When Augustine’s mother Monica moved to Milan, she was concerned about fasting. The practice was universal in the church from the beginning, but it differed in places. In Monica’s hometown the church abstained on Saturdays, but not the church in Milan. What should she do?
Augustine, then a catechumen, had no idea; so he put the question to his bishop, Ambrose.
“[W]hatever church you come to, conform to its custom,” said Ambrose. Even as a bishop he said that he observed the same rule (Letter 36.32).
Notice the assumptions at play here:
- Christian life is practiced together;
- clashing practices are undesirable;
- it’s reasonable for an individual to conform her practice to that of the community.
We don’t think like that any longer, not really. Monica was worried her differing practice would give offense. Contrariwise, the notion that anybody should conform to anything outside his choosing today seems offensive to us.
We find churches that fit our practice or demand elbowroom for our idiosyncrasies or simply leave. Increasingly, we abandon the local church entirely and claim to be spiritual but not religious.
We feel entitled to practice our faith anyway we desire, regardless of the will of the wider community—ironically, despite a tremendous amount of popular talk about the church as community. But what can community actually mean if the individual is ultimate?