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Interview: Anders Litzell Prior, Community of St Anselm, Lambeth Palace

06 March 2015

'The community will establish a shared life at the heart of Lambeth Palace'


The community will initially have 16 resident and 40 non-resident members. The Archbishop of Canterbury wants to equip and empower young people between 20 and 35 to live a life wholly devoted to Christ while engaging deeply with the issues of the world.

It seemed appropriate to name the community after an Archbishop of Canterbury, as he was a Benedictine monk, very influential in engaging with the culture and intellectual climate of his time, though he managed to get on the wrong side of the king of his time.

St Anselm's Community will be open to all Christians. We expect one third to a half of them to be non-Anglicans. It's open to applicants from the entire world, and we hope that one third to a half will be from the Majority World.

It will be open to men and women, singles and marrieds, so long as both partners participate and they have no dependent children. We just can't accommodate families in residence, and we think, for non-residents, it's a commitment which is going to take a lot of time and effort. It's very important that both parties can commit equally.

I have a one-year old and a three-year old myself, and there are occasions in which only one of us can participate in equal terms so it's about ensuring that both spouses can participate in what's going on.

My wife and I are part of the framework that creates stability for the community. Membership lasts for one academic year; so we're rather like the staff who work in a college.

The life will be Benedictine, because it's shaped by a rule of life: Franciscan in seeking God through service to the poor, and Ignatian in terms of spirituality and self-examination. We're drawing from the deep wells of St Benedict for our understanding of community life. We're seeking to love Christ in the poor and needy like St Francis, and to develop a rich internal life of communication with God in the ways of St Ignatius.

Archbishop Justin wishes to establish prayer, service, and a shared life at the heart of his ministry in Lambeth Palace. The community also touches all his three priority areas: most obviously, renewal of prayer and the religious life, but also reconciliation - because of our learning to live together with very, very different backgrounds and opinions - as well as evangelism and witness in our service to the poor "outside the walls", witnessing to the love of Christ. The Archbishop is also deeply committed to offering opportunities for young men and women to be formed in habits of virtue for the sake of transforming the secular working world.

All the members will live under a common rule, with deep commitment to one another under God. Relationships will be given priority. The residents will learn to live in community and shared accommodation, choosing to turn to one another daily in love and forgiveness. The non-residents will learn to integrate their work situations, time commitments, social interactions, and ethical dilemmas of everyday London life with an inward journey of silence, regular prayer, and practical service to the poor.

It's possible that something more resembling an oblature will de-velop among those who have finished their year in the community. We'll explore what shape that could take during the course of the first year together.

Absolutely it could be tried elsewhere. I've already had several exploratory conversations with people from various corners of the earth who want to observe closely what is taking place at Lambeth Palace, given how this harmonises with other ventures in which the Spirit seems to be at work. If we can share our journey, and shorten the distance for others to get off the ground with whatever the Lord has put on their hearts, then we'll do so gladly.

We're enormously blessed by the deep commitment and partnership from the Chemin Neuf community. It's a Roman Catholic community with an ecumenical vocation, resident at Lambeth Palace for the past year, and with vast experience of Christian formation elsewhere. A senior Chemin Neuf member, Sister Sonia Béranger CCN, who ran similar programmes for young people in other countries, was commissioned as director of community at the same time as I was licensed as Prior last month. At the same time, this is really a new and ground-breaking venture.

I can't claim to have entered the monastic life. I'm a Church of England priest with a wife and two children. But I've had a long-standing admiration for the Rule of St Benedict, which I have studied fairly extensively. One of my heart's deepest desires and joys is to nurture young people taking new steps in their faith, to explore new ground, to find new riches, to experience the presence of God more fully in their lives, and learn to recognise it in the lives of others.

That's the essence of "the school of the Lord's service", as St Benedict calls a monastery, and that's abso-lutely central to the Community of St Anselm.

Currently the bulk of my attention is directed to the applications process, which opened last Friday. I'm also thinking about our Rule of Life. We are giving detailed shape to the life of the community - our prayer patterns, retreats, service in the community, and our study programme. . . The list is long.

Interest has been fantastic. There were 8500 visitors to the website just on Friday, and 170 have already started their applications.

People have been asking why the age limit? On the one hand, we have to limit the interest somehow; so there's a practical reason. But the Archbishop hopes to reintroduce prayer and community service to a generation who, by and large, have not had that teaching, and are at the beginning of their working lives.

The question of my home is an interesting one. I have so many now: in Sweden, where I was born; in South Africa; with friends scattered here and there who can make me feel at home. It's a gift and a challenge to have many homes, and have your heart in many places and with many people.

I grew up in Sollentuna, about 20 minutes north of Stockholm, where my parents, Michael and Berit, and my sister, Ida, still live. That's where I returned after my stint working in the United States, and found myself in the Lutheran Church of Sweden.

But my home is with my little family: Kate, and our children, Henry and Isabella. Devoting myself to that home is absolutely central for our ability to open our home for others, extending hospitality, and facilitating a home for people who, like we just did, are coming new to Lambeth Palace.

I've always known God existed - a blessing I received from growing up in a Christian home. I've had my fair share of struggles, but my questions were always analogous to: "Does God hear me, or listen, or care when I pray?" as opposed to "Is there a God who could hear me?"

My first really large change was when I got drawn into Episcopalian worship while in the United States. For a Swedish Pentecostal kid, that was as alien as anything could be. I grew to love it, especially the rootedness and connectedness I experienced with the faith of those who had gone before throughout generations.

I love skiing, music listening to or making), playing with my children, and taking my wife out for dinner - a rare luxury. I've sung in choirs for 25 years, and have a classical choral schooling, but I also play electric bass. What the music of the community will be like is most fascinating to me.

I think my favourite sound has to be silence.

I don't remember what made me angry last: not because it was that long ago, but because it will have been something utterly mundane and everyday that made me lose it with my wife, Kate. It's almost always the everyday stuff that causes the fights when people live in a shared life, whether in a religious community or as a family.

I think I am a happy person as a baseline. I wouldn't always have said that - and what varies is my level of awareness of all the joy in my life.

"Your Kingdom come, your will be done" sums up quite a lot. It is frequently coupled with "Lord, have mercy," because my life is not yet fully conformed to that of Christ.

I have two children under four; so choosing a companion with whom I'd choose to be locked in a church is easy: my wife, Kate, any day of the week. A few hours to talk and pray together - it sounds wonderful. May I presume that we providentially handed the children to a trusted person before we got accidentally locked in? It might be a tad stressful otherwise.

The Revd Anders Litzell was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Applications are now open to join the Community of St Anselm in September 2015. To apply visit www.stanselm.org.uk

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