Find Your Communal Identity with St Benedict

Fra_Angelico_031This semester, as part of Tabor’s Formation subject, I’m taking some students through the monastic Rule of St Benedict of Nursia. Benedict’s Rule was the framework for the vast majority of monasteries and convents throughout western Europe for over a millennia, producing great Christian heroes such as Anselm of Canterbury and Bernard of Clairvaux. Students are exploring Benedict’s principles of Christian community, and how these relate to their own Christian communities. Obviously, there are many aspects of monastic life that aren’t relevant for us, and as such, students are not reading it prescriptively, but evocatively: we’re not seeking to apply the Rule to our communities, but dialoguing with it, to help us see aspects of our own communities more clearly.

It’s turned out to be remarkably fruitful. We’ve looked at it thematically, and themes have included: the tension between grace and works; the role of leaders and assistant leaders; and the importance of Biblical worship (Benedictine monks would do seven or eight worship services a day, where they would recite the Psalms, going through them all every week!). But one of the most fascinating themes has been the importance of a clear identity and communicating that identity.

Identity emerges from the structures, practices, standards, and goals of a community. Inevitably most of these will be contextual, based on the giftings, callings and situations that congregation find themselves in: you may have a church with a strong focus on helping the poor, or on teaching, or on a certain kind of worship (liturgical, charismatic, etc). For the Benedictine monks, their identity was very clearly articulated in their Rule. By explicitly writing all this down, there was never any room for ambiguity or confusion.

Many of us in the class have noted that, in contrast, our Christian communities are often very laissez faire, with their identity simply being a “vibe”. This is meant to be more relaxed and friendly, but has often led instead to confusion, disunity, frustration, and inconsistency.

But for the Rule, it’s not enough to have a clearly framed identity – you also have to articulate it to people regularly! When guests arrive (Ch 53), they are treated exceptionally well (“received like Christ”!), but they are also clearly told the type of place they’re entering, by briefly going over the Rule with them – and this is “for their edification”, according to Benedict. It allows them to know where they fit into everything that is going on.

When somebody decides to become a monk (Ch 58), the Rule is read out to them, and then they enter into the life of the monastery for three months… then they have the Rule read to them again, with the words, “Here is the law under which you wish to fight. If you can observe it, enter; if not, depart.” This process is repeated two more times – six months later, and four months more after that. And if somebody takes up a new leadership position (Ch 60), the same Rule is read out to them, again – there are never new surprises for those becoming more involved.

How clearly does your congregation understand its identity: the structures, practices, goals of your group? How comprehensively have these even been decided upon? What mechanisms do you have in place to communicate these to people regularly (it doesn’t have to be a Rule, by the way!)? How well are they communicated to newcomers, to new members, and to those taking leadership positions? How consistent will these messages about the identity be, at each level? These are all excellent questions for our congregations, and especially their leaders, to be asking.


Matthew Gray – Lecturer, Tabor Adelaide


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