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Interview: Roger Sawtell, co-operative entrepreneur, founder of the Neighbours Community

13 November 2015

‘I think there’s great scope for various patterns of neo-monasticism’

I was an engineer by training, working in the steel industry in Sheffield for nearly 20 years for Spear & Jackson, who made garden tools.


I was an ambitious manager climbing the ladder, but I felt increasingly that we should be running the company in a rather different way. It had been established more than 200 years ago — a family firm, paternalistic, very good, but rather outdated. I wanted to change that and involve more people. I was in touch with skilled men who had a great deal to offer, but they weren’t consulted: the directors made all the decisions.


When the chairman retired, I was invited to be managing director, and, as an ambitious young man, I was very keen, but I wanted to do it differently. They said no, so I left.


I got interested in the co-operative movement as a different way of running an organisation. I spent the rest of my working life working in co-operatives. I started making canoes — and then was self-employed as a consultant for a time, because common ownership was becoming popular.


I started Daily Bread in 1980, with one other person from my house group, and stayed till I retired ten years later. I realised afterwards that all my previous experience working in a straightforward shareholder company was really a preparation for this: the business experience I picked up was very important to me.


The older I got, the more I was prepared, for better or worse, to take risks from a business point of view, and also in my lifestyle. I’m not quite sure why that was. My father-in-law began as a very radical Labour MP but finished up as chairman of the local Conservative party. I’ve gone exactly the other way, becoming more radical the older I get.


Daily Bread Co-operative is an on-going co-operative wholefood business, owned and controlled by its working members. It’s just celebrated its 35th birthday. There are about 25 people and a turnover of £1.5 million. Working members meet daily for prayers, and regularly for holy communion or agape. There’s now much more competition in wholefoods than there was in 1980, but DBC has a hard-won reputation for quality and ethical business practices. It survives against the supermarkets.


A new business is seldom easy: 30 per cent of them fail in the first two years. So my time as co-operative entrepreneur/elected manager was risky and hard work. It was also the most rewarding and enjoyable job of my 40 years working in industry.


The Neighbours Community also grew out of a parish house-group. It was a residential community in five adjoining terraced houses in Northampton. My wife, Susan, and I were members for 23 years, from 1984 to 2007.


It was a community of households, and thus included several families. Children were sometimes dominant. Surprisingly, most of the children look back on it as a good time.


We were married in 1957; so when we started the community in 1984 we’d been married for 25 years. Our children hadn’t exactly left home because they came and went (they still do), but only our son Peter was living permanently at home.


It started as a Lent group, but continued for ten years, meeting every other week and sharing all sorts of things at some depth about what we were doing, and our spiritual journey. The curate and the vicar were members. Out of that, over several years, several of us thought we should share more and live closer to one another, and see what happened.


It grew quite gradually. We talked about it for several years before we even started looking for a house. Not all the house group came to the Neighbours Community: four of us out of eight became the first members.


It was a little nearer to the lifestyle of early Christians we read of in Acts 2.44-47, 4.32-35, and Philemon 1-2. In our case, it enabled us to have a disciplined daily prayer time, and to care for people in a manner which wouldn’t have been possible in separate households. The drawbacks? The fallibility of most of us, much of the time.


We were at our best when the daily prayers were attended by everybody, and it was accepted that part of the community was to meet every morning. There were some times when people chose not to come. Those were our bad times. I don’t know what is success or what is failure, but when we brought the community to an end, it was partly because we didn’t at that time have that sort of unanimity.


The other thing that held us together was to have a clear outside objective, a project outside the community. For the first ten years, that was offering accommodation to young people recovering from mental illness — not an easy job to do, but we were able to do it as a community with five different households.


Lay Christian communities in the 1980s were far removed from the hippy “communes” of the 1960s, but both models include the sharing of money, time, ideals, space; so they tend to get lumped together. Some have a long pedigree, like Iona, Lee Abbey, Bruderhof. All, by definition, share Christian inspiration.


I edited the magazine Christian Community for five years in the 1990s, and was thus in touch with numerous communities. I’m not now a member of a residential Christian community, but I am an accompanier to several people concerned with current communities.


At present, there are not many lifetime monastic vocations, but lots of people are interested in a limited-time disciplined monastic lifestyle, as exemplified by the response to the Community of St Anselm at Lambeth. I think there’s great scope and opportunities for various patterns of neo-monasticism. I believe it will become a more significant part of the Church, mostly inter-denominational, and perhaps replacing parts of the C of E parish regime.


The community movement comes and goes. I had a letter this morning from David Clark of the National Association of Christian Communities and Networks. That was a very flourishing organisation for ten to 15 years, but gradually seemed to diminish. We both feel now that there’s some sort of a rebirth happening. The Lambeth Community is a good example.


I’d been brought up in an actively Christian family, and got to know the Bible quite well, without its having much effect on me. But then I attended a university mission with a fiery American preacher. I really felt this faith was for me, and Jesus was totally human and totally divine. It was then that I came to some kind of personal faith, which has held for 60 years.


Now, I’d put less emphasis on salvation and more on the coming of the kingdom: the kingdom within us, and the one still to come. We’ve got a long way to go before we reach — if we ever do — the kind of society that Jesus foresaw 2000 years ago.


I realise, with thanksgiving at the age of 88, that I have had a happy life. Childhood, homemaking with Susan, my work, have all been times of happiness. Our children and grandchildren bring us great joy.


The greatest sound is that of 5000 young people singing at Taizé.


Our Government’s mean-spirited response to refugees from Syria was what made me angry last.


Ted Wickham was the leader of the Industrial Mission in Sheffield, where we were involved. He married us and told us: “You’ve got to be catalysts,” a term well-known in the steel-making process. “Change society without being inundated with all the problems of society.” Bishop Leslie Hunter was the first person to be in touch with Taizé, and invited the Brothers to come to Sheffield, led by Frère Roger, and we were very moved by the worship. Two stayed on to work in Sheffield, and I found one of them a job at Spear & Jackson. The other was a highly qualified child psychologist, and found a job at the local children’s hospital. That was their style: to work at the bottom of the pile. We visited Taizé a dozen times, and they were a big influence on both Susan and me. Lovely.


I’d choose to be locked in a church with St Benedict. He’s the answer to many of your questions. The more I look around and read, the wisdom of the Benedictine Rule still has a great deal to say to us. His idea that prayer is the work of the community or monastery is something that’s just as true today as 1500 years ago.

Roger Sawtell was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Under One Roof: The story of a Christian community is published by DLT (£8.99; CT Bookshop £8.10).

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