The third traditional vow made by those entering religious orders is one of obedience, expressed as obedience to the abbot of a monastery and the superior of the order. Such a relationship is workable (not necessarily easy!) when one has withdrawn from the world into the community of a monastery (a monk) or lives within the wider community as one set aside to serve it (a friar), in which circumstances you are deployed in your responsibilities by the order, through the person of the abbot or superior. It is less workable within new-monastic communities, where members may serve within a particular career – consultant doctors within the National Health Service, to cite an example – and the order does not have sole say in their deployment. More than this, obedience suggests (whether this is the spirit within traditional orders or not) a relationship in which one person exercises power over another, rather than helps them to discover and engage with God’s will for their life (which I suspect may be closer to the spirit of traditional orders). Such a relationship is likely to be viewed with suspicion by the type of Christian generally found in new-monastic communities, either because of a wariness brought about by having seen too many instances of abuse by leaders within the Church; or/and because of a commitment to a flatter communal model of church leadership, as opposed to a strongly hierarchical one. We might struggle with ‘obedience’ without wishing to be an autonomous agent.
Finally, we must consider the call on religious orders to be counter-cultural agents of reform within the Church, and wider society. Regarding accountability, the dominant paradigm operating within the Church at present is one of ‘high control, low accountability.’ By this I mean when those in positions of authority (such as a bishop to a priest, or a local church leader to their congregation) choose not to ask those under their authority questions concerning their conduct in ‘private’ matters (low accountability); but are inflexible on certain actions concerning their conduct in ‘public’ matters (high control). The dominant paradigm operating within my wider, western, society is also one of ‘high control, low accountability.’ By this I mean that there are many rules – some unwritten and unspoken; others legislated – concerning how we ought to behave, in particular in public; but very little challenge to self-centredness, or support to live in ways that build strong, healthy community. The counter-cultural impulse, to both Church and society, is one of ‘low control, high accountability.’
Being part of a community committed to accountability is incredibly liberating. It means that I can engage with ‘difficult’ faith questions; and explore the provisional responses required by the hard questions raised by pioneering missional contexts; safe in the knowledge that there are people who are committed to me who will help me to think through the questions, and through my answers, and will help me to live a life consistent with the (albeit provisional) responses we arrive at. Taking a step back to consider life in general – for example, making decisions concerning work, and family life, and the balance between them – having a community who will hold me to account, and who will commit to my holding them to account, provides a level of support that we just wouldn’t have if we were to ‘go it alone.’ (Of course, this level of support is found in many local churches, and other social groups; but our population is so mobile that transferring such support across any moves is potentially very hit-and-miss.)
Engaging with the vow of accountability helps us to engage with the first and second vows, of simplicity and purity. Working through what simplicity or purity looks like in any given situation, and committing to living that way, frankly requires community effort. In turn, engaging with simplicity helps us to define the structure of accountability; and engaging with purity helps us to have the right motive in holding each other to account – to help each other wrestle with what it means to be a disciple of Christ, with the goal of becoming more like him, being transformed into his likeness. In this way, the three vows are woven together into the fabric of our life as an order. Or, perhaps more precise, each element of one three-part vow compliments the others and work together.
The Order of Mission , new monasticism , nu monasticism , accountability