Monday, 21 March 2016

The Rule of St Benedict and the EU Referendum

It's three years to the day since Justin Welby was enthroned as Archbishop,of Canterbury. I was privileged to be at Canterbury Cathedral on 21 March 2013 with my colleagues from Durham where he had been our Bishop. That same week also saw the inauguration of Pope Francis' ministry in Rome. 

To mark both these momentous occasions, the Financial Times published an intriguing article by Tim Smedley, "Church Leaders Bring Fresh Insight". It asked how senior executives in secular organisations could learn from the experience of Christian leaders such as bishops down the centuries. This isn't a blog about leadership so I won't say more about it here. But I was struck by its conclusion. The author quoted some advice for business leaders from Stephen Bampfylde, founder of the well-known firm of head-hunters Saxton Bampfylde: “Arguably the best management and leadership book ever written is The Rule of St Benedict. Every chairman and chief executive should keep a copy on their desk and re-read the chapter on the character of the Abbot every week.”

Maybe there are European Union and UK government leaders who heed that advice. St Benedict is the Patron of Europe, so for all I know, civil servants in Brussels have a cupboard full of copies of his Rule ready to give to EU executives who ask for it. So I want to ask whether Benedict's Rule has anything to say to us about referendum on 23 June when we make a huge decision about whether to say in the European Union or leave it. It's a good day to be asking this, since 21 March marks the anniversary of his death.

Bear with me while I give some background.

Benedict wrote his Rule for Monks early in the 6th century. He was living in the chaotic aftermath of the collapse of the Roman Empire. All around him he saw the relics of a once-great civilisation that had brought order and shape to his world. Amid the ruins of antiquity, he asked the question: how could human beings recreate structures that would make for stability, flourishing and wisdom? He found his answer in the monasteries that had been established centuries before in the deserts of Egypt. His lasting contribution to civilisation was to organise monastic life by writing a rule that would govern how his monks would live together in community.

I introduced the word "stability" just now. In the fragmented, disordered world of Benedict's time, stability was an ideal to long for and work towards. Benedict placed this goal at the very heart of his vision of a shared common life by requiring his monks to take a vow of stability (along with two others: obedience and conversion of life). In his Rule, it has a clear meaning, which is that monks were not to wander around from one monastery to the next but had to commit to the community in which they were admitted. In contrast to those who were forever roaming round the countryside looking for the perfect community to join, Benedict's monks had to learn that commitment to a single place and its community was an irreplaceable aspect of learning. He believed that the monastery had to be a "school for the Lord's service" where monks learned by living in a community where they studied, worked and prayed together. It was in the struggles and complexities of relationships, where brothers and sisters discovered how to serve God and one another, that true disciples were formed.

What does stability have to say to us today? And why am I writing about it in connection with the UK's membership of the European Union?

Our world is a profoundly uncertain place. No doubt it always has been, but in my own lifetime this period we are living through feels more unstable than any before. In that respect it's not unlike Benedict's time when he knew he was living through the dissolving of so much that had once been clear, certain and trustworthy. So his vow of stability was not simply a way of modelling a kind of God-given safety in an unsafe world, but stood for the resolve to honour commitments, attachments and loyalties. It entailed living with the consequence of decisions and not running away from undertakings once made. It meant living with mistakes and learning from them, always trying to see how to make the best in every given situation, how even misfortune could be rescued and redeemed. It took seriously the idea of promise and covenant. 

You'll see where I'm going with stability. I imagine that you're reading this blog because you're interested in how Christianity brings wisdom to the big life choices we have to make, and in particular, how it might inform our choice about whether or not to stay within the EU. The Rule of St Benedict would, I believe, say to us: your instinct ought to be to stay within the commitments and undertakings you have made, and not run away from them when the going gets tough. Benedict never says that a community will be a perfect place (and might have added, if you find one, don't join it because you'll only spoil it!). Communities are made up of flawed, broken human beings. There is always work to do to make even the best of communities better. 

But this is precisely the possibility that opens up when people covenant together in pursuit of a "steadfast high intent" and live, as it were, by a common discipline or rule. I am a convinced unionist (small "u") who believes that we are always healthier and stronger when our lives are bound together rather than lived in isolation. It's why I was so relieved when Scotland voted to remain within the United Kingdom. And it's why I hope and pray that the United Kingdom votes to stay within the European Union. The logic is exactly the same. Yes, Benedict accepts that there has be some surrender of autonomy, a pooling of sovereignty if you like, if we are to express these ideals of stability and community. He speaks frequently of listening carefully, being subject to one another in the relationships that we commit to, making decisions together that all can own and honour. It's extraordinarily demanding. But he also says that the rewards of stability are immense if only we will stay in the place where God has called us. When we do this, we discover how we flourish and grow into a fuller, richer humanity than perhaps we ever thought possible. 

As I've so often said in these blogs, the EU is far from perfect. There is a lot wrong with it that needs to be reformed. Among its faults are some that Benedict would instantly recognise: failures of transparency and collegiality, misuse of authority and power, exalting the institution and its processes at the expense of the person. Benedict would say exactly the same about his monasteries. But the Rule says: don't get out. Stay in and help make this community one where we can flourish together and (a Christian says) discern God at work. Stability doesn't mean no change. It means changing from the inside, challenging, reforming and renewing within the relationships of collaboration and trust we have carefully, and at real cost to ourselves, invested in and built up. 

Benedict has a warning for his monks. He asks them to examine themselves and understand the motives and intentions that brought them to the point of taking vows. If it was right to decide to enter the community in the first place, he says, then consider very carefully how it can possibly be right to go back on that decision now. To break faith is about the most serious sin we can commit. That's stability. A powerful message for our times, if we have ears to hear. 


  1. So much to think about in this. Thanks you.

  2. The rule of St.Benedict fascinates me. And how the rule of stability works in practice in "real" life. Commit yourself to your church when it gets an unpopular new vicar, for example. But I didn't commit myself to a European Union! Do we all have to stay wherever we happen to be and never move? Where is stability when one seeks promotion, for example? Or what about the moves you yourself have made? In obedience to the perceived will of God, I assume. It really isn't as easy as just stay put.