Last January I had the privilege of coteaching a course on the ecumenical community of Taizé for St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute in Baltimore with my dad, Michael J. Gorman, and Brother John, a member of the Taizé community since the 1970s. To the extent that someone has heard of Taizé, she or he probably knows the music the community uses in its daily worship. Countless editions of these simple, repetitive chants, or songs, have been published around the world, and some of the most popular among them have found their way into denominational resources. Several Taizé chants, for example, are scattered across The United Methodist Hymnal and two major United Methodist hymnal supplements, The Faith We Sing and Worship & Song. In some cities, there also are regular gatherings for prayer services in the style of Taizé.
One’s knowledge of—and judgments about—Taizé’s music often substitutes for one’s knowledge of—and judgments about—the Taizé community. This is unfortunate, even if the knowledge and judgment are positive, because Taizé is much more than its music. It is a community of about a hundred brothers who live together in a small French town and commit to a rule of life. The brothers come from around the world, and they represent a number of Christian traditions. They seek to be a “parable of community,” a sign of Christ’s peace and reconciliation for the church universal and for the world. Since the late 1960s, the community has concentrated its ministry on what it calls “the youth,” who are mostly what those in the US would call young adults. Thousands of youth, as well as older adults and some children, make pilgrimages to Taizé every year. Roughly ten thousand join the community for Holy Week and Easter. As I write this, the brothers are leading their annual European meeting in Wroclaw, Poland. Last year’s meeting in Madrid, Spain, drew fifteen thousand youth for five days of prayer and Bible study.
As well as being a community ministering to global youth for the last fifty years, Taizé has been a community of writers from the very beginning. Brother Roger Schutz, Taizé’s founder, published numerous books, all in a very simple style. I am particularly fond of his Power (or Dynamic) of the Provisional (Pilgrim Press, 1969), in which Brother Roger emphasizes that the strength and faithfulness of a Christian community do not reside in its permanence but rather in its visibility as a community that belongs to Jesus Christ. It is a profound message that institutions like The United Methodist Church still need to hear. Tragically, Brother Roger was murdered in the community’s Church of the Reconciliation in 2005. His successor, Brother Alois, has followed Brother Roger’s model for writing profound, accessible texts (you can find his 2020 letter here).
Other members of the community have also been prolific authors. Pierre-Yves Emery has explored topics in historical theology including the life of Bernard of Clairvaux, the Eucharist in 17th century French Reformed theologies, and the psalms in Augustine. Max Thurian served on the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission and helped write one of the most important ecumenical texts of the last century, Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (available online here). Thurian was a liturgical theologian, and the great Methodist theologian Geoffrey Wainwright has told me Thurian was influential on his own early work. Most recently, Brother John, originally from Philadelphia, has written a series of books on a range of theological topics, including ecclesiology, creation, Holy Saturday, and divine wrath. Brother John’s books are challenging and sophisticated but not technical. His Friends in Christ: Paths to a New Understanding of Church (Orbis Books, 2012) was required reading for last January’s Taizé course.
Why should Methodists and Wesleyans pay attention to the ministry and writings of Taizé? I conclude with two reasons. First is that Taizé manages to be a community that, on the one hand, is missionally driven and, on the other hand, does not succumb to mere pragmatism. This is not an easy balancing act, especially for people whose founder spoke eloquently of the power of the provisional. To a significant degree, Taizé’s corporate life revolves around its ministry with young people, but it does not simply find “what works” or incorporate the latest trends to connect with its market segment. Those interested in Christian ministry have much to learn from how Taizé works with youth. There is no element of entertainment, nothing flashy. Simple prayers, whose texts are often quotations or paraphrases of Scripture, daily Bible study, silence, attentive listening, and service through daily chores are the basic pattern of how Taizé welcomes youth.
Second, Taizé offers to shake us from our ecclesial slumber. Its devotion to lived communal ecumenism challenges the easy assumption that structural division among Christians is inevitable and offers the hope of a courageous step into a life of reconciliation that, eschatologically, Jesus Christ himself assures us is the ecumenical future of the church.