Following the engulfing political ‘Brexit-chaos’ in the UK, a moral can be drawn for religion. The lack of political will is itself a major contributor to the crisis. Strong political will-power can be just as dangerous as its total disintegration. Directions and the sense of the common good, as a foundation, can be lost.
This disintegration of the political establishment (called by many as the ‘Westminster bubble’), quite possibly, is a serious warning sign for the Church of England itself. It is wise to read it so. An established church (in practice, totally dependent on Parliament, on a disintegrating political elite) should be scrutinising the signs of the times. A crisis hardly happens in isolation. In a complex system like ours, they rather run in parallel. If so, the CoE as if in a mirror can spot its own weakening ‘political willpower’. This willpower stands for the willpower ‘to the Gospel’, to orthodoxy, to mission, to reform; to Tradition itself.
It is the very independence of the Church what is at stake in a special sense. The recovery of her power to ‘will the Gospel’ is the very ground of its existence. There is no growth, there is no mission, there is no handing over Tradition if the ‘willpower to the Gospel’ is weak and not sought. Now when the Diocese of London is discerning its 2030 vision, it is worth thinking about the church’s unique call to strengthen the desire - and our will - for the Gospel. It is both a global and a local challenge to grapple with.
The ‘will of God’ seems to be an awfully antiquated thought to our ‘weakened mind’. However, if we believe in that God is the Lord of history, it can no longer be an excuse that discerning this will is a terribly dangerous business for humans so it is better not to try.
What are the genuine numbers of Church attendance? One would suspect a shocking statistic, perhaps that is why the numbers of individual churches are not public. A church over 40 attendants on a Sunday is regarded to be a flourishing church. In truth, it is a heart-breaking tragedy. That is why our willpower in the Spirit, and all that lies behind it, should be honestly scrutinised. With due respect to the cultural aggiornamento that the CoE is attempting, many of the leading (political?) agendas that dominate our synods might be turn out to be by-plots. For our 2030 vision, from the inferno of our numbers, it seems that failure in identifying the missing structures would be a deadly sin.
The local parish community should think about its ‘destiny’ as being part of powerful whirlpools in culture (and church politics). It is possible that no remedy will be found on higher levels. Remaining in the ‘Westminster bubble’ and its ecclesial version is a real danger. There is more chance for that the parallel declines of willpower in secular and church politics will continue.
If so, if there is no redemption from above (however much we desire), it can be a Benedictine moment for our struggling local communities. Indeed, a new Benedictine moment in history on the rise when ‘preserving the basic values of culture and the Gospel’ becomes vital. We might need ‘monasteries without walls’, which will do the work of Christian self-preservation. The Benedictine-moment, hopefully, can link the local sufferings over the numbers. It may create an alliance among churches, an undercurrent of desire, to ‘will’ grace in a more focused - and Catholic - way. As part of this emerging ‘willpower’, the expression of ‘what is missing’ and demanding ‘the missing structures’ also may emerge.
(It would be interesting to learn what is missing at grass-root level, in a particular local church. It might well prove a useful resource for the vision of 2030.)
So, why is it a Benedictine moment? The abbot of a Benedictine community was the guardian and interpreter of the Rule. We can apply this to the parish. The local church is the guardian and interpreter of the Rule of the Gospel. This role of interpretation and guarding locally will lead to the revaluation of the traditional ‘parish system’. As a result, local communities with strong (or growing) identities will emerge - perhaps as the cells for Christian survival.
As part of the Benedictine-moment, there is a further function related to this role. The fixed and written Rule that Saint Benedict prescribed for the local community was a novelty. A strategic one. This Rule (or contemporary equivalents of it), symbolically, needs to be created locally. Perhaps, we should start thinking locally about the governing principles and ‘schedules’ of the life of the local parish. This ‘fixed Rule’ functions as a structure of Christian life.
A further great lesson is that the ‘Rule’ is different from the living oral tradition, or the disciplina. These also organise the life of the community, they are the local customs, values, the images of the church and mission, spiritual and charitable practices, etc. The great strategic insight of Saint Benedict is that without ‘interpreting’ and implementing the Rule there is no disciplina, or practice. As the local parish community, without practicing our role as guardians and interpreters of the Gospel, as our ultimate Rule, we cannot speak of Christian identity. Without this toiling work, complementing the work of the bishop, there is no implementing or generating any vision.
Saint Benedict, in his Rule, gives a useful description of ‘a floating church’ ebbing away from its own centres. It can also serve as an apt description of a self-centred politics, hugely responsible for the Brexit-crisis; the cause of losing ‘willpower for the common good.’ In his Rule, he describes the Sarabaites, the living antithesis of his own monks. He repeatedly criticises their independence of any rule. ‘They have not been tested by any rule or by the lessons of experience… their law is their own good pleasure; whatever they think or choose to do, they call holy, but what they like not they regard as unlawful.’ (Daniel Rees: Consider Your Call, A Theology of Monastic Life Today, SPCK London 1978., p.47-)
These are verbal Icons, expressions of how the world is seen from Saint Augustine's..