12 March 2008

Treasures old and new -- synchroblog on new monasticism

I've written quite a bit about "new monasticism" over the last few years, and thought that for this synchroblog I would write about it as the history of an idea, in the sense of my personal experience of the idea.

One could write a history of the idea in general, but that would need a book, perhaps of several volumes, rather than a blog post. So I'll concentrate on the idea of the new monasticism as I've encountered it, through reading, or discussion or trying to live it, or observing other people trying to live it.

The "new monasticism" of the title has gone under several names at various times, and "new monasticism" is probably the least useful, though it does seem to be the one most commonly used right now. Others I've heard are: Christian communities, Christian communes, intentional communities, semi-monastic communities, and there are several more.

What is common to all these is the idea of Christians living in a community wider than the family, often with a particular purpose of mission or ministry.

When I was a university student in 1964, two things got me thinking about such communities. One was getting the Catholic Worker newspaper, which had news of communities associated with the Catholic Worker movement. Another was attending an Anglican lay conference.

I was then an Anglican, and the Anglican Bishop of Natal invited people to attend an annual lay conference, held at a church school during the holidays. The conference was by invitation only, and a person was only ever invited to attend once. I had attended student conferences that ran on a similar format, but this was different. There were people of all ages, social classes and races there; not just students, but workers, teachers, housewives and others. For a few days we followed the rhythm of a community life, sleeping in school dormitories, having meals together, worshipping together. That was not unusual, but some of us began talking about the possibility of doing something like that for a longer period, of having a core community at a place where one could have courses in things like Christian non-violent action, similar to the Catholic worker communities.

It was just a dream or a vision, but it wouldn't go away, and I kept on thinking about it. The following year I visited the Charles Johnson Memotial Hospital at Nqutu in Zululand with some friends. It was an Anglican mission hospital, and the medical superintendent, Dr Anthony Barker, showed us round. Most of the staff lived as a community, not only working, but eating and praying together as well. We were impressed. It felt like a place that would almost be nice to be sick in. There was a community dedicated to a Christian healing ministry. A few years later it was nationalised by the government, and was bureacratised and institutionised, but in the 1960s and early 1970s it was a beacon of hope because of the Christian community at its core.

A few years later an opportunity came to put the vision into practice, and I was myself part of such an experiment in Christian communal living in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We called ourselves the Community of St Simon the Zealot, in Windhoek, Namibia.

Dr Anthony Barker was an indirect influence on this. He spoke at student conferences, and suggested that students, after they graduated, and before going on to make their fortunes, should spend a year or two using their skills to improve the lot of the poor by working in such places as church hospitals. A friend of mine, Dave de Beer, did just that. After graduating with his Bachelor of Commerce degree he went to St Mary's Hospital at Odibo on the Namibia/Angola border as hospital secretary, getting the finances of the hospital in order. He was only there a week when the government withdrew his permit and kicked him out. He stopped in Windhoek on his way home to say goodbye to the bishop, but the bishop urged him to stay, saying that the diocese needed some help with its finances too. Dave stayed.

Over the next couple of months he became aware of the mission opportunities in a town like Windhoek, and wrote a short paper on it, The city: a mission field, in which he outlined a vision of a missional community, living together, with some working in secular jobs, and others in full-time mission service. Some would form a permanent community, but others could join them for a short time. He sent this to several friends for comment. A few months later, having been fired by the Anglican bishop of Natal, I went to join him, and we started the Community of St Simon the Zealot.

The local Anglican bishop, Colin Winter, was quite supportive to start with, and made a house available. We opened a joint building society account in the name of the Community, which we would use for living expenses. Dave worked in the diocesan office, I got a job with the department of water affairs, and after being fired from that, with the local newspaper. In the evenings and at weekends we would lead Bible study groups, services in road workers or mining camps, teach catechism classes and so on. Some students from South Africa came to join us for the summer vac. One had a vac job, and so contributed to the common fund. Two others didn't have jobs, but helped with cleaning the house and cooking.

But a problem arose. Dave and I saw it as important that we should have daily prayers in the community. As it was an Anglican community we thought we should be doing Anglican morning and evening prayer together at the house. But the bishop wanted and expected us to attend services at the cathedral, a couple of miles away. He saw Dave and me as members of his staff, and regarded our desire to pray together as a community as "divisive" and even elitist. We thought that common prayer was essential to the life of a Christian community. The result was that Dave and I went to services at the cathedral, while the rest of the people in the house stayed in bed. It became more like a common lodging house than a community. Our community worship was reduced to agape meals that we held about once a fortnight, usually with a number of people invited from outside as well.

I won't go into the full history of the Community of St Simon the Zealot here, but just mention that as one of the main problems, and we were not the only ones to discover it. In other circumstances too I have discovered that bishops do not understand the needs of communities or monasteries, and the relationship between a community, whether a monastery or some other form of intentional community, and the local church, whether diocese or parish, needs to be carefully worked out.

Among other things we published (together with friends in other places) a magazine called Ikon, and a newsletter, The Pink Press (it was printed on pink duplicating paper). These we exchanged with other publications worldwide through The Cosmic Circuit, which had about 60 participating publications, described as "underground, upground and overground". It was an amazing mixture of what today would be called 'zines, small-press publications usually dedicated to some or other vision of an alternative society. Among them was Communes, published by a neopagan community in Wales, but with news of all kinds of experiments in communal living, religious and secular.

The Community of St Simon the Zealot came to an end in 1972 when Dave de Beer and I were deported from Namibia (along with Bishop Colin Winter and another member of the community, Toni Halberstadt).

A couple of years later I came across the Children of God when I was in Durban North, in the Anglican parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields. They lived in communes which they called "colonies", spread all over the world. They arose from the Jesus freaks of the 1960s, and were led by Dave Berg, who called himself Moses David, or just Mo.

They were fairly typical of the Jesus freaks of the early 1970s. I first encountered them when walking down a street in central Durban, where one of them handed me a copy of their publication New Nation News. He said they were living in a commune in Durban North, not far from where I lived, and so a couple of weeks later I went with a friend to see them there. There were six of them, a married couple with a baby, and four singles. Three were from the USA, the other three South Africans. One of the US ones, Shemaiah, had been at the University of California at Berkeley, where the Jesus freak movement started. They all took biblical names. They were certainly a missional community, and spent their whole time witnessing, out in the streets or on the beach, distributing literature and talking to people. They said time was precious, and though there were lots of good things one could do with one's time, like reading the Bible, witnessing was the best use of time. They lived on donations they received.

We stayed for a meal with them, and they told us more about their life. They gave us lists of Bible verses that they memorised (from the King James version). New Nation News was a monthly publication, and they published a local version, but much of the material was common to all the "Colonies" around the world. They lived on money that was given to them as they went around witnessing. They pooled it, and used it for rent, food, clothes etc. They showed us their handbook, which was not public, but something they just used among themselves, called Revolution for Jesus -- how to DO it. It was exactly the kind of thing I had dreamed of doing at the lay conference ten years previously. In addition to the public literature there were also "Mo letters" from the founder, mostly addressed to the members of the "colonies". The members we met referred enthusiastically to the film Brother Sun, Sister Moon on the life of Francis of Assissi, which they said was what they were trying to achieve.

At the first encounter the Children of God seemed an almost idyllic community. They seemed to have achieved what we had failed to achieve in Namibia. We invited them to speak to our youth groups and Sunday School classes at St Martin's.

But among them too things began to go wrong. Moses David became increasingly authoritarian and erratic, and as time went on, his "Mo letters" of instructions became stranger and stranger. Eventually he came up with the idea of using kinky sex to proselytise (one can hardly call it evangelism). Members of the "colonies" of the Children of God were urged to become "hookers for Jesus" and engage in what they called "flirty fishing". But before they had reached that stage, we had moved from Durban North to Utrecht, and lost touch with them.

There were many hippie communes in that period (the late 1960s and early 1970s). Some, like the Durban colonly of the Children of God, were Christian. Others were secular, others New Age, others Neopagan. Some were Hindu in inspiration, modelled on ashrams in India. The Christian ones were very much like the communities called "new monastic" communities today.

It was also the heyday of the charismatic renewal movement, in which many manifestations of the Holy Spirit that had hitherto been more or less confined to Pentecostals began appearing in non-Pentecostal churches. This movement also gave rise to "intentional communities" of various kinds. One of the better-known ones, through their publications, was the Word of God community in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

There is an indirect Orthodox connection to these in a book written by Michael Harper, describing some of these communities. His book A new way of living is about communities that developed in an Episcopal (Anglican) parish in Texas, USA, though it appears that these communities no longer exist. Michael Harper is now an Orthodox priest in Britain, though he was not Orthodox at the time he wrote the book. The Church of the Redeemer in Houston was typical of many downtown parishes where people had moved away from the neighbourhood of the church to outlying suburbs, but continued to worship there. Poorer people moved into the neighbourhood, but the church was not reaching them. Then when the parish was affected by the charismatic renewal, people started buying houses near the church and moving back into the neighbourhood, living in intentional communities, and having an outreach to their neighbours.

It seems that charismatic intentional communities in Western churches also flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, but then died out. Does all the talk of a "new monasticism" indicate a revival of interest -- or is this just old hippie nostalgia?

A related idea was that of the missiologist Ralph Winter, who spoke of two redemptive structures: the local church and the missionary band, which he called "modality" and "sodality". Bearing in mind that for 1000 years, from about 500-1500 most Christian mission had been monastic, Winter suggested that the missionary band required a special commitment over and above the local church. When Protestants abandoned monasticism in the 16th century, they did virtually no mission, and it was only with the formation of missionary societies in the 18th century that Protestants became active in mission. The missionary societies had a degree of intentionality not found in the local church.

In addition to monks, in the Roman Catholic Church missionary orders developed. Monks devoted themselves primarily to prayer, but the missionary orders were formed for the purpose of mission. When the religious life revived among Anglicans in the 19th century, many of their religious orders too were intentionally devoted to mission. The Kelham fathers even called themselves the Society of the Sacred Mission, incorporating "mission" into their name.

In the Orthodox Church there is no equivalent of the "orders" that one finds in the Roman Catholic Church, or even among the Anglicans, with several monasteries or religious houses grouped together under a common rule and name. Each monastery is more or less independent, with its own abbot (hegumen). A monasetry may start daughter monasteries, but eventually these will become independent. But there are also Brotherhoods that gather people from different places for a particular task, and the tasks of these brotherhoods may include mission. They are not monastic, but they do reflect Ralph Winter's "sodality" structure.

The Orthodox brotherhoods and Protestant missionary societies do not necessarily have the feature of communal living that one finds in the Christian communes or "new monasticism", but they do share the characteristic of intentionality. People decide to join them to identify with their purposes. Community living takes the idea one stage further.

My own view is that whether one calls this urban monasticism or new monasticism or anything else, at least in the Orthodox world it needs a solid foundation in traditional Orthodox monasticism.

Would someone like Moses David have gone off the rails (and derailed the entire "Children of God" movement) if he had had an Orthodox spiritual father from a traditional monastery? The trouble was that he was trying to be "spiritual father" to hundreds of "colonies" of the Children of God thoughout the world, but he had no spiritual father of his own. In Orthodox monasticism spiritual fathers (and mothers) are not on their own. There have been some charismatic intentional communities, including some in South Africa, where the leaders have become quite abusive. Dave Berg is by no means the only one.

Eventually people in the charismatic renewal movement realised that something was missing. Some of them gave a name to it; they called it "covering", or "discipleship". But who was to cover the coverers, or disciple the disciplers? The maverick authoritarian leaders didn't take too kindly to coming under authority themselves, and I suspect that that played a role in the "charismatic burn-out" of the 1980s.

But the answer has been there all along in traditional Orthodox monasticism. And some Protestants discovered this answer. Fr Jack Sparks, editor of Right on, one of the Christian underground magazines of the 1970s, published by the Christian World Liberation Front, came to Orthodoxy. Not that Orthodox monasticism is idyllic either -- Fr Ephrem, a monk of Simopetra monastery on the Holy Mountain, said that more people go to hell from monasteries than from anywhere else. But at least Orthodox monasticism is aware of the dangers, and has had over a thousand years of experience, and teaches about the dangers of losing one's nipsis (watchfulness).

So I think a new monasticism or an urban monasticism might be a good idea, but it needs to be backed by traditional monasticism is it is to develop in a healthy way.


This post is part of a synchroblog on the new monasticism.

Here are the other contributions to this month's synchroblog:

Phil Wyman at Square No More: SynchroBlog on Neo-Monasticism
Beth at Until Translucent
Adam Gonnerman at Igneous Quill
Jonathan Brink at JonathanBrink.com
Sally Coleman at Eternal Echoes
Bryan Riley at at Charis Shalom
Cobus van Wyngaard at My Contemplations
Mike Bursell at Mike's Musings
David Fisher at Cosmic Collisions
Alan Knox at The Assembling of the Church
Sam Norton at Elizaphanian
Erin Word at Decompressing Faith
Sonja Andrews at Calacirian

To see what others are saying or have said about the new monasticism, click on the Technorati tag here: .


Simon said...

really fascinating to read about your journey through this Steve, for those of us in a younger generation, the experience of yourselves and others is incredibly valuable. Occasionally I'm in danger of thinking of new monasticism as a 'new thing' but then I reflect, and see in it what you are talking about, the grand heritage of counter cultural Christianity. Thanks for your insight, looking forward to more.

The Scylding said...

Interesting post, Steve. We have in other forums briefly discussed at least one of those movements which became authoritarian and strange... I think that unless such a movement is strongly bound creedaly, and not independant with a single leader / small group of leaders, it is bound to go off the rails. This observation comes from personal experience with at least 2 such phenomena, for lack of a better term.

Steve Hayes said...


Yes, in my post I alluded to one of the movements we have discussed before, and that is one of the ones that led me to my conclusion. Loose cannon authoritarian leaders usually cause lots of problems.

Cobus said...

I've had a number of conversations with the guy I'm currently living in community with about how to make sure a communal setting doesn't get... strange. Religious people have a way of easily getting strange. Connecting with a long tradition could help with this, I think this is what I hear from you. Thanx

Bryan Riley said...

So interesting to read this history, and some of it explains why many fear communal situations. At the same time, with a focus on Jesus I believe community living to be a fantastic forum for discipleship in the ways of Jesus.

Bryan Riley said...

So interesting to read this history, and some of it explains why many fear communal situations. At the same time, with a focus on Jesus I believe community living to be a fantastic forum for discipleship in the ways of Jesus.

Pastor Phil said...

Hey Steve,

I love this modern history of monastic expressions. I've had some contact with the Children of God as well - although later when they were far-wacked. I've met with communal Hari Krishna, and ran a live-in drug and alcohol rehab program, which was an intentional community of worship with all things in common (though perhaps I never thought of this as monastic - yet in retrospect I suppose it was radically so!)

I am not sure I identify with the final conclusion as the answer to balance. Yet, I am seriously Anabaptist in tendency. ;-)

When I think of intentional community as missional the Moravian Brethren come to mind, and we perhaps have yet to see the intensity of mission engagement by any group as that which ol' Count Z helped initiate.

I suppose I see the failing of well organized religious tradition as tending toward legalistic and dead, and the tendency of independent groups to become heretical, or weird. I am not sure one weakness is better than another in the eyes of heaven.

This is one of my favorite posts of yours - thanks.

Steve Hayes said...


Yes, the Maravians' Herrnhut community was certainly a missional one, and was one of the first expressions of Protestant mission.

I was very glad to have met the Children of God when I did, and I simply can't imagine the ones we met getting into the whacky things they got into later. There were hints of that in the "Mo letters", but nothing in the people we met.

Beth said...

Great and fascinating history. I heaved a sigh of recognition at your thing about being expected to travel in to pray at the cathedral...

I think the term "neo-monasticism" is most useful if it is seen only as one kind of option within the broader category of "intentional community" or "Christian community." Not every group of Christians living together for a common purpose is really drawing on monastic models, spirituality, or style. "Monastic" is the popular buzzword now, but I think in some cases it muddies the waters more than helps.

Alan Knox said...


Thank you for sharing part of your story. This has been very helpful for me.


Francy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Alex Tang said...


Thank you for sharing your fascinating experience with communal living in the Community of St. Simon the Zealot and later with the Children of God.

However I do see a difference between intentional Christian communal living and monasticism.

Monasticism historically is under the cover of the Church. This implies a common creed of belief, common commitment to a case and accountability.

Most Christian communes do not have this. Instead they come together probably because of a charismatic leader who is usually independent and not held accountable by anybody.

Thank you for the links in this post.

Matt Stone said...

Wow, this was great Steve. And I agree, the "new monasticism" is still in its infancy and could still learn a lot from the "old monasticism"

Bishop Alan Wilson said...


Many thanks for this helpful narrative. Personally I think the structure of community is less important than its processes, and the issues round these resolve back to the three areas of concern Benedict depicts in Cap 58 of the rule — Conversion, Stability, Obedience. There was always tension between bishops and abbots in the middle ages — not handled much better than your bishop in SA handled relationships ith your base community.

Steve Hayes said...

Bishop Alan,

Yes, the tension between bishops and abbots is a perennial one. The early Irish Church dealt with it in an interesting way.

In the case of Windhoek, the bishop had been dean before he was elected bishop, and for a long time continued to live in the deanery next to the cathedral, and so that give him an additional motive for wanting to see the cathedral round of services, but it was easy for him, living on the spot.


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