An important challenge to the churches in Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option (2017) is the call for our congregations to become “thick communities” of discipleship and prayer that can resist the corrosive acidity of liquid modernity and be instrumental in building an alternative polis to the emergent dark age of secularity. In Dreher’s vision, such churches are more than one hour on a Sunday but are populated with Christians ready to make significant sacrifices for their faith, including, nowadays, living with the possibility of being cancelled.
On paper these are robust spiritual communities that in their theological conservatism contrast with progressive or liberal Christianity by resisting pernicious ideologies such as are found in identity politics. Their claim is to a relationship with the supernatural God of the Bible, in contrast to a therapeutic deism that seeks only to match and meet earthly desires. Psychologically they may be worn and weather-beaten, but contain a certain wellspring of joy that comes from being faithful. In choosing a new spiritual ghetto rather than fighting an impossible culture war, these traditional believers are revitalizing themselves and making something Godly out of the trials of exile. This is, as Dreher is keen to remind us, a strategic retreat, not an escape from the world or living off-grid.
The sojourner who stumbles into these circles will encounter something alien and different, even beguiling. In contrast to modernity and postmodernity, they will find disciplined moral communities who are fluent and proud in their liturgies while holding a loving guardianship for traditions and customs. This might seem daunting to the newcomers, but nevertheless as they acclimatize there is the pleasure of discovering the company of others where family life is everything, goodness and beauty are treasured, and charity abounds.
Spiritual and psychological wisdom comes from taking seriously what has been handed on. It involves using this as a mirror to confront the good and bad constituents of community life, the warts and all. Churches that airbrush this soon devolve into clubs or worse, cults. This “mirror” is what St. Benedict called the conversio morum, the “death talk,” and is not dissimilar to the call to humility and honesty that those in the AA Recovery Program integrate into their daily lives. Patience, forgiveness, and solidarity lie at the heart of all such endeavors. To belong to such communities is to find souls who are able to argue that a civilization without the Bible and Jesus is a bedeviled project. They are the antithesis of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” knowing that there is no easy road to paradise and that those who promise earthly utopias often emerge as the most illiberal world-makers. A Benedict Option-inspired church must therefore be well-versed in its distinctive conversio morum.
What could traditionally minded Anglicans bring to this project? What would its conversio morum be like? Is there a viable “Cranmer Option” of the Benedict Option? Theoretically, conservative Anglican parishes could rise to this challenge and potentially tick off all of these aforementioned criteria, notwithstanding this is not without challenge also and there are fundamental issues within Anglican DNA that pull against even orthodox churches forming thick communities. To begin to explore this, I touch upon the various initiatives that traditionally minded Anglicans in the UK have engaged in and then draw out examples of how spiritual truths can emerge from the 1662 Prayer Book texts which counter secularism. Beyond that, there is also the urgent need for a catechetical renewal which puts aside tribal animosities of five hundred years between traditional groupings in the Church of England and seeks a new and imaginative consensus.
By the early 1990s what became obvious was that the majority of British churches lacked the manpower and the spiritual clout to take mission to the next stage, irrespective of their denomination. This particularly affected the thinly spread Anglican presence which aimed to have a viable parish in every town and village. Statistically, the Church of England is slowly bleeding to death. Statistician Peter Brierly’s The Tide is Running Out (2000) and also Callum Brown’s seminal The Death of Christian Britain (2000) established in me the possibility of retiring in 2040 to a denominational husk, a Church of England with lots of chiefs but devoid of membership. As it stands today fewer than 1% of Millennials identify as cultural Anglicans, let alone believers, and it is likely that the 2021 census will further highlight this gulf.
Predictably the liberal Anglican establishment tried to dig the national Church out of its hole by restructuring and reorganizing. There is something in the culture of all Boomer revolutionaries that by the 1990s seemed to reduce all revolutions to an increase in paperwork and an army of supernumerary experts. The bishops on the whole fell for this in the same way as did the administration of Tony Blair or Bill Clinton. Conservative congregations by contrast invested in new evangelistic initiatives such as the popular Alpha Course, and were also comfortable planting what became known as Fresh Expressions. Other tools such as Cursillo never got traction, while the alternative worship scene (“rave in the nave”) became a historical footnote in George Carey’s time when the colossally popular Nine O’clock Service was exposed as a safeguarding cesspit of abuse and cultism.
Personally, these initiatives continue to appeal to different bits of me: the ecumenical, the artistic, and the evangelistic. I can see how courses in the Alpha mold can be used to fire up any local church while also reaching out to newcomers. However, it pains me to say that the shared weak link is that they are inherently consumeristic, seeking to bend and morph Christianity around the seeker, rather than vice-versa. They abandon the idea of a learned communal “cult” in the traditional sense of the word and seem embarrassed that anything distinctively Anglican should be at the core of developing churches. Instead, Anglicanism is portrayed as getting in the way of reaching new converts or even strengthening the church. Comparably it is as if French government, after paying out an advertising agency in some mad brainstorming session, decided that tourism could only be improved by excising anything particularly French about France and encouraging a diversity of languages.
It is my view that if the Cranmer Option is to have any success, then orthodox believers must find the courage and imagination to grasp the nettle of historic Anglican culture and see it as part of the solution and not the problem. This has to be one of the footstools of forming the kind of thick communities that Dreher envisages. That familiarity with our liturgy and customs is the springboard to teaching the Christian faith to the next generation because the necessary truths of the Gospel are nested inside our key texts. Banal criticism of this often makes the schoolboy category error of confusing dusty traditionalism with living tradition, the former being the work of the devil while the latter is of the Holy Spirit.
A good instance of this is the 1662 vision of holy matrimony compared to Common Worship (2000). Comparing the two prefaces we can see that the modern liturgy encapsulates marriage as a romantic enterprise with some spin-offs for society, therefore inverting BCP theology. Whereas Cranmer places marriage as primarily a foreshadowing of the mystical union between Christ and his Church, Common Worship’s preface alludes that this is merely incidental. It also completely glosses over Cranmer’s psychological key insight into the potential of human monstrousness. Men and women contain the raw possibility of being “brute beasts that have no understanding.” It would seem that in an attempt to modernize the vows (which may be marginally justifiable) the Church threw the baby out with the bathwater. The “Little Mermaid” fairytale supplants the Gospel because this is what the consumer wants, and what the consumer wants the consumer gets. It tells us what we want to hear, not what we need to know.
Whereas medievals like Cranmer understood freedom as a freedom from desire, modernity envisages freedom as a freedom to possess anything we desire and to enjoy limitless choice. Hierarchy and authority in this new cosmology are therefore to be shunned and dismantled, decolonized, because these conspire to impose restriction. In The Benedict Option, Dreher quotes the sociologist Philip Rieff, the great interpreter of Freud: “Religious man was born to be saved. Psychological man is born to be pleased.” A reasonable person will understand that this rubbishing of order and tradition, a hermeneutic of discontinuity, is infantile and a societal cul-de-sac. Even old-fashioned liberals on the Left now recognize that this pathway undergirds a collective madness and encourages a sort of illiberal liberalism. Historic Anglicanism in its Prayer Book, formularies, five centuries of intellectual tradition, aesthetics, and post-Reformation saints, has the means to be a robust counterculture to this.
So for example the Prayer Book appeals to us to locate fulfilment in this earthly life by reordering our desires for God and heaven first. This is magnificently encapsulated by the Collect for Purity (itself a pre-Reformation English prayer) that remains the opening in most translations of the Anglican Eucharistic liturgies:
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit
that we may perfectly love thee
and worthily magnify thy holy Name.
It is this hierarchy of desire that C. S. Lewis recognized as the singular means to rescue us from the tyranny of subjectivism and tragedy of emotivism:
We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased (Weight of Glory, 1942).
This may not have been Cranmer’s original intention, but it can be seen as the kernel of an Anglican conversio morum.
The Covid-19 pandemic highlights that faithful Christians now stand apart from a culture highly allergic to the concept of death and disproportionately obsessed with safety at all costs. It is yet to be seen whether this societal anxiety gives way to despotic technocracies – “those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2.15). Benedict Option churches have the potential to be moral communities that resist, while also presenting an alternative narrative. The Prayer Book liturgy for burial of the dead has this heavenly vision as its theological starting point: “In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succor, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?” In this Christian vision earthly life is a burden that it pleases God to deliver us from that we may be changed, that “it may be like unto his glorious body.” To grow up hearing these words spoken at the graveside is to receive a powerful catechesis that sees death not as the end or the ultimate consumer’s inconvenience. It is also to know that life is perilous, and no matter of control will eliminate pain, suffering, pestilence, or even a pandemic. It is to locate the purpose of our earthly life as the salvation of the soul that we may not “die eternally,” to quote the funeral collect.
With all this in mind, it remains my opinion that the weak links in an Anglican version of the Benedict Option are to be found in application and theory. A vicar trying to set up something like this will certainly come up against the rampant individualism that runs right through British Christianity and, in particular, the Anglican churches. The myriad of liturgies on offer barely unites us, and it is rare to find parishioners who do not think that they are their own pope. It does not help that recent liturgical reform and theological liberalism endemic to Anglicanism has pushed a therapeutic religion whose vernacular is social justice, not the supernatural vision of the New Jerusalem.
A deep-rooted practical quandary is that Anglicanism for the past four hundred years has systematically ejected the sort of believers who were good at community building, preaching, and resisting the world around them. For all its claims to liberalism, Anglicanism, and in particular English Anglicanism, has an Erastian streak which does not tolerate dissent and particularly religious fervor. The consequence is the tragic loss of experts in ghetto living. Our clubbiness and standoffishness caused pilgrims to cross the Atlantic and found non-conformist communities, which subsequently became the basis of the world’s major superpower.
Over the centuries, those dissenting communities that remained in Britain also fell afoul of the established religion and largely broke away or did their own thing. They adapted to the Industrial Revolution far better than the Established Church and formed groundbreaking communities in the process. A good instance of this must be the Quakers, whose cooperatives and non-conformist villages became the basis of much of the chocolate and confectionary industries in this country. The problem is that your average Anglican church does not have this collective memory of dissent and exclusion from the world, aside from Cromwell’s Commonwealth. It was therefore no surprise that when the Anglican-Methodist Mission-Shaped Church (2004) report came out, the writers dismissed as alarmist any talk of a Benedict Option-styled strategic retreat. So in their view, contrary to Alasdair MacIntyre’s vision in After Virtue (1981), the West did not need a “new and doubtless very different St. Benedict,” but rather better negotiating skills with the barbarians governing us. This officially sponsored acquiescence to secularity has been nothing but heartbreaking to watch, like a slow-motion car crash.
Anglicans have no equivalence to an Amish spirituality which prides itself in radical divergence from the world around it. In Anglicanism, we have never been minded to seed Little Gidding lay communities which might match the Amish zeal and seriousness. Sadly, the current fashion for eclectic New Monasticism is too invested in progressivism and bourgeois causes to be considered anything akin to Dreher’s blueprint. My brief toying with it was disappointing, finding practitioners wanting all the froth of chanting with none of the cost of discipleship.
This spiritual laissez-faire has shaped church schools into learning communities largely devoid of any Christianity. Aside from a few exemplary institutions, students leave largely clueless about Anglicanism and are most likely to hold a caricature of orthodox Christianity as anti-science, backward, or contra progress. It is rare to find a teacher in such a school who actually goes to church. Unlike the Amish communities, as churches we remain puzzled in secular Britain on how to pass the historic faith down the generations.
Clearly, without this Non-Conformist ethos of community building British Anglicanism struggled to find its feet, as nineteenth-century industrialization saw the masses migrate from the country to the cities. If some of this begins to reverse, and rural life begins to be more viable and attractive, then Anglican rural culture could see a revival. The Prayer Book is clearly written in the context of rural life, its rhythms, and its pace. For that opportunity to be grasped, much thicker communities must be grown with Cranmer’s original vision of a laity seriously committed to morning and evening prayer under the church roof. We need to demonstrate what slowing down actually looks like.
It would also be timely to see a push for a specific theology of analog living which challenged our digital lives. Typically, the Church of England seems bewitched by the glamour of all things digital. This is their new toy. Rightly, no one can dismiss the benefit of reaching people through the Internet. But we could be doing humanity a serious disservice if our theology imagines the digital and the web as largely morally neutral. I write this as someone with a computer science degree who loves gadgets, but is also very wary of an AI future. I just do not think theologians and bishops have any idea how perilous this technology is. Here I am more in favor of leaning towards the writer, environmentalist, and recent convert to Orthodoxy, Paul Kingsnorth, himself a friend of Dreher. If he is right, we need a green Benedict Option which lays claim to a distinctive Christian analog lifestyle. This would consist of communities where the digital is pushed to the margins and households are devoid of screens. A Cranmer Option with a strong rural dimension would surely be an attractive sell to the environmentally minded. It could be the pathway out for those trapped in a Gaia religion to discover instead a more authentic “organic” lifestyle.
If an Anglican attempt at the Benedict Option would be well served by the Non-Conformist experience of building community, then it can also in theory learn from the other end of Christianity, Eastern Orthodoxy. In a way, it is an accident of history and geography that the Anglican reformers in their rejection of Rome were not able to dialogue with Orthodoxy. This is obvious when you consider the resulting problems that arise from openness in the 1662 Prayer Book to Calvin’s theology of total depravity and his denial of the Real Presence. It has resulted in an Anglicanism that has swung from confessing a morose message of there being “no health in us” and that “we are miserable offenders” to contemporary liturgical poverty, which seeks to ape inclusion and diversity buzzwords. With only a partial vision of theosis, Anglicans struggle to get a balance that is more normative in Orthodox spirituality. In some ways, two centuries of hymnody supplementing services has filled some of the gaps in encouraging a more rounded vision of Christianity. It is as if the hymn writers knew that even the beautiful Prayer Book texts on their own, with their rolling sentences and archaic English, could not transport us heavenward—something was missing, namely a vision of Jesus Christ the mediator and restorer of all things. Consider for instance the last lines of Love Divine All Loves Excelling by Charles Wesley: “Changed from glory into glory, till with Thee we take our place, till we cast our crowns before Thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.” These sentiments of religious ecstasy would have resonated with Gregory of Nyssa, “Since with all my soul I behold the face of my beloved, therefore all the beauty of his form is seen in me” (Homilies on the Song of Songs).
What I have tried to demonstrate is that a Cranmer Option of the Benedict Option is possible and has much merit to it. To do this, traditionally minded churches must see their Anglican heritage not as a problem but rather as the solution. Nevertheless, part of such a project must involve those same Anglicans not shirking from the urgency of learning from (what they might perceive as) the extremities of the Christian religion. In this essay I have suggested that this might for example include Amish insight and Orthodox spirituality. Some might consider that particularly ambitious as conservative Anglicans in England barely talk to each other, evangelicals and catholics preferring instead to live in theological enclaves. Partly this is a leadership problem, which can be overcome in Britain, as has been clearly demonstrated in the USA where ACNA has achieved considerable concord between different traditions. It could be therefore that the Cranmer Option will initially enjoy better soil in America than here.
These fault lines come back to the urgent need for a re-enchantment of the world and in particular our Christian communities. Dreher famously highlighted the damage from the rise of Nominalism and later on the Enlightenment Project in the second chapter of The Benedict Option. He now intends to write specifically on this topic in his next book, mindful that much of our modern heresies like identity politics or toxic consumerism emerge from mankind’s self-imposed spiritual starvation. An Anglican version of the Benedict Option must therefore present not only right doctrinal truths, but communities who can speak confidently of an experience and an encounter with God himself, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.