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A life, not a program

Benedictine spirituality is a way of life not a parish program.

Benedict is at the heart of our Episcopal tradition. It’s there in the shape of the Prayer Book (2/3 plus for the Eucharist and the Daily Office); in the assumption that the Office is a public, communal parish activity; in our inclination toward paradox and managing polarities; in our love of balance and moderation; and in our history since St. Augustine of Canterbury. We see it during the periods when one of us writes a book on Benedictine spirituality and there is a rush to read and understand. It’s as though someone has pointed us toward home and we have recognized the texture and character of it as our own.

When a parish engages Benedictine spirituality it can feel like returning home. What was partial and veiled is now fuller and revealed. It’s an experience of what we learned in early strategic planning (pay more attention to your strengths and opportunities than to your weaknesses and the threats) and Appreciative Inquiry’s insights about building upon what you do well.  It’s part of our DNA. Something to be accepted and in this case embraced.

You can tell when a parish is treating it as a program when:

1.     There are occasional programs on Benedictine spirituality

2.     There may be a small group on Benedictine spirituality, and

3.     The central processes, structure and climate of parish life are largely untouched by a deeper Benedictine spirituality.


Processes, structures and climate that reflect a Benedictine spirituality

When a parish does shape its life so those central processes, structures and climate reflect a Benedictine spirituality then, and only then, are we able to speak of it being “a life” and not “a program.” Here are a few examples of what that looks like:

1. The parish offers a public daily office

More generally the parish works at training and coaching members to use the Daily Office in some form. There is usually a strong interplay between the parish having a daily public office and significant numbers of members either attending or incorporating the Office into their own practice.

2. The relationship among take-counsel, no grumbling, and humility is active and nurtured.

The parish has regular opportunities to hear itself with face-to-face, structured conversations on the parish community’s important issues. The norms and climate of the parish discourage grumbling while encouraging people to participate in the opportunities to “take counsel.” And in the formation process members are guided in the ways of humility; ways that include submitting oneself to listening to others in the parish and cooperating with parish leaders.

3. The polarity of hospitality and boundaries is managed.

The parish makes it easy for visitors and new members to feel at welcomed and it offers a clear pathway into an abundant and rooted relationship with Christ and his church. The parish doesn’t lose the balance by engaging in the superficial practice and language of “radical hospitality” or by creating an environment that is less than fully welcoming.

4. The formation process is structured so that a new member is able to learn the core practices of Christian living in the first few years of membership.

Whether the parish is large or small we find a way to help new members become proficient in the core Christian practices related to Eucharist, Daily Office, life in community, being reflective, and service.

5. Moderation and balance 

There are expectations and standards along with flexibility and adaptation to need.


Neither a shadow nor an excess

It helps to be aware of what it looks like when we go off the rails. What we seek here is not a life that is like a phantom; a life that has the appearance of being real while being illusionary. And we are also not seeking a life that is an imprudent application of monastic life to the parish church.

We can use the daily office as an example of each. There are parishes that have a link to the Office on their web site and maybe even mention it in the formation process yet have no significant expression of a public offering of the Daily Prayers of the Church or of actually equipping members to say the Office as part of their spiritual practice.

At the other extreme there are parishes that put on a pretend monasticism in the Office – the BCP is replaced with some “richer” book, antiphons are added, and the service gets longer and longer. 

A thoughtful pastoral theology

Most of our parishes lack a thoughtful pastoral theology to guide the common life. Benedictine spirituality provides an element of such a theology. A pastoral theology that is grounded in Benedictine spirituality and Anglican tradition, while drawing on the useful insights of organizational psychology, can offer the parish a more integrated and complete life. Once we “get it” parish life becomes easier and more fruitful. 



Related resources

Many of Esther de Waal’s books

        de Wall's books

Much of Martin Thornton’s work

Thornton books in print

 The starting place is with "Christian Proficiency" and "Pastoral Theology." His other books are best understood if you have read these.

Free Chapters of his books

Various postings on Thornton's work

Writing by Kenneth Leech in Soul Friend

The Principles behind Thornton's work

The Faithful Remnant

Five Martin Thornton insights into the Divine Office 

The Every Daily Office


Order of the Ascension

       OA web site

A dispersed Benedictine community with a charism for the development of parish churches grounded in Anglican pastoral and ascetical theology, especially Benedictine spirituality. OA draws on the fields of organization development and organizational psychology. This undergirds the community's life of liturgical worship, the spiritual dynamics of the Promise, and mutual friendship. 

                 Books from OA