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Christian community: heaven or hell?

Roger Sawtell

Shared meals, radically inclusive mission, or rows over rotas? Many of us aspire to community living - but fear it might be a living hell. Roger Sawtell gives a frank and practical assessment from 23 years in intentional residential community.


In 1935 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that renewal 'must surely come from a new monasticism which will have only one thing in common with the old, a life lived without compromise according to the Sermon on the Mount in the following of Jesus. I believe the time has come to gather people together for this.'1

In 1983, with others, I began to search for a suitable place to start a residential Christian community. Based in adjoining terraced houses in Northampton, it started in June 1984 and ended in December 2007, a period of 23 years, long enough to experience what works and what doesn't.

Over 50 people lived in the Community at one time or another, though my wife, Susan, and I were the only people who stayed for its whole lifespan. Drawing on the details of our weekly meetings from about 3000 minutes contained in thirteen minute books, we should be in a position to report whether this countercultural project was an earthly heaven or a kind of hell. But the answer is not simple.



There were certainly times when we asked ourselves why on earth we had got ourselves into such unknown territory but we knew there would be ups and downs and reckoned we should expect to be there for at least twenty years, come what may. If one description of hell is a state of feeling totally outwith the presence of God, then there were one or two times of despair which could be regarded as 'hellish'. Correspondingly, if heaven may be described as feeling totally within the loving presence of God, then there were some 'heavenly' times. I think the latter outweighed the former.

Although such a community is unusual in this century, there is nothing new about countercultural Christian communities. Jesus' disciples shared their lives in a way quite different from the surrounding culture, ' ... no one claimed private ownership of any possessions but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and great grace was upon them all .' (Acts 4: 32-33 NRSV).



We too experienced 'great grace' from time to time - not least at the very beginning, when after months of searching we found three suitable adjoining terrace houses all for sale at the same time. We bought all three in a matter of weeks, and added two more, one at either end, over the next few years.

We did not share all our possessions in common, however. The stated purpose of The Neighbours was to develop a community life which enabled us to explore and share our faith and care for others according to the Gospel. Our wider aims were to encourage Christian unity and to seek understanding with those of different faiths.

To what extent did we accomplish this purpose?



Although we did not take any formal vows the understanding was that the decision-making members of the Community were those who owned and lived in any of the five houses. We asked new members to stay for a minimum of two years and in fact the shortest stay was five years. If we decided to leave we committed to give a year's notice and find a new member to buy the house.

The benefit of this member/house owner pattern was stability and continuity, because people who had bought a house were less likely to move on than those who were renting. Out of the 50 people who lived there during the 23 years, the fifteen full house-owning members made only four house sales between us. Most residential communities, both Christian and secular, are based on renting rather than buying the property and had much higher rates of membership turnover during these years. The four Directories published by the National Association of Christian Communities and Networks (NACCAN) between 1980 and 2000 show that numerous communities had a significantly shorter lifespan than The Neighbours.



As Saint Benedict said in the sixth century, prayer is the priority 'work' of the monastery - and by extension any community which claims to be Christian. While our corporate prayer life varied over years, we too were at our best when the prayer was most accepted and prioritised by members. It became an unwritten rule that part of being a member was to lead morning prayers on a rota basis - and the fact that we were active in several different denominational churches, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Quaker, Methodist, did not present any visible problems. There was a unity among us, sometimes an impatient unity as we were confronted with the dogged inflexibility of some local congregations.

The form of morning prayers varied but the basis was nearly always included a bible reading and a time of silence, perhaps five or ten minutes rather than the much shorter silences experienced in most church services. Evening prayers never became an integral part of the life of the Community, but some years we had a monthly agape supper, sharing the bread and wine of communion, usually with visitors present.



Worship based on the pattern of the Taizé Community in France was also a lasting format and the chants became well known to most of us. We also developed Bible sharing groups from time to time, basing them on a method developed by Quakers over many years. It starts from the conviction that God is present in each one of us and therefore each of us has some of the truth within us. A passage is read aloud from several different translations and then, in silence, each person writes down a response to five questions: What is the authors main point? Is this passage true to my experience? What problems do I have with this passage? What new light do I find in reading this passage to-day? What are the implications of this passage for my life?

Each person then reads out his/her response or may choose to 'pass', with no discussion until all have spoken. We believed our contributions were of equal value whether we were scholars, recent Christians or agnostics.



We deliberately avoided becoming an alternative Sunday congregation but hopefully added to the concept of a wider inclusive church. A friend commented: 'The Neighbours is the only congregation in town which meets every day except Sunday.' Amongst the handful of members who moved on from the Community, two left to train for the ordained ministry. In addition, one member was a Reader in the Anglican church for many years and another was the local convenor of Teams of Our Lady, the Roman Catholic organisation for married couples. Other members were and still are active in several congregations. Susan has led many Quaker groups and I have been happy to be asked to lead Taizé prayers in half a dozen different places.

The spiritual journey of each of us was always on the agenda and the development of this worship, morning prayers, agape, Taizé, demonstrated that it is possible and practicable for a very ordinary group of lay Christians to adopt a pattern of prayer, less rigorous than a monastery, but almost certainly more disciplined than any of us would achieve when living in a separate house. If there had been no other outcome, I believe this alone justified the existence of the Neighbours.



Like knitting, a community tends to unravel and disintegrate if it's too loosely tied together; if it is too tightly tied, it becomes uncomfortable and unduly constrained. No wonder knitters talk about 'tension'. Our decision-making structure was the weekly meeting of members. We never appointed a chairman, secretary or treasurer but often allocated specific roles to individuals such as lead-gardener or keeper of the common fund. Each member chaired the meeting in turn and was responsible for writing-up the minutes; some took to this easily but others found it a considerable burden.

Trawling through the thirteen volumes of minute books today it seems that this low-key structure served us well although it was sometimes difficult to find a balance; meetings too long are tedious and unfruitful, meetings too short make it difficult for each to have their say. We hardly ever took a vote but waited for a consensus to emerge.



From the recorded comments over twenty years, two 'golden rules' for community members appear. Firstly,take issues to the meeting and do not make decisions unilaterally even if the right course seems obvious. Secondly, talk to others individually but only say what you are prepared to repeat to the assembled meeting. Those who said least at meetings sometimes made the most significant contribution.

Those from congregations with a tradition of silence or tacit obedience sometimes had the most to say when the governance structure permitted them to speak. I believe Quakers are aware of this irony.

The weekly meeting sometimes became an unwelcome chore. Why spend time talking about community business when we could be drinking coffee or playing football? The early attempts to make signed formal agreements about the selling of community houses proved to be a governance step too far.



However, in times of difficulty, the acceptance of decisions made at the weekly meeting carried us through and the community would have ended much sooner if we had not had some such formal procedure for exchanging views and making decisions.

The history of other contemporaneous communities seems to bear this out; those with little or no structure often failed to survive, those with carefully thought out governance were longer lasting. The Benedictine Order is a classic case in point. Denominationally, the continuity of The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) over 300 years is another example of good governance during a period when numerous more loosely organised churches failed to survive.



The concept of linked houses in a terrace worked well. Each household had its own space but was much more closely connected than separate houses, however close to each other. In the three initial houses, we made inter-connecting doors on both floors so that, for example, bedrooms could be added or subtracted from each household as the number of residents changed, young people leaving home or residents needing support from community members. There were many such changes. One resident was proud of the fact that he had lived in each of the five houses at one time or another.

In a crowded suburban area the norm was a narrow strip of garden behind each house but by knocking down four fences we were able to make a large rectangular space with room for about twenty trees and plenty of grass. The Community was fortunate in having some keen gardeners among the members and the garden was a wonderful facility for all manner of events, including discussion days, community breakfasts during the summer months, quiet days, and barbecues.

There was room for a large marquee on the lawn and there were several wedding receptions and numerous family parties. We heard from a very elderly resident in our road that when the houses were built in the 1930s it was normal practice to keep a pig at the bottom of the garden. We discussed this possibility but rejected it as a step too far. At one time we looked after chickens for a friend and there were several dogs, cats and numerous small animals which lived out their short lives in comparative comfort. Fish were in the pond and eaten by a heron from time to time, and a small turtle lived at 142 for several years.

There were times when the upkeep of the garden appeared to be a burden but there is no doubt that it was a wonderful asset for the life of the Community and our outreach to others.



The member/house ownership policy was a considerable restraint and commitment for those considering joining but it did enable members to stay on 'the housing ladder'. The Community years were a time of escalating house prices and the three initial houses which we bought for around £20,000 each in 1983 were selling for over £200,000 by 2007. If we had sold our house in 1983 to join a renting community we would have found it impossible to buy a house again in 2007.

This is one reason why there are so few communities that comprise families. Single people, not yet owning property, are better placed to join a religious order or rent a space in a corporately owned community house but most couples, particularly those with dependent children, would find this a much larger sacrifice and few of the households which comprised the Neighbours Community would have joined on a renting basis.



It is easy to say that such considerations were unworthy of those who were committed to Gospel values and perhaps we should have been willing to abandon house ownership and leave the outcome in God's hands. But that would have eliminated most of us more hesitant Christians, unable to give up all such material concerns. We were trying to find a community lifestyle that 'could happen in any street'.

However, our failure to find new members in 2007, which led to the closure of the Community, is evidence that our ownership arrangement was not going to be the pattern for many new Christian communities of households at present.

Perhaps we had departed too far from the open market to attract new members but such is the fate of pioneers. I was reminded of Jack, an elderly friend who brought his experience of initiating a group in the 1930s. He had wanted group members to live on the average wage of the day, about 30 shillings per week, and put the balance of their earnings into a common fund to be used for projects to improve society. In the event, few of his friends were prepared to do this and the scheme was abandoned after a few years. So, fifty years later, we foundered on a different but equally resistant materialistic rock.



While our commitment to corporate prayers and mutual support were important, the minute books indicate that a common 'outside' task was also essential to hold the community together.

In our first phase, from 1984 to 1994 we offered supportive accommodation to a number of young people with mental disorders. With two large psychiatric hospitals, Northampton's problems with aftercare are of more significance than in other towns of similar size, and we were only touching a small part of the need.

We made no claim to professional medical knowledge of mental illness and such expertise was not necessary for most of those who came within our orbit. What they asked for was some understanding of their need to integrate into community life and some patience when their behaviour was unusual or socially unacceptable.

In our many prayers and discussions about the way to respond, we tried to follow Jesus' teaching to stand alongside those in greatest need. When he mentioned the happiness of 'the poor in spirit' (Matthew 5:3), perhaps he had in mind some of the people with mental disorders who feature in the Gospels? (Matthew 8: 28-32)

It was a demanding task and there were some disappointments, but we're still in touch with several of those who lived with us and know that we helped these needy people to find a less dependent and more rewarding lifestyle.



In our second phase, from1994 to 2007, we adopted non-residential hospitality as our common task. During this time we organised a programme of corporate worship and day events. The Neighbours Room and the garden were widely used by all kinds of groups, and members' varied experience of community living and informal worship were passed on to many people, especially those on the fringes of Christian congregations.

The community was at its weakest when an agreed task came to an end, usually because of a change of membership - and conversely at its strongest when the outside task was freely accepted by all the current members. The common task was the glue that held the Community together and without it I doubt if The Neighbours would have survived as a Christian community for nearly a quarter of a century.

People living up and down the road up during the early days of The Neighbours Community tended to view us with suspicion and disfavour because we used the houses and gardens in a different way. We associated with people recovering from mental illness and this was seen to be 'bad for the neighbourhood' and might depress house prices in the road. We tried to be helpful neighbours and made numerous friends but also had a few arguments.



The best that can be said about achieving our purpose, 'according to the Gospel', is that we did share our faith and developed a discipline of prayer and worship, beyond anything we could have done alone. The Community also made a significant contribution towards caring for people with mental disorders which could not have been achieved by a single household. We were also able to offer much more hospitality to individuals and groups.

A significant weakness was the procedure we adopted for buying and selling the houses by 'private sale' rather than the conventional arms-length market price. This caused uncertainty about how those who moved-on would re-enter the housing market and was a contributory factor in the closure of the Community in 2007, because new members could not be found. Benedict knew better, his communities have survived and contributed for 1500 years!

Susan and I knew in 1983 that we were entering into an uncertain but long-term commitment to an unusual lifestyle. We remain in touch with all the members who were such an important part of our lives and I am sometimes surprised and pleased that those who were children during the Community years have such cheerful and positive memories of people, house and garden.


Roger Sawtell's new book Under One Roof: The Story of a Christian Community is published by Darton, Longman and Todd.



1 The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. M.Bosanquet (Hodder & Stoughton 1968)

Roger Sawtell is a co-operative entrepreneur and a founder member of The Neighbours Community, Northampton.