I don’t really have time to flesh this out this morning, but as I was eating breakfast and preparing for my Manthano class this afternoon, I found myself thinking about the act of preparing a rule of life. While there is certainly a tradition of an individual rule, for those who are looking to the monastic example, I think we fail to recognize the power of not creating one’s own rule, but rather submitting to a common rule, even when there are things in that rule about which we are ambivalent. Would we not better be served by forming small communities (groups) that adopt a common rule of life and then meet regularly to hold one another accountable for the living of that rule.
That is, of course, exactly what Covenant Discipleship Groups in the Wesleyan tradition are. These groups gather to create a covenant for discipleship (basically, a set of practices around which they will focus their lives) and then meet weekly for mutual support and accountability in living up to the demands of the rule.
This led me to think about the relationship between the Covenant Groups and religious orders, like the Order of St. Benedict. Religious orders are, according to Wikipedia, “an organization, recognised by the Church, whose members strive to achieve a common purpose through formally dedicating their life to God.” That description clearly resonates with the notion of a Covenant Discipleship Group. However, religious orders (from my perspective) involve something more than the common focus and common practices (the rule of life). There is a sense of identity that seems to come with being a part of one of these formal religious orders. Members of these orders will often include their membership in the order in their titles so as to let others know that their identity is connected to that order. Members of the order identify themselves, saying things like “I’m a Benedictine,” or “I’m a Fransican.” While the commitments to these orders are often deeper, involving long periods of preparation and lifetime vows, I find myself wondering if there isn’t something to be learned here as we people to gather in community to develop their own rules of life?
What would it be like to have a congregation composed of a bunch of religious orders? Is there value in having the small group ministry of the church encouraging each group to develop it’s own identity and it’s own rule of life, for which the members of that group hold one another accountable? How would the average United Methodist respond to the notion of membership in an order rather than a participant in a group?
What do you think (I mean you, Steve Mansker!)? Is there something from the monastic model that can be translated to the average congregation?
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2 thoughts on “Covenant Groups versus Orders”
I don’t think I’ve every had a blog post directed explicitly toward me. Thanks very much for this provocative piece. I think you’re onto something. In fact, it is similar to something I’ve been thinking about for a couple of years and occasionally get to present in workshops.
First, we need to understand that in traditional monastic communities, such as the Benedictines, Franciscans, Jesuits, etc., monks do not develop their own personal rule of life. Rather, they submit to the rule of the order. The purpose of the rule of life is to form members as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ through obedience to his teachings. The practice of developing individual rules of life is a relatively recent development. My guess is that it is also an expression of American individualism creeping into the life of the church.
Second, it’s helpful for United Methodists to understand that early Methodism was essential a lay-lead monastic movement within the Church of England. Many scholars argue that if the Methodists never separated from the Church, they would have become a monastic order similar to the Franciscans.
Third, United Methodist already have a rule of life. There is no need to create one. Our rule of life is the General Rules. My friend Michael Cartwright and his colleague Andrew D. Kinsey have created an excellent resource for teaching and practicing the General Rules within the life and mission of a congregation. It is titled “Watching Over One Another in Love: Reclaiming the Wesleyan Rule of Life for the Church’s Mission.” You can download it here: http://is.gd/Cjl1k4
Finally, because congregations are not monastic communities it is not realistic to expect everyone to submit to a rule of life and discipline of accountability necessary to live it out in the world. What is needed today is something akin to a Wesleyan Order within, or alongside, local United Methodist congregations. The Wesleyan Order would provide the mutual accountability and support needed by those church members who long for and are ready to submit themselves to the discipline of Christian discipleship. They would, in turn, serve as “salt and light” (Matthew 5:13-16) for the congregation. They would become the leaders in discipleship that every congregation needs to help its members to live out the Baptismal Covenant and for the congregation to faithfully live out its mission with Christ in the world.
Covenant Discipleship groups are a proven and effective means of developing a Wesleyan Order within a congregation. The members of the groups become leaders in discipleship for the congregation who are living examples of the historic rule of life. When CD groups are properly integrated into the disciple-making system of a congregation they serve as the foundation that develops the leaders needed for the remaining parts of the system to participate in Christ’s mission in the world.
I hope this answers you question Jay. I’ll look forward to other responses.
I really like the idea of a Wesleyan Order. A lack of something like what is outlined by Steve and the authors of the book (thanks for sharing that link – very nice resource!) is what led me to become a Benedictine Oblate (that and my love of liturgy). It is interesting that there are a good number of Benedictine Oblates that come from the UMC. There is also a Wesleyan-Benedictine monastic community that was “sanctioned” by General Conference – late ’80’s or early 90’s? (google St Brigid of Kildare Monastery). The point is, there are indeed people seeking the “ordered”, rule of life to follow Christ within the UMC. Thanks for a provacative post, and I’m sorry for the quirkiness but I’m trying to enter this from my phone.