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What's in the name...

Updated: Sep 30, 2019

I’m often asked why Holy Habits is called Holy Habits. I first used the phrase when rewriting the discipleship module for the Fresh Expressions mission-shaped ministry course. It was there that I first listed the ten practices that have become known as Holy Habits. At least some of these may previously have been known as spiritual practices or spiritual disciplines. For whatever reason, the phrase ‘holy habits’ came to mind – I like to think it may well have been the Holy Spirit that formed the phrase in my mind.

The phrase has been warmly welcomed, and the obvious potential trap of people assuming it refers to a clothing catalogue for nuns has been largely avoided. The alliterative resonance of ‘holy habits’ expresses at one and the same time a playfulness and a seriousness. I like that, because part of what it is to be made and remade in the image of God is about connecting with the delightful, joyful and playful creativity of God. But it is also a serious and demanding thing, as the ultimate symbol of discipleship – the cross – reminds us.

The two words are both important. ‘Holy’ reminds us that this is a godly way of life. God is both the giver of this way of life and the one in whose image we are reformed as we live out these practices. ‘Habits’ reminds us that these practices are to be lived habitually, or day by day, to use a phrase of Luke’s in Acts 2:46–47. The great biblical teacher Walter Bruggemann argues that discipleship ‘fundamentally entails a set of disciplines, practices that are undertaken as regular, concrete, daily practices’. Meanwhile, the theologian Stanley Hauerwas suggests that ‘being a Christian is not so much a set of doctrines to believe but having our bodies shaped and habits determined, in such a way that the worship of God is unavoidable’.

That is not to say that doctrines are not important – they are, very important. But when it comes to Christian formation – especially among those with no Christian background – research suggests that the old sequence of believe, behave, belong is being replaced by one of bless, belong, behave, believe. Holy Habits, with its emphasis on praxis, fits well with this.

In closing, I must acknowledge that I am not the first person to have put the two words, holy and habits, together. Debbie Caulk is working on a PhD in the area of early Methodist women’s history. Debbie kindly shared with me that in her research she had discovered a Methodist woman by the name of Agnes Collinson Bulmer, who in the early 1800s had used the phrase ‘holy habits’ in her writing. If you know of any earlier usages, do please let me know…



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