Monday, 19 January 2015

Welsh Monks

Before Christmas, I had the privilege of visiting the Holywell Community in Abergavenny. I pulled up on my motorcycle outside St Mary's Priory with the sun sinking into golden mist behind me, and trooped inside that ancient, beautiful stone building - the 'Westminster Abbey of Wales' - with Amy, one of the lay members of the Benedictine community which restarted in September last year, 927 years after it was first established in 1087 AD. We prayed the evening office together with the community in the hushed choir stalls, beautifully wrought and every square inch covered with the carved graffiti of generations of bored medieval choirboys. It was amusing to see that however else the church may have changed in a thousand years, nothing can dampen the teenage compulsion to carve your name everywhere.

Back at their community house, we opened a bottle of wine (in the long monastic tradition) and talked community and church and Wales until I had to regretfully hop back on the bike and leave. Before I did, we prayed compline in their tiny chapel upstairs, where I was amused to find this fellow lurking on a windowsill:
(In the true monastic spirit, they had hidden tiny monks around the house, just in case someone broke in and was unsure of who they were stealing from.)
It's an exciting time for communities. The past twenty years has seen an ecumenical revival of community and religious life, bursting into bloom in as many different expressions as there are people. I remember the first time this dawned on me, in university, where I lived in an intentional missional community house with six (enormously tall) guys. We were members of the tiny campus Christian Union, and had been meeting to pray and worship in university daily for a year now. We were naive, uninformed and brimming over with energy, spirit and the kind of idiotic headstrong passion which young people have, charging off in the first direction they can think of. We didn't really know what we were doing, but we decided to live together in a place that could be an open house for not only our community but the whole campus, somewhere with a bed and a meal for anyone. We held parties at any excuse we could find, like Thanksgiving when we squeezed forty people into our kitchen and living room, and graduation, when we rented a hot tub for the week and held a different event each day (poker night, movie night, flame-juggling night...). Once a week we would keep aside for our sacred 'house meal', where we ate, laughed and prayed together. More often than not, I'd come home to find the fire pit burning in the garden and my friends sitting around it laughing with strangers, who would end up staying for days. We were musicians and artists, and most days one of us would start playing something, and someone else would join in, and we'd end up worshipping late into the night.
This whet my appetite for authentic communal living, with a missional focus and worship as its heartbeat. Before long, I was hearing daily of new missional communities springing up in east London, Hammersmith, London Bridge. They were friends and friends of friends, young, free-church graduates, who had a zeal for community and outreach. They didn't know what they were doing and most of the communities only lasted a couple of years, but that wasn't the point. They were transitory, temporary, seasonal communities. For the short time they flared up and flourished, they were fruitful.
Other communities have grown in recent years; grown and put down roots. The Northumbria Community, which started in the 90s and now has hundreds of dispersed members. Moot, another dispersed community, based in St Paul's. Lee Abbey, which includes long and short term community members. These are celtic, evangelical, liberal, ecumenical, young, old, including single people and families, city-centred and far flung into the countryside. Justin Welby speaks of the necessity of the 'renewal of prayer and the Religious Life', and I think he's hit on a pulse of quickening life which the Holy Spirit is awakening. Across Britain, across denominations, across ages, across lifestyles and traditions, Christians are joining together to commit (for a season or longer) to living together in worshipful, mission-oriented communal life.
It's exciting to watch, exciting to be a part of. Every place I turn, I seem to hear of a new community. And they all look so different: Justin Welby's Community of St Anselm, based in Lambeth Palace, will include young people from across the worldwide Anglican communion, with a new wave of members each academic year. Some members of traditional religious communities have mentioned to me that this model, with short term commitment and a paid prior, is so far from the traditional religious life that it should be called something different - something other than monastic. I'm not sure I agree; the new monasticism which is springing up across Britain is distinguished by the Twelve Marks: they are monastic in their commitment to a rule of life, prayer, hospitality, communal living and a disciplined contemplative life; the 'new' part describes the involvement of both married and single people, the lack of lifelong vows (while the lasting communities contain members who are committed for a significant season, if not all, of their life, many other members will join simply for a year, two years, or an even shorter season), and by the dispersed members, who may live miles from the community but are committed and follow the Rule of Life (although, to be fair, many traditional religious communities include 'third order' members, who may be married and lived elsewhere).
In April, the Stithians Community will be joining many others from around the country at the 'Treasures Old and New' conference on traditional and emerging communities. I'm excited to meet others on this adventure, to hear stories from around Britain, and to catch a few more melody lines of the new song the Spirit is singing today:
'Behold, I am doing a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.'
                                               (Isaiah 43:19)