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contemplative leadership

This is the third post in a series that I started by saying that I know in my heart what I mean, but I may express it so poorly that I will be misunderstood. This post I think can even be more easily misunderstood than the previous ones – but I think the concept is important enough to attempt, in spite of possible misunderstanding.
The first post in the series was on contemplative community.
The second post in the series was contemplative community 2.

I begin by emphasising I am convinced that the vocations of lay, deacon, priest, and bishop are different and equal.

Traditional Christian theories of growth in the spiritual life regularly have three stages: Purgative, Illuminative, Unitive; or Catharsis, Fotisis, Theosis… St. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580 – 662) correlates these three stages with the diaconate, presbyterate, and episcopate. This echoes Dionysios the Areopagite and is picked up by St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain.

It would be easy to misinterpret what I am attempting to say in a clericalist manner, and placing one order superior to another. It might help (or it might confuse) if I use a parallel from James Fowler’s stages of faith. IMO one should not be ordained until the person is at least at stage 5 of Fowler’s stages. Briefly, those at stages 3 and 4 are too much in danger of attempting to replicate their own particular experience rather than allowing a person to flourish into what God calls them to. So whilst I am saying that all those ordained should be at least stage 5 – I am not at all saying that all those who are stage 5 are called to ordination. In other words, I would expect a significant number of lay people in the Christian community to be stage 5.

Similarly, I want to listen to what is positive in the tradition, and posit that in order to be ordained one should be well-advanced on the spiritual journey, the contemplative path, the journey into union with God. I stress again, this is not a clericalism that does not expect high union with God amongst laity, but it is a position that expects Christian leadership to be at home in the life of the Spirit and able to lead others into that, including the whole community they lead in worship.

The Eastern tradition of only choosing as bishops those who have been formed as monks has a similar insight – that we place the contemplative community’s leadership in the hands of those who have committed themselves and are well along the contemplative journey themselves.

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13 thoughts on “contemplative leadership”

  1. It would be great to unite the church of CHRIST -and I mean truly followers-.

    I really like Chip Ingram’s approach to this subject:

    Make followers of CHRIST, here, there, and everywhere.

    Achieving this by 5 main points from ROMANS 12: (r12 Christians)

    1. Surrendered to GOD.
    2. Separate from the world values.
    3. Sober in self-assessment.
    4. Serving in LOVE.
    5. Supernaturally responding to evil with good.

    If Christians would understand who GOD really is, who really they really are, and who really the enemy is and how he operated to operates to try to destroy us, then Christians will be more efficiently equipped to fight the every-day battle against the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life.


    1. Thanks for your comment; because I use a different translation, I might express this slightly differently, but there are some important points in that passage. My comments policy certainly needs reviewing as I have been more lenient – but my preference remains that I would prefer people to use their real names here. It just maintains a culture of openness, integrity, and respect that we have built up in the community that meets around this site. Thanks.

  2. Thanks Bosco. I am happy to join you in possible misunderstanding on this matter. I think your foundational emphasis on lay, deacon, priest and bishop ministries being different and equal is essential if the integrity of each of these ministries is to be recognised. For example, the deacons ministry being taken over by the priest – in the community, as well as in liturgy – obscures the distinctiveness of both ministries, and inhibits the clear and unique expression of each. The degree to which this is not understood indicates the extent to which the distinctive focus pertaining to each order has largely disappeared in common perception.

    On re-reading Fowler’s stage 3, 4 and 5 summaries, and in light of your inference that those chosen to be bishops in the Eastern tradition are already priests who are committed to the contemplative journey, I am more and more convinced that the existence of this dimension needs to be discerned and formed in those who are chosen to be priests.

    1. Thanks for these very thoughtful and enriching comments.

      I would not link Fowler’s stages too strongly with age. There are many people who stay at stage 3 for life. May I note also, that Fowler’s stages are not a measure of holiness or union with God. A stage 3 person may be holier, more in union with God, more loving than, say, a stage 5 person. I also think that people move back and forth between stages a bit. Under stress, a stage 4 person may move back to the security of 3, and, similarly a 5 might move back to 4. I am also not wanting to give the impression that Fowler’s stages somehow correlate to the prayer-life stages – I think that is clear enough? As for Christian leaders “travelling alongside their people in a process of growth” – there is, in this life, IMO no point at which one has “arrived”.

      The primary point of the post is: does the community one is in give a clear sense that the spiritual journey is central (ie. is it what I have here been calling a “contemplative community”)? And is the leader of such a community clearly on this spiritual journey (I cannot image a community that is on the spiritual journey, but its leader is not)?

      I totally affirm, hence, that this is the journey for all of us. In this post I am seeking to highlight the need to put the spiritual journey central into the life of the ordained. I will try and get hold of Secret of the heart.

      I had to laugh at your point, Jo; well done: it is a very non-stage 5 position to insist that only stage 5s be ordained! I was using Fowler’s stages as an illustration – the central point of my post is about spiritual life, not faith stages.

      Martin, I don’t know if you saw my post on “Should priests dress up as deacons?

      “TheraP” the preference for people to give their real names is to retain and enhance a respectful community here. Some websites have a culture of flaming and ad hominem attacks. I have experienced little of that here, but when it has occurred it has been from anonymous sources, not known ones. What we say here should be the same if we were physically present with each other. I’m sure many would love to know who you are, but I also think your comment would not change, so I’m respecting whatever your particular reasons are. People may be interested that in the last three weeks, when I last wrote about spam, there have been about 5,000 spam comments. That’s an average of 250 a day.

  3. I want to agree with you, and at the same time I don’t want to agree with you. Stage 5 is clearly a good place for an ordained person to be in order to be able to listen and accept and nurture the faith of others. For example, someone who has had experience of, and values, a range of traditions will be likely to be better equipped to nurture a range of different types of people. But I’m not sure that being pre-stage 5 makes a person unable to adequately nurture the faith of others. I think a significant level of humility is required about one’s own faith, but I don’t think humility is necessarily a stage-specific quality.

    Alongside this, I’m trying to make sense of the many people of history who were ordained at a very young age, whose faith shows clear growth and development through the course of their ministry, many having ‘conversion’ experience(s) during that time, and whose contribution to the life of the church has been immense. One could say that perhaps they could have had the same impact if ordination had taken place later in life, but more likely they were formed in ministry, by ministry, for ministry, and I don’t think we should discount the value of that. Perhaps it is more important that people are on the journey, and aware that they are on a journey, rather than that they have passed a particular milestone? Or at least that the ‘system’, such that it is, prompts our ordained people to pursue their own faith journey – sadly so many ordained people are / allow themselves to be so weighed down by expectations of their role that their own faith takes a back seat.

    Finally, my thinking is that we need to be very wary when we set humanly assessed benchmarks as pre-requisite for ordination (although one could argue biblical precedent for this of course). God calls who he will to ordination, and works in ways we do not understand and cannot predict, including through ordained people pre-stage 5. Of course our selection processes need to be rigorous and carefully thought out, but we need to make sure we aren’t making it a human process, taking it out of God’s hands, which is always a danger if we have a checklist of requirements. Of course we absolutely need the ministry of ‘stage 5-ers’ available to the church, but as you say there should be stage 5 people among the laity, and perhaps what the ordained leader really needs is the humility to be able to recognise and allow space for their gifts and insights to be used, as part of the ministry of the Whole People of God?

  4. Sister Jean Marie Howe, a Cistercian nun (very elderly, former abbess of her community) has a slim volume of a retreat she gave at Andre Louf’s Monastery: Secret of the Heart. She has a very interesting term for what I think means the same as “theosis/divinisation”: spiritual priesthood. Her description of this stage or state uses the metaphor of a “censor” – as if the person becomes like that and grace, Divine energies, love, contemplation (whatever you want to call it) is simply pouring out of the Presence, the transformed person.

    I personally find her term very helpful because for us lay people, the priesthood of our Baptism is a call for transformation – but what is the purpose of that transformation? I think it’s purpose is for each of us to become “vessels” for the transfiguration of the cosmos. To become God-Bearers, Spirit- Bearers, Christ-Bearers: For the World!

    Now your post is of course related to leadership. However, I think that leaders of all types should be people who bear God’s Presence, who have “given” themselves to that transforming, transfiguring path – and who thus become bearers of Holy Presence in the world. This can happen for lay people as well as someone ordained. But the most important anointing, I think, is the anointing of the Spirit upon a holy soul. These people, I think, do not generally seek leadership positions. At the same time they are blessed by God with wisdom and understanding, which comes in prophetic ways.

    Maybe you are aiming at this in what you write? I cannot say for sure. But this topic is very, very close to my heart. We are all called to this transformation. And our task is to seek that, not for our own sake, but for the sake of the entire cosmos. To seek God’s Presence, the Presence of the Trinity/Divine Life, in order to allow that to pour through us (as if we were transparent), thus truly assisting Christ in bringing all things to the Father – through the Spirit.

    I am sorry that I do not post under my real name. I apologize for that. There are certain humble reasons why some may prefer to use a pseudonym. I think that should be respected. Just MVHO. I hadn’t realized there was a “rule” about that here.

  5. Thanks very much for this, Bosco. I wasn’t previously aware of James Fowler’s stages of faith development. Having read a summary of each stage, I can certainly see in his categories an accurate depiction of my own path of development. I think I must be moving through in Stage 4 at the moment (right on time, it turns out, in my early thirties). The following paragraph from the summary really hit home:

    Restless with the self-images and outlook maintained by Stage 4, the person ready for transition finds him- or herself attending to what may feel like anarchic and disturbing inner voices. Elements from a childish past, images and energies from a deeper self, a gnawing sense of the sterility and flatness of the meanings one serves any or all of these may signal readiness for something new. Stories, symbols, myths and paradoxes from one’s own or other traditions may insist on breaking in upon the neatness of the previous faith. Disillusionment with one’s compromises and recognition that life is more complex than Stage 4’s logic of clear distinctions and abstract concepts can comprehend, press one toward a more dialectical and multileveled approach to life truth.

    Another three-stage approach is proposed in Gerard W. Hughes, God of Surprises (given to me to read by my college chaplain after my confirmation). Hughes’s stages are “Institutional”, “Critical”, and “Mystical”. He suggests that most people never make it out of the Institutional phase (and those who end up leaving the Church do so either because they “grow out” of a childish image of God, without replacing it, or because the Church starts tampering with their institutional supports, e.g. new hymns or taking out the pews). The Critical phase questions how the Institutional concept of God and faith can possibly be true. If one comes through this period of questioning still with some kind of faith, it is one that has embraced the paradoxes of the inherited tradition and accepted that God transcends the categories of our own reasoning. My mother read the book and suggested that maybe we don’t go through these phases just once, but many times in a life-long cycle. I can relate to that idea too.

    Nevertheless, I wonder if, while absolutely desirable, it might not be entirely necessary for clergy to have their own spiritual lives “sorted”, as it were. Certainly we look to the priest as one who can teach and guide with authority, from experience, about the spiritual life and about matters divine. And I quite take your point about the dangers of less developed priests simply trying to replicate their own experiences in those under his care, as if there weren’t other equally fruitful paths of personal spiritual growth (this happens with young university teachers, too). But might it not be possible that there is something to be said for the liturgical and pastoral leadership of those who are travelling alongside their people in a process of growth? I can’t help but think that there has been a lot of good done by priests far to young to have reached Fowler’s stage 5! Perhaps it’s a question of what we are asking/expecting from believers and, especially, Church leaders (and this is perhaps the whole thrust of this series of posts: new expectations and attitudes).

  6. “IMO one should not be ordained until the person is at least at stage 5 of Fowler’s stages.”

    Though I appreciate the sentiment behind this, determining who is at stage 5 is still rather subjective and probably also easily misunderstood and abused. But recently a friend said to me “It appears the leaders I’m most drawn to these days are those who have been chewed up, marginalized and discarded as has-beens. In other words, those who embrace the decending way of Jesus, who came to His own, but His own rejected Him.”
    But no-one really wants to *be* that sort of leader, I suppose! 🙂

  7. Well, Bosco mate, you do baffle me. How can you commend “the mystical theology” of the Orthodox Church, especially the 6th century Platonizing musings of “Dionysus the Areopagite” when you speak so vehemently in support of women’s ordination – knowing fully that both Rome and Constantinople utterly reject this innovation? My Orthodox friends would tell you you can’t Pick ‘n’ Mix.
    But maybe as an Anglican you agree with your fellow Anglicans in Sydney on their restoration of the permanent diaconate?
    And if you read that great Anglican bishop and scholar Lightfoot on ‘The Apostolic ministry’ perhaps you will also agree that despite the dreamy ideas of “Dionysus”, in the New Testament church at least there was no distinction between presbuteros (elder) and episkopos (supervisor).
    As for the Orthodox practice of making only celibate monks bishops (rather than married clergy with numerous progeny), I have a hunch this has more to do with church politics in the eastern Roman empire – but as usual, in the allegory-inclined Byzantine mind, a “spiritual” reason is usually discovered for pragmatic decisions.

    1. Kevin, I am strongly in favour of the permanent, vocational diaconate as should be clear from my sentence in bold. I advocate for the integrity of each order. There are a number of such deacons in my diocese, and many in New Zealand. IMO it is not merely the Byzantines who allegorise, but this is a tendency throughout Christianity and beyond. These points have little to do with this thread. As to my being your “mate”, I wonder if that term is used significantly differently in Essex than it is here.

  8. Essex? I don’t know the place, but I suspect the less one says about “mating” there, the better.
    I call all Kiwis ‘mate’ and have even extended the sobriquet to Australians, but only after a drink or two.
    Treating the diaconate as a stepping stone to the presbyterate doesn’t appear to reflect NT patterns. Maybe Baptists and Presbyterians understand this better.
    St Paul’s Pastoral Epistles set out the scriptural requirements of deacons and presbyter-bishops. Essentially they are to do with personal spiritual maturity, good character and family life, and (for presbyters) aptitude in teaching and preaching the Christian faith (1 Tim 3.2; 2 Tim 4.2). That is why Anglicans have insisted on the centrality of the teaching ministry.
    As an Anglican I am happy to use writings like those of John Chrysostom, but critically, in the light of the NT.

    1. Yes, Kevin, this post focused on “personal spiritual maturity”. In other posts I strongly argued for your other points like per saltum ordination and provided the links in this thread.

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