Radical communities: the modern community movement
The word 'radical' means a return to the roots, to what is fundamental, original, inherent, primitive. In every age there have been Christians who have wanted to return to their roots: to the fundamentals of the Christian faith, to the original Christian community, to the church as it was in the New Testament. Radical movements of this kind have often been attracted by that early Christian community and, in an attempt to recapture it, have formed their own communities.
Our age too has its radical Christian communities - possibly larger in extent and variety than at any other time in the history of the Christian church. Who do we find in them?
Usually these community people are more aware than others that they are searching for an identity, for personal and corporate significance. They sense a need to belong, to build relationships, to become whole. They want to commit themselves to a cause that offers hope - to them personally and to the world in which they live. Most of these communities gain their inspiration from the life and teachings of Jesus and the example of the New Testament Christians.
The early Christians
After the Day of Pentecost, these first believers 'were together and had everything in common'. They met daily in the temple, ate together in each others' homes and sold their possessions and goods to provide for the many practical and economic needs some of them had. For the disciples who had been closest to Jesus in his life and ministry, this was a natural continuation of the lifestyle they chose when they responded to Jesus' call and followed him. They had left their homes and given up jobs to travel with him, and their needs were met from the common purse. The large numbers who joined them at Pentecost found that their decision to follow Jesus' way resulted in equally immediate and remarkable changes in their lives, not least in the redistribution of their goods and possessions.
Did these early Christians maintain this kind of community lifestyle for any length of time? There are many indications that for several centuries Christians practised a sharing of goods on a wide scale. This is apparent from some of the writings of the early church. These two examples were written at the beginning and end of the second century:
Do not turn away from those in need, but share all things in common with your brother. Do not claim anything as your own, for if you have fellowship in the immortal, how much more in perishable things! Didache
We do not think of goods as private. While in your case your inherited wealth makes all brotherhood impossible, in our case it is by our inherited wealth that we become brothers . . . We who are in communion in heart and spirit do not hold anything back from the communion of goods. Everything among us is in common, except marriage. Tertullian
These early Christians were also open-handed and generous to those who were not believers. They became known for their acts of charity.
The third century saw an almost continual struggle between church and state, with the Christian communities repeatedly buffeted by persecutions. But then, in 313, the Emperor Constantine was converted to the Christian faith, and a change took place in the relationships between the church and the Roman state. The empire gave full toleration to the faith.
From this time on two levels of Christian commitment began to arise. On one level, the church as an institution became increasingly identified with secular society - even to some extent the custodian of its values and traditions. On the other hand, there were those who questioned this alignment of church and state. They wanted to find once again the spontaneity of the early Christian communities and to live only by the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. For the next fourteen centuries of the church's life, this second level of commitment had one particular focus - the community ideal.
The community ideal through history
The story of which the community movements were a part has already been told in this book (see particularly Into the desert, Return to simplicity, Life-bringers, God's left wing). Many colourful and charismatic figures played a part in giving shape to the ideal. There is only space here for the highlights.
Third-century Antony of the Desert was followed over the next 300 years by many other 'cenobites' (people with a common life). Beginning in the deserts of Egypt, this movement spread to Italy, Gaul, Spain and along the northern coast of Africa. These men and women returned from time to time from their small desert communities to the cities, where they visited the poor and the sick, and taught their fellow Christians. There they wielded great influence among rich and poor alike.
The monastic ideal developed in more formalized ways, but in the thirteenth century Francis of Assisi turned to a different kind of discipline-that of the wandering friar. In an age when extremes of wealth and poverty sat side-by-side, he and his followers renounced all earthly possessions and took to the streets as beggars. They worked among and for the poor, and exhorted their fellow-Christians to live simple lives of service.
There were many others with similar stories: men and women such as Basil, Brigid, Benedict, Columba, Boniface and Dominic, who also founded communities. But as time went on many of these monastic communities became extremely wealthy. Some of the bigger monasteries were at the centre of large networks, and wielded great influence and power. Many of the same excesses were to be found in the religious orders as in the church at large. It was against these excesses that the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century was aimed.
The Protestant reformers, Luther in Germany and Calvin in Switzerland, rejected the wealth and power of monasticism as they rejected other abuses that had arisen in the Roman church. Yet still church membership remained closely linked to citizenship. In Germany, ruling princes and local councils were responsible for church appointments, so church power was in the hands of the civil authorities. In Switzerland, Calvin taught that the church should be responsible for its own appointments, but he urged strong cooperation between church and state. Alongside the Protestant Reformation, therefore, there arose another movement, the Radical Reformation. Often called the 'Anabaptists', these groups rejected the idea of a state church. They stood for religious liberty and freedom of conscience.
One emphasis of these reformers was on economic sharing. This often led to a new type of religious community, one that included married people and families in contrast to the celibacy of the religious orders. The Mennonites considered it a mark of the true church that there should be no poor among them. While both held to the ideal of sharing, the Hutterites went further than the Mennonites in establishing communities with full economic sharing and no private property.
Hounded and persecuted by both Protestants and Catholics, many who were part of this movement became refugees. Over the centuries their communities were dispersed throughout different parts of Europe, and the Americas. Initially a strong missionary movement, they also taught literacy, introduced advanced medical methods and had efficiently managed industries. By the late sixteenth century the Hutterites had founded at least a hundred communities with a membership of some 30,000. Intense persecution scattered them in the seventeenth century.
Perhaps because of the intolerance of the age in which they began, these early radical communities tended to become exclusive, anxious to conserve their original ideals and customs and opposed to change. Nevertheless, like many of the earlier monastic communities, numbers of Mennonite and Hutterite communities and congregations still exist today, and exert a considerable influence on a number of modern-day counterparts.
A feature of the next three centuries was the number of renewal movements that sprung up within mainstream Protestantism. Among these were the Pietist movement in the seventeenth century and the voluntary societies, which were part and parcel of the eighteenth-century Evangelical Awakening. As a result of the Evangelical Awakening great numbers of Christians wished to express their Christian commitment by travelling overseas to preach the gospel or by combating social ills in their own country as well as abroad.
Numbers of missionary societies were formed, many of which exist today, and also voluntary societies working for prison and factory reform and the abolition of slavery.
In many ways these voluntary societies were like some of the earlier religious communities, but they tended to emphasize the task rather than lifeslyle. Because of this they were able to draw to themselves many supporters who could show their support by donating or raising funds. There was one particular weakness in this voluntary movement. The emphasis on task led to a gradual loss of a sense of community and to strained relationships in missionary and voluntary societies. It is towards a return of a relationship model that many of the community movements within our own day particularly aim.
Aftermath of war
The community scene in our own day is more widespread and vigorous than for centuries. How did this resurgence begin?
The aftermath of World War 1 was a time when many young people in Germany and elsewhere were asking questions about the ultimate meaning of life. A German couple, active in work among students, began to hold weekly open-house meetings in their home. Numbers soon grew to eighty or a hundred people. The young people who came were largely from Christian groups, but also anarchists, atheists, artists and others.
Some years previously Eberhard and Emmy Arnold had studied some old Anabaptist writings and had been greatly stirred by what they read. Now in these open-house meetings they began to study the Sermon on the Mount and the stories about the days after Pentecost. Here they saw the answer to their seeking and questioning: community of faith, love and goods. This led to the founding of the Hutterian Society of Brothers, with its first 'Bruderhof (primitive church-community) at Sannerz, a small village in Germany.
That first community numbered just seven. They ran a publishing house and a small farm, and offered hospitality to numerous guests. They aimed at simplicity and poverty for the sake of Jesus, and their common life attracted many others (young people and families) who came to join them. They stood out against Hitler and refused to take part in World War II, so they had to leave Germany. They fled first to England and later to Paraguay, until in 1954 they emigrated to the United States. There are now three communities in the USA and one in England. They support themselves by publishing and making toys and each Bruderhofhas its own school up to secondary-school age or eighth grade.
Understandably, many of the communities that arose in the immediate post-war periods have been strong on unity between people and peace between nations. One of the best known is Taize, an ecumenical community in Burgundy, France. In recent years, it has become a place of pilgrimage for thousands of young people, who camp nearby and share for short periods of time in the life and worship of the community.
In the summer of 1940, several months after the outbreak of World War II and with France already defeated by the German forces, an idea began to grow in the mind of a young Swiss theological student, Roger Schutz. Later he was to write that 'the defeat of France awoke powerful sympathy. If a house could be found there, of the kind we had dreamed of, it would offer a possible way of assisting some of those most discouraged, those deprived of a livelihood; and it could become a place of silence and work . .
Roger Schutz's mother was French, his father Swiss. At thirteen he left home to attend a secondary school some distance away, lodging with a Catholic family. These early years shaped his ecumenical vision. While the Germans were still occupying France, Roger Schutz bought a house in Taize and opened it to refugees, many of them Jews. He chose the village because it was poor and isolated, and his father had always taught him that Jesus is closest to the poor. It was not long before his activities became known and the house was taken over by the Gestapo. He had to flee to Switzerland, but he returned to reopen the house in 1944. Others joined him to form the Community of Taize. The members of the community work in parishes or have secular jobs. They aim to permeate society with their vision of peace and unity. The brotherhood is pledged to work for Christian unity, particularly among the Catholic and Reformed churches.
Another community that had its beginnings in the post-war years is the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary in Darmstadt, Germany. Its two founders, Mary Schlink and Erika Maddaus, are the two 'mothers' of the community. The sisterhood began as a small Bible study group and later grew into a religious community. Those who gathered together to study the Bible in the early days were deeply convicted of the sins of their nation, which had led to World War II and to the persecution of the Jews. This has given the community its emphasis on daily repentance from sin, alongside prayer, Bible teaching and evangelism. Like Taize, the sisterhood attracts many thousands of visitors, who have been influenced by the example and witness of the community. Daughter houses have been established in Israel, England and the USA and at Darmstadt there is also now a small brotherhood associated with the sisterhood.
Rediscovering a purpose
In Britain, one effect of the war was to expose a spiritually poor nation and an irrelevant church. Army chaplains discovered how few of their men had any real understanding of the Christian message. For the first time a religious opinion poll was taken and its finding caused widespread concern. In 1943, William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury, called together a commission to 'survey the whole problem of modern evangelism'. The aim was to prepare the Church of England for concerted action once the war was ended. A report Towards the Conversion of England was published in 1944; in particular, it highlighted the need to mobilize and train laypeople for evangelism.
At the same time as this report was being compiled, an Anglican clergyman, Roger de Pemberton (himself a member of the commission) was energetically working on an idea of his own. Before the outbreak of war, he had begun to run holiday houseparties, renting private schools for this purpose during the holiday seasons. These houseparties offered a programme of holiday activities with an epilogue each evening, and they proved an immediate success. In the easy, informal atmosphere, many nominal Christians found a living faith for the first time; others rediscovered a purpose for their Christian lives. A week or a fortnight spent in the company of a large number of other Christian people proved in itself a powerful influence-an experience of Christian community.
With his thinking stimulated further by the work of the commission on evangelism, Roger de Pemberton began to think about setting up a permanent centre, run by a resident Christian community. The place he had in mind was Lee Abbey in Devon, formerly a manor house, at that time a private school. Others caught his enthusiasm for the idea, and despite the daunting task in the post-war years of raising money to buy and restore the house Lee Abbey was opened in 1945 as a 'centre for evangelism within the Church of England'.
Another similar centre, a sister-community, Scargill, was opened in the north of England. These are centres to which people from all walks of life come for holidays and conferences and where inrelaxed surroundings they are stimulated to think about the renewal of faith and witness in the modern age. Many of the suggestions of the original report Towards the Conversion of England were considered too revolutionary and never taken up, but they have been and continue to be embodied in the life and work of these communities and others like them, which have sprung up in the intervening years.
Community and the youth culture
The 50s were years when disenchanted young people were beginning to voice their impatience with the values and lifestyle of Western, consumer-oriented society. Many gathered in pans of Europe and Asia, took to drugs and made their protest known by dropping out of society. Some found their way to the Swiss chalet home of an American professor, Francis Schaeffer, and his wife, Edith. There they found a welcome, a sympathetic hearing and answers that made sense to them both intellectually and emotionally.
Like the young people who found their way to the Arnolds' home in Germany in the 1930s, these young people were encouraged to study the Bible and to trust in a God who answers prayer. Such answers to prayer were many, as God provided for the many material and financial needs of a growing fellowship at the Schaeffers' home in Huemoz, Switzerland. Soon the Schaeffers' chalet was linked to others nearby and the L'Abri Fellowship was formed (L'Abri means 'the shelter'.) The fellowship served a continuous stream of guests, many from ordinary walks of life as well as hippies and drop-outs. Ancillary houses were soon established in England, Holland, Italy and France.
The Shalom covenant
The 60s and 70s saw an even more rapid growth in the community movement, with numbers of Christian communities emerging from the charismatic renewal and the evangelical awakenings of these years, from the social concerns of their founders and from recently-established missionary movements. Several of these communities also have roots in the Anabaptist tradition and therefore acknowledge a debt to their Mennonite and Hutterite forebears. Many of these communities have established or are establishing wide networks, as communities with similar concerns and lifestyles link up and associate with one another, nationally and internationally.
One community influenced by Anabaptist concepts is Reba Place Fellowship, in the USA. Some students at Goshen College in Indiana were studying the sixteenth century 'radical reformation', which had given birth to such groups as the Hutterite and Mennonite communities. They began to wonder what would happen if they began to take seriously the same concepts of brotherhood and sharing and apply them to life in twentieth-century America.
Three of these students bought a house called Reba Place on a small street in Evanston, Illinois, and from there the group began to grow. In the 60s the community grew to 140 adults and children housed in twelve buildings, all within walking distance of each other. Others lived in rented apartments nearby. Most of the working members of the fellowship held jobs as teachers, blue-collar workers, social workers and psychologists. They put all their income into a common purse, from which all personal and family living allowances were distributed. They felt called to be a church, a radical example of love and sharing at the heart of society. Their influence on their immediate neighbourhood was considerable, transforming a racially divided neighbourhood into one that was stable and integrated.
In more recent years Reba Place has drawn a number of other communities into a covenant relationship with itself to form the 'Shalom Covenant', committed to a life based on Jesus' radical teaching, each community encouraging and helping the others, each seeing itself as the church in its own locality.
Community of communities
The late 60s and 70s were years of charismatic renewal (see A worldwide renewal). This movement, with its emphasis on spontaneity and warmth, soon began to express these in a community lifestyle.
In the episcopal church in the USA, the story of the Church of the Redeemer, Houston, attracted considerable publicity. Its rector, Graham Pulkingham, moved to the church in 1963. It was a dying church in a poor neighbourhood, yet Graham longed to build an effective neighbourhood church that genuinely served the people who lived around it. But he soon realized how powerless he was to offer anything effective to the many poor people, Latins and blacks.
Graham grew disillusioned and discouraged but this led to a deep searching. Finally he came to a new experience of being inwardly filled by the Holy Spirit. His own life and ministry were transformed, and so was the church. The Christians experienced a strong sense of God's presence and power in worship, and they began to use gifts of the Spirit, including prophecy, speaking in tongues and gifts of healing. There was a new emphasis on prayer and Bible study. In particular, those who were drawn to the church, both from the neighbourhood and further afield, began to feel a deep love for one another and a new desire to serve the many troubled people around them. Some, including Graham Pulkingham and his family, opened their homes to those in need and began to 'slip into community living, almost without knowing it'.
Within a comparatively short time numbers had grown from a small handful to a church community of 400, with some fifty community households ministering to different needs and contributing to the sharing of gifts and resources. In 1973 Graham Pulkingham was invited by the Bishop of Coventry to travel to England and share with the church in Britain his vision of community ministry.
In Britain, something similar was happening in a small village in Dorset, also as a result of the charismatic renewal. A titled couple. Sir Tom and Lady Faith Lees, had read a book about evangelism in gangland New York (Dave Wilkerson's The Cross and the Switchblade). This had led them to seek for themselves a baptism in the Holy Spirit. As a result, they found God's power at work in new ways, and the small Bible study group that met in their home grew from a dozen to some 200 people coming weekly for teaching and prayer. People were converted, filled with the Spirit and healed. Tom and Faith Lees,
together with a small team drawn mainly from local churches, began to run camps and conferences centred on their home, Post Green. They also drew into their family a number of people who needed emotional healing, and as happened in Houston this soon led to others similarly opening their homes. A genuine community had been born.
When the Pulkinghams came to England and established the Community of Celebration (now on the Isle ofCumbrae, Scotland, and in Colorado, USA), they formed links with Post Green. A friendship resulted which led to growing co-operation and sharing of resources. These communities work for the renewal of church and society. In particular, they help local churches to develop ways of living and relating together which are appropriate to their own circumstances.
Friendships thus established have caused a number of communities to come together and form supportive networks, which enable them to share and to learn from one another. The Communities of Celebration in the USA and the UK, Post Green Community in the UK and Sojourners' Fellowship in Washington D.C. have thus come together with a number of other communities to form 'a community of communities'. (Sojourners are a church-community which grew out of the activities of a group of young evangelical Christians, concerned to see gospel principles applied to social and political issues.)
Another strong community movement is exerting a considerable influence in Latin America, Africa and Asia and is beginning to grow in Europe. This is the 'base community' movement within the Roman Catholic Church.
Originally a spontaneous movement among Roman Catholics in underdeveloped countries, the base communities gained a new impetus and direction as a result of the Second Vatican Council's recognition and encouragement. They are really more of a cell movement within the Roman Catholic Church than a deliberate search for a community lifestyle. The countries in which they have flourished are those where people still live as local or rural communities, but where there is considerable poverty and oppression. They thus have brought people together around a common faith and a common cause. Their own belief is in Jesus' concern for the poor and oppressed in society. They have therefore become a social and political movement as well as a religious movement.
In search of distinctively Christian lives
Each of these communities and networks constitutes a force for renewal within both church and society. There are tensions in their relationship with the institutional church, as there have been throughout Christian history. Yet they have a vital part to play - they remind the traditional churches that they are called to keep alive in the world the lifestyle and the mission of Jesus.
These communities have been and are mostly fringe movements within the Christian church, and so they are bound to be vulnerable to false teachings, to extreme and even dubious practices, to a dangerous authoritarianism and to Utopian and perfectionist values. But the mainstream denominations stand constantly in an equally severe danger of comfortably conforming to the status quo and being locked in outmoded traditions and practices. Both groups need each other, and they have served each other throughout history in this way, certainly since the era of Constantine.
Yet perhaps something is taking place in our own day. The divisions between church and para-church structures may be breaking down. The process of secularization has reached a point where the Christian church must return to the stance it took before the Emperor Constantine brought it under the state's wing. The divisions between church and society must become more closely marked once more.
All this means that a distinctive Christian lifestyle is becoming incumbent on all Christians, not just on a few who feel specially called to it. The growing Christian radical community movement is spearheading the way. It will probably continue to take that place at one end of the spectrum. But there are many who long that increasingly we are going to see the whole church finding again what it means to be a radical Christian community.
Copyright © 1986 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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