As some of you all know I am part of a church that is among those in the movement known as the New Monasticism. It consists largely of small churches across the United States whose members live in close geographical proximity to one another, seek to relocate to the abandoned places of the empire, nurture a common life, live under a common rule (though the content of such a “rule” is pretty fluid between and even within communities), and practice Christian initiation, and a number of other such marks.
So, when I encountered a new book by Scott Bessenecker entitled The New Friars, I was intrigued. Bessenecker distinguishes the New Friars movement from the New Monasticism in a couple of ways. First, he explicitly notes that the New Monastics more closely resemble the pattern of cloistered order than a mission order, which the New Friars model themselves after. Or, to put it another way, for the New Monastics it is often St. Benedict who is the primary influence from the ‘old’ monasticism whereas for the New Friars, the stronger influence is St. Francis.
Bessenecker identifies the New Friars as an emerging group of radically mission-minded young Christians who take seriously a vocation of living among and serving the urban poor of the world establishing communities and fostering partnerships in such marginalized contexts. Central to his description of these New Friars is their vows of intentional marginalization.
The second feature that I’ve noticed thus far in reading Bessenecker’s book is that, for all of the commitment of the New Friars to communal living, the keeping of vows, and the practice of rule, this movement is notably less ecclesially centered than the kindred commitments of New Monastics. The movement also seems more centrally composed of young singles than families, and somewhat more nomadic in their mode of missionality. Whereas for the New Monastics a vow of stability and commitment to a given people is central, this seems to be different for the New Friars, or at least take a very different from.
It remains to be seen what the fruits of both of these movements will be. My own wonderings are how churches might establish partnerships, or sisterhoods between more monastic-style congregations and more friar-style communities that would strengthen both. For the moment, though we all should just thank God for the ways in which western protestants are reappropriating the monastic tradition. Adolf von Harnack was surely right in his statements about monasticism:
It was always the monks who saved the church when sinking, emancipated her when becoming enslaved to the world, defended her when assailed. These it was that kindled hearts that were growing cold, bridled refactory spirits, recovered for the church alienated nations.
(Adolf von Harnack, Monasticism: Its Ideals and History [London: Williams & Norgate, 1901, Reprint, Wipf and Stock Publishers], p. 64ff)