By Steve Stutz, Memorial Lutheran and First Presbyterian Churches
I’m new to the TX LA Gulf Coast Synod and I just turned in my first clergy report to Bishop Rinehart. It was a great exercise in looking back on the past year and recognizing the hand of the Lord in the many events that transpired, of giving thanks, and for setting an azimuth heading into 2020. One of the things I mentioned to him was the status of my participation in an Episcopal religious order known as the Anglican Order of Preachers (Dominicans) and he asked me to write a piece about the group and my experience of religious life so far.
Each year, we Lutherans celebrate the anniversary of the day when an unknown German monk named Martin Luther marched up to the castle church in Wittenberg and nailed a list of 95 criticisms of the Catholic church to its door. The date was Oct. 31, 1517, and Luther had just lit the fuse of what would become the Protestant Reformation. But, did you know that there were reform movements within the church before that? Two of the most well-known “reformers” appeared on the scene over 300 years before Luther and their influence continues today—even within our Lutheran tradition. More on that below, but let me give you some historical perspective.
The thirteenth century was a time of renewal in Europe. Commerce revived from several centuries of decline during the Dark Ages and cities like Paris, London, and Bologna came into power and influence. The Magna Carta brought about Parliamentary democracy, and the ideas of Aristotle began to fascinate the mind of the West. But amid this renewal, ecclesiastical corruption was rampant. The up and coming middle class of the cities, increasingly skeptical, better educated, and much more materialistic, could not be helped by parish clergy who were generally untrained. The monastic houses were largely rural and cut off from the currents of daily life. A theological vacuum was created, which was quickly filled by superstition, heresy, and a love for the pleasures of the world.
Various attempts were made to respond to this situation. Groups of diocesan priests living in community engaged in parochial and theological work. In many places, lay preachers like the Poor Men of Lyons attempted to return to the simplicity of the early Church. One reformer from the period that you are likely very aware of is St. Francis of Assisi. You probably know him best as that guy living in the ceramic bird bath in your backyard. Saint Francis expressed great affection towards all of creation, especially animals, and maybe in your parish you have a “blessing of the animals” in October every year, which traces all the way back to Francis himself. Eventually, he founded a religious order, and those who follow his example practice simple living and detachment from material possessions in emulation of Jesus’ life and earthly ministry. This simple lifestyle helps members to experience solidarity with the poor and to work for social justice.
In the ELCA, we have an expression of this spirituality in the Order of Lutheran Franciscans. The Rev. Chris Markert, LA-TX Gulf Coast Synod Bishop’s Associate for Mission, is the Minister General of the Order. You can find out more about the OLF at their website, https://www.lutheranfranciscans.org. and through their Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/LutheranFranciscans/
The other great reformer of the period was Saint Dominic. He was born at Caleruega, in Old Castile, around the year 1172 and he died in on August 6, 1221. His life was of such holiness and his ministry of such significance that he was canonized only 13 years later. He was the son of a Spanish noble and went to university as a philosophy student. During a great famine, he sold his books to buy food for the starving, and for ten years served as a canon of the Cathedral at Osma in Spain. Dominic and his bishop, Diego, passed through southern France on a journey in 1204 which changed their lives. The church in this region was devastated by the Cathari, who taught a hatred for matter, for material sacraments, as well as for the body itself. Their idea of perfect religion was to starve oneself into the release of death. In contrast to worldly Catholic clergy, the leaders of the Cathari were rigid ascetics who captured the hearts of their followers by showing an example of a life lived for a larger goal than one’s belly or one’s pocketbook.
Dominic and Diego were troubled by the state of the Church in this region. There had been failed past attempts to bring back the lapsed which could be ascribed to ecclesiastical dignitaries weighed down with servants and pomp. Dominic saw the need for preachers who would be learned, disciplined, and in solidarity with the poor. With the approval of the bishop of Toulouse, Dominic began to gather a group of men willing to take up mendicancy and the dangers of preaching in hostile territory. He wanted them to be given over to liturgical life and prayer, like the monks but also active in apostolic ministry in the local community, like the canons. Freed from the cloister, they would move about according to the needs of the Church and they would preach. This was a radical new idea. Preaching had been largely reserved to diocesan bishops and wandering friars with allegiance outside the diocese were viewed with suspicion by local authorities.
Over time, the Order of Preachers (the official name of Dominic’s group) settled on five major elements to the way in which they would follow Jesus: the common life, celebration of the liturgy and prayer, the observance of the vows (obedience, chastity, poverty), the assiduous study of truth, and the apostolic ministry of the Word. For us Lutherans as “Word and Sacrament” people, the emphasis on the “ministry of the Word,” is something with which we deeply resonate.
I mentioned earlier that we are blessed to have a Lutheran expression of Franciscan spirituality in the form of the Lutheran Order of Franciscans. You likely didn’t know that we also have access to the Dominican tradition through our full communion partners, the Episcopal Church USA.
In the Anglican tradition, religious orders began to revive during the Oxford movement of the nineteenth century. Since that time, orders of various kinds, including Benedictine and Franciscan ones, have been established, including The Anglican Order of Preachers by Fr. Jeffery Mackey, an Episcopal priest, in 1999. The Order is open to everyone—lay, clergy, male, female, married, single, LGBT—and currently has about 100 members around the world in various stages of formation who live a Christian life rooted in Dominican spirituality and practice. Our rule explains that to mean “a lifestyle that embraces both active engagement with Gospel proclamation and contemplative reflection.”
I became a Postulant to the Order in 2018. This is a yearlong period of formal study and prayer that focuses on introducing the Dominican “ethos.” We read and discussed a number of works, old and new, from Catherine of Siena (14th century) to Timothy Radcliffe (21st century). We looked at famous Dominicans (Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Bartolome de la Casas, Yves Congar, and more!) and lesser known, modern day examples from around the world.
After prayer and discernment, some of us started the second phase of formation, the Novitiate. I began this phase in August, 2019. This a is follow on, two-year program of additional discernment, in-depth training, and intentional “trying out” the Dominican life wherever God has placed us. So far, we’ve focused on homiletics and trying to connect our preaching to the Dominican emphasis on systematic theology. We each had to submit a couple of sermon manuscripts and a video/audio of us “live” in the pulpit for discussion and critique. After the Novitiate, and with the community’s consent, novices may take life vows. The entire process is a preparation not merely for a new form of ministry, but a new way of life that informs any ministry in which one is engaged.
What does it look like for me at this point as a novice who is “trying on” the lifestyle? Essentially, this means I commit to praying the services of Morning and Evening Prayer daily, studying Holy Scripture for one hour a day, and shaping my life according to the vows of simplicity, purity, and obedience. The vows are not intended to be burdensome, and the manner in which we’ve been taught them has provided a way to organize physical and financial resources, healthily align personal relationships, and grow in discipleship. In large, the vows and their effects are not as immediately “visible” as is the most outward aspect of wearing of the Dominican habit. This was a stretch for me! I’ve been happily casually clothed for many years, blending in with everyone else. Now, when I’m wearing either the “street habit” (black clergy shirt and Dominican pectoral cross) or the “full habit” (white tunic with black hooded cowl, black cincture, and pectoral cross), it provides an opportunity for evangelical witness, for exercising simplicity, and for practicing obedience.
Each brother or sister is expected to do some form of preaching on a regular basis. I was initially concerned about this expectation because, at the time I began formation, I was not yet rostered and did not have much opportunity for preaching. I discovered that for Dominicans, preaching has countless forms, from the liturgy to mass media, teaching, talks, retreats, parish work, chaplaincies, pilgrimages, writing, and on and on, but all these modes of preaching are united by the presence of the Word within them. My formation directors were not concerned so much about me wearing a robe and delivering a message on Sunday morning, as they were that I found ways to take the Gospel message to my corner of the world in concrete acts of charity and mercy, reaching out to the poor, homeless, orphans, widows, and those who are most in need of God’s love. It’s a growing edge for me that I am happy to lean in to as I minister to the parish I’m currently working at and at my home parish in Pasadena when I can.
Members of the Order are organized into “houses” by geographic location and meet periodically in person for community business and retreats, while staying connected via Facebook groups and email/Zoom conferences. While most members live in the United States and Canada, we have members in England, Australia, Philippines, and Puerto Rico. All members are invited/expected to gather annually for general chapter to conduct the business of the Order, engage in Dominican reflection & study, and to hear reports from the various houses.
Thanks for hanging in to the end of this. Maybe something along the way has caught your interest and you’d like to learn more. I’d love to have many more fellow Lutherans in the Order! You can find out more about the Anglican Dominicans at the Order’s website, http://www.anglicandominicans.com. or join the Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/FriendsoftheAnglicanDominicans/. The Rule and customary of the Order is available from Amazon at https://tinyurl.com/wmh3gc8 Finally, if you’d like to have a presentation on Dominican spirituality for a parish mission, Bible study, midweek devotion or whatever, you can contact me at [email protected]