Gidding community and the deaconess movement of the nineteenth century. Perhaps the author will be able to address some of these issues in a second edition.
The Order of St Cuthbert appears and reappears throughout the pages of the book, but I am left with many unanswered questions about it. What is the relationship between John Bede’s role as abbot of the Order and his priestly ministry? Do the members of the Order, like Roman Catholic and Anglican religious, have a particular relationship with the eucharist? The author explains that, under the canon law of the Church of England, the members of the Order of St Cuthbert are not classified as religious. I expected a critique (or at least an explanation) of the Church of England’s overall policy towards the religious life, and perhaps a proposal for reform. Should the Church of England emulate the Roman Catholic church in permitting greater variety in the forms of consecrated life, or are existing structures of authority adequate? John Bede insists on the importance of the authority of a religious superior, yet under present rules he has no canonical authority over the members of the Order of St Cuthbert except insofar as some of them may be his parishioners.
Overall, Modern Monks and Novel Nunswill be of interest to people already involved in or intrigued by experiments in new monasticism. As an introduction to the subject for those with little or no knowledge the book has some shortcomings, but it serves as a valuable guide to the Order of St Cuthbert’s distinctive stance on the religious life lived outside the conventional boundaries of celibacy and physical community.