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Colonies of Heaven:

Ministry of the Community and Order


The Community and the Order of St. Columba are best understood as a Colony of Heaven. They are an attempt at the realization of the City of God on earth, an expression of the reality of the Kingdom of God. This deep and complex matter is elucidated in St. Augustine’s profound work The City of God but may be summarized as a living out the Life of Jesus in action and teaching, the revealing of Heaven in the sacraments, and a life in the fullness of the Holy Spirit.


The life of the Community and the Order is based on the Blessed Trinity as archetypal essential community. It is from this essence that Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, came forth offering an intimate relationship of love to all people. In the acceptance of that offering was born the Christian Church.


It is in holding this pattern that the identity of the Community and Order are formed.  As the Blessed Trinity is both dynamic and yet unchanging, so too the Community and Order is active in the process of sanctification within itself and without, while being unwavering in its core beliefs and culture. As with Jesus, the members then go forth from this dynamic and essential core bringing the reality of the Kingdom of God to the world; thus creating other communities of God-lovers.


The Community and Order find their cultural, liturgical, and pastoral identity in the early Celtic articulation of Christianity. By so doing, their character is expressed in a monastic rather than parochial form of ministry. “For Christians living in the British Isles between the fifth and eleventh centuries, the monastery rather than the parish church was the primary focus for worship, pastoral care and religious instruction.  The key figures of authority in the Church tended to be abbots, running their often extensive familia or parochiae of monasteries, rather than bishops, who had a largely sacerdotal and liturgical roles and did not have diocesan territorial responsibilities.”[1]


Though both systems have their advantages and deficits, there are important distinctions between the two in how they approach the world. The parochial system, which has dominated church government for much of the past one thousand years, tends to see itself as going out into the world in order to bring people back into the parish. Thus, the parish and its growth is the focus as it successfully meets the world. The monastic system is not concerned with the growth of the monastery, but rather sees itself as a Colony of Heaven established in the midst of the world. The focus then is on maintaining a core faithful to the doctrines and practice of the faith while being salt and light within the world.  The inherent danger of the parochial system is that to be successful it often works to make joining the parish attractive, as growing is one of its major goals. This tendency toward attractiveness lends itself to being influenced by the cultural and societal systems it is attempting to attract. An extreme illustration of this is the move toward “seeker-sensitive” teaching and practice, which allows the societal culture and mores to influence the ethos of the parish and the individuals within it.


The concept of the Colony of Heaven, which defines the monastic identity, is that the culture of the City of God, the Kingdom of God, is what defines its activities and mores. The belief stands that it is the Heavenly culture that is called to influence the world and not the world that influences the Church. The monastic system is founded upon being the City of God planted in the foreign land of a decaying world.


Another of the distinctions between “churches based on a monastic rather than a parochial model of organization was their high level of commitment and discipline. Monasteries are places where people go willingly to live under rules and authority. They are communities of intention, made up of those who have taken certain vows and accepted a certain lifestyle.  [These] monasteria included people with widely differing levels of commitment.” [2]


Ministry is another manner in which the parochial and monastic systems differed. “The strongly monastic character of the [early Celtic Christian Church] affected the nature of its ministry and witness in a number of ways. First, it produced a model of ministry that was collegiate and communitarian rather than individualistic…Ministry in all its aspects, liturgical, pastoral, evangelistic, educational was not the solitary individualistic task it so often is [in the parochial system]. It was rather undertaken by teams of men and women, ordained and lay, who lived together in community and operated from a common central base from which they went out among the people preaching, teaching, baptizing, administering the sacraments, caring for the sick and burying the dead. Community life in some form was the normal and accepted expression of vocation, not just to monastic profession but also to clerical orders of any kind and indeed to a variety of lay ministries.”[3]  Likewise, the communities that would form outside the monastery need not be identical to the founding house. The identity of each new community was dependent upon the souls called into that group as well as the direction of the Holy Spirit. Bradley tells us that the “Celtic and Anglo-Saxon monasteries varied in function as well as in size and composition. Some existed primarily as retreats and houses of prayer, others as bases for missionary work and pastoral care.”[4]  So it is with the Community and Order, that the focus in ministry is not to replicate themselves but to touch all in the world with the Kingdom of God and allow the power of God to direct the future community’s focus.


This diversity in ministry is likely the greatest distinction between the parochial and monastic systems. Again, Bradley’s research illuminates this important difference. “The parochial pattern of church organization, which supplanted [the Celtic monastery] in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and which has been the dominant model ever since, has tended to focus on just one kind of ministry, that of the full-time parish minister or priest, mostly on his own…As used in the British Isles in the centuries between the departure of the Romans and the coming of the Normans, the word monasterium covered a huge range of different communities, from tiny settlements of two or three hermits’ huts to townships comprising several thousand people. Monasteries could be made up entirely of hermits or anchorites, of those living a cenobitic or communal life or of a mixture of both solitaries and monks living in community. They could be single-sex or communities of both sexes, some of whose members led celibate lives and others of whom were married. Some monastic communities had just one priest attached to them and were largely made up of non-ordained monks, others had no members under monastic vows and were essentially teams of regular clergy undertaking a largely pastoral role in the surrounding area. Within some of the larger monasteries, solitary hermits lived and prayed alongside married monks; professed monks and nuns coexisted with lay brothers and sisters; regular and secular clergy, ordained and non-ordained, men and women, shared their common life with the many pilgrims, penitents and other guests who regularly stayed in the hospitum.”[5]


It is in accord with the monastic nature of the ancient Celtic Christian Church that the Community and Order find themselves regulated.


[1] Bradley, Ian. (2000)  Colonies of Heaven. Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., London, p. 2

[2] Ibid., p.8

[3] Ibid., p.6

[4] Ibid., p.8

[5] Ibid., p.7

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