Here’s the powerpoint I used in my NOC2008 workshop, Small Churches Make Good Neighbors. I’m using the abbey church model, and discussing the 10 aspects of the ancient celtic abbeys applied to churches today. The ppt is on SlideShare, so you can view and download the presentation, if you find it helpful. I am going to edit and add to the notes, but I think you’ll get the thrust of the presentation as it is. Let me know if you have questions or comments.
In the Celtic Christian abbey, the compound was open to all who needed food, lodging, or care. As the monks’ pagan neighbors entered the abbey, they were greeted with many familiar sights — monks or nuns preparing meals in the kitchen, stacking wood for the fire, copying manuscripts, or working in the fields. But, they also encountered the unfamiliar — strange rituals like making the sign of the cross, breaking bread and sharing a common cup, kneeling, bowing, and prostrating oneself.
Learning How to Be A Christian
These were the rituals of Christianity, practiced by monks and nuns in the abbey, and taught to their pagan neighbors who wished to become Christians. Pagans literally learned how Christians acted by seeing, practicing, and repeating these strange behaviors. These behaviors became so ingrained in the life of the convert that they became part of his or her daily routine.
When an Irish convert needed courage, instead of an incantation from their druid past, they prayed a prayer to Christ. The famous breastplate of St. Patrick is the most outstanding example of this type of praying. The Carmina Gaedelica is a collection of everyday prayers from Celtic life — prayers for starting the fire, washing one’s face, sweeping the house, and working at the loom.
Other rituals, such as making the sign of the cross, became automatic responses to the happenstances of primitive life. Celtic Christians learned through words, patterns, and symbols what made them distinct from their pagan Druid kinsmen in actions and belief.
Loss of Rituals in the 20th Century Church
Fast-forward to the 20th century. New church models suggested that people came to Christ most easily if we removed “religious” symbols. This strategy worked well to attract new people to these churches without symbol, but unlike the Celtic abbeys, some of these churches never introduced new Christians to the actions, behaviors and symbols that signify the Christian faith.
Many church buildings were constructed without baptistries or baptismal fonts because baptism was practiced in swimming pools and lakeshores. Communion was not observed in the largest worship services of many churches, or it was relegated to a special service outside the regular pattern of worship. All of this was done because it was thought that symbols and rituals obscure the gospel message. But just the opposite is true.
The Importance of Ritual
Rituals, practices, and symbols are important because they give us external behaviors to express internal commitments. We learn how to “act like a Christian” by doing the things Christians do. So, new converts participate in baptism, receive communion, and are catechized as part of learning how we act in this strange new community called the church.
Without ritual, patterns, and symbols our practice of the Christian faith is stripped of actions that cause us to remember and draw strength from our interior faith. Rituals give us behaviors, individually and corporately, that reinforce our common beliefs. The missional congregation particularly seeks to be distinctly Christian in its behaviors, symbols, and practices — whether ancient or contemporary — because that is part of what makes us a contrast society.
I have adapted this post from the original, which I posted at Amicus Dei last year.
Yesterday I posted Ten Marks of the Church-as-Abbey. One of the characteristics, economics, plays an important role because the ancient celtic Christian abbeys were self-supporting while providing economic transformation to the community. Today, tall skinny kiwi posts about the fourth sector — groups that want to change the world while making their own way financially. The term “fourth sector” distinguishes itself from the other three sectors, which are:
- Public sector — usually means government.
- Private sector — usually means businesses.
- Voluntary sector — usually means non-profits who depend on volunteers for funding and, well, volunteering.
Here’s what Andrew is doing, in his own words:
I just wrote an article about Co-operatives and social enterprises for a missions publication. I made reference to our new venture – The Old Sorting Room – which we will launch in a few months and which can only be described as our monastic-inspired cooperative-run social-enterprise micro-business fourth-sector for-benefit organisation.
Of course, being from New Zealand, he spells organization funny, but that’s not my point. My point is that around the globe, churches and individuals are doing parts of the church-as-abbey, without necessarily calling it that. And, I like Andrew’s description —
- “monastic-inspired” (Note: the abbeys were monasteries and nunneries, but of course you knew that.)
So, there you are. Another example of the abbey church function — economic self-sufficiency through work. More to come on the abbey phenomenon.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Ministry to the marginalized. The poor, hungry, disenfranchised, sick, old, and disabled found help of various kinds within the abbey’s compound.
- 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.
- 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?
The ancient Celtic Christian abbeys produced beautiful illuminated manuscripts, the most notable being The Book of Kells. In his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill credits Irish monasteries with rescuing ancient texts, recopying them, and then taking them back to Europe to replace the texts burned during the barbarian invasion.
But churches and Christians today are finding new ways to use the arts to “save civilization” or at least individuals in it. Our church was featured in Outreach magazine in December 2006 for helping sponsor Soundcheck, a teen open mic night in our community. You can read about Soundcheck and other arts programs we have in the Our Church tab at the top of this blog.
Leadership’s latest newsletter spotlighted an arts program that is saving 600-at-risk kids, and helping them give expression to their creativity. Sketch is an arts program in Toronto with sponsor partners made up of Christian churches, individuals, and other organizations.
This is part of the church-as-abbey concept springing up all over North America. Based on the ancient Celtic Christian abbey, churches are becoming modern-day abbeys in their own communities. The great thing is that size doesn’t matter — small churches particularly can become abbey churches and impact their communities in new ways.
- About Our Church is the story of what we’re doing here at Chatham Baptist Church, with links to media clips and articles that have featured our ministries.
- Sermons, etc is a page linking to my sermon blog, Chuck Warnock: Sermons, etc.
- The Abbey Church is the concept guiding us, and it’s based on the old Celtic Christian abbeys which served their communities as the center of worship, art, commerce, hospitality, and help. So, poke around and let me know what you think.