Having conducted an extensive, if not exhaustive, review of the Emerging Church Movement (ECM) through a variety of primary and secondary sources, and established what the general ethos and thought of the movement is, I will now compare and contrast specific aspects of emerging thought and theology with the teachings of the Orthodox Church, showing where there are encouraging signs of many emergents in their movement towards a more Orthodox approach to certain issues, while also demonstrating the various places where ECM drastically contradicts Orthodox dogma.
The Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement
It has already been mentioned above that ECM is primarily an ecclesiological movement, with the intention of creating an entirely new ecclesiology. Ronald Gleason even suggests that, within ECM, there has been a paradigm shift “away from soteriology toward ecclesiology.” The ecclesiological vision of ECM has been one that has profoundly influenced many of their positions and practices. The aforementioned anti-establishment mentality of much of ECM has led to a particular leaning in emerging ecclesiology towards an anti-hierarchical system of church governance. Not only has church polity been affected, but the whole concept of the church community itself has been changed. According to Her husband plays in a musical group every week associated with the church.
“He says he’s an atheist.” She said, “No one has attempted to talk with him about the state of his soul.” Communion is open, and he participates.
DeVine, quoted above, there is a strong leaning towards a ‘belonging-before-believing’ approach in ECM, in which those who do not necessarily hold the same faith of the community (however it is determined) are still considered as an integral part of the community nonetheless. ECM’s focus on ‘conversation’ and relationships no doubt heavily influences this approach, as people are encouraged to dialogue and work out their faith, instead of being given a creed that they must adhere to in order to be accepted into the community. A good example of this comes from the research of Ganiel and Marti:
Judy’s atheist husband is also a welcome member of the congregation. “I love it that he’s been embraced as a member of the community. Accepted as who he is. It’s like, ‘We’re going to embrace this man, and it’s up to God what he decides to do with him.’ Everyone seems to be OK with that. It’s so important to me.” Her husband plays in a musical group every week associated with the church. “He says he’s an atheist.” She said, “No one has attempted to talk with him about the state of his soul.” Communion is open, and he participates. She disagreed with the conservative stances of other churches: “’If you’re not saved, don’t come.’ Nonsense! Christ died for everyone.”
Although there is nothing inherently wrong with welcoming seekers to attend long-term, the historical benchmark for entrance into Christian community has been, and for the Orthodox Church still is, catechesis, followed by confession of the Symbol of Faith and Holy Baptism, Chrismation, and Eucharist. In the words of the late Byzantine theologian, Saint Nicholas Cabasilas,
To be baptized, then, is to be born according to Christ and to receive our very being and nature, having previously been nothing… it is the first of the Mysteries into which we are initiated, and before the others this Mystery introduces Christians into the new life… It is then that we are formed and shaped, and our shapeless and undefined life receives shape and definition.
It is evident from this passage that the unbaptized are in no way participants in the life of the Church. Although in most cases, the Church no longer expels the unbaptized from the temple halfway through the service, it still maintains the division between believers and non-believers, and in no circumstances would an atheist be permitted to partake in Holy Communion, the peak and summit of participation in the Church’s life.
The Orthodox Church’s ecclesiology is based on the traditional teachings of the Church and its understanding of the nature of the Holy Mysteries, so a strict position is to be expected, but even Protestant churches with a low or even negative sacramental understanding maintain boundaries based on faith in Christ, which makes the ECM approach even more radical. It could even be argued that ECM’s low ecclesiology derives not from a low view of sacraments, but from a low view of the church in general, as Brian McLaren writes, paraphrasing Churchill: the church is “the worst form of community ever devised, except for all others.” Although he later goes on to correctly describe the church as ‘the communion of saints,’ it can be seen that the anti-authoritarian streak of ECM has its roots in this disdain for the church’s institutional element.
The anti-authoritarian aspect of ECM manifests itself in the movement’s anti-hierarchical structure. As has been mentioned above, ECM has no official structure of leadership, and many of those communities that self-identify as emerging are independent, with a more horizontal leadership structure than is found in most Protestant churches. Indeed Ganiel and Marti make note of their ““flat” leadership structures and their ambivalence towards ordained clergy.” Many communities have only part-time clergy, who usually spread responsibilities throughout the congregation, allowing for a “more egalitarian form of congregational government and [acting] as a mechanism to resist decrees coming from distant denominational institutions.”
Tony Jones, the prominent emergent writer and ‘theologian-in-residence’ at Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, calls this ‘relational ecclesiology’ and based his PhD thesis on the subject. His main observations are that ECM has “a “lower” view of ordination, or a “higher” view of lay involvement. Or both.” He notes that, while most mainstream Protestant denominations in America have been attempting to increase lay involvement, ECM has taken things to the next level, listing several examples based on his research:
… the majority of the liturgy at Church of the Apostles is administered by laypeople. A different member of the congregation introduces communion each week at Solomon’s Porch. Most of these congregations operate a polity that is a kind of hybrid of Congregationalism and a free church evangelical structure… each is loosely democratic in that the board is meant to represent the members of the congregational body, but none is as fiercely democratic as a true Congregational polity would require.
While some emergent communities are attached to larger denominations, most notably PCUSA 1 Presbyterian Church United States of America and ELCA2 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which both have traditional, hierarchical structures, the majority of them are independent and detached from any hierarchy or oversight. This anti-institutional leaning, accompanied with the light anti-clericalism present in ECM, is out of step with traditional Christianity. Although emergents claim the ‘Ancient-Future’ title, it is apparent that their church structure does not reflect that of the early Church, which was clearly hierarchical in nature. According to Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, “The highest ministry in the Church as an organization is borne by the hierarchy, which is distinct from the ordinary members.” This is firmly based on the writings of the earliest Church leaders, in particular Saint Ignatius of Antioch, known for his robust defense of the Church hierarchy:
Follow the bishop, all of you, as Jesus Christ the Father, and the presbytery as the apostles. Respect the deacons as the commandment of God. Without the bishop, nobody should do anything relating to the church. That Eucharist which is under the bishop, or the one to whom he has entrusted it, should be considered sound. The congregation should be wherever the bishop is, just as the catholic church is wherever Christ may be. Apart from the bishop it is not permissible to baptize, or to hold a love-feast, but whatever he approves is pleasing to God, so that everything you do is secure and sound.
The above-quoted passage is one of several from Saint Ignatius in which he insists that all Christians maintain obedience to the divinely-established hierarchy. Based on the continual practice of the Orthodox Church, as well as the ancient heterodox movements, in maintaining the traditional threefold hierarchical structure, it is evident that ECM is far from ancient practice in regards to its organization, or lack thereof.
Post-Modernism and ECM
ECM is based on reaction against the staunch modernism of contemporary Protestantism in the West, and an embrace of the cultural and social transition to a post-modern society with a different worldview and set of values
One of the most common ideas associated with ECM is post-modernism. Post-modern thought, and its integration with contemporary Protestant theology, has been an essential component of ECM’s ideology since its formative years and has affected all facets of emerging thought and practice, particularly in regard to interpretation of traditional dogma, and Scripture. Essentially, ECM is based on reaction against the staunch modernism of contemporary Protestantism in the West, and an embrace of the cultural and social transition to a post-modern society with a different worldview and set of values, or in McLaren’s words: “the old modern paradigm, with its absolute scientific laws, consumerist individualism, and rational certainty, was giving away to a new postmodern paradigm of pluralism, relativism, globalism, and uncertainty.”
ECM’s tacit acceptance of this new paradigm, whether it is merely something to be acknowledged, or something to actually be embraced, has been the major point that has attracted criticism from the traditional Protestants and evangelicals, who have accused ECM proponents of denying absolute truth and long-established Christian doctrines, in favor of a moderate agnosticism and fascination with mystery. Even within ECM, the extent of the embrace of post-modernism has been part of the tension between the more conservative elements and the Emergent stream.
Essentially, post-modernism rejects the overarching narratives of modernism and its attempts to explain all things rationally. Likewise, concepts such as language, meaning, and knowledge are called into question, with words and their meanings being considered arbitrary and their relationship to the truth being doubtful. The post-modernist philosopher Jacques Derrida proposed a system of deconstruction, not in order to discover the real meanings behind words, but to uncover the multiplicity of meanings. Effectively it is a system of skepticism in which the concepts of modernism – absolute truth, definite relations between word and meaning, and foundationalist epistemology – are thrown into doubt. The question is how much of this proponents of ECM accept.
As McKnight writes above, there are some within ECM who are ‘ministering to’ post-moderns, in an attempt to bring them back to Christianity, while there are those who ‘minister within’ post-modernity. These are believed to be in the majority, according to McKnight, and consist of the more conservative (Doctrine-Friendly) emergents, who may use various elements of post-modern thought and practice in their delivery of the Gospel and in their pastoral methods, but without compromising their more traditional Protestant theology. The third group, as McKnight says, have more or less fully embraced post-modernism, including its effects on doctrine. Regarding their position on ‘truth,’ it has been found that
…what is emerging from their conversations is a conception of truth that is experiential and “embodied” in the example of Jesus… For them, modernists conceive of truth as a set of objective propositions about the world as it really is. Modernists are said to pair “propositional truth” with the idea that the facts we discover can help us construct an all-encompassing, overarching narrative that explains everything.
Ganiel and Marti go on to explain that, from their findings, most emergents believe that truth is to be found by participating in their communities and involving themselves in the conversations there, experiencing life, and hearing and telling stories, with “the real test of what is “true” is whether is empowers you to live as a better person.” For Phyllis Tickle, there are two main insights that have impacted ECM’s thought: “the philosophers’ deconstruction of “all written texts” and their challenging the idea of “the ability of language to convey anything without prejudice.”” and “postmodern philosophers’ dual emphasis on the deconstruction of overarching metanarratives and the influence of context on written texts.”
The Orthodox Church gives the Scriptures the highest dignity, with Saint Athanasius saying of them: “These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness.”
The first insight has caused a general mistrust of language within ECM, with many feeling that it is beyond the capacity of language to communicate divine realities. This is something that the Orthodox Church could agree with – with certain caveats. As Saint Gregory the Theologian writes: “to tell of God is not possible… but to know Him is even less possible.” The apophatic tradition of Orthodox theology and thought is open to some of the ideas of post-modernism, in particular its rejection of rationalism, but post-modernism’s skepticism of language and meaning is not necessarily agreeable to the Orthodox tradition. Eminent theologian Protopresbyter John Romanides writes: “… the Church Fathers are quite familiar with the fact that expressions convey specific concepts,” hence why they fought tooth-and-nail to defend terminology at the Ecumenical Councils. Although the writings of the Fathers, especially Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, insist that, when dealing with divine realities, human concepts only go so far, they would not agree with the post-modernists that words themselves have no specific meaning. Unfortunately for ECM, the result of this adoption of post-modern linguistic theory has been that, for many, it is now “impossible to discover a whole, objective truth.”
This brings us to Tickle’s second insight. The deconstruction of overarching meta-narratives in post-modernism has had a disastrous effect on emergents’ understanding of Scripture, i.e. that it can no longer provide an overarching narrative about God, or a foundation for a worldview. As mentioned above, this is part of the reaction against the modernist understanding of the Scriptures, a component of which is sola scriptura. This is another case in which, by fully embracing post-modern ideas, ECM has thrown the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. As Tickle mentions in her research, it was the defeat of evangelical Protestantism in the public sphere that led to a lack of confidence in sola scriptura and a desire to seek another way of interpreting the Scriptures. Unfortunately, the majority of the mainline Protestant churches adopted more liberal approaches to scriptural interpretation, while the emergents took the post-modern approach, both of which, like sola scriptura, fail to understand or interpret the Scriptures correctly and, indeed, are probably more damaging to Christian doctrine.
The Orthodox Church gives the Scriptures the highest dignity, with Saint Athanasius saying of them: “These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness.” However, it avoids the pitfalls of sola scriptura by always interpreting the Scriptures in continuity with the catholic consciousness of the Church. Father John Romanides, who spent the best part of his theological career refuting Western theological errors, particularly those originating with Saint Augustine, explains further:
… the Holy Tradition, i.e. Deposit, is not something different from the Holy Scriptures, since it is contained in them. Yet, it is not identical with them, because the Deposit is identical with the Church, and the Holy Tradition is identical with the entire manifestation of the Church. There is no difference, however, between the Deposit in the Holy Scriptures and in the Church.
He goes on to state that:
Outside the Church, the Deposit is hidden even to those who read the Holy Scriptures, because, although the Deposit is declared by the Holy Scriptures and is contained in them, it is not interpreted by them, but only by the Church… Holy Scripture and the Church teach infallibly about God, because the Holy Tradition or Deposit in them are identical.
These statements show the great reverence that the Orthodox Church has for the Holy Scriptures and their importance within its dogmatic consciousness, but also the caveat that they must be interpreted by the Orthodox Church. However, Father John goes on to make a statement that the post-moderns might tentatively agree with, albeit only to a degree:
Although Holy Scripture is divinely inspired and teaches infallibly in the Church about God and His relations with the world, yet Holy Scripture outside the Church… does not teach infallibly, because the interpretive operation of the Holy Spirit… is not there to lead to the whole truth… He who is outside the communion… and does not submissively follow their teaching is ignorant of the Key of the Holy Scripture and finds himself outside the Deposit of the Tradition and, consequently, outside the Truth.
So, based on the teachings of the Church, as defined by Father John, it is impossible to know the whole truth, which the emergents would agree on, but only if you are outside of the Orthodox Church, which has infallible interpretive charisma under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and within the teaching authority of its hierarchy, both doctrines with which the emergents would likely vociferously disagree.
A holistic way of life is a very apt way of describing the Orthodox way of life, with its rhythms of prayer, fasting, and participation in the Mysteries, as well as its mystical spiritual tradition
Although the post-modern epistemology is disastrous, and Scriptural interpretation has degenerated into a free-for-all, there are some positives to emergent acceptance of the post-modern paradigm, and that comes in the context of their spirituality. The rejection of rationalism has led to an ‘opening-up’ to more mystical forms of worship and the introduction of a ‘new’ kind of spirituality.
Adherents of postmodern religions tend to practice a holistic way of life. They observe that all of reality is sacred and that all dualisms are simply meta-narratives… Postmodern culture pushes for boundaries to be overcome. For the most part, however, the overcoming of the split between the sacred and profane is foreign to mainstream church practice.
A holistic way of life is a very apt way of describing the Orthodox way of life, with its rhythms of prayer, fasting, and participation in the Mysteries, as well as its mystical spiritual tradition. The end of rationalism for post-moderns has created openness to mystery in the religious sphere, long absent from evangelical Protestantism. As we saw above, many emergents have embraced the writings of Catholic mystics, such as John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Thomas Merton, not only in their search for authenticity, but also in their search for something that surpasses the cold rationalism of modernity. This openness to mystery and traditional Christian spirituality is to be welcomed, but unfortunately most emergents have focused on the Western traditions, instead of the rich treasury of Eastern Orthodox spirituality. The problems with Western mysticism are outside the scope of this paper, but it should suffice to say that the Orthodox view of the works and experience of Roman Catholic mystical writers is generally not a positive one. Despite this, it can be seen as a step in the right direction, one that will hopefully lead to an engagement with authentic Orthodox spirituality. As well as openness to a more mystical view of Christianity, the post-modern paradigm has also opened up ECM to engagement with traditional practices in their worship.
“Early on we called it “liturgical eclecticism.” We took a lot of stuff from the Book of Common Prayer, a lot of Catholic stuff. We felt free to borrow not only from our specific traditions but also from the whole tradition of the church.”
ECM has earned its ‘Ancient-Future Church’ moniker from its attempts to synthesize ancient practices and ever-evolving contemporary worship and concepts. As part of its quest to rediscover ‘authenticity’ in the Christian life, ECM has made extensive use of many practices that have long fallen out of favor in the Protestant world, or in some cases, are even actively discouraged and avoided, and fused them with inherited practices such as worship bands, as one emergent pastor reflected: “Early on we called it “liturgical eclecticism.” We took a lot of stuff from the Book of Common Prayer, a lot of Catholic stuff. We felt free to borrow not only from our specific traditions but also from the whole tradition of the church.”
The most notable facet of this eclecticism, and probably the most widespread, is the use of traditional visual stimulants as part of their worship, to complement the more modern spectacles of video clips and projections. In the majority of cases this means candles or other traditional forms of lighting, but many communities have opened up to the use of icons and statues, usually as part of separate ‘prayer stations’ away from the main act of worship. ECM’s engagement with the arts has also been fruitful in this regard, with a number of emergent communities either meeting in galleries or hosting exhibitions and installations. Some even incorporate the production of art, such as painting, sculpture, or crafts, into their worship itself.
Along with the most evident manifestations of this co-option of ancient practice, i.e. candles, sacred art, etc., some emergent communities also revived the use of spiritual and liturgical activities long abandoned by the vast majority of Protestants. The majority of these come from the Catholic and Anglican traditions, such as: spiritual direction; Ignatian spiritual exercises; Lectio Divina; the Divine Offices, particularly the service of Compline; frequent Eucharist, usually served according to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer or its variants; the use of incense in worship; observance of periods such as Lent and Holy Week; and even the Stations of the Cross. The New Monastic movement, explored below, has even produced its own version of the Book of Common Prayer, subtitled A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. Some emergent writers have mentioned the use of ‘Eastern Orthodox prayer books’ but there are no examples of specific practices in the surveyed literature, besides the new monastic movement’s Common Prayer, and the album The Divine Liturgy of the Wretched Exiles, loosely based on the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, by the nomadic, Mennonite anarcho-punk collective Psalters. Other emergent communities make exclusive use of ‘Celtic’ practices composed by the Iona and Northumbrian communities, which generally have a somewhat tenuous connection with genuine ancient Celtic spirituality. There are even a few communities that practice yoga and Zen meditation as part of their emergent spirituality.
Despite the adoption of many traditional practices, the vast majority of ECM communities have avoided the formality that usually accompanies them. Instead of pews, or formal seating arrangements, some emergent communities try to ‘sanctify secular space’ by arranging their churches in a manner more akin to a coffee shop, using sofas, armchairs, and other more ‘homey’ furniture – some even take it to the next level by actually doing away with a ‘church building’ completely, meeting instead in coffee houses and pubs. The centrality of this ethos in emerging thought is stressed by Ganiel and Marti:
There is an intentional effort to reconstruct spaces to move away from pews, altars, or elevated pulpits. If such spaces are not available, they are created… Both architecture and seating arrangements push away stereotypical notions of church in order to emphasize egalitarianism, artistry, and dialogue. The arrangement is more simple than stoic. Outer walls are often where welcome tables, prayer/communion stations, and storage are placed. Low lighting (sometimes with votive candles) promotes a contemplative mood… For Emerging Christians, the locations and physical spaces in which their preaching and worship take place matter a lot. They see these physical places and spaces as extensions of the values they wish to live out; values that include being open and inclusive, cultivating community, promoting social justice, and so on.
Although it is encouraging that ECM is exploring and adopting traditional practices, in particular liturgical rituals focused on the Eucharist, there are two main deficiencies in their approach. First is that they are so far removed from a real, authentic liturgical-spiritual tradition that they are unable to receive suitable guidance and instruction in making profitable use of whatever positive and worthy traditions they have adopted, or in discerning problematic practices, namely post-schism Catholic practices, such as the Rosary and the Ignatian exercises, and non-Christian spiritual techniques. Without guidance or discernment, the improper use of spiritual and liturgical practices could end up causing problems in the long-term. The second major issue is that, in the spirit of ‘deconstruction’ mentioned above, many of the practices are carried out in a ‘re-traditioned,’ experimental manner, or in a spirit of subversion. A prominent example of the latter is when the Belfast-based Ikon collective used champagne and chocolate cake for their communion rite, in an ironic satire of evangelicalism’s emphasis on happiness, and its ignorance of the dark aspects of Christianity. On the whole, however, this exploration of tradition, liturgy and spirituality is positive and a closer and more realistic engagement with Orthodoxy on the part of ECM might result in development in the right direction.
The Emerging Approach to Social Issues
At the forefront of much of ECM’s practice is its dedication to ‘incarnational living’ or ‘kingdom living,’ something that manifests itself in a strong commitment to social issues. ECM’s dedication to social issues expands much further than simply assisting the poor, sick, and needy, but fully incorporates political activism, human rights campaigning, and a multitude of other issues. However, in the spirit of avoiding the program-based structure of the seeker-friendly churches most emergents are fleeing, many emerging communities encourage their members to actively seek employment in the social work sector, or even to deliberately move to poorer and more neglected areas, sometimes in groups. Dwight Friesen of Quest in Seattle says of this, “We discourage programs in our faith community. Almost everyone is involved in social service as a career.” Many emerging communities seek to incorporate ‘intentional spirituality’ with their social action, for example the Urban Center for Spiritual Formation, a ministry of Landing Place in Columbus, Ohio. A major aspect of ECM’s social outlook is that it does not use its involvement in social issues as a way of gaining converts, as they believe this to be manipulative and endemic among evangelicals. Instead, they are focused on building relationships and offering hospitality to all as a way of proclaiming their gospel, and hope that people are attracted to Christianity by this less aggressive manner.
One manifestation of ECM’s social action is the rise in the use of Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZs). Similar to the new monastic movement, which is described below, TAZs seek to create spaces in which people can more authentically interact with one another outside of the unjust social system, and as an alternative to the capitalism decried by many emergents. This approach, however, is not supported by all, and some emergent leaders have criticized TAZs as being “idealistic playgrounds of the middle classes.”
Despite the ideological divide between the Doctrine-Friendly and Emergent streams, both of them can agree on the importance of social issues and it serves as a de facto uniting force for them. In the words of Phyllis Tickle: “… social justice… would become a kind of acid test for separating established Christianity groups from Emergence Christianity ones.” However, despite this agreement, the extent of the activism, especially in regards to issues such as homosexuality and female leadership in the church, still causes friction between the more conservative elements of ECM and the more liberal ones. It can be expected that, if the Emergent stream pushes further and further in its support for left-leaning political and social causes, there might well be a reaction from the more conservative parts of ECM.
There can be no real critique of ECM’s engagement with social action from an Orthodox perspective, as much of it is admirable and, indeed, puts the Orthodox Church in the West to shame. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of a small, but notable, number of charitable organizations and institutions, Orthodoxy in the West has not built up a reputation for itself as a Church that is fully engaged with its rich heritage of social action, exemplified by the teachings and homilies of such Church Fathers as Saints Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, and even the prophets of the Old Testament, many of whom had a fairly radical message on social justice. Indeed, it might be possible to say that, as Orthodoxy has influenced and inspired ECM in many ways in regards to its practices, Orthodox Christians should be inspired by ECM’s almost universal commitment to helping the disenfranchised and unfortunate. However, ECM’s seeming fixation with left-wing and liberal political and social agendas is something that taints their social ministry, making it unpalatable to more conservative Christians, who are quite rightly suspicious of the left after the ‘culture wars’ of the past few decades.
ECM and New Monasticism
A movement that has developed almost parallel to ECM, and with some crossover, is ‘New Monasticism,’ which could almost be seen as an extension of the emergent view on social action. Although the New Monastic movement has different roots to ECM, and has been influenced by somewhat different principles, many of the ideas and outlook of the two movements are shared, particularly in regard to spiritual and social issues.
One of the common features of most new monastic communities is their absolute opposition to the capitalist system and its military-industrial complex
The roots of New Monasticism lie in the desire, shared with ECM, to rediscover some authentic tradition in an era and culture considered spiritually superficial. Although mainly rooted in Protestantism, if they even subscribe to any particular denomination, many new monastic communities are heavily influenced by Roman Catholic traditions, particularly the Benedictine and Franciscan, in their spirituality, and by the Catholic Worker movement in their social outlook. However, many proponents and writers point to the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the 1930s as their ‘manifesto’: “The restoration of the church will surely come from a sort of new monasticism which has in common with the old only the uncompromising attitude of a life lived according to the Sermon on the Mount in the following of Christ.” As well as Bruderhof community in Germany, another influential ‘proto-new monastic’ community is the interracial Koinonia community in Georgia, USA, which was founded with the intention of crossing racial boundaries in the segregated South of the 1940’s.
In terms of developing a unified vision for the new monastic movement, the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), founded by John Perkins in the 1970’s, was influential in its preaching of the “3 R’s”:
…we have to relocate to neighborhoods that have been abandoned. What follows is redistribution of resources to correct for economic injustices. When people are together, sharing what they have so that no one goes without, true reconciliation can happen.
This has been the path taken by most new monastic communities in recent times, most notably Shane Claiborne’s Simple Way in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which combines economic development and social justice work with a modern take on communal spiritual life. One of the common features of most new monastic communities is their absolute opposition to the capitalist system and its military-industrial complex, and their desire to create a space outside of it where they can try to live the Christian life in its fullness and most authentically, helping to transform local areas for the better.
As the movement began to spread, a meeting termed “The New Monasticism Gathering” took place in Durham, North Carolina in 2005, which brought the decentralized communities together to discuss the movement and its direction. Here, they developed the “12 Marks of New Monasticism” and unveiled them in a communiqué quoted in full below:
Moved by God’s Spirit in this time called America to assemble at St. John’s Baptist Church in Durham, NC, we wish to acknowledge movement of radical rebirth, grounded in God’s love and drawing on the rich tradition of Christian practices that have long formed disciples in the simple Way of Christ. This contemporary school for conversion, which we have called a “new monasticism,” is producing a grassroots ecumenism and a prophetic witness within the North American church which is diverse in form, but characterized by the following marks:
Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire.
Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us.
Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church.
Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life.
Hospitality to the stranger.
Nurturing common life among members of intentional community.
Peacekeeping in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18.
Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation.
Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies.
Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children.
Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate.
Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life.
It can be said that while ECM is primarily an ecclesiological movement influenced by contemporary society and culture, new monasticism is a primarily a social movement influenced by the historical church. While both movements share similar traits and motives, especially the community and social elements, the proclivity for left-wing politics, and an engagement with traditional liturgical worship, the main difference between them is that the new monastic movement is still deeply attached to its (mainly) evangelical roots, which is shown in their high appreciation of Scripture and the teachings of Christ, while ECM is mostly involved in post-modernism and the process of deconstruction, as detailed above, which may put them at odds in regards to doctrine and interpretation of Scripture. For example, the new monastic leader Shane Claiborne, despite having numerous personal connections with emergent leaders such as Brian McLaren, distances himself from the ‘emergent’ label.
The growth of the new monastic movement has both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side, although it does not resemble monasticism in the classical sense, being more focused on social justice and political engagement than spiritual and ascetic struggle, it is encouraging to see a move towards communal living and worship, and, in some cases, celibacy, which have been absent from mainstream Protestantism for much of its history. Unfortunately, on the negative side, the movement’s general adherence to left-wing principles and narratives, and its almost exclusive focus on social issues, pacificism, and the anti-war movement has the potential to lead to very unbalanced territory. For example, in the calendar found in Common Prayer, there are ‘special days’ commemorating such non-Christian figures as Malcolm X and Mahatma Gandhi, and events such as the annexation of Hawaii, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the foundation of the NAACP, which have little to do with Christianity.
The tendency in the writings of some New Monastic writers to paint the ‘established church’ as the ‘bad guys’ of history, and to alleviate the poor and socially disadvantaged from moral responsibility is also problematic and will no doubt adversely affect any kind of meaningful dialogue with established churches. It is for these reasons, unfortunately, that we predict that the New Monastic movement’s engagement with Orthodoxy will only ever be superficial. Despite the long-standing practice of social outreach conducted by the Church down to the present and the venerable tradition of Orthodox monks speaking the truth to power, the Orthodox Church’s historical ideal of symphony between Church and state, the formal, hierarchical structure of Church governance, and the Church’s nuanced views on war and military service are unpalatable to most New Monastic ideologues.
Having now compared and contrasted some of the key issues in ECM with the Orthodox Church’s teachings and dogmas, we can now form a fuller opinion of ECM as a whole, and offer some final thoughts on the movement.
From the start, we can say that, since ECM has its roots in Protestantism, and in particular the more liberal stream, there are some serious doctrinal issues that are antithetical to the Orthodox understanding. Most notably, in ECM’s case, are its weak, or barely-existent, ecclesiology and the anti-authoritarian undercurrent that informs it. With its radical individualism, applied not only to persons, but to communities, and its lack of any kind of overarching leadership or guidance, not to speak of authority, ECM has, except in those minority of cases where the communities are part of, or have some relation to, an established denomination, lost the remaining vestiges of the church structure established since the Apostles. This is an unfortunate and significant flaw in a movement that has sought to try and restore many ancient and classical practices. It is no doubt influenced by the near wholesale adoption, or at least tacit acceptance, of post-modernism by emergents.
Post-modernism and its influence can be viewed in both a positive and negative light. It has affected the handling of Holy Scripture by ECM negatively, with much of it now held to be suspect and unreliable, and the emerging epistemology has a sense of agnosticism in regards to truth and dogma that is absent from both Orthodoxy, and other, more traditional, Christian denominations. However, on a more positive note, the fall of modernism has opened up emergents to a whole world of ancient Christian practices previously confined to Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, and to a more mystical and holistic view of Christianity. Although, as was mentioned above, many Western spiritual practices would not be regarded as spiritually healthy by Orthodox Christians, it is, at the very least, a step in the right direction, away the rigid rationalism and austere worship of Protestantism.
The most positive development in ECM is this appropriation of traditional practices, both spiritual and liturgical, as well as its warmness towards monasticism, or some form of it. Although it has mostly appropriated Western traditions, it is in this field that ECM has drawn closest to Orthodoxy, in the sense that it has discovered a more authentic sense of sacred space, the necessity of liturgical worship and the Eucharist, and the importance of more contemplative and mystical spiritual practices. Although their understanding is inherently flawed and the connection with a living (and life-giving) tradition is absent, it is encouraging in that it might be the first stages of a move towards authentic Orthodox Christianity. Although comparisons can be made with the Evangelical Orthodox Church that entered the Orthodox Church of Antioch wholesale in the 1980s, who had, from being part of the charismatic evangelical movement, moved towards a more traditional Christianity by slowly adopting Orthodox liturgical practices, as well as theology, the difference is that the EOC was thoroughly rooted in a conservative worldview that placed a high importance on authority, whether it was Holy Scripture or its leadership. ECM’s post-modernism and lack of comfort with authority might adversely affect this engagement with tradition by, instead of enabling it to engage with and draw closer to Orthodoxy, moving it towards a more syncretistic approach comparable to a spiritual-liturgical buffet.
It is my final assessment that, despite the positive and encouraging signs of a rediscovery of ancient Christianity taking place within ECM, there are too many negative factors that will adversely affect its journey, most prominently its anti-authoritarian ethos and ecclesiology, and the effects of post-modernism.
Although some emergents will probably end up coming into the Orthodox Church as individuals, and a number already have, most people and communities within the movement will probably stay on the fringes of liberal Protestantism, either as independent congregations, or affiliated with more liberal mainline denominations, such as Anglicanism, Lutheranism, or Methodism.