It seems to me that some Anglo-Catholics tend to look with suspicion at the rise of Fresh Expressions, Alpha Courses, and other similar initiatives. Quite often this suspicion is very well motivated however, the Mission Studies Week organised by St Stephen's House aimed at overcoming diffidence towards these types of Christian ministry, both through familiarising the audience with new models of witness and by fostering renewed confidence in the Anglo-Catholic tradition.
During the course of Mission Studies Week St Stephen's House introduced to the students some diverse aspects of what mission looks (or could look) like in the Anglican Church in the present time.
The guest lecturers from mayBe and Home (Oxford) presented their own stories and life experiences thus encouraging the students to understand Mission and Evangelism as a live subject which can seldom be explained properly in a text book or a report. This has been incredibly helpful, especially after a term of emotionally-detached OPTET lectures on ‘Christian Witness in the Contemporary World’.
Every story had its own particular impact on the students and the lively discussions that followed witnessed to the ordinands’ eagerness to know more about the subject and engage in the Church’s debate about her future.
The Experience of mayBe, Oxford
The ‘New Monasticism’ phenomenon could strongly appeal to the Christians in the Catholic tradition, but it is now quite clear from the accounts of the Abbot of mayBe to what extent this movement involves any particular traditions of the Church of England.
Both mayBe and Home projects have a discrete following in Oxford and similar groups are spread across the UK. Having said this, one could question the depth of teaching and wider engagement with the community found in these groups.
Let’s examine the first of these problems. mayBe’s Eucharists do not include a sermon or ‘teaching sessions’ per se. However, preaching is an important part of the liturgical life of the Church of England. Since the Reformation much emphasis has been put on the teaching of the Scriptures and of the Faith. If one was to envisage a Christian community without this ministry within the context of the Eucharist, one should consider having another space through which the faithful maybe nourished and exhorted. Furthermore, the charge to priests in the Ordinal states that they are ‘to unfold the Scriptures’ making the teaching of God’s people a fundamental part of the priestly ministry.
Indeed, unfolding of the Scriptures can happen outside the Eucharist, and in a sense this was the pre-Reformation, pre-Vatican II, model. The unfolding of the Scriptures can happen in a more informal setting such a Bible study group, however leading a Bible study is not the same as preaching. Moreover, in this environent a fairly homogenous group could avoid raising questions which could ‘rock the boat’ or suggest a challenge. It is extremely important that priests should not forget the call to lead and admonish the faithful through preaching especially at a time when there seems to be much confusions about the Faith. Mission has to involve teaching and challenges to people’s lives.
The second issue about the experience of mayBe regards its engagements with the wider community. mayBe is marked by a radical understanding of Church which does not envisage necessarily a church building. At a first glance this may not pose a problem at all. In fact, lacking a building (and thus also benefitting from the absence of expensive repair works), appears rooted in the experience of the apostolic period, in the first few decades of Christianity.
The problem however presents itself more clearly when one considers all those individuals who attend church services (perhaps regularly) but for various reasons they do not feel ready to participate more actively to the life of the ecclesial community.
mayBe is based on word of mouth and an email system which encourages daily prayer and the participation to events and services. This would certainly be an issue for the Nicodemus or our time.
Another aspect of this problem is demonstrated by the demography of mayBe itself. The group – like its sister project Home – seems to focus on new families and Caucasian professionals in between late twenty and forty years of age. Certainly this is not due to a classist mission statement of mayBe - far from it! in fact the projects strongly advocate justice and equity. However, it is easy to see that the ‘by invitation only’ kind of events, and the word of mouth approach are contributing to create a clubby atmosphere, which could put off many individuals.
How should the Church react?
A phenomenon such as New Monasticism should not be taken lightly by the Church at all; on the contrary it is the role of the wider Christian community to look for the signs of the times in this religious trend, especially at a moment when vocations to the religious life struggle to make themselves heard.
It is highly commendable that individuals like the ones involved in mayBe should be willing to live a radically Christian life in simplicity and commitment to prayer whilst remaining in secular professions. The Church should cherish the secular vocation of these men and women; she should also discern whether or not these vocations may lead to the consecrated religious life as part of traditional monastic orders.
Also, mayBe and similar groups should be commended for the common life shared by their members. The midweek meals shared by the mayBe community are a much valued chance for discussion, growth and agape which seems lost in many parishes all over England. Eating together as a community is a bonding experience; a testimony of this are the initiatives like ‘Jesus Christ the Fullness of Life’, London and ‘the Big Lunch’ across the Nation.
It is very important for regular parishes to rediscover a sense of community which calls for a commitment to the life of the Church which goes far beyond the Sunday Mass.
Many of the liturgical texts form mayBe – indeed the very name itself – acknowledge the brokenness and uncertainties of individuals. By doing so, they prepare the way to find the healing grace of God in our daily lives encountered in the Eucharist and other common experiences. Brokenness is part of any man’s journey. By acknowledging this fact we can move on to the fuller and complete life to which Christ calls us to.
mayBe is an example to the Church of England of how professionals and young adults are willing to explore Christianity in simple ways - by sharing food, engaging daily in structured prayer, and participating to the Eucharist. The great Christian witness provided by mayBe should be seen as a stepping stone into the the wider ecclesial community for many that have been mistreated by the Church, have turned away, or have never engaged with the Christian message before. mayBe, Home and similar initiatives are a practical alternative to Alpha where there are no fancy adverts, bulletproof theories, or readymade answers to the people’s questions. In this sense, new monasticism (like traditional monasticism) encourages the faithful to discover the Faith in practical ways, by getting stuck-in, through experience - and this must be a good thing.