Movement for a New Society and the Old New Monastics

Robin wrote a lit­tle about the New Monas­tic move­ment in a plug for the Pen­dle Hill work­shop I’m doing with Wess Daniels this Fall. 

Here’s my work­ing the­o­ry: I think Lib­er­al Friends have a good claim to invent­ing the “new monas­tic” move­ment thir­ty years ago in the form of Move­ment for a New Soci­ety, a net­work of peace and anti-nuclear activists based in Philadel­phia that cod­i­fied a kind of “sec­u­lar Quak­er” decision-making process and trained thou­sands of peo­ple from around the world in a kind of engaged drop-out lifestyle that fea­tured low-cost com­mu­nal liv­ing arrange­ments in poor neigh­bor­hoods with part-time jobs that gave them flex­i­bil­i­ty to work as full-time com­mu­ni­ty activists. There are few activist cam­paigns in the 1970s and 1980s that weren’t touched by the MNS style and a less-ideological, more lived-in MNS cul­ture sur­vives today in bor­der­line neigh­bor­hoods in Philadel­phia and oth­er cities. The high-profile new monas­tics rarely seem to give any props to Quak­ers or MNS, but I’d be will­ing to bet if you sat in on any of their meet­ings the process would be much more inspired by MNS than Robert’s Rules of Order or any fif­teen cen­tu­ry monas­tic rule that might be cited.

For a decade I lived in West Philly in what I called “the ruins of the Move­ment for a New Soci­ety.” The for­mal struc­ture of MNS had dis­band­ed but many of its insti­tu­tions car­ried on in a kind of lived-in way. I worked at the remain­ing pub­lish­ing house, New Soci­ety Pub­lish­ers, lived in a land-trusted West Philly coop house, and was fed from the old neigh­bor­hood food coop and occa­sion­al­ly dropped in or helped out with Train­ing for Change, a revived train­ing cen­ter start­ed by MNS-co-founder (and Cen­tral Philadel­phia Meeting-member) George Lakey It was a tight neigh­bor­hood, with strong cross-connections, and it was able to absorb relat­ed move­ments with dif­fer­ent styles (e.g., a strong anar­chist scene that grew in the late 1980s). I don’t think it’s coin­ci­dence that some of the Philly emer­gent church projects start­ed in West Philly and is strong in the neigh­bor­hoods that have become the new ersatz West Philly as the actu­al neigh­bor­hood has gentrified.

So some ques­tions I’ll be wrestling with over the next six months and will bring to Pen­dle Hill:

  • Why haven’t more of us in the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends adopt­ed this engaged lifestyle?
  • Why haven’t we been good at artic­u­lat­ing it all this time?
  • Why did the for­mal struc­ture of the Quaker-ish “new monas­ti­cism” not sur­vive the 1980s?
  • Why don’t we have any younger lead­ers of the Quak­er monas­ti­cism? Why do we need oth­ers to remind us of our own recent tradition?
  • In what ways are some Friends (and some fel­low trav­el­ers) still liv­ing out the “Old New Monas­tic” expe­ri­ence, just with­out the hype and with­out the buzz?

It’s entire­ly pos­si­ble that the “new monas­ti­cism” isn’t sus­tain­able. At the very least Friends’ expe­ri­ences with it should be stud­ied to see what hap­pened. Is West Philly what the new monas­ti­cism looks like thir­ty years lat­er? The biggest dif­fer­ences between now and the hey­day of the Move­ment for a New Soci­ety is 1) the Internet’s abil­i­ty to orga­nize and stay in touch in com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent ways; and 2) the pow­er of the major Evan­gel­i­cal pub­lish­ing hous­es that are hyp­ing the new kids.

I’ll be look­ing at myself as well. After ten years, I felt I need­ed a change. I’m now in the “real world” – semi sub­ur­ban free­stand­ing house, nuclear fam­i­ly. The old new West Philly monas­ti­cism, like the “new monas­ti­cism” seems opti­mized for hip twenty-something sub­ur­ban kids who roman­ti­cized the grit­ty city. Peo­ple of oth­er demo­graph­ics often fit in, but still it was nev­er very scal­able and for many not very sus­tain­able. How do we bring these con­cerns out to a world where there are sub­urbs, fam­i­lies, etc?

RELATED READING: I first wrote about the sim­i­lar­i­ty between MNS and the Philadel­phia “New Monas­tic” move­ment six years ago in Peace and Twenty-Somethings, where I argued that Pen­dle Hill should take a seri­ous look at this new movement.
  • Then it sounds like your move­ment (which I’d missed know­ing about) is the child of the so-called hip­pie move­ment & the New Monas­tics would be a grand­son? (& prob­a­bly it all goes back to the tran­scen­den­tal­ists somehow?)

    I’ve found the anabap­tist branch of the NM guys kind of inter­est­ing, with­out hav­ing met any or seri­ous­ly con­sid­er­ing join­ing up. My wife & I are just doing pover­ty, some­thing which actu­al poor folks aren’t very good at but which we down­ward­ly mobile folks (“DuM­Fukz?) can nav­i­gate due to being about to imper­son­ate high­er class types when we’re about to get stepped on.

    Since dou­bling up in the (remain­ing) low rent build­ings is an emi­nent­ly sen­si­ble way to get through hard times, we’ll prob­a­bly see more of this, whether or not overt­ly reli­gious. Some type of reli­gious con­scious­ness would help a lot; I just hope it won’t have to take one of the mass­mar­ket bs forms for most peo­ple involved.

  • Mar­tin,

    I would like to come to your work­shop, the over­lap between Quak­ers and the New Monas­ti­cism is some­thing I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in, but I doubt I’ll make it across the coun­try. After read­ing Robin’s post, I picked up Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book New Monas­ti­cism from the library. Accord­ing to him, they trace their roots back to the ear­ly church and oth­er monas­tic move­ments (of course), but also to the Bruder­hof com­mu­ni­ty in Ger­many in the 1920s, the Catholic Work­er, and the Chris­t­ian Com­mu­ni­ty Devel­op­ment Asso­ci­a­tion, among oth­ers. I think every­one can agree that the mod­el of the New Monas­tics isn’t real­ly new, includ­ing them!

    I think you’re on to some­thing about them using Quak­er process in their meet­ings. The New Monas­tics in my neigh­bor­hood have been very clear that they are try­ing to use a Quak­er mod­el of group dis­cern­ment in their meet­ings. I am inter­est­ed in why the New Monas­tic mod­el of inten­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty seems to appeal to so many right now, and I think there is more to it than the pow­er of the Evan­gel­i­cal pub­lish­ers. It seems like there is some­thing in the cur­rent polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic cli­mate that is mak­ing peo­ple more open to inten­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty and open­ly liv­ing out one’s faith. I also think that Friends have a lot to add to this dis­cus­sion, and I am curi­ous about what mes­sages Friends can bring to the new peo­ple try­ing out this model.

    I wish you all the best in prepar­ing for the workshop.


    • I’ve been re-reading parts of “Albion’s Seed,” the most awe­some book about Amer­i­can folk­ways and a lot of my social lens is influ­enced by this. When I was a stu­dent activist in the 1980s and “old new monas­tic” in the 1990s we nev­er saw any Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­t­ian kids (my col­lege was three miles from Shane Claiborne’s alma mater), except for the occa­sion­al drop-out who would have long ago denounced any­thing Christian.

      There’s long been an alter­na­tive lived-lefty cul­ture, with out­posts in music fes­ti­vals, polit­i­cal groups, local “scene,” etc. Quak­ers have long been involved, some­times with some awk­ward mix­ing (some mem­bers of the Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty are more drawn to the alter­na­tive cul­ture cen­tered on a par­tic­u­lar Meet­ing than they are to any actu­al Quak­er faith). From a cul­tur­al per­spec­tive what seems to be hap­pen­ing is that a grow­ing num­ber of younger Evan­gel­i­cals are join­ing this alterna-culture (being Evan­gel­i­cals they have to call it “NEW!,” make it personality-centric and give it too-cool names, but that’s fine, what­ev­er works!).

      You see this shift in the elec­tion too. I watched “The Ordi­nary Rad­i­cals” and it’s Jesus for Pres­i­dent tour and I just had to laugh when they were say­ing they weren’t sup­port­ing a par­tic­u­lar pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. So many tra­di­tion­al­ly Repub­li­can states vot­ed for Oba­ma – urban and diverse pock­ets in the South and West are tak­ing on more lib­er­al atti­tudes, talk­ing about social jus­tice and focus­ing again on care for the poor. 

  • Mar­tin,

    You ask why we don’t have any younger lead­ers of the Quak­er monas­ti­cism. If you mean “con­tem­po­rary” rather than younger, I would say that we have had lead­ers in the very recent past who mod­eled what a Quak­er new-monastic move­ment might look like. My fam­i­ly and oth­er Friends found­ed the Friends of Jesus com­mu­ni­ty in Wichi­ta, which for more than a decade lived and worked among the poor, black com­mu­ni­ty in Wichi­ta. Most Friends, while either prais­ing or ques­tion­ing the com­mu­ni­ty, did not want to actu­al­ly get involved direct­ly. The com­mu­ni­ty even­tu­al­ly fiz­zled out, with no one new join­ing the group.

    I don’t think that this phe­nom­e­non is par­tic­u­lar­ly unique. If you look around the MASSIVE Evan­gel­i­cal world, there are very few indi­vid­u­als who are actu­al­ly tak­ing up a rad­i­cal life of dis­ci­ple­ship. As with any “scene,” most would like to pose and talk about how rad­i­cal they intend to be — or bet­ter yet, about how un-radical oth­ers are! Despite the intense buzz around Shane Clai­borne, there are still rel­a­tive­ly few new monas­tics — incred­i­bly few when you con­sid­er the size of the US Evan­gel­i­cal community.

    Now, the Evan­gel­i­cals do have clear leader-figures. They have Shane Clai­borne and Tony Cam­po­lo, as well as TJ Jakes and Rick War­ren. Evan­gel­i­cals are far more com­fort­able with peo­ple hav­ing clear posi­tions of lead­er­ship in their com­mu­ni­ty. I don’t believe post-WWII Quak­ers are. So our present-day lead­ers are gen­er­al­ly covert. If they aren’t writ­ers, wield­ing schol­ar­ly influ­ence that many Quak­ers feel com­fort­able respect­ing, then our lead­ers are large­ly unno­ticed, even as they do the work of the King­dom in our midst. I don’t blame you for miss­ing them; we don’t real­ly adver­tise their existence. 

    I would sug­gest that a part of our dif­fi­cul­ty tak­ing lead­er­ship in the world is our entrenched refusal to acknowl­edge the author­i­ty of lead­ers in our own com­mu­ni­ties. It’s impos­si­ble for me to imag­ine the Shane Clai­borne phe­nom­e­non occur­ing among Friends. Shane would have been eldered long ago for a vari­ety of rea­sons. I think if he were a Friend, we would prob­a­bly sus­pect him of being too full of him­self and snipe him accordingly.

    Do move­ments need indi­vid­ual lead­ers? Are Friends ready to embrace indi­vid­ual lead­ers? What might Friends lead­er­ship look like in the 21st century?

    In friend­ship,

    Mic­ah Bales

    • @Micah: Ever since I heard of it, I’ve thought the “Friends of Jesus” folks in Wichi­ta were inter­est­ing. Maybe these scenes nat­u­ral­ly fiz­zle out. They’re great grow­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for the peo­ple in them and they’re mem­bers often con­tin­ue to play guiding/leadership roles through­out their lives. 

      Essen­tial read­ing is Swarth­more his­to­ri­an Jer­ry Frost’s 2000 talk at the FGC Gath­er­ing. Although FGC has purged its site of a lot of its old con­tent, Frost’s talk is still there. Here’s a piece:

      None of these [mod­ern lead­er­ship] Friends is a birthright FGC Friend and most either con­vert­ed or became fel­low trav­el­ers as adults. Most received their reli­gious edu­ca­tions at non-Quaker insti­tu­tions. By and large they write pam­phlets rather than books and devo­tion­al lit­er­a­ture rather than sys­tem­at­ic analy­sis of the­o­log­i­cal or eth­i­cal issues. Those few Friends who are inter­est­ed in the­ol­o­gy go to Earl­ham School of Reli­gion where they learn to use words left out of PYM’s dis­ci­pline. By and large, FGC Friends are not much inter­est­ed and, there­fore, have been only slight­ly influ­enced by post-liberal major the­o­log­i­cal emphases. Even when our his­to­ry should have made us major play­ers in new the­o­log­i­cal devel­op­ments, such as fem­i­nist the­ol­o­gy, Friends have been con­sumers rather than shapers.

      And here we are, nine years lat­er being con­sumers: Clai­borne is this year’s big speak­er at FGC. It should be Chris Park­er cel­e­brat­ing the ten year anniver­sary of the Quak­er Peace and Social Wit­ness net­work. As we all know QPSW brought thou­sands of peo­ple to the Soci­ety of Friends, chal­lenged and re-energized meet­ings through­out the coun­try and over­whelmed Earl­ham School of Reli­gion, which had to part­ner with Pen­dle Hill and Swarth­more Col­lege to open a new East Coast cam­pus led by Jer­ry Frost (dragged kick­ing and scream­ing out of retire­ment). Join­ing Chris on stage is his pro­tégé at QPSW, Shane Clai­borne of Cen­tral Philadel­phia Month­ly Meet­ing (Kens­ing­ton Prepar­a­tive Meet­ing), who dis­cov­ered QPSW while attend­ing a Philly-area evan­gel­i­cal col­lege and helped forge links between Friends and a new group of Evan­gel­i­cals con­cerned about social jus­tice issues. This group has dubbed itself the “New Con­ver­gent Quak­er” move­ment, much to the con­ster­na­tion of Quak­erQuak­er edi­tor Mar­tin Kelley.

  • Gene Hill­man

    I was sur­prised to see your com­ments on Move­ment for a New Soci­ety (MNS). I was in Annapo­lis, Mary­land dur­ing much of the 80s (I moved to Pen­dle Hill in 1987) and was nev­er close to them, but did hear of them and was intrigued. I now see them as a fad. They (to my knowl­edge) imi­tat­ed the forms of the Quak­er move­ment, but sec­u­lar­ized them for easy appli­ca­tion and repli­ca­tion (that seems to be what you are describ­ing). Many oth­er Quak­er insti­tu­tions have done the same. They use “con­sen­sus deci­sion mak­ing” and uphold “Quak­er val­ues.” Fox crit­i­cized the prac­tices of the church­es of his time for being “shad­ow with­out sub­stance”. I sug­gest MDS, most Quak­er orga­ni­za­tions, as well as much of our peace work, as being shad­ow with­out substance.

    I real­ize monas­tics saw love of neigh­bor as evi­dence of love of God (e.g. “Saint” Benedict’s “Treat every guest as if he were Christ, or There­sa of Avi­la “Inte­ri­or Cas­tle” V:3:8), but the love of God comes first. MNS and today’s Quak­er orga­ni­za­tions seem to not only put the cart before the horse (the cart: love of neigh­bor, is impor­tant), but the horse (God) isn’t even being looked for.

    That is the rea­son for MNS’s demise. It was build on sand (“And every­one who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a fool­ish man who built his house on sand.” Matthew 7:26).

    • Hi Gene: I most­ly agree with you on the the­o­log­i­cal lev­el, though in prac­tice MNS brought togeth­er a lot of peo­ple and helped them shape a new lifestyle that was more com­mit­ted to jus­tice. There’s a lot of good peo­ple doing good in the world. Sure­ly that’s worth some­thing. Some of them fol­lowed the influ­ence back to Friends, which has had ben­e­fits and drawbacks.

      One of the NSP book dis­trib­u­tors used to describe us as “the reli­gious pub­lish­ers with­out a reli­gion.” As I got less involved in the “MNS ruins” and more involved with orga­nized Friends, the chal­lenge for me was to see the dis­con­nects. It wasn’t always obvi­ous: a lot of Quak­er process is more “func­tion­al­ly athe­is­tis­tic” than we might care to admit. “Sec­u­lar con­sen­sus” isn’t always all that dif­fer­ent than the Quak­er “sense of meeting.”

      One rea­son I’ve brought up MNS in rela­tion­ship with the New Monas­tic Move­ment is that for all it’s talk, the new kids often don’t feel very reli­gious to me. It seems more lifestyle-related, with the church talk being a safe lan­guage to talk about a kind of social jus­tice, alt-hippy lifestyle. Some of it is fad, and shad­ows with­out sub­stance. As with most “emer­gent church” I’m less inter­est­ed in its answers than the ques­tions it’s ask­ing: I think a lot of these peo­ple would be inter­est­ed in us if we would actu­al­ly start shar­ing the core Friends mes­sage more openly.

  • rebadrag­on

    I think the way we per­ceive these con­cerns in a semi-suburban nuclear fam­i­ly kind of way have to be dif­fer­ent. We are no longer able to be inde­pen­dant “activists”, throw­ing our entire sched­ules and con­cerns into the soci­ety that sur­rounds us when we have a “mini-society” of our own to care about right here at home (ie, our spouse and kids). I am always look­ing at ways that the organ­ism of our fam­i­ly can affect those around us, but still always keep­ing in mind the pro­tec­tion of my chil­dren, ensur­ing they are being raised with a pro­tect­ed childhood.
    As one raised in inner-city DC, where I encoun­tered a lot of dan­ger, and a nat­ur­al spir­it of “activism”…I can say con­fi­dent­ly, that this influ­enced heav­i­ly my deci­sion to raise my chil­dren in a much qui­eter, pas­toral set­ting (phys­i­cal­ly, social­ly and spiritually).
    With that said, there is much that needs to be shared with a sub­ur­ban or rur­al soci­ety. Droves of peo­ple asleep to their own spir­its stuck in the cycle of work, leisure, numb­ing out, buy more things.….ad infinitum.….need the exam­ple of fam­i­ly units who con­scious­ly choose to live in a more sim­ple and spir­i­tu­al­ly open way. Who knows who we are reach­ing when we just go out to where there are oth­ers about, things that quite frankly I often scoff at…ie the PLAYGROUP, story-time at the library, local park, etc… I wrote about this on my blog:
    I think that the Bruder­hof (who my fam­i­ly has rela­tion­ship with) have a great mod­el when it comes to this.…(although I doubt I could cast my lot in this ful­ly!). The chil­dren are raised in the pro­tec­tive bound­aries of the com­mu­ni­ty, where a deep and mean­ing­ful spir­i­tu­al way to live is impart­ed. Then, as the chil­dren become teenagers, they go to the pub­lic school, while still being sur­round­ed by their com­mu­ni­ties. Then, often after grad­u­a­tion, these young adults will go and start a “fam­i­ly house” in some com­mu­ni­ty that needs what you spoke about in the “New Monasticism”.….they have hous­es in Harlem, Syra­cuse, etc.…
    Very inter­est­ing to think about.
    I have visions of a few Quak­er fam­i­lies invit­ing local chil­dren to our “hob­by farms” to hold and pet the ani­mals, sim­ple lunch­es on a blan­ket while chil­dren run in an untouched field (instead of being “enter­tained” in some grand mate­ri­al­is­tic way).…I am thinking…what can we do to be “anti­dotes” to this very mate­ri­al­is­tic cul­ture at large?

  • Jim

    Did you see the new paper by Andrew Cor­nell on MNS?

    One of the inter­est­ing things about MNS is that it con­tained so many strains-
    it could be writ­ten from the angles of
    • feminist,
    • anar­chist, pacifist,
    • organizational-training,
    • organizing,
    • inten­tion­al community
    theory/practice (among oth­ers), and EACH paper would have some­thing valid and inter­est­ing to say.

    • @Jim: thanks, I hadn’t seen that. MNS process was cer­tain­ly a big influence
      in the West Philly anar­chist cir­cle I was tan­gen­tial­ly involved with about a
      decade ago.