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Interview: Ray Simpson, founder, Community of Aidan and Hilda

16 April 2021

‘New monastics know that disciplined spiritual practices are the bedrock of Christianity’

scott brennan

Six people, including Russ Parker and Michael Mitton, founded the Community of Aidan and Hilda (CAH). I’d called for a holistic renewal of the religious life of the Church, which would include sketes and hermits, be male and female in partnership, combine God-given, separated strands of Christianity, heal the land, and renew the earth.

Our vows are universal principles of simplicity, purity and obedience, based on the Beatitudes. Traditional monasteries are for celibates who stay in one residence. New monastics stay close to the divine inner compass while navigating the flux of modern life.

New monastics love the poor, follow a pattern more than a rule, and they’re open to creativity. In Anglo-Saxon, the term “monk” embraced male and female, and Bede tells us that St Cedd introduced many ordinary people to a Rule. Power, uniformity, and obedience to a superior can corrupt monasteries and their schools; so new monastics are families who trust Jesus in one another, or live alone.

They’re people whose deepest longing is to find God beneath our “much ado about nothing” society, long for communion with God in all creation, and know that disciplined spiritual practices are the bedrock of Christianity.

In the 1980s, Charismatic Catholic groups formed household communities. In the UK, dispersed communities such as CAH and the Northumbria Community drew up ways of life in the 1990s, and the C of E invited people like Ian Mobsby and Mark Berry to develop fresh monastic expressions. In the US, a coalition of Evangelicals and Catholics issued the Twelve Marks of New Monasticism in the 1990s.

Contemplatives still need friendship. They are drawn to the desert way, to work in their inner lives and connect with others at a deep level. Others might need more social contact. Ian Mobsby would want eating, conversation, and art in his way of life. Others, like myself, might be more ascetic and reflective. Human nature is very varied, and we need different ways for different personality types.

Celtic Christianity’s important, because the Church in the East and in the Celtic fringes of the West embraced the ascetic and indigenous practices of the desert mothers and fathers, and that dynamic is now reviving. In the West, the Church and its hierarchical monastic orders became prey to imperial mindsets and organisation.

People said my first book on Celtic Spirituality changed their lives, and provided the future agenda for the Church. Many said: “This is what we’ve been looking for all our lives — why didn’t the Church tell us?” So I wrote about Celtic saints and monastic villages of God, wrote liturgies that used the five senses — “the five-stringed harp” — and enriched the Christian and natural seasons.

Then they asked questions; so I wrote Should I Do a Somersault in Church?; year books with daily readings and prayer; commentaries on our way of life and how to start prayer houses; resources for church leaders; and The Cowshed Revolution: How to transform society.

Yes, there are dangers in Celtic neo-monasticism. People can read into it their feelings for beauty, fellowship, and love of creation without engaging in daily struggle with the false ego or being accountable to wider society.

The CAH didn’t share one roof. One couple sought to establish this way of life in the Holy Island centre, where a small pool of people kept the rhythms of prayer, seasons, and hospitality; but, from the start, we were a dispersed community. We journey with a soul friend, have a way of life with ten elements, give annual accounts and renewal of vows, and meet for an annual retreat and another public annual gathering.

We separate ourselves from all that divides, in order that the world becomes our monastery. Our daily work is in places of need, learning, communication, or silence. We’re willing to be rich or poor for God: we put all at God’s disposal. Most of us don’t beg, though we will if we need to.

We worked on power and leadership because it’s a huge issue for communities. My soul-friend asked me if I was driven by agape or insecurity. This is basic work on the false ego, which helps to safeguard against abuses. I’d been elected guardian for another term of five years and said it would be the last, but when I had that challenge, I offered my resignation. I found it very painful, but what’s the point of growing old, if not to give others space to grow?

I think I’ve let go. Before the pandemic, I’d go over to Lindisfarne to help people individually about twice a week, but I’d never interfere on the organisational level. We’ve learned from indigenous tribes who have elders, who aren’t appointed and have no power, but are available. I think it’s OK to be someone like that.

My parents conceived me three months before Hitler declared war. My family and both grandparents were packed into a small house; so for most of my childhood I felt squashed and unheard, and my father had a breakdown. He always thought I’d become an entrepreneur. There is an entrepreneur in me, but I wanted to be harnessed to God rather than money.

I sold encyclopaedias, and I knew the Windrush generation were anxious to get education for their children; but after my first sale of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to a family who couldn’t afford it, I gave it up. I was a capitalist with a conscience.

My assistant Scout leader asked me what would happen to me if I drowned in the river. He told me I would go to hell, but Jesus would save me if I asked him into my life. I asked him in — at least, to the front door. The other rooms remained firmly closed.

One day, lost in a fog, I met a woman who told me the way, and said God was putting upon me the mantle God had put upon her but which illness had prevented. That led to my ordination. Despite the local vicar telling me I’d have to wear a black suit for the rest of my life, I was ordained and served in parishes in the Potteries, then in multi-racial London, with the Bible Society and then became the first pioneer minister of a interdenominational church-plant called One Family of Christians for One Neighbourhood. Monk in the Marketplace describes how this unique experiment became a Village of God. Out of this came my calling to the Community of Aidan and Hilda.

The Ecumenical Patriarch wants the world to celebrate the anniversary of the Council of Chalcedon. I want all the Muslims of the World to know that Christians do not split God or worship a mere human.

One reason Benedictinism survived is that Benedict wrote a detailed commentary on his Rule. I’m working on a similar commentary on our way of life that, please God, will ensure it lasts through the third millennium.

I’m angry when I or others are not listened to, and when my most deeply cherished hopes are rubbished.

Seeing different people flowering as they follow the life-giving way makes me happiest.

I’m hopeful because God is speaking, the earth is speaking — and more people are listening. More people are Googling “Does God exist?” than ever before.

Prayer is being with God and aligning ourselves with God, and, if we’re moved to do something, we obey. It’s a dialogue with God that links to action. If I’m given a new inspiration, I have to do something with it; but I’ve learned from the Franciscans to wait 24 hours. I’ve learned not to rush into things. Jeremiah’s fire that’s burning and can’t be held back — that’s me. I’m like an elephant in a china shop, and all I can claim is I’m less unwise than I otherwise would be.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Aidan, because he’s the apostle to the English-speaking people. He walked among the poor, he set slaves free, he brought the ways of Christ to the pagan early English, and he established colonies of heaven.

Ray Simpson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. 

Monk in the Marketplace is published by Darton, Longman & Todd at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.69).

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