My friend over at collationes.wordpress.com (be sure to read his full entry and challenge) initiated a conversation that I believe is vital to the life of the church, particularly Brethren. For some time now there has been increased conversation about the differences that exist within the denomination of the Church of the Brethren. It was as apparent at this year’s annual conference as it has ever been. I do not have time nor desire for a conversation around what these differences are and what has caused them. Let’s just say doctrine and interpretation are key aspects. Nevertheless, I believe Brockway’s intuition is correct in that shared practice leads to commonalities in community. It’s no coincidence that the early Christians required that catechists submit themselves to a particular way of life as they went about learning the Jesus way before ever being considered for baptism into the community.
For the earliest believers the unity and ethical practice of the community (pardon my redundancy) was essential for the life of believers. With this in mind I’ll engage a few points of Brockway’s proposition.
1) Grounded in Scripture– those who submit to this Rule covenant to engage in a daily and weekly rhythm of studying and praying the scriptures. While many do this as part of their devotional practice, followers of the Rule would commit to study the texts outlined in the Revised Common Lectionary. What is more, they commit to praying the scriptures outlined in the Book of Common Prayer for Daily prayer.
This first point is essential, I believe, to any rule of faith. And I especially appreciate that it comes first. I can also appreciate the use of the Revised Common Lectionary. However, I would suggest that portions of the sermon on the mount be part of the daily reading. In as much as I hold scripture as central, I also am admittedly (Post-Liberal) Anabaptist. The teachings of Jesus are essential to my formation and periodic readings of the sermon on the mount (especially!) is not nearly enough. These teachings are such that I believe we must wade in them throughout the days and weeks and months of our lives. They are the bread that I eat and the water that I drink. I acknowledge the necessity of the rest of scripture but these are central to Christian identity and formation. Additionally I wonder if some behavioral guidelines would be in order for how believers treat others as practical responses of the readings.
2) Rooted in Worship- Followers of the Rule commit to regular participation in worship with a congregation. Two parts of this are key. First, it is to be a practice of corporate worship, and not something one does individually. Second, while the practices of worship may vary, the common thread between all these communities will be the use of the Revised Common Lectionary. Here, the wider church will be reading the same scriptures regardless of where the congregations are rooted. What is more, followers of the Rule will have been reading these same texts throughout the week, and will find a common, public proclamation of scriptures they have been reading privately during the week.
On Brockway’s second point I agree wholeheartedly. He rightly notes the importance of the Revised Common Lectionary. Here the members in their various contexts share the common practice of worship, reflection and prayer over the same texts. At these points they will be familiar having read them throughout the week.
3) Reaching the surrounding community- Followers
of the Rule will find or make regular opportunities to minister in their local community. Such practices of service are easy to find through other community organizations, but the key is to participate monthly, if not weekly. I would want to see this involve others, even if they are not practitioners of the Rule. For compassion and service are things not done well in isolation.
It is essential for the believing community to have its identity formed on the margins of society. Acts of mutual aid, whether local or outside one’s immediate context are essential to faith formation. Even as Jesus instructed his disciples to direct their energy to these concerns. One of his most compelling parables is found in Matthew 25:31 ff. It is in humble service to those in need that believers are formed. I would also include the practice of anointing with oil as a means of service. While some may question placing it here, this is one ordinance that was not limited to the believing community. Early Christians would offer it to anyone seeking prayer for healing. It was a means of witness and service to the wider community, especially for those who were in desperate need.
4) Shared meals- Followers of the Rule will have monthly common meals with others. These are not just social gatherings, but an intentional practice of sharing– sharing food, sharing prayers, and accountability. Key questions should emerge in the practice of sharing a meal in this manner, questions Brethren long ago asked one another before the Lord’s Supper or Love Feast. “How are you with God? How are you in love and community with your sisters and brothers?” We should include also a question about how or if people are keeping with the Rule.
Shared meals are essential for the formation of community. Brockway clearly states the reasons. Much like the gathering around the table for communion, the believers proclaim their equality and dependence upon God for the sharing of the necessities of life. As in communion there is a mimetic sense in the recollection of others gathering in the past; a contemporary acknowledgement of others gathering together breaking bread simultaneously; and there is the proleptic sense of participating in the anticipated great feast. The practice of common meals forms a sense of community around the table that transcends the past and present projecting into the future. It imagines a corporate hoped for future where needs are met and sustenance is plentiful and shared.
While his rule ends with number four, I would suggest one to follow these:
5. The final one I would argue is the Lord’s Supper. While admittedly this are not practiced among the Brethren with quite as much frequency. I would point out that it is easily the most significant practice of this rule with profound efficacy. The Lord’s Supper is one of the distinctive practices of Brethren that I believe contributes to the formation of this peculiar people. It is in the acts of examination (confession & forgiveness), feetwashing (cleansing), love feast (simple common meal), and Eucharist (bread & cup) that the believers participate in Christ at a different level. Brethren practice this ordinance only twice a year and many congregations are sharing that attendance at these services is diminishing. I am convinced that this is a core practice that must be included even if it only occurs twice per year.
As I sit here looking over this rule, I wonder how many will take Joshua up on his challenge. I know I will. Any others?