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Called to the cloister

05 December 2014

David Thomson reads festschrift for a nun and Oxford don

Prayer and Thought in Monastic Tradition: Essays in honour of Benedicta Ward
Santha Bhattaharji, Rowan Williams and Dominic Mattos, editors
Bloomsbury £75
Church Times Bookshop £67.50 (Use code CT265 )

THIS well-presented book is a collection of essays in honour of Sister Benedicta Ward on her 80th birthday. The roll call of its contributors is tribute to the respect and affection in which she is held, especially in Oxford, where she is a member of the Fairacres community and taught medieval history and Christian spirituality in the university for many years.

She and I were, in fact, doctoral students there together in the 1970s, and reviewing her festschrift has brought back many happy memories - not least of a wholesome oscillation between the Bodleian Library and the cafés and bars near by (nuns included . . .).

A helpful and succinct introduction by Santha Bhattaharji sets the book's scene. It could have been just a disparate collection of contributions dealing with aspects of the development of monastic thought and prayer from early Syria to 18th-century England. Instead, a golden thread emerges of the foundation of the monastic life in prayer, and of the way in which that life and prayer then refuses to remain cloistered either within its precinct or our categories.

That makes reading this book a refreshing experience, as we explore hinterlands that might easily be missed. How the Synod of Whitby's famous debate about the date of Easter was embedded in deeper theological disputes about grace and salvation. How the sayings of the desert fathers (translated by Benedicta) are not archaeological time capsules of pristine eremitic life, but carefully curated post-Nicene artefacts, hiding an earlier monastic deposit in Syria and Mesopotamia (poignantly so in the present crisis).

Or how the influx of friars into the new universities of the 13th century was not selling out on their mission, but reflected the need to deploy them to give parishes the teaching they lacked. As the introduction puts it, "The monastic world emerges not as a sealed-off area of mediaeval life, but one with influence and effects far beyond the cloister."

Refreshing, too, is that the special hinterland of the book itself means that its contributors reference their own life of faith more than usual, and, more importantly, give full weight to the living faith of their subjects. We are not offered in vitro specimens here but in vivo stories, which are a fitting response to an honorand who herself "inhabits the realms of both vowed monastic life and the modern academy".

Essays on St Anselm, for instance, are at the heart of the book (Sister Benedicta contributed a translation of his prayers to the Penguin Classics series), and we are helpfully shown, for instance, how the strong passion of those prayers and the cool logic of Anselm's treatises are part of one single picture.

There is much more to explore. But the book's inclusive approach turned my own thoughts and prayers to how the monastic tradition might better make an impact on church life, and an episcopal ministry, today. Three starters come to mind.

Prayer first. Spiritual rootedness is obviously critical. Bishops, the book reminds us, as it looks back to ancient Edessa, have often been brokers between the cloister and the city. What might that look like in a diocese today, and how could it help us go deeper? How do we gain access to prayerful theological resources as we tackle big issues.

Then ministry. Minster is the same word as monastery. Can minsters, which are rather fashionable now, be something like monasteries, too: spiritual powerhouses, mixed communities sharing a rule of life and reaching out in mission, contexts where new shapes of ministry can be explored? Perhaps bishops should even be based there?

And mission. The prayer, the study, and the common life are good in themselves, but are given for the good of the world in which they are set. And it is when we speak out of them that our contributions to the common good have gravitas. What sort of cellular life should our churches have - bishops included - if we are to keep ourselves in good shape?

And any resemblance between these three thoughts, the quinquennial goals of the Archbishops' Council, and the Archbishop of Canterbury's own declared priorities, is not entirely coincidental. We are all in this together.

The Rt Revd Dr David Thomson is Bishop of Huntingdon and Acting Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich.

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