In some American circles there’s a hubbub about Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, and some Australians are interested. Stephen McAlpine, a pastor in Perth, seems to see the Benedict Option as the standout example of faithful communitarian vision, or maybe as an umbrella term for such.
To my mind, the Benedict Option is simply the latest iteration of a mushrooming Western interest in communitarian visions and intentional communities. None of the various ‘branded’ initiatives is supreme, and besides, most of them are still in their youth.
As Australian Christians we’re collectively being called into shared ways of life that go beyond church attendance and programs and practices that shuffle with things on the surface of our lives. No doubt the Benedict Option represents another attempt to tackle this, as well as being another communitarian inroads to the wider church body – the more conservative circles in this case. (Are some of those who loved to mock emerging church now coming late to the same party?)
The Benedict Option therefore implies we now have a ‘bipartisan’ commitment to interrogating Christian community like never before. But this does not make it a template for our communitarian endeavours.
There’s a context issue here. The framing of the Benedict Option comes from Rod Dreher, who is speaking in a particular American context, so on that basis alone it’d be premature to start using the term in Australia. The Australian context is one of ambivalence or apathy towards Christianity alongside emerging plurality (Stephen McAlpine has just made mention of this himself). Our Christian communities may well be in die-off, but it is not because the tide has ostensibly turned in a supposed culture war.
There’s also the particulars of what Rod Dreher describes (I’ve seen the blog, not the book). There is a specific kind of antagonism in his underlying framing of the relationship between church and society that needs unpicking and questioning. There is a lack of recognition of the ‘new’ global context of Christianity (alluded to by Bob Trube). And the practical proposals seem pretty light on economic practices (especially to do with ecological obedience) and service-oriented social practices — two dimensions which challenge us, beyond the need to maintain a resilient and self-replicating faithful community, about the very nature of our witness.
There is a deep irony in Protestants talking about one of the Roman Catholic orders when the birth of Protestant Christianity generally entailed the neglect or closure of the missionary orders. After that, it took us Protestants more than 250 years to launch our own mission societies, yet we probably never fully recovered the communal rigour of the ancient orders.
Even today, many of our efforts to re-energise church see the local congregation as the sole hub of mission. It is one of the oldest of Protestant failings.
This is the question of the two arms of mission. Some time ago, Ralph Winter described the two structures of God’s redemptive mission. In the global body of Christ there has always been a stable, ingathering arm, and a mobile, extending arm — not through some divine decree, but through the historical ebb and flow of communities seeking to embody the ministry of Jesus. Peter Adam covered this in a 1987 article for AFES (email me for a copy).
There is a kind of thick community possible in local congregations, and another kind of thick community possible in mission groups.
Having made this observation, the big question for a communitarian endeavour is which of the two structures it belongs to. If it pertains to a ‘second decision’ – a particular missionary commitment – then it is not a local congregation, but a missionary order.
This is the case with our our friends Jonathan and Rachael in Melbourne. Spotswood Cornerstone Community is attached to an Anglican parish, but is only open to people aged 20-35 having made a 1-2 year commitment. Together they perform the ordinary work of the people – prayer, worship, service, study – yet they are not a local congregation, but a society or order or sodality. (They are also not cloistered away — a persistent misconception of the orders.)
This is not normal congregational life. There are no doubt all sorts of ways in which congregational life can and ought to change, but the kinds of commitments demanded by communitarian visions are often too great a burden for the local congregation. It is a matter of the ‘second decision’.
There is an important sense in which the two structures of mission cannot share the same space. Try and combine them and you undermine both. I am not sure how sustainable a missional community can be if it is simultaneously trying to meet the demands of ordinary church life. And I’m not sure that a local congregation can become properly ‘missional’ simply by augmenting itself with communitarian elements.
The two structures of mission throw light on our baby steps with communitarian endeavours. To what extent are we talking about a deepening of congregational life? To what extent are we talking about a renewal of the orders and missionary calling?
Image credit: ‘Now You Are The Light Of The World And Salt Of The Earth’ by Lalo Gutierrez
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.