Morning Worship: Monasteries were foundation of Modern European values, society

“We all know that the best things come about by accident,” said the Rev. James Walters at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday morning worship and sermon in the Amphitheater. “Think of Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, or when John Pemberton mixed coca leaves and kola nuts to make Coca-Cola. Fifteen centuries ago, Benedict of Nursia went to the desert to pray and founded a religious community that rebuilt Western civilization after the fall of Rome.”

Walters’ sermon, “New Wineskins and the Old World,” explored Mark 2:18-22.

Benedict, founder of the Benedictine order, is the patron saint of Europe, but most Europeans today would not know that, Walters said.

“What few recognize is that monasteries were not a mere paragraph in a chapter on religion, but were the powerhouses that built modern Europe,” he said.

The monasteries provided the foundation for the values that modern Europe holds dear. These included healthcare with the founding of hospitals, education with the founding of schools and universities, the dignity of labor that built Europe’s economy, the election of abbots in each monastery and no privately held property by the monks, which fostered equality and hospitality that provided openness to people beyond national borders.

“These are the values that characterize Europe today, but in 2003, the cultured bureaucrats who were writing the European Commission charter made a slight nod to the Greco-Roman history and to the Enlightenment, but said nothing about this history. It was as if there was no one of any significance between Plato and Voltaire,” Walters said.

He asked, Does it matter if the Christian past is forgotten?

“It matters enormously,” Walters said. “We have a huge identity crisis that is not unrelated to this extraordinary historical amnesia. We don’t know what we are because we don’t know what we were. We were Christendom and we know the dangers of the dark side [of Christendom], but that should not overshadow the good. These values did not fall from the sky; they were built [into the culture.]”

Europe is the great new wineskin because the wine of the Holy Spirit was still active, he said.

“The death of Christendom did not mean the death of Christianity,” Walters said. “There is clear data that the secularization of Europe is an anomaly [in the world]. By 2050, the percentage of secularization in the world will drop from 16 percent to 13 percent. And where Christianity is most vigorous, the economy is growing.”

The new Christendom is the Southern Hemisphere with 38 percent of Christians living in sub-Saharan Africa. Walters said Pope Francis, from the Southern Hemisphere, called European Christianity an “elderly and haggard grandmother.”

Walters asked what the old can teach the new. He named three things: the change in interfaith relations, the changing nature of the global church and Benedict of Nursia.

Interfaith relations are changing in Europe.

“We tend to think of old wineskins as the rigid law of Moses, but Jesus found new things in the prophets,” Walters said. “Christians defined their identity against the ‘other.’ The Jew was the other within Europe, the traitor among us like Judas, and Islam was the external threat, the Turks at the gates of Vienna. Modern Europe is a different story; we are a multi-faith community. What is less reported is the growing interreligious understanding, especially in Britain.”

He said when Gaza was attacked last summer, there was a joint statement from leaders in the Jewish and Muslim communities in Britain saying that they would seek to export peace and not bring conflicts [between communities] into Britain.

He mentioned the Faith and Leadership certificate program he has been involved with at the London School of Economics. This program is a model of responsible interreligious dialogue.

“The new wineskin is that people need religion literacy and leadership skills,” he said.

The second way the spirit is moving is the global nature of the church is changing; it is becoming more interrelated. People might believe Europe is the past and the Southern Hemisphere is the future, he said, but the diocese of London has grown in the last 20 years.

“The death of the Church of England has been predicted for the last 200 years, but we are evolving,” Walters said. “We will look more like the early church; the cities will be the center of a vibrant urban Christian life.

“It is essential that European Christianity is not lost; it has wisdom like an elderly grandmother. The South will have to do its own theology, but it would be a tragedy if it was not informed by European theologians like Thomas Aquinas.”

His third, new wineskin was the need to reconnect the values of Europe with communities that model those values in real solidarity and collective action.

“Benedict’s values are still advocated, but they are uncoupled from communities,” Walters said. “Learning has become utilitarian. We deny hospitality to hundreds of migrants, and austerity makes the poor poorer while the rich remain untouched by corrupt taxing systems.”

As examples, he cited people who are fighting for a living wage for workers in London, food banks sponsored by churches all over Britain and Italian communities that are sending lifeboats to rescue migrants.

“The legacy of Benedict is not dead,” Walters said. “It has shaped our values and launched us into the world. The future of Christendom may be elsewhere but there will continue to be fresh wineskins that connect us to the global church.”

The Rev. Robert M. Franklin Jr., pastor of Chautauqua Institution and director of the Department of Religion, presided. Angela James, a member of the board of the Bird, Tree & Garden Club and an active member of the Guild of the Seven Seals of the CLSC Alumni Association, read the Scripture. The response to the prayer of confession was “Return to God” by Marty Haugen. Paul Roberts served as cantor. The hymn-anthem, sung by the Chautauqua Choir and the congregation, was “Too Splendid for Speech but Ripe for A Song” words by Thomas Troeger with a setting by Frederick Swann. The anthem was commissioned for Jared Jacobsen on his fifth anniversary as Chautauqua organist. The anthem was “Healer of Our Every Ill” by Marty Haugen arranged by Ken Medema. Ken Medema, piano, and George Wolfe, saxophone, accompanied the Chautauqua Choir. The offertory was “The Riddle” by Ken Medema. Medema served as vocalist and was accompanied by George Wolfe. The organ postlude was “Introduction” and “Finale” from Sonata Éroica, Op. 94, by Joseph Jongen.