The Abbey Church

The Ancient Concept of Church as Abbey

The concept we’re building our church celtic-abbey.jpgaround is the old Celtic Christian abbey — a center for worship, refuge, hospitality, learning, art, and community. The ancient abbey embraced its neighbors in adjoining towns and countryside as its parish, and served the needs of the community. The Celtic abbeys were not closed monastic compounds that excluded the outside world; rather, they were open to travelers, neighbors, inquirers, and those seeking help. Every person they encountered did not show up for worship on Sundays, but the witness of the abbey impacted the community it served every day of the week.

I’ve written about the church as abbey for a few years now. I believe it is the future of the church in the 21st century. The church as abbey idea can work in any size congregation, large or small. The real advantage is that old, existing — even dying — congregations can become abbeys. Our church is 157-years-old this year, and we are making the transition without disrupting the traditions of our church that have meaning for many long-term members.

Interestingly, a similar concept has emerged and it identifies as The New Parish movement. Check out what churches who identify with that idea are doing. It simply affirms my conviction, and they probably have a better name than “abbey church.”

I hope all this gives you some idea of what we are doing in our small congregation and why we are doing it. Stop in often, because things change quickly in our small town!   The powerpoint of the church-as-abbey concept that I presented at NOC2008 is available here.

21 thoughts on “The Abbey Church”

  1. Jamie Burgoyne said:

    You should link up with Rev. Dr. Alasdair Black, Stirling, Scotland.
    He has a strong interest in Celtic Tradition and I think you might share a lot of common Interest.

    Richest Blessings In Christ Jesus


  2. Thanks for this. A fellow Anglican priest and myself have a similar vision to what you’re speaking about.

  3. Let’s do it. I think the Abbey Church is a glorious idea!

  4. David Crews said:

    The Abbey hasn’t always been a warm, inviting place. Even though they are fiction, the stories of the religious control and cruelty in Ken Follett’s novels, “Pillars of the Earh” and World without End” are frightening and show the power of church state interaction for to no good end. We have overcome these conditions only by rule of law and improved sanitation. The near war conditions of relationships between the world’s current religions is evidence that tolerance is voiced but not heard.

  5. David, you’re exactly right. The abbey in Follett’s novel is a European abbey, but some of the same problems existed. No, it wasn’t a perfect system, and accepted practices of 1,000 years ago would be offensive to us today. But, the Celtic Christians got some very important things right, and those are the lessons we can learn from despite their short-comings, and downright failures.

  6. Hi Chuck.
    Just looked thru your NOC2008 presentation, and wondered if you had notes and/or a script/writeup of the talk. I’d like to understand your thesis more clearly.

  7. Thanks, Chuck

  8. I absolutely agree with this concept, especially in regards to the church being a “center” for the arts, community, education, and the like. This is one of the areas where at least traditionally, the Roman church has actually done a good job. I long for the days where the local Baptist/Evangelical church is such a center, and if it is called an abbey, that’s fine with me! Good ideas.

  9. antigone said:

    Hmmmm. . . the abbey church is the wave of the future? Didn’t we Catholics start that whole thing way back when?

  10. What’s old is new again. Thanks for your comment.

  11. Milton Kliesch said:

    Chuck, Been reading some about your idea of the church as Abbey. Can you direct me to some of your writings or someone else’s than can help me see how this works out in a baptist church like yours?

    • Milton,
      The book I read that sparked it all for me in terms of the abbey idea was George Hunter’s book, The Celtic Way of Evangelism. Hunter examines the ancient Celtic church, and draws inferences for evangelization from it. I expanded the idea to incorporate other elements that I read about in the Celtic Christian abbeys such as hospitality, refuge, economics, etc. Search my blog catergories for “church as abbey” and you’ll find several posts on the subject. Some posts actually describe the abbey idea, others reflect the concept. Let me know how it goes and what you think.

  12. A place for spiritual nourishment

  13. Chuck,
    You’ve developed an idea that I think is Biblical and traditional and workable. I’ve read through your site and have begun to read the Hunter book, are there any other resources that you know that speak to/about this idea.

    • Nevermind … Maybe I didn’t read as thoroughly as I thought. I think I asked the same question as Milton, with different words.

    • Matthew,
      My apologies for taking so long to get back to you. You and Milton are on the same page, and Hunter’s book is a good starting point. There is a guy in the UK, Ray Simpson, who heads up the Community of Aiden and Hilda. He’s got lots of church-as-abbey ideas, from a Celtic Christian standpoint. If you search for celtic christianity, you’ll find lots of resources. My interest, however, is not so much the Celtic theology (although that does have very attractive elements) but the general approach to how the abbeys related to their communities. A secular book, How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill, gives the historical perspective of what the abbeys did to preserve art and literature. Beyond that, take the abbey concepts and translate them into 21st century, and you get coffee shop churches, churches involved in the arts, creative worship, churches feeding people, etc. That’s the aspect of the abbey concept I’m interested in — not replicating what the Irish did, but translating it into ways to minister effectively today. Hope that helps.

  14. Wonderful website. Lots of helpful info here. I’m sending it to some friends ans also sharing in delicious. And obviously, thank you in your sweat!

  15. Cool. I found your blog today, and happened across this. Our church is called The Abbey. :)

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