A Vision of Mission – Br. James Koester

Br. James Koester

Ephesians 5: 15-20
Psalm 57: 6-11
Matthew 24: 42-47

Have you ever thought you were born at the wrong time? Something about a different time period fascinates you and you think to yourself, “I would love to have been born then”. Perhaps that was 100 years ago or even 500 years ago. Maybe you want to sail with Columbus or walk the land bridge that once linked Asia with North America. Perhaps you can see yourself walking the roads of first century Palestine or being there when the Great Wall of China was built. Maybe it is not the past that fascinates you, but the future. Perhaps you want to be alive when space travel is routine or life is discovered on a distant planet or the cure for cancer or AIDS is finally discovered.

I sometimes wonder when I would have liked to be born. It would be fascinating to sit down and talk with some of my ancestors, and find out why they made the decisions that they did. Why, for instance did my ancestor Edward Ketchum move from Cambridge, England to Ipswich, Massachusetts in 1634; or Robert Clark side with the Crown during the American Revolution. I love watching shows like Wolf Hall and wonder what it was like to live at the time of the Reformation or wander the ancient churches of Rome and imagine myself there when they were built.

But the period of history that fascinates me most is the period of Anglo-Saxon England. I think I would have liked to have lived then (or at least have the ability to visit, taking with me flush toilets, hot running water and central heat!).

Anglo-Saxon England was that period of English history roughly between the end of the Roman Occupation of Britain in the year 410 and the Norman Conquest in 1066. It was during that 650 year period that England and the English Church began to take the shape that we know today. And Dunstan, who we commemorate today, was one of the key people of that time.

Dunstan lived from 909 until 988 and was successively abbot of Glastonbury, bishop of Worcester, London and finally Archbishop of Canterbury. And it was Dunstan and his colleagues that we credit with the reform and rebuilding of the English Church, and English monasticism in particular, following the Viking invasions of Britain the century before.

Under Dunstan monasteries were restored, rebuilt and extended and the common observance of the Rule of St. Benedict was introduced. In the centuries before the Vikings, monasteries had been places of mission, worship, education, service, healing and hospitality. It was from the monastic communities in the sixth and seventh centuries that some of the great missionary saints of Britain went and converted Anglo-Saxon England to Christianity. These were the days of Aiden, Bede and Columba; Cuthbert, Chad and Cedd; of Hilda, Audrey and Edith. These were the days when monasteries were centres of worship, learning, industry and healing. All of this was destroyed by the Vikings in the ninth century and it was to the repair of this damage that Dunstan set about.

In doing so he established two peculiarly English institutions: monastic cathedrals and monk bishops. This is not to say that there hadn’t been monastic cathedrals or monk bishops before, or in other parts of Europe, but in England, generally speaking, after Dunstan, they were the norm and not the exception. Because of Dunstan’s reform, the English Church, and consequently Anglicanism, has always had a monastic ethos, even after the Reformation when monasticism was suppressed under Henry VIII.

But the purpose of Dunstan’s reform and rebuilding was not an antiquarian activity. He wasn’t interested in monasteries and monks for their own sake. The purpose of his reform was for the building up of the Church. He saw monasticism as a tool of evangelism. And that is why Dunstan is so important for us, here, in this place, today. Dunstan knew that monasticism in England had once been, and could again be a key component in the conversion of England. He would have known exactly what we mean in our Rule of Life when we say:

Faithfulness to tradition does not mean mere perpetuation or copying of ways from the past but a creative recovery of the past as a source of inspiration and guidance in our faithfulness to God’s future, the coming reign of God.  As we meditate on the grace of tradition each of us will hear the call to become, in Father Benson’s words, “a man – not simply of the day, but a man of the moment, a man precisely up to the mark of the times.  This makes the religious – so far from being the traditional imitator of bygone days – most especially a man of the present moment and its life.” (1)

Dunstan was very much a “man of the moment” in Father Benson’s words and regarded the tradition of monasticism as central to the life of the Church. And, if the work of the Church is to “proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom” (2) and “to teach, baptize and nurture new members” (3) as the Marks of Mission of the Anglican Communion remind us, then this also is the work of the monastic. Again as our Rule teaches:

Our life as a community should also be a sign to the Church to rise up to its true calling as a communion of the Holy Spirit, the Body of Christ and the company of Christ’s friends.  We are not called to be a separate elite, but to exemplify the life of the Body of Christ in which every member has a particular gift of the Spirit for ministry and shares an equal dignity.  Fr. Benson taught that “there are special gifts of God indeed to the Society, but only as it is a society within the Church.  The small body is to realize and intensify the gifts, to realize the energies, belonging to the whole Church.”  Our witness and ministry is not merely to separate individuals; it is for strengthening the common life in the Body of Christ.(4)

In many ways, the 10th Century shaped both the English nation and the English church in ways that are recognizable today. Dunstan was a key player in shaping both church and nation and he used the monastic communities of England to do so, making sure that they were truly places of mission, worship, education, service, healing and hospitality.

I believe that we are beginning to experience another “age of Dunstan”.  No one would argue, I think, that the church, at least in our lifetime, has not been in decline. We have perhaps not been sacked by the Vikings but we have been harried by forces beyond our control. The church needs to recoup, rebuild and renew so that like the Anglo-Saxon church we can again become agents of mission, worship, education, service, healing and hospitality. And it is the monastic communities of the church, I believe, that can help lead the way once again.

Now by this I don’t mean that everyone needs to become a monastic, or that every church a monastery, but in the monastic tradition we can discover the tools of transformation. Like the faithful and wise servant who managed his master’s household monastic communities can remind the wider church of her true calling as a communion of the Holy Spirit, the Body of Christ and the company of Christ’s friends. 

Dunstan used the renewed monastic communities of his time to recall the Anglo-Saxon church back to her primary mission of evangelism and service. We need another Dunstan today to remind us all of our primary mission and thereby renew the church’s life of mission, worship, education, service, healing and hospitality.

I am fascinated by the history of Anglo-Saxon England, but not in an antiquarian sort of way. I am not interested in it for its own sake. I am fascinated by it because it holds up a mirror to us.  In it we see ourselves: what we are and what we might become. Dunstan was a key player in that by renewing the monastic communities to be places of mission, worship, education, service, healing and hospitality he thereby was able to rebuild the church and doing so renewed the nation.

What an amazing vision for us here today.

What an incredible opportunity.

Perhaps I don’t need to travel back in time. Perhaps Anglo-Saxon England has come to me, complete with flush toilets, hot running water and central heat.

  1. SSJE Rule of Life: Chapter 3 Our Founders and the Grace of Tradition
  2. Marks of Mission of the Anglican Communion: https://www.anglicancommunion.org/identity/marks-of-mission.aspx
  3. Marks of Mission of the Anglican Communion: https://www.anglicancommunion.org/identity/marks-of-mission.aspx
  4. SSJE Rule of Life: Chapter 4 The Witness of Life in Community

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