Ten marks of the church-as-abbey

celtic-abbey.jpg Models for how we should do church are not in short supply.  Seeker-sensitive, purpose-driven, emerging, missional, traditional, liturgical, ancient-future, and the like all have their merits.  I am really interested in the church-as-abbey concept myself.  I have read extensively about the early Celtic Christian church and find it intriguing and encouraging.  In that research I identified 10 characteristics of the church-as-abbey, as I call it, or abbey church, for short.  Here are the essential characteristics, or marks, of what I mean when I use the church-as-abbey model:

  1. Worship.  The church-as-abbey has at its heart the practice of worship.  But worship that is public, powerful, and brings one into the presence of God through some type of intentional liturgy, whether formal or not.  But not every parishioner of the abbey will attend every service.  The idea is not to get everyone to one service, but to provide opportunities for worship that abbey adherents can participate in regularly, if not weekly.
  2. Arts.  The church-as-abbey celebrates creativity as a gift from a creative God.  The arts reflect our connection to creation and God’s creative power.  The arts are expression, statement, witness, and beauty for a world that needs all of those things.
  3. Hospitality.  The Celtic abbey was open to all who needed its hospitality and help.  Monks, even those fasting, would interrupt their discipline to greet and welcome those who came into the abbey’s confines.  Welcoming the stranger is a vital part of the abbey’s ministry.
  4. Economics.  The abbeys were self-supporting, engaged in cultivating fields, raising livestock, operating public markets, and giving employment opportunities to the community.  I read about a church the other day that also operates a farmers’ market, and has been doing so for years.  I am exploring the agrarian movement, particularly as it attracts followers of Christ.  More on that later.
  5. Learning and scholarship.  The Celtic monasteries became the centers of learning, preservation of sacred and literary manuscripts, and schools of instruction. The amazing Book of Kells is the prime example.  See How the Irish Saved Civilization for other examples.
  6. Catechesis and spiritual direction.  For new converts, the abbey provided initial instruction.  For more mature converts, the abbott or abbess provided spiritual direction and aided in spiritual formation.
  7. Rule of life in community.  The Rule of St. Benedict is the most famous of these “rules of life” but there were many others that defined the monastic community’s social and spiritual interaction.
  8. Ministry to the marginalized.  The poor, hungry, disenfranchised, sick, old, and disabled found help of various kinds within the abbey’s compound.
  9. Peace and justice.  St. Patrick was the first person in recorded history to speak out against the Irish slave trade.  Patrick’s appeals eventually resulted in the end of the Irish slave trade, of which Patrick himself had been a victim.  Patrick also prevailed upon the Irish kings and warlords to live in peace with one another, as much as they were able.  The abbey bears that same responsibility today.
  10. External missions.  Celtic priests, including some of the well-known figures such as Columba, went on extended “missions” to areas removed from the abbey.  In a reimagination of this practice, the missional church-as-abbey establishes external groups but groups with ties to the abbey church.  This is the area with which I am struggling now, but I believe it is a core part of the abbey concept.  These groups are not “missions” in the sense of international missions, but rather are groups that are “distant” from the abbey either in travel, culture, or status, but that have a connection to the abbey as “mother church.”

But, you say, “Where is evangelism, ministry, and education — those staples of the church as we know it today?”  The 10 marks of the abbey church above contain evangelism, ministry, and education, but from a new perspective.  George Hunter, in his intriguing book, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, says that in the Celtic Christian abbey “belonging” came before “believing.”   Prospective converts were incorporated into the community before they became believers in Christ.  Not a bad model for us today, which is one of the main reasons I like the abbey approach.  What do you think?

14 thoughts on “Ten marks of the church-as-abbey”

  1. This is what I envision when I dream of the church I want here in the South Loop. How the Irish Saved Civilization is a great book. I neet to get Hunter’s book. Thanks.


  2. Hi, Shawna! I really liked Hunter’s book and that’s what got me started on this multi-year study project. The abbey concept is quite intriguing because it is missional, creative, hospitable, and lots of other good stuff. How’s your new church doing? Any good stories about these early days? — Chuck

  3. Pastor Warnock:

    Methinks you may be morphing into an Anglican–pre Synod of Whitby.


  4. Fiona,
    Exactly! Bring back the old Easter date and the nifty monkish haircuts…and Pelagius, too! Just kidding, but there is much to be learned and emulated from the Celtic Christian communities. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Don’t know if you’ll get a message about/notice this comment since the original post is over 3 years old but I was wondering about the rule of life.

    In your congregation do you follow a rule of life? If so what does it look/function like? Or what do you imagine the rule of life to be?

    I’m having trouble envisioning how a rule of life works in a congregational setting. I love the idea and purpose behind a rule – trying set a pattern for faithful living that ties together our disparate lives (work, family, social, etc) as a single spiritual life. And then the rule ties the congregation together in a rhythm.

    I read a recent group of article (the main article is here http://bit.ly/CC_looseconnections )from the Christian Century. In the editorial associated with the articles the idea of a yearly covenant is brought up as a new example of how membership is being handled. “Covenants typically include some core beliefs, guidelines for Christian living and expectations about how one contributes to the life and mission of the church.” This idea of the covenant seems to lend itself to the idea of a rule of life that would work in a congregational setting. I wanted to get your thoughts.

  6. Are you familiar with Jerry Doherty’s book “A Celtic Model of Ministry: The Reawakening of Community Spirituality”? – it was Jerry’s thesis in the D.Min. program at Seabury-Western in 1998. It touches on many of the points you raise.

    1. This is a very interesting blog. One of our community members posted it on our Facebook page a couple of days ago. It has been well received. It really talks about many of the aspects we have tried to incorporate in our community (Lindisfarne Community). Our story is told in our recent book, “Secular Monasticism: A Journey”. In the beginning of the book we talk about how the community evolved then several of the community members each wrote a chapter talking about their particular journey. Really enjoyed reading this blog.

  7. Excellent. Cahill’s “How the Irish Saved Civilization” is good. I just finished listening to it in the car. His understanding of Pelagius is weak, though. Newell’ “Listening for the Heartbeat of God” is a good correction. Check out Anamchara Fellowship website for an expression of new Celtic monasticism that is a good example. I was just clothed a Novice.

    Br. Daniel Iolair

  8. Pingback: Friday Top Five

Comments are closed.