The two books I have chosen for the 1980s made a significant contribution to the way I view the nature of the local church and the type of behaviour that could be characteristic of people who belong there.
- Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard Foster
- The Open Church by Jurgen Moltmann
Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth
Deep in the woods of West Sussex at the end of long lane are the buildings of the monastery of the Holy Trinity, Crawley Down. I joined the community there for my first sabbatical in 1981. I was initially baffled by the regular times of prayer and overwhelmed by the capacity of the monks to be in silence for so much of the day and night.
At the time I was reading Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard Foster. In it he makes an appeal for Christians to rediscover the traditional disciplines that have supported the integrity of Christian practice over many centenaries. A monastery seemed a good place to read such a book.Reading it helped me make sense of what was going on at the monastery and it became one of the books that were most influential during the 1980s for both my ministry and Christian journey.
Foster suggests that there are three streams that nourish the spiritual journey. The first is an inward journey where our feelings and insights are nurtured by such as prayer and fasting. The second involves simple living and times of solitude which develop the outward journey of how we live and behave. The third involves shared experience like confession and spiritual direction. He has gone on to develop these ideas in further writing and founding the Renovare movement. This has become a network of groups and individuals in many parts of the world who wish to develop a pattern of life suggested by Celebration of Discipline and his subsequent writing.
Celebration of Discipline made a profound impact, not only on me but on many others. For some it was the channelling of their renewal within the Charismatic movement. For others, like me it was a way of grounding our concern for social justice in patterns of discipline which were not included in our church tradition. It has gone on to be re-printed many times and its opening words still ring true:
“The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people”.
At the monastery I met such people.
The Open Church Invitation to a messianic-lifestyle
Published in the same year, 1978, as Foster’s book was another book by a similarly prolific author which was to deeply shape how I looked, and still look, at the local church.
A renowned professor of theology, Moltmann had written extensively on the death of Christ, his resurrection and the nature of Christian hope and confidence (see here, here and here). In this book he takes these themes into a discussion of what it means to be a church.
“Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jesus speaking in John’s gospel).
For Moltmann, the church is primarily a congregation or a company of people gathered around Jesus. He suggests that for Jesus friendship defined relationship. Jesus called his disciples his friends, though his friendship extended beyond the disciples to include tax-collectors (the lowest of the low in his society) and prostitutes too. So Jesus called his disciples his friends whilst being known as the friend of sinners. This was a radical challenge to the view of religious people in his day who considered themselves more worthy of the attention of God by virtue of their religious practice. This is not uncommon today. It raises a significant questions for such as the Church. Who belongs? Who is qualified be a friend of Jesus?
Moltmann goes on to describe what a church might become if it were based on the notion of open friendship. Open Friendship is not be defined by who was in or out of the circle of friendship but whom or what is at the centre of the circle. For Moltmann and for the church the centre would be Jesus, in whatever form such a gathering would receive him. This would, Moltmann suggest, mirror the mealtime gatherings which were a characteristic of life with Jesus – for example in his feasting with friends.
“Hope is embodied in the congregation which exists in the friendship of Christ and can accept each person in his or her own integrity”
With those words Moltmann draws the Open Church to a close. It is an aspiration which the Church honours but finds it hard to embody. But that does not mean it is impossible. As we will see in my next post about my choice of books from the 1990s one community in particular is a sign that it can be done. I will write it soon.
I was helped in understanding of Moltmann’s book by an article written by Bernard Monk in the Baptist Minister’s Journal (circa 1984). He developed this idea of Open Friendship with the image of the splash of a pebble in the centre of a pond with ripples flowing away until they are indistinguishable at the edge.
Here was a way of being church for me. The definition is at the centre but no one can tell where the impact will end. I have worked with that model of Christian community ever since.
And it is not that distant from my experience of that monastic community. On the face of it here is a form of Christian gathering which is very much defined by the Rule and Calling of the Committed. But what I found was that it was not the Rule that was at the centre but a devotion to Christ.
Hardly a day would pass without someone turning up at the door of the monastery. They would not always arrive at convenient times but invariably received a positive welcome even when they were asked to wait for a while so a time of prayer could conclude. The Rule served a purpose greater than itself. It enabled the monks to serve their Lord with an generosity of spirit and ready welcome.
And what is more they had welcomed into their midst a confused Baptist who didn’t know his None from his Compline (times of prayer). They gave him cows to milk and wood to chop. An astute Father Superior who had previously been a New Zealand farmer took him on long walks through the woods. And then we would sit amidst the silence of the woods and he would explain in a down-to-earth fashion what it meant to live a life of discipline in a gracious and attractive way.
It still remains one of the most significant ecumenical experiences of my life so far.