The Emergent Church Needs an Ignatius

I wrote this for class, but thought it might make for some conversation…Jason…

At Convention last Spring, the Diocese of San Diego heard Phyllis Tickle talk about “The Emergent Church” and cite one of my seminary professors, Bishop Mark Dyer, to say that every 500 years or so the church has “a rummage sale.”  What exactly is emerging?  The answer is up for grabs.  As we shift from the “Modern” to the “Post-Modern” era some argue that we need a leader like Benedict of Nursia, the founder of Western Monasticism.  They say we need someone who can draw us into small communities which preserve Christianity as the world crumbles.  I want to briefly examine this call for a renewed Church through a “new monasticism,” arguing not for a new Benedict but for a new Ignatius of Loyola.
The call for a “new Benedict” came perhaps most famously in the finals words of After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre, who argues that Western ethics is crumbling, but the idea is older.  Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “The restoration of the church will surely come from a sort of new monasticism.”  Wilson-Hartgrove has founded a “new monastic community,” a small group of people who share common property and a rule of life.  Some are married, some not.  All are working for justice and sharing a Christian journey together.  Such communities exist all over our country.  The question is: how will these communities relate to the wider Church?  Most are led and populated by pioneering young adults not attached to any denomination or structural body.  If the Church to emerge anew, to be “restored” in the words of Bonhoeffer, the relationship of these communities to the wider body of Christ must be considered.
I don’t believe the Church is really looking for a new Benedict to draw up a plan to safeguard culture and faith in the storm.  The search is for a new Ignatius of Loyola.  Ignatius was a contemporary of Martin Luther and lived in the midst of the great fights of the Reformation.  The antithesis of Luther, Ignatius advocated total allegiance to the Church.  He famously said, “I will believe that the white that I see is black, if the hierarchical Church so defines it.”  Such a suspension of reason rightfully bothers members of the Protestant Episcopal Church, but it is a spirit of absolute commitment to the ongoing life of the Church which animates the statement.  Ignatius founded an order, the Jesuits, whose members like Karl Rahner and Jon Sobrino have famously helped reshape the Roman Church.   Francis Xavier, one of the first seven Jesuits, set a pattern for missionary service in the order that continues to this day.  The ongoing commitment to the hierarchical life of the Church comes with a drive out into the world.
The principle difference I see between Benedict, as understood and called for by some in the discussion around “emergence,” and Ignatius, is directional.  Those who argue for a “new Benedict” envision a Church behind monastic walls, guarding the valuable faith from the stormy future.  A new Ignatius would call us out to engage in the world, with a strong commitment to the apostolic Church (hopefully with more room for independent thought.)  An article in The Christian Century describes the new monastics saying “Each of the communities I visited seeks also to serve the wider church—and even to convert it.”  If the goal of “the emergence” is to convert, reform, and engage the present Church, to help it to engage missionally in the world around it, we need not a new Benedict, but a new Ignatius.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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