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Better together: a call to alms

25 September 2015

Last week, we ran an extract from A Place of Refuge, Tobias Jones’s account of the community he set up in a disused quarry in Somerset. Here, he argues for a form of Christian communalism to confront the crises of contemporary life

Warren Pot/WIKI

Hands of friendship: Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement, with John Smelzer, a core community member

Hands of friendship: Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement, with John Smelzer, a core community member

IN ANY inventory of the words most commonly used in church, it is a safe bet that “community” would be near the top of the list.

It is, of course, a bafflingly vague buzzword, which implies everything from sharing a Victoria sponge-cake once a week to sharing a house for a few decades. But it is a recurrent theme in sermons and mission statements for any number of reasons: the desire to turn a loose congregation into a close fellowship; to emulate Acts 4.32, where the apostles held everything in common; to reflect a relational Trinity in a relational reality; and to offer a missional antidote to our era of lonely, individualistic, often isolated lives.

If we can get it right, there is a unique opportunity to address the important crises of our day — the environmental, housing, and refugee crises — in one go, head on. Caring for creation through old-fashioned agrarianism, sharing houses and possessions, and offering refuge to those in need have always been central ingredients of Christian communalism.

In secular discourse, too, “community” is constantly invoked and yearned for. Everyone seems to know, in their bones, that we lack a social glue; that we’re atomised and privatised. But no one quite knows how we regain our bonds and sense of belonging. There is a bewilderment about what community is, or how we might find it again.


THE most earthy and intelligent replies to that secular yearning come from within the Church. Christianity is blessed to have the iconic books on the subject: the Rule of St Benedict, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, Jean Vanier’s Community and Growth.

And, more than just the theory, there are centuries of experience at the coalface of communalism, not just within the traditional monasteries, but within any number of original expressions — the Anabaptists, the Bruderhof, L’Arche, Emmaus, the Focolare, and so on. If Christianity could claim one area of absolute expertise (apart, of course, from the obvious) it would surely be “community”.

So what is that expertise? And, if “community” really is our specialist subject, what do we know about it? The first and rather obvious lesson is that community cannot be pursued, it can only ensue. As Bruno Bettelheim wrote in A Home for the Heart: “I am convinced communal life can flourish only if it exists for an aim outside itself. Community is viable if it is the outgrowth of a deep involvement in a purpose which is other than, or above, that of being a community.”

The pursuit of community without purpose is a bit like buying walking boots just to dubbin them. It won’t get you anywhere.

The purpose may vary, but, within a Christian context, it has usually — allow me a massive generalisation — been twofold. With his typical stridency, Bonhoeffer says that “the goal of all Christan community” is that we “meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation”. We discover, in the hurt, chaos, and confusion of human company, the mediation of the Messiah.

Thus, “Christians can live with one another in peace; they can love and serve one another; they can become one. But they can continue to do so only by way of Jesus Christ.” Community becomes a form of incarnational witness.

The secondary but related purpose is, invariably, radical hospitality: the creation of a shelter that offers refuge to the vulnerable at the fringes of society, to the uninvited, and to the marginalised. There is a profound connection — a reciprocity and interchangeability — between the strong and the weak.

As Vanier wrote in Community and Growth: “The poor man has a mysterious power: in his weakness he is able to open hardened hearts and reveal the sources of living water within them.” In one of his lyrical passages, Vanier talks about “the tiny hand of the fearless child which can slip through the bars of the prison of egoism. He is the one who can open the lock and set free.”

The mystery of compassion is that the recipient is often the one who blesses — even liberates — the giver. That is why Bonhoeffer wrote that “every Christian community must realise that not only do the weak need the strong, but also that the strong cannot exist without the weak. The elimination of the weak is the death of fellowship.”


BUT radical hospitality is hard. Having run Windsor Hill Wood, a refuge for people in crisis, for the past six years, I can attest to the fact that sharing a home with a dozen people can often be profoundly painful. What’s interesting is that the pain isn’t so much other people’s inadequacies — their lack of, say, serenity or honesty — but your own. Communal living holds up a mirror, and mercilessly shows you all your faults. All your possessions and failings are open to scrutiny.

It’s here, I think, that Christian community is markedly different from secular versions. The founder of our mother ship, the Pilsdon community, was a maverick Anglican priest, Percy Smith. He spoke of his community as “a school for sinners, not a museum of saints”, implying that it wasn’t a place for the perfectly pious, but for the weak and the fallen.

If we know anything about human nature, we don’t expect fellowship to be bucolic, but rather full of failure and brokenness. And it’s there, in our weaknesses, that we meet: as Robert Van De Weyer wrote in The Little Gidding Way, “forgiving and being forgiven are the spurs to spiritual growth. . .

“When a person asks forgiveness, he is openly acknowledging his own weakness; and when a person grants forgiveness, he acknowledges that he, too, shares that weakness. Thus the problems and rifts between people become, through mutual forgiveness, sources of unity and love.”

Because of that, communities (often parodied as places of conceit and smugness) actually tend to be places of great humility, and not just because we all see, so clearly, our own failings. They’re humble because they’re grounded, earthed in — it comes from the same root —the humus.

In our little community, we forever have our hands in the soil, if not worse. We muck out the pigs and dag the sheep. Any community has a lot of manual labour, and is all the healthier for it. As St Teresa of Ávila once wrote: “The Lord walks among the pots and pans.” The spades and the ploughs are, in the teachings of Benedict, as sacred as the vessels on the altar.


THE other cliché about communities is that they tend to be retreats from the “real” world — attempts to shut something out — whereas Christian communities have typically been open-door places that offer an antidote to the incessant escapism of life.

At Windsor Hill Wood, we live with all sorts of survivors — of war, abuse, prison, and so on; and they bring us far closer to reality, I suspect, than the defensive fortress of the nuclear family ever could. But there is always, it’s true, a tension between openness and closure, between hospitality and sanctuary.

It’s a tension about which Christine Pohl writes in her sensational book on the subject, Making Room: “Separation and hospitality are therefore two manifestations of the same love: following Christ, and receiving Christ. The following draws us out of the world, but there again he comes to us under the appearances of those who are in the world, and we receive him. The love which has provoked the separation is verified in hospitality.”

That separation isn’t escapism, then, but an attempt to find a place of peace and stillness where we can be centred and attentive, where we can find a rhythm of prayer, and, ultimately, offer refuge.

If I were to offer a critique of our own community, it’s that we started by putting the cart before the horse, trying to offer refuge before we had found our own stillness, and being so open to what Benedict called “gyrovagues” that stability was very often elusive.

We were good at sharing our possessions, running a common purse, and so on, but forgot the first part of that famous verse from Acts — the need to be “one in heart and mind.”


TALK of uniformity leads to another recurring cliché about communities: that they’re places where individuals have to knock bits off themselves to fit in, and where personality is sacrificed for conformity.

Anyone who has lived in community, however, would know that they’re full of eccentrics and characters, and that, actually, it’s only in community that we discover what is unique and lovable about ourselves. We’ve found that our sanctuary is far healthier when there’s not homogeneity, but a real mix of ages, genders, needs, and so on. As Vanier wrote in Community and Growth: “Community doesn’t suppress people’s identities — far from it. It confirms their deepest identity; it calls on the most personal of gifts, the ones that are linked to the energy of love.”


THE last, enduring stereotype about community is that it implies material abundance. People fondly imagine such gatherings will be found in a Palladian villa with a dozen outbuildings and a few hundred acres of ancient woodland.

In reality, Christian communities have tended to be rooted in what the movement New Monasticism calls “the abandoned places of empire”: in housing estates, on landfill sites, and (as in our case) abandoned quarries.

The poverty and simplicity of true community are a riposte to the excessive consumerism of modern life, through which we give up belongings to find belonging.


IN THE light of this admittedly whistlestop tour of wisdom about Christian community, it seems to me that there are two versions of what we call “community” currently practised by churches (and, it should be said, by plenty of Christians outside the parochial, congregational model): neighbourliness, and communalism.

The first is by a very long way the more common, and involves reach-ing out to wider society to join the lonely dots in all sorts of imaginative ways. The examples that spring to mind are often centred around food and drink: farming pigs in the grounds of Wandsworth Prison and distributing the proceeds (the Paradise Co-operative); collecting apples from urban gardens and returning them in the form of cider (Ninetree Cider); running cafés or pubs like the Angel, in Langport, Somerset. The creativity and dedication of these initiatives seem to awaken spirituality in all sorts of surprising ways.

But actual, full-blooded communalism — in which people share money, homes, livestock, and land — is still rare, perhaps because the costs are so high. It is not just the financial costs, but the emotional ones: all the cherished tokens of modern life — freedom, independence, spontaneity, choice, and so on — have to be sacrificed. Living communally can sometimes seem like being stuck in a lift with the same people for years on end.

But what you get in return far outweighs the costs: not just purpose and belonging, but also a deepening of faith, a chance to witness through actions, not words; to be, if it doesn’t sound absurdly presumptuous, “a city on a hill”.


FROM more than ten years writing about, and six years living in, community, I’m convinced that a large proportion of those currently practising deep neighbourliness would like to move towards communalism. And the creation of the Community of St Anselm, at Lambeth Palace, is evidence that community is taken seriously at the top.

But, at the grass-roots level, all the hot air spoken about community needs to become a practical breath of encouragement in the sails of the wannabe communalists. The ground troops are ready, boots dubbined. But, unless some of the wisdom of the Church (plus, let’s be blunt, a tiny part of the 100,000-plus acres, and its huge real-estate portfolio) is put at the disposition of the pioneers, it will all remain just more hot air.


THE wisdom is the easy bit. The teaching about fellowship is amazingly ecumenical: all Christian traditions seem to practise a remarkably comparable form of communalism.

The resources will be trickier, not least because many might see shared refuges as dangerously subversive, or perhaps just another distraction from the slog of parish work. And I accept that there are many devout introverts and hermits for whom sharing a roof and a purse is simply not the way they would want to live.

But, from personal experience, those congregations that do pool a percentage of their income, and that run orchards, or firewood cooperatives, or actually live together, hugely revitalise parish life.


THE movement needs, I admit, a name. “Community” suffers from hyperinflation, and “communalism” sounds, to some, alarmingly socialist or whacky. Is “New Monastics” over-used, or just presumptuous (again)? Is (the biblical) “Boanerges” pejorative, sexist, hubristic, or misunderstood? Is “Refugers” a bit weird? “Fellowshippers” I like. But I suspect that the name, like community itself, will ensue, as people come together.

The cost of not living communally, or even of failing to share more than we currently do, is as high as the benefits of the alternative. I sometimes wonder whether the vituperative quarrels over hymns, liturgies, and service times occur because they’re the only things we actually share, and so people become intensely possessive over them.

Instead of creating cities on hills, there is a danger that we’re becoming irrelevant loners, unable even to agree among ourselves. If we can’t turn the dream of community into reality, observers will rightly ask what chance we have of putting the far harder ideals of the Sermon on the Mount into action.


Tobias Jones’s book about Windsor Hill Wood, A Place of Refuge, has just been published by Quercus. He is available to start a conversation about communalism with anyone who is ready.



Tobias Jones will be “In Conversation” at St Paul’s Cathedral on 3 October, 1-2 p.m. For free tickets, visit www.eventbrite.co.uk.

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