The New Friars: Book Review

The New FriarsI’m not a huge fan of the established (read “out of touch”) church, but there’s always been something powerful to be about the concept of redeeming some of the really powerful aspects of the historical church.

The concept of community has excited me for years too. In the last decade, there has been a move of interest in both these fields. The result? New Monasticism. Taking the radical, biblical, REAL stuff out of the dusty old things we see caricatured in the world.

Its about asking questions; for example, what impact would a vow of poverty have on my life? What if we sold all our possessions and lived together? Can Acts 2 (below) be a practical application to our individualised, materalistic lifeview?

All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.

Acts 2: 42 & 43

Whilst on the CMF course a couple of weeks ago, I went on a little bit of a book buying binge, mostly thanks to chatting to my friend Jon… That means I have a huge pile of books to read, roughly in the area I’ve talked about above: but I’m vague about the specifics of what they are about.

I decided the easiest way to find out was just to pick one up, and the easiest way to remember what I’ve read is to write a quick book review…

The New Friars: The Emerging Movement Serving the World’s Poor.

Scott Bessenecker, the Associate Director for Missions at InterVarsity, has written this beautifully researched book looking at the traditional phenomenon of “Friars”. He starts with a story of visiting a modern day Franciscan monastery, and being disappointed:

We asked the brother leading us on this tour of the monastery about the cable TV in every room. This was 1979 when cable was a relatively new luxury—one that our middle-class family did not enjoy. “The brothers take a vow of personal poverty,” our guide emphasized. “These things are actually owned by the monastery, not the brothers.” Apparently, as long as it was communal wealth, at this monastery a Franciscan could live in luxury.

He talks about St Francis of Assisi, St Clare, Brigid of Kildare, and then, in the same breath, talking about modern day Friars, people like Ash & Anji Barker, Viv Grigg, Chris Heuertz and hundreds more:

What new friars like Faye and Cami and old friars like Francis and Clare excel at is breaking out of the padding that separates and protects us from the harsh realities of poverty by embracing it voluntarily and stepping into relationship with the poor without the power dynamic that is normally present between the poor and nonpoor.

He attempts to lay out some of the key principles that, intentionally or accidentally, were apparent in tradional friar orders, and I feel he is saying are evident in modern day movements (such as InnerChange, Urban Neighbours of Hope and Word Made Flesh).

I could try to summarise the points, but he’s already done a great job of that, so I’m just going to wholesale quote him – although I have trimmed it a bit…

Incarnational. First and foremost, these orders were incarnational.

They sought not simply to bring the gospel to the lost or oppressed from the outside, as if by remote control, but to be the gospel by becoming part of the communities of dispossessed they sought to serve. They took their cues from God, who, rather than saving humanity by asking us to become like him, chose instead to become like us.

Devotional. Second, these orders were radically devotional.

Each order was organized around a set of spiritual commitments, or a “rule,” to govern their walk with Jesus, with one another and with the community of lost, poor or broken souls into which they had grafted themselves. They vowed themselves to principles of holiness and purity that went beyond the common practices of the faith, then held each other to these ideals quite rigidly.

Communal. Third, these orders were communal, living together and sharing many of those things that they held privately before joining the order.

I’m not speaking of personal luxury items simply renamed communal luxury items. Given their commitment to incarnation, most of these communities were quite austere. I’m talking instead about living in a way that goes beyond the principle of the single-family dwelling, where traditional Western society begins and ends its understanding of a shared property.

Missional. Fourth, the historic orders were missional—at least the ones that went to communities on the geographic fringe.

These were communities on the move, responsible for stretching the borders of the church into the dark corners of Europe. Celtic monks, for instance, were known to board a small boat, raise the sail and pray that God would direct their vessel to some barbarian tribe where the gospel had not been heard. The cloistered (or inward) and the missional (or outward) forces in these various monastic communities were often held in tension, some emphasizing one over the other.

Likewise today we find both cloistered and missional communities cropping up. The New Monasticism, as it is being called, often consists of households of Christian men and women planted in dying inner-city communities within their home country, attempting to live the Christian ideal among their neighbors, drawing the lost, poor and broken to themselves. They resemble more the cloistered order. The new friars, on the other hand, have something of the spirit of mission-driven monks and nuns in them, leaving their mother country and moving to those parts of the world where little is known about Jesus.

Marginal. Finally, these movements were marginal.

This is true in two respects: they were on the fringe of the mainstream church; and they sought to plant themselves among people who existed on the edges of society. Almost all of the movements discussed in The New Friars have been born out of a reaction to spiritual flabbiness in the broader church and a tendency to assimilate into a corrupt, power-hungry world.

In the process of pursuing a different kind of spiritual life, they often found company with those who were trapped outside the systems that kept the powerful powerful and the rich rich. They positioned themselves alongside social lepers, economic slaves and political malcontents on the world’s margins, and often found themselves on the margins of the church as a result.

It’s only in writing this review that I’ve particularly noticed the distinction he makes between the Monastic orders and Friar orders – and I don’t feel it matters tremendously, unless we want to be painfully rigid and formal… which I don’t!

Ben & Beth in StreetWhen we look at modern day UK inner city ministries like The Eden Network (see my friends Bill and Beth on the right): do they fit firmly in one box or the other? Not at all, but there is still something to learn from studying the historic differences.

Overall, I found it an inspiring, and thoroughly thoughtful book. There was tons of stuff looking at the spiritual, economic and self-perpetuating elements of poverty, and all of it kept my interest. I would recommend it to anyone on a similar journey to me and Katherine.

Even the appendices are useful, thought provoking and compellingly challenging. I will leave you with a final story, of Heather on an outreach trip to visit some friends in a brothel in Bolivia:

With tears in my own eyes, I had asked her to come with us. Begged her to leave. She stayed.

We had continued on, singing those same carols a dozen times more, receiving skeptical looks from bouncers and applause from drunken men.

The girls were quieter recipients, but in the weeks that followed we would hear gracias a hundred times or more.

Thank you. Thank you for remembering us.

And he does. He remembers her. He comes for her, to her, into the darkest of nights, into her darkest of rooms. He stands with her there and holds her hand. See, your Savior comes.

“It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.”
Wendell Berry 


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