I’ve written previously on my own ecclesial location within the New Monasticism, which is a movement of sorts among protestants today who are seeking to re-appropriate the monastic traditions in moving towards different forms of intentional community. One of the central elements of my own congregation’s form of life together involves a practice closely akin to the Benedictine vow of stability, namely of promising permanence of place, one to another.
In the most recent book to appear on the New Monasticism, entitled Inhabiting the Church, Jon Stock, one of the authors, and a pastor in my church makes the following statement about our practice of taking on vows of stability:
Our primary concern in the making of this vow is with the creation of a polis that is shaped by the character of God as revealed in Jesus and the Scriptures. We desire a polis that is held together by obedience to God. Yet we so often fail (Hos 4:1; Jer 25:31). Thank God that his loyalty is greater than our own, and that we find forgiveness in it. Our covenants form the social function of creating a particular type of stability (e.g. marriage covenants). Is it even possible to from a “place” or a “community” fragrant with God’s shalom without entering into such vows? We have always answered this question with a “No!” And so, all member mutually affirm the Statement of Commitment, one to another. We share out vow before God, allowing him to be party to it. (p. 111)
So, the statement that I want to call attention to is the last few sentences of this paragraph. Today, particularly in evangelical and emerging-type churches there is all kinds of talk of “community” and “place” where “authentic relationship” takes place. However, the question this paragraph raises is whether churches in that form really can be such a thing as an authentic place or community. How is true intimacy, true ‘one-to-anotherness’ possible in an ecclesial context in which members of a given church are free to move where they wish at the whims of their careers, families, or preferences? Even when faithful people, with the best of intentions seek to live authentically in those contexts, it seems to me that there is a culture of provisionality always already presupposed in the forging of relationships in ecclesial life. The fact is that people’s relationships in most American churches are entirely provisional, and dispensable and everybody knows it.
This form of provisional relationality that obtains in most American churches today is nothing like what we behold in the character of Yahweh’s hesed, his boundless loyalty to his covenant people. This is nothing like the radical attachment and incarnational love of the persons of the Holy Trinity who suffer the sin of the world in Christ for our salvation. Yahweh, the Triune God of the Bible is a God who is supremely invested in binding himself to a people and sticking it out with them through thick and thin, even when that has to mean some pretty tough love. The “authentic relationship” that is offered in most churches today is a plastic sentimentality, and an occasional fraternity established mostly on the basis of common interested and similar socio-economic positions in life. All of which is engaged in under the assumption that no one is ultimately committed to the other. At the end of the day, each Christian has their own life, and is free to go their separate ways, and woe to anyone who would claim the gospel might want to jack around that ideology of freedom.
So, the question I put forth is this: Is this quotation right? Is a vow of stability, really the only way to create an authentic community and place? If not, how can the cultural of provisionality and transience in the conventional church be overcome?