THE title of this book really doesn’t do justice to its content: it is about very much more than a new monasticism, as that term is generally understood. In his foreword, Rowan Williams describes it as “a work of outstanding originality, a hugely fresh and far-reaching essay on Christian community, drawing on both ancient and modern sources”. It is indeed. What is more, it provides a model of great potential to enable constructive theological wrestling with matters of pressing concern to both Church and society.
Craig Gardiner engages with the life and thought of two giants of 20th-century Christianity, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and George McLeod. Much has been written about both, but never has their interest in music as well as Christian discipleship been used to produce the metaphor of polyphony, even though it is something of which Bonhoeffer wrote.
The author suggests that this metaphor could be used to illuminate what the Church should be about: with Christ as its cantus firmus, the Church should approach its own life in revelation, worship, ecumenism, and healing, as well as its engagement with the world on matters of peace, justice, and ecological concern — in fact, pretty much everything — in terms of a polyphony of differentiated unity singing around its cantus firmus, Jesus Christ bringing together diversity in perfect harmony. This could be an effective antidote to the “fragmentation” that characterises the social malaise of post-modernity as well as futile arguments within the Church.
The book is highly scholarly, but very accessible. The author draws on many sources, but especially Bonhoeffer’s works, particularly his Letters and Papers from Prison and writings about the seminary community that he set up at Finkenwalde. Nevertheless, the fact that the community that McLeod founded still exists (and Gardiner is a member of it) means, understandably, that there is much more said about that in terms of praxis.
The Iona Community, rightly, has enduring appeal, and what he writes is a good advert for it. The invokes McLeod’s specific use of the metaphor of the community’s being a “colony of heaven”, and draws on the work of Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willamon in Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian colony (page 121ff., cf. Philippians 3.20) to good effect.
At its conclusion (or cadenza, as he terms it), the author is very modest about the deficiencies of the book, which “is not the thing itself, it has perhaps not even well described the thing itself, it has been, at best, a new song sung to the Lord and ‘an echo of a tune’ that has not yet been fully heard”.
I would be much more upbeat. As Rowan Williams observes in the foreword, “it is an exhilarating study whose richness will serve the sharing of the gospel and the vision of the Kingdom in all sorts of ways.” Absolutely: I hope it will be very widely read and have great influence. Meanwhile, the South Wales Baptist College is blessed by having Craig Gardiner on its staff.
Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.
Melodies of a New Monasticism: Bonhoeffer’s vision, Iona’s witness
SCM Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50