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Archbishop calls for 'wild burst of imagination' about the Religious Life - video

Monday 31st March 2014

Watch highlights and read the transcript of Archbishop Justin's address to a major gathering of Anglican Religious Communities at Lambeth Palace on Friday

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby calls for "a wild burst" of Spirit-fuelled imagination about the Religious Life in this address on Friday to Anglican Religious Communities meeting at Lambeth Palace. 

In his address the Archbishop says that for Christians is it our life "in contemplation, in prayer and community around a Rule and around worship, that makes us more than an NGO with loads of pointy roofed old buildings."

The one-day conference marked a significant early step towards Archbishop Justin’s vision for the renewal of prayer and the Religious Life (i.e. Christians who live in communities according to a shared 'rule'), which he has declared as a core priority for his ministry. 

Watch our short video 'Voices from Archbishop Justin's Religious Life conference'

Read the full text of the talk: 

It is – or should be – impossible to imagine a church that flourishes without the flourishing of Religious communities as an integral part of the body of Christ.

It is – or should be – impossible because, it is our life in Religion, in contemplation, in prayer and community around a Rule and around worship, that makes us more than an NGO with loads of pointy roofed old buildings. Stanley Hauerwas in one of his sermons comments that the church should always be engaged in doing things that make no sense if God does not exist.

Life in Religion is the ultimate wager on the existence of God. Through it people subject themselves to discipline, to each other in Community, however difficult and odd each other is (and I suspect that you have an internal wry smile at how odd some people can be), and they subject themselves above all to prayer.

In the Rule of St Benedict the heart of the monastic life is obedience, an absence of grumbling, a commonality of goods, a balanced life of work, prayer and study, not in any sense because through these remarkably tough disciplines human beings become self referentially better, but because they are there to encourage each other in walking more and more deeply into the light that is Christ.

While in lay life we are able to escape each other, especially if one disconnects from Twitter and the web, in Religion, the life of the world is lived out in microcosm, with every problem and challenge that comes with being human, combined with constant presence to each other.

Ricoeur is cited by Dan Hardy in the book Wording a Radiance as comparing two approaches to modern life. One is the economic basis of exchange and equivalence. That is what prevails in our society today, and by it we are all reduced to being homo financiarius or homo economicus, mere economic units whose purpose is consumption, whose destiny is extinction, and for whom any gain is someone else’s loss in a zero sum world. In that context prayer is loss, the blessing of the stranger, the widow and the orphan, the care for the poor, the imprisoned, the hungry and the sick, all are net loss.

The contrast for Ricoeur is the world of abundance and grace, of surplus in the continuing creative power of God. In this world, our generosity leads to our blessing, our self-giving opens the doors to eternity for us and all those around who see and hear the call and light of Christ.

It is an interesting point that John Maynard Keynes, the great 20th century economist, in a book written in the early 1930s took the view of abundance and grace as his world view and forecast that by the early 21st century everybody would be working 15 hour weeks, because of the surplus and abundance that would come from economic and technical development. He was, of course, precisely right, except for leaving out the bit about human beings and sin.

But his view has been discredited and replaced by that of the Friedmanite exchange and equivalence which now dominates all of our thinking and even for those in this room too often our instinctive application.

But the Church has as its main task to live in this second world, and in so doing to live so as to convert the stale and barren darkness of the zero sum to the living abundance of grace in Jesus Christ.

Which is where Religion comes in. I am of course using Religion in its technical sense. . . Let us be clear: it has often, almost always since the beginning of modernity, and especially in the last 100 years, been treated as a side line, Religion. Like train spotting compared to commuting, the mainland of the church has busily gone too and fro, occasionally aware of those who stand on the platform doing something esoteric and different. Even that great and remarkably prophetic document, “Towards the Conversion of England”, commissioned by William Temple and published weeks after his death in 1944, even that fails to mention the Religious Life.

But conversion is the fruit of evangelism and witness, yes, but utterly the work of the Holy Spirit.

I was yesterday at Luton meeting the most extraordinary group of people in a youth project in the centre of Luton established some 15, 20 years ago by 43 churches across all denominations, and talking to some of the young people involved. They have a range of activites – everything from teaching those who are completely disconnected from the church about Ignatian spirituality and leading them in the exercises, through to dealing with issues of self harm and food problems, and all the rest of the issues that come to young people. And they do all that utterly wrapped up in prayer and in evangelism. They do it all in the context of the work of Jesus Christ. And there you saw, yes, evangelism and witness, but most of all the work and fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Conversion comes from prayer by a fragile people of Christ who pray to a faithful God who sends us a comforter. In an obedient community of faith, full of love for one another, the Father sends the Spirit in response to the Son , there is a realisation, as Jesus says in John 14, of truth that grows deeper and deeper and lives out in our inner being, and the fruit of that is peace that does not leave us.

Throughout history the lived example of these truths, the engine room of renewal and conversion, has come from Religion, it has been the gift of the religious communities. I cannot easily find an example of a church that since the end of the Roman Empire has found renewal without there being flourishing religious communities.

We start with Benedict, of course, who set out to grow closer to Christ and incidentally saved civilisation, as a collateral benefit. We have Cluny; we have my favourite and great saints of the North-East of England, from the time of Cuthbert through the great communities in Durham, Lindisfarne. . . The communities of the North-East that, springing from life in Religion, converted Scandinavia and the whole of Germany and northern Europe, the overflow of grace that reached out across Europe.

And then you get to Francis at a time when the church across Europe was as corrupt as it has probably ever been. In England, we go along a few centuries, we come to the Methodists, who live not in communities in the same form but under a Rule, under a Method, and there again we saw the Great Awakening.

The Oxford Movement, again which led to an awakening of religious life and religious life led to an awakening of the church.

17th century France in places like Bec, and today across Europe the New Religious Communities, springing up in new and unforeseen and unforeseeable forms and bringing life in the most remarkable ways, and in them I include people like the 24-7 Prayer Movement.

There are both theological or ecclesiological and also sociological or anthropological reasons for this I have no doubt. But it comes back theologically to a wager on the existence of God, to the living of life in communities in which the abundance of grace and the turning away from equivalence and exchange is the oxygen of survival as a community, and where the confronting in the desert of community of the toughest and roughest parts of what it is to be human beings seeking to follow Christ is at the heart of life. Rowan Williams, in an extraordinary address to Roman Catholic Bishops, spoke of Christian faith (and here he was following Maritain) as a true humanism. In Religion we find this truth and this humanism being renewed.

And at its heart it is to do with prayer. Rowan said, in the same address: “To be contemplative as Christ is contemplative is to be open to all the fullness that the Father wishes to pour into our hearts.” In prayer we are drawn into the “silent gazing upon God that is the goal of all our discipleship”. He carries on: “To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit”.

To put it less elegantly, through prayer we are moved from the exchange and equivalence to the abundance and grace, from being self-referential to other referential, from eating our supper alone to washing feet in community. Through prayer we are called into partnership with God who in condescension and grace works in answer to prayer.

So we see that in Religion we find the key to what the Church of England has discerned as its goals in this quinquennium. In Religion there is opened the possibility of conversion daily and anew, of spiritual and numerical growth. In Religion there is a fresh opening to the Common Good and not merely the economic General Interest. In Religion we are able to reimagine ministry. As Jesus promises in John 14 and 16, through obedient lives, seen above all in the best Religious Communities, new life emerges, truth is found more deeply and expressed in fresh ways, peace may reign afresh in the church.

And so is has been and so it is. Communities that have grown and served and sometimes died have taught our schools and established our universities. They teach today, scattered in small groups. They heal and serve. They live in the toughest parts of our country and shine light of Christ in the darkness. In the last 60 years they have set the pace to overthrow tyrannies of racism, to stop wars, and to bring reconciliation. They are of every kind and in every place.

Yet we all know also that in recent decades they have declined. That decline is an alarm call to the whole church, not a mere loss of a side-line, as if Asda were to stop selling petrol. There are many reasons for the decline, which mirrors the whole church, and I would argue is deeply linked to the life of the church. Yet as we face today the mountain to climb of rebuilding our numbers, re-finding confidence in the gospel. . .

So if we are to find again confidence in the gospel that says it is good news for the poor, not only because it enables social change – the gospel is not a means to an end, it’s an end in itself. I was reminded of that forcefully and embarrassingly six weeks ago when Caroline, my wife, and I were in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Goma, we’d been in South Sudan seeing the horrors there, and in Goma it was almost worse. I was in an IDP camp with 25,000 people on volcanic rock, with no food. I’d just been for half an hour in a tent for the disabled children who’d been abandoned, who lay on filthy mattresses dying while overstretched doctors tried to mitigate their agony. And in the midst of that, having sat with an elderly woman, blind and without food who’d lost her family, as she came near her death, in the midst of that the Bishop said, as the crowd gathered round: ‘Say something to encourage them.’ And so I did what I’m afraid I tend to do when I can’t think of anything to say I talk for a while to see if I’ve got any ideas. . . And so I started off by saying: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” And I was then going on to say something about bringing practical help or something and the crowd started clapping and cheering. The gospel is good news to the poor in and of itself. Yes, it changes society, yes, it transforms our existence, yes, it does all that. But it is in and of itself, by itself an end in itself, not a means to an end. It is good news for the poor.

And that renewal of confidence in the gospel, which will be at the heart of the renewal of our church, is impossible to imagine without renewal in Religion.

MacIntyre in After Virtue, as I’m sure most of you know, speaks of new dark age on the last page of that very interesting book, and talks of the need for a new, and, as he puts it, doubtless very different St Benedict. Perhaps that will not be a person but a movement, groups of people, even, because again, in almost all cases Religious renewal start with groups in prayer, not merely a single charismatic hero figure, although those are often the ones we remember and canonise. We are not looking for a Nietzchean superman, but a collection of fragile disciples who know that they have a tendency to betray and abandon Jesus and who gather in obedience so that they may receive the Paraclete.

What might that look like? I have no idea, it is, after all in the mind of God. But today’s gathering is not merely for the pleasure of knowing you, great as that is (and I mean that most sincerely), or to say how essential you are, true as that is, but to suggest that we need a wild burst of fresh and Spirit-fuelled imagination about Religion in the 21st century. It will be embedded in its traditions, but as in all past renewals of Religion it will also be different. Above all if will be spontaneous, not top down and under control.

So what needs doing? What institutional changes are needed? How does the church, how do the churches (we are not all Anglicans here) obstruct you, hinder you when we should celebrate and support? What re-imagination do we need?

Whatever it is, it will be centred in two things that are the call and purpose of the church: worship and drawing deeper into the light of Christ; and speaking and showing the fact that no-one ever makes a better decision in their whole life, in any circumstances, wherever they are, whatever age, whoever they are, they never make a better decision and cannot make a better decision than to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. A renewal will in effect, renew that most intangible and most certain of wagers, that Jesus Christ is Lord in truth and reality.



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