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With a little understanding

18 December 2015

Pat Ashworth on an experiment in community living

Under One Roof: The story of a Christian community
Roger Sawtell
DLT £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10


THE author and his wife, Susan, were founder members of The Neighbours, a residential community of households living in five adjoining terraced houses in Northampton.

With the declared purpose of developing “a community life which enables us to explore and share our faith and care for others according to the Gospel”, more than 50 people variously lived there over the 23 years of its existence. The community closed in 2007.

Writing at some distance allows Sawtell time for mature reflection, and this is a humble, considered, and disarmingly honest account of the tensions, triumphs, contradictions, and complexities of living in community, particularly one in which the homes were owned rather than rented, and in which children grew up (and sometimes rebelled).

The households adopted some common social concerns, notably — in a city with two psychiatric hospitals — the after-care of discharged mental-health patients. The Neighbours offered residential support for the first few years of its existence, but acknowledged being “tested to near despair” by the behaviour of some of the unhappy young people they took in. The focus was changed to non-residential support, and hospitality to individuals and groups became the common task of the final few years.

How different from a monastic house, Sawtell reflects, where monks have no individual incomes. “We were constantly trying to balance work priorities, children’s needs, with a discipline of prayer, and often achieving little success. The Benedictine rule states that prayer is the work of the monastery, and perhaps that is only possible by taking vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience.”

The 13 volumes of minutes of the weekly residents’ meetings provide the framework for this inspiring book. They constitute a far-from-dry resource. The italicised direct quotations speak volumes about the trials of living together: on a member’s intensive use of the washing machine, for example — She defended her thirteen washes a week at an average of one hour per wash. Simply, when failure to find new members brought the community to an end, the final minute reads: We dispersed quietly back to our own places.

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