Thoughts on Parish and Cathedral: is Irish monasticism a model?

The Revd Fr David Hyman, associate rector of my parish and planting priest of a new mission congregation here in Chatham County with whom our family is now associated (thanks be to God, we will have our own geographical parish church!), recently posted an entry on his weblog, Blackbeans, that provokes thoughts regarding the relationship of the parish church and the cathedral and what this means to the planting of a new parish.

There is indeed a lot to think about here:  the nature of episcopal authority, the nature of connectional polity, the nature of “placeness” – the fact that a parish, and the larger Church of which the parish is the local manifestation or expression, is geographically located precisely because the Church lives among people (cf. the Pauline salutations to the church in… or to the bishops and deacons of the church in …).

The current geographically non-contiguous structure of the Anglican Mission, and to a lesser extent of ACNA, can be helpful to the Church insofar as it permits a missional focus that might not be as strongly manifested in the traditional diocesan structure. But this non-diocesan structure is a real liability, and more than that can become a denial of what it is to be the Body of Christ, if the non-contiguous missional networks are formed on the basis of “affinity” (as some Anglican Mission documents state), because it feeds a free-market “choice” model of Church, which is a denial of the prevenience of grace, election, and the Pauline model of diversity in the Body. It is theologically dangerous, and – I write with fear and trembling, as one who has “chosen” parishes to attend – heterodox.

One of the models that has been drawn on since the early days of the current movement in North American diaspora Anglicanism (I remember hearing ++Bob Duncan refer to it at the gathering in Dallas in 2003) is that of Celtic monasticism. To be sure, it has been referred to often enough to assume something of an air of triteness, especially when there hangs behind it an unarticulated dichotomy of Celtic Christianity (= good) vs Roman Christianity (= bad). But, rightly understood, does that model offer anything to the Church in mission?

The non-contiguous polity of Celtic monasticism arose from the sociopolitical conditions of Ireland.  Lying outside the Roman Empire, Ireland had no cities. When bishops were appointed and ordained for work in Ireland in the fifth and sixth centuries, their dioceses were contiguous with the tuathas, the local petty kingdoms (the word tuatha actually means people) into which the island was multiply divided. But the real centers of ecclesiastical mission and authority were the monasteries, some of which grew to include several hundreds or more than a thousand monks and lay dependents (including families). These monasteries even took on the Latin term civitas, “city”. Outside the major episcopal centers like Armagh, bishops were usually monks within a monastic civitas, and held sacramental and magisterial authority, but not political authority, which was reserved to the abbots of the monasteries. When monks left a monastery to preach the Gospel to the unevangelized parts of Ireland, the Western Isles and the Scottish mainland, they established new monastic centers that were dependent on, and under the abbatial authority of, the mother house (monastery) from which the monks had originally come. Eventually this model spread to the continent, and Irish monasteries were founded in Gaul, Germany, and even northern Italy. The spread of the model of daughter houses dependent on the original mother house back in Ireland or elsewhere meant the development of a widespread non-contiguous network of monasteries outside the diocesan structure of Britain and the continent (which had, of course, arisen within the political contingencies of the Roman Empire).

This polity permitted a supple missional focus to Irish monasticism that meant a fairly rapid spread of evangelizing monks. But we would misread history were we to assume that mission was accomplished in the early medieval period only through this model, when in fact the evangelization of the Franks, the Frisians, the Saxons, the Danes and other Germanic tribes was accomplished by the Church in Gaul (later France) along diocesan lines and with the full support of Rome. Another problem arose when the Irish monks in Gaul, Germany, and Italy were not willing to recognize the local episcopal authority of the diocesan bishops – in other words, refusing to recognize the reality of the Church in the place where they were.

So what could North American diaspora Anglicanism learn from the historical model of Irish monasticism?

1) First, the strength of the missional connection of founding churches and daughter churches that David Hyman notes in his post. An interesting historical footnote in this regard is that this is how dioceses came to exist in the Church (at least in the West) – the dependence of suburban and rural parishes (and urban “stational” parishes) on the mother church of a city, and the appointment of presbyters rather than bishops as pastors of these dependent churches.

In time, it may even be that geographically contiguous dioceses will arise from such “familial” networks of mother and daughter churches, as they did some sixteen hundred years ago, and that the rectors of mother parishes will become bishops, or at least assume some quasi-episcopal role (perhaps even developing into a ministry like that of the ancient chorepiscopus).

2) Second, the example of Irish monasticism provides a check on the heterodox and destructive notion of choosing a missional network of churches with whom a local congregation has affinities other than simply being other local expressions of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Irish monasteries didn’t choose their mother house. They had been founded by monks who had come from the mother house or from other daughter houses, and there was no changing from one monastic “network” to another because of affinity or preference.

The only reason for geographically non-contiguous networks is to advance the Church’s mission, not to exist as enclaves of the like-minded.

What might this mean practically, for the Anglican Mission and ACNA in particular? Already existing parishes and congregations that join either the AM or ACNA would not themselves choose the network (or nascent diocese) to which they belong. Instead, this decision would rest with the bishops of the Church. Parishes and congregations founded by church planters (latter day Irish missionary monks!) and by mother churches would remain in administrative and sacramental connection with their mother churches. In no case would a local congregation or parish simply choose, on the basis of shared characteristics and outlook, to be part of a missional network.

3) Third, the Irish monastic model provides a cautionary example as well, insofar as the monasteries came into conflict with diocesan authorities and churches. What might the practical consequences of taking caution be?

At a minimum, the conflict should not be read in such a way that the diocesan model of mission is denigrated or assumed merely to be administrative and not missional. It may very well be that, in the fullness of time, God’s will is such that churches in non-contiguous missional networks become part of geographically contiguous missional networks called dioceses, bringing with them the supple and creative missional focus that brought the non-contiguous networks into being in the first place. This is what eventually happened to many of the far-flung Irish monasteries, though admittedly sometimes through episcopal coercion rather than willing submission. But the opportunity for willing submission itself becomes a sign of the Gospel, insofar as it embodies an apostolic virtue (cf. Ephesians) – I should note that this is also true of submission to episcopal authority (and network authority), whether geographically contiguous or not.

We also must honestly and uncomfortably ask ourselves the question of whether it really advances the kingdom to have overlapping jurisdictions and missional networks in many areas of the country. In those places where the churches cooperate with each other, where they don’t duplicate ministries or unnecessarily consume resources best shared, then in a missionary setting, overlapping might be alright – but the caveat here is that the churches and missions in these areas should jointly be under some general [episcopal] oversight (which is why I think the withdrawal of the Anglican Mission from full membership in ACNA was a tremendous mistake). And, of course, it should go nearly without saying – but we have to name demons to exorcise them – that church-planting should never take place in an area of shared mission such that divisiveness or a mindset of competition is created.

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Parish and Cathedral: is Irish monasticism a model?

  1. Wow, fantastic weblog structure!
    How long have you been blogging for? you made blogging glance easy.

    I’m part of DOVE Europe, a apostolic network with has churches worldwide but also in Europe.

  2. Thank you for presenting Irish monasticism; I have been puzzling as to how to build an Order from my website ministry. This gives me some good ideas.

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