The Church as Community ... we are all in the one boat together ... an icon of the Church by Matthew Garrett
the source of truth and love:
Keep us faithful to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,
united in prayer and the breaking of bread,
and one in joy and simplicity of heart,
in Jesus Christ our Lord.
This prayer from the liturgy for the Sunday before last – the Post-Communion prayer of the 14th Sunday after Trinity – talks about the Church in terms of community. We are united in the truth and in the love that comes from God; we share not just the same teaching, but are in fellowship with a community that breaks through the barriers of time and space, that is in continuity with the apostles; and together we are supposed to live as one people, in joy and in simplicity of heart.
Each of you has embarked on a new stage in your pilgrimage, but we have been setting out on that journey this weekend not as individuals but as part of a new community that is rooted in the community of word and sacrament, that is marked by joy and simplicity.
You have become members of a new community this weekend, and in the giving and receiving that is part and parcel of being part of that community I hope that we will be one in joy and simplicity of heart.
I said “we” rather than “others” on purpose.
Which community or communities are you part of?
The notion of a community is something we each hold on to on a regular basis, with communities forming at every step throughout life.
We are a community here – not just a community of learning, but a community that is part of the Body of Christ too.
If we work well together as a community, then that experience will not just make your time here comfortable and a pleasure, but it will continue to sustain you throughout your ministry and mission, throughout your pilgrimage in life.
This is not an exclusive community. And I mean that in a number of ways:
We each remain members of the communities in which we are already rooted: my family, my parish and cathedral, my neighbourhood at home, the community of my former work colleagues, or even the communities in the towns I once worked or lived in, for example.
You have already realised that you are also becoming part of a community of fellow students in Trinity College Dublin.
For your time here you will also become part of the communities of the parishes in which you are placed, perhaps even part of the community that is the Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough.
And your families will become a part of this community in some way too.
Community brings with it joys, but also tensions, responsibilities and demands. And how we deal with those different aspects of living in community in many ways are going to influence how we work in the future in ministry and mission.
Our community is the whole body of CITI, no matter how we have come to be here as staff, students, family members, visitors, &c.
However, a community is notoriously hard to define, although it is easy to picture it as a large group of people who work or live together, or regularly interact with each other.
What makes a good community?
● Good communities nurture right relationships by showing love, concern and forgiveness.
● Good communities cultivate an attitude of belonging to the group by open, sincere communication, simplicity and courtesy of manner.
● Good communities pray together and share the mystery of God's love.
● In good communities, everyone is open to exchanging information and sharing insights.
● In good communities, the members share generously in the tasks involved in community living.
There is a theological underpinning of all our efforts at making and creating community too. If the Anglican method of doing theology is shaped by Scripture, Reason and Tradition, then those three approaches help us to understand what we can bring to community life and what we can expect from community life.
We are made in the image and likeness of God, and God in community as the Holy Trinity is the perfect community. God sets community as an example for living, and of course we know that it is not good for humans to live alone (Genesis 2: 18).
For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, community begins in “divine welcome” and therefore has a source of life and purpose unlike any other.
The Church comes into being solely because the love of Christ is present in the world and people are drawn to him. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you … You did not choose me but I chose you” (John 15: 9, 16). We are here at God’s pleasure and sustained by his love, and the Church is a community that has its origin in the mystery of God’s love and call.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15: 12).
The Benedictine understanding of community has shaped our understanding of community in Western Christianity
The Benedictine understanding of community has influenced and even shaped our understanding of community in Western Christianity for over 1,500 years.
I am not expecting any of us to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience for your time here. But there are a number of points in the Rule of Saint Benedict that may help us to put a shape on our understanding of community during our time here.
Before Benedict, religious life was understood as the life of the hermit, who went to the desert and lived alone in order to seek God.
Benedict’s genius was to understand that each person’s rough edges – all the defences and pretensions and blind spots that keep the monastic from growing spiritually – are best confronted by living side-by-side with other flawed human beings whose faults and failings are only too obvious. And believe you me, within the next few weeks, as you live side-by-side with each other you will come to realise how flawed you really are, and how obvious the faults and failings of others are.
But that can be a very positive experience, an experience that helps you to mature and to grow spiritually. Saint Benedict teaches that growth comes from accepting people as they are, not as we would like them to be. You will find here that his references to the stubborn and the dull, the undisciplined and the restless, the careless and the scatter-brained have the ring of reality.
Although Saint Benedict was no idealist when it comes to human nature, he understood that the key to spiritual progress lies in constantly making the effort to see Christ in each person – no matter how irritating or tiresome that person may be.
The wisdom of Benedict’s Rule lies in its flexibility, its tolerance for individual differences, and its openness to change. For 1,500 years, it has remained a powerful and relevant guide for those who would seek God in the ordinary circumstances of life.
Anglican understandings of community
The Nicholas Ferrar Window in the chapel of Clare College, Cambridge
Anglicanism could be described as the “Benedictine synthesis” in that the Anglican Reformation more than any other strands of the Reformations sought to bring the benefits of Benedictine spirituality, worship and community life in the lived experience of ordinary, every-day parishes.
But an early example of how to try to live that out within the Anglican tradition is found in the Little Gidding Community.
The Community at Little Gidding was founded by Nicholas Ferrar (1592-1637). As part of a deal to rescue his elder brother from debt, Nicholas bought the Manor of Little Gidding, outside Cambridge. After an outbreak of plague in London in 1625, the Ferrar family moved to Little Gidding to find that the parish church was being used as a barn and that the manor house had been left uninhabited for 60 years.
His mother’s first action was to enter the church for prayer, and to have it cleaned and restored before any attention was paid to the house. They were soon joined by their extended family, and the community grew to 40 in number, of all ages.
Nicholas Ferrar was ordained deacon by Archbishop William Laud, when he was Bishop of Bath and Wells, in 1626, although he Nicholas never proceeded to priesthood. The community soon established on weekdays a regular round of prayer based on the Book of Common Prayer, with the daily services of Matins, the Litany and Evensong led by Nicholas Ferrar. On Sundays there was Matins, readings of the Psalms, Holy Communion and Evensong.
In addition, there were nightly vigils focussing on the Psalms, regular Gospel readings. The community was active charitably, with an almshouse and dispensary, and was befriended by King Charles I and the poet priest George Herbert.
The community died out, although the Ferrar family continued to live at the manor until the mid-18th century. But the Little Gidding Community was an example of a godly family and community, neither unique nor monastic, but firmly committed to the Church, to Anglican spirituality, to the Book of Common Prayer, to following Christ’s commands to forswear worldliness, and to devoting themselves to God’s service. Their pattern of life is an inspiration for many modern communities, and also inspired the poet TS Eliot – Little Gidding (1942) is the fourth poem in his Four Quartets.
Some modern Christian communities
Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw his theological college as a radical new community
The idea of community living as part of Christian formation is not only an ideal for the monastic tradition – it has an important place in modern Christian theological thinking about formation, discipleship and the Church too.
The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) saw his theological college at Finkenwalde as a radical new community, with a shared life, worship and prayer, where Christ’s call to discipleship was taken seriously and practised together.
For Bonhoeffer, community was a response to the need for truth, moral clarity and resistance to evil. It was to be a prophetic sign.
In 1937, Bonhoeffer published Life Together, a summary of his vision for the community and its practical outworking. It is a radical and subversive vision for Christian living in the midst of crisis, conflict and chaos.
In the midst of a society facing powerful evil and in deep moral and spiritual confusion, Bonhoeffer still insisted that Christian community is to be lived in the midst of it all – without walls. Christ did not withdraw into safe seclusion but lived in the midst of his enemies to bring them to peace. So must his followers. So life together, according to Bonhoeffer, must never be taken for granted but it is a gift and a sign of “gracious anticipation” of the Kingdom of Peace, Justice and Love that will one day be fully revealed and for which we live and long.
Many of you may be familiar with the work of Jean Vanier and L’Arche community. His inspiring vision for community living grew out of the time he began to share his home with people living with significant mental or physical disabilities and who had often experienced abandonment and neglect.
Jean Vanier founded the first of the L’Arche communities in 1964, and there are now 124 such communities around the world, which we can learn from as places of love and dignity, where weaknesses are shared, and human frailties are accepted and valued rather than being based on strengths and competitive achievements.
Community in many ways is a counter-cultural value when compared with the value given to the individual and individualism in consumer society. “Contemporary society is the product of fragmentation,” Jean Vanier once said. True community respects the true value of each of us as an individual.
Other efforts at forming communities that can be models for the Church include Corrymeela, Iona and the Lee Abbey Community in North Devon.
Drawing on the Benedictine tradition
At their monastic profession, Benedictines make three promises: stability, fidelity to the monastic way of life, and obedience. Although the traditional monastic commitments to poverty and chastity are implied in the Benedictine way, those first three promises of stability, fidelity, and obedience are given primary attention in the Rule – perhaps because of their close relationship with community life, and are worth remembering during your time here.
For Benedictines, stability involves a life-long commitment to a particular community. Contentment and fulfilment do not exist in constant change; true happiness cannot necessarily be found anywhere other than in this place and this time. For Benedictines, stability proclaims rootedness, a true feeling of being at home, and that this place and this monastic family will endure.
None of you is being asked to stay on here for the rest of your life, as if this was some sort of monastery. But for your time here, think of it as home, a place where you should find acceptance, should feel you belong, where no-one should ever count you out, where you can find refuge and solace.
Fidelity means the Benedictines promise to allow themselves to be shaped and moulded by the community – to pray at the sound of the bell when it would be so much more convenient to continue working, to forswear pet projects for the sake of community needs, to be open to change, to listen to others, and not to run away when things seem frustrating or boring or hopeless.
Just think of it – there will be times when you would prefer for your own achievement to finish that essay or project, to get that reading assignment completed, to go for a walk and get a bit of fresh air through your lungs and your head. But the bell calls you to pray, and you ask: “I can pray in my own room too, can’t I?”
Yes you can. But you deprive yourself of the prayer of the whole community and you deprive the whole community of your prayer. In prayer, we are being faithful to God, and being faithful to one another.
Fidelity to wider Anglicanism is important too.
There is a variety of styles and approaches to worship in this community – among staff and students. They reflect the variety of styles, approaches and theologies found in the Church of Ireland and in our wider experiences of Anglicanism and even of other traditions within the Church.
None of these threatens the integrity of your or my tradition and style and approach to worship. Rather, I like to see them as gifts to each other.
Let me be open about myself. I once worked for a mission agency, and was asked within a few weeks of joining whether I was an evangelical or a liberal. I replied that I was evangelical in the pulpit, catholic at the altar, orthodox in the creed, radical in my discipleship, and liberal in my understanding of the different strands Anglicanism can and should embrace.
I think she’s still trying to figure me out.
I not only want to affirm you in your tradition, I want you to be authentic about it, true to, grow in it, and for you to have the same attitude to these in others. Then we can grow in mutual respect and love, and share our gifts as God would want us to share our gifts in community.
Obedience also holds a special place in Benedict’s community. Monastics owe “unfeigned and humble love” to their abbots and prioresses, not because they are infallible or omniscient, but because they take the place of Christ.
Sometimes it will be very difficult to feel any love for the staff here or your fellow students, and very difficult too to obey the few rules that we actually have here. You may have felt you were being treated as a child when you were asked to sign and return the conditions of residence.
And no, the members of staff here do not claim to be the guardians of all wisdom, knowledge and authority. Although Benedict carefully outlined the qualities the leaders should possess – wisdom, prudence, discretion, and sensitivity to individual differences – becoming a member of the staff here did not give me an extra measures of those qualities, even in medium doses or measures.
But the Benedictine Rule emphasises mercy over justice, more to understanding of human weakness than strict accountability, more to love than zeal. What defines the leader of a Benedictine community is not being head of an institution but being in relationship with all the members. And relationship is at the heart of community life here.
If you think of the rules – about noise late at night, appropriate clothing, where you can drink alcohol or play music, how you decorate your room, how you leave the shower or the sinks after you – if you think of all those things in the light of relationships, then they are much easier to understand.
To add to those three Benedictine charisms, we might count a fourth – hospitality.
We are all residents here – but in another sense we are all guests here. The rooms we use are the rooms others will be using after us. The rooms, the equipment, even the identity of this place, are held in trust by us for others who follow after us too.
And time and again there will be others here as visitors, on short-term courses, as visiting lecturers, as occasional students, as family members and friends, who will be here as guests.
“Let everyone that comes be received as Christ” is one of the most familiar and oft-quoted phrases of the Rule of Saint Benedict. Benedictine hospitality goes beyond the exercise of the expected social graces – the superficial smile or the warm reception of expected guests. Hospitality for Benedict meant that everyone who comes – the poor, the traveller, the curious, those not of our religion or social standing or education – should be received with genuine acceptance.
With characteristic moderation, though, he cautioned against “lingering with guests,” realising that the peace and silence of the monastery must be protected. “Too great a merging of monastics and guests will benefit neither,” says Esther de Waal in Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict.
Stewardship is another value which, like hospitality, captures the essence of Benedictine life. On a most basic level, Benedict prescribed care and reverence of material things (“treat all goods as if they were vessels of the altar”).
For Benedictines, the idea that gardening tools were just as important as chalices has come to mean a total way of life that emphasises wholeness and wholesomeness and connectedness. The body, the mind, the spirit, material things, the earth – all are one and all are to receive proper attention. All created things are God-given, and a common-sense approach to resources should prevail. Thus, Benedictine communities are ready to accept the most recent technology but will use the same bucket for 30 years.
“Taking care of things” has been elevated to a virtue of surpassing value in Benedictine monasteries.
A balanced life:
The Rule of Saint Benedict divides the community’s life into a balance between work, study and prayer. Well, your work may appear to be study too, so let’s look at your life here under the three headings of: Work/Study; Prayer; and Life itself.
Much of your time here in this community will be spent either at lectures, or in the library or your room studying.
One of the biggest burdens for most students here has been travelling in and out of Trinity College Dublin. Travelling together on the bus, the Luas or in car pools is not only a way of sharing – it is a way of building up friendships.
Your private prayer and your community prayer, your prayer in your room and your prayer in the community, should be integrated rather than separate compartments. Remember that the disciples were taught to pray in plural nouns and verbs: “Our Father … give us … forgive us … as we … lead us … deliver us.”
We must learn to pray for one another, we must feel not only comfortable, but confident and relaxed about praying for ourselves and for one another in the community prayers.
All are asked to take part in the community life of prayer: leading worship, reading scripture, leading music or reflections. This is not practice time to make your proficient practitioners of liturgy … that comes with your placements. It is because worshipping together, praying together, shapes and forms us.
The agreement that you attend chapel twice a day unless there are constraints imposed by your timetable or some unforeseen circumstances is not to rule or regulate your life. It is not about “getting Church.” It is about shaping us a praying community, about our spiritual formation, and that formation takes place within the Anglican tradition and cycle.
Community life here should be fun too. We will have shared meals, shared social events, some of us will head off together to restaurants, pubs, movies, shopping, sports events, visits to museums, &c.
Friendships will develop. Be open to new friendships. Be open to friendships with people you weren’t friendly with on the Foundation Course, people from different places and with different accents.
But treat your friends with respect too, and be aware of the dangers of inappropriate friendships. If you are not, then I guarantee you will face real problems when it comes to parish ministry.
Benedictine values are as necessary today as they were in the 6th century. In an era of countless personal and societal sins – materialism, greed, prejudice, hatred, violence, and the destruction of the earth and its resources – Benedict’s Rule remains a powerful alternative, another way of viewing life and people and things that finds meaning in the ordinary and makes each day a revelation of the divine.
During your time here, there will be time when you find community living a real joy, and times when you will find it a real pain in the neck. But the most dangerous time may be when you start to take it for granted.
“We being many are one body for we all share in the one bread.”
Do not take community living for granted. Do not take the other members of the community for granted. Do not slip into a place where you are taken for granted. For here we are a living expression of the Body of Christ. And we can never take the Body of Christ for granted. It is a gift beyond cost.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (London: SCM Press, 1954/1983).
Esther de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict (London: Fount, 1984).
Jean Vanier, Community and Growth (New York, Paulist Press, 1989).
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a lecture first delivered to Year I students on the M.Th. course on Sunday, 19 September 2010.