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A way of being the Church

It used to be a fashionable word, and everyone knew, or thought they knew, what it meant. In reality, as a term of social cohesion, "community" is about as broad as the word "society". Today , it means anything from an entire nation to a specific group of people organised in a particular way. It refers to whatever people hold in common, be it ideas, property, legal rights or genetic characteristics.

In the religious world, "community" often refers to a structured form of organisation in which the individual members share a common life. The cenobite monastics (from koinos, common, and bios, life) were those who lived in community as opposed to being hermits.

The purpose of their doing so was to fulfil the Counsels of Perfection (poverty, chastity and obedience - particularly the latter). Hence monastics tend to speak of vocation to the religious life rather than to community, even though community is a fundamental aspect of their life. The chief aim of the monastic is personal sanctification through the fulfilment of vows, and it is the function of community in achieving that goal rather then the structure per se which is important.

In the Christian tradition, what inspires community living is the spiritual impulse that it serves. Historically, we can identify two main threads which, although springing from a similar motivation, are usually in conflict or in tension with each other.

The first is the religious impulse. It is the desire to live the Christian life more perfectly than is normally possible in ordinary parish life. This motivation is that of the monastic, though not necessarily confined to such. The second is the separatist impulse. Historically this has shown itself most clearly in the Anabaptist tradition, which is in the pursuit of holiness through separation from the world. It is usually accompanied by rejection of hierarchy and clericalism, and hence of the institution itself.

The religious impulse operates in unity with the historic church. It emphasises prayer and a rule of life, and is fulfilled in its purest form by single, celibate Christians. The separatist impulse is more family oriented. It emphasises lifestyle, in contradistinction to the standards and values of the world, and it is often in the forefront of political resistance through pacifism and non-violent protest.

In the interaction between these two motivating forces, it may seem to some that the religious impulse has predominated for Celebration. We do after all call ourselves a religious order; we have a Rule of Life and we base our Constitution on the Directory of Religious Life. Yet in one of the most vibrant periods in our history we called ourselves a lifestyle community, and the real genius of Celebration has always been felt in the ability to hold these two strands together.

On the one hand, we are firmly part of the institutional church. We follow the daily offices and a Rule of Life in which all members take responsibility for their growth in Christ. On the other hand, we make room for all sorts and conditions of people, including children. Prayer is central to our life, but so are relationships. While accepting the authority of the church, we also confront social and cultural issues whether religious or secular.

What holds together these potentially competing poles is our common life and worship. It's particularly in our worship that the integration is felt, which is perhaps why that has become our trademark.

Clearly, then, "community" has a certain meaning for us which, while retaining recognisable points of contact with other forms of community, nevertheless has its own distinctive characteristics. Many other groups in the 60s and 70s looked very similar to ours, yet the differences were quite substantial. They might be "single issue" communities, or they might be independent of the institutional church, or their internal structures and overall raison d'être might be different.

Yet even in Celebration's history definition is not quite as simple as it seems. There is quite a big difference between the "Redeemer ministering community" in Houston in the 60s, several hundred strong and loosely structured, and the big lifestyle communities in Britain in the 70s. And there is yet more contrast between those and the current, small "religious order" type of community modelling itself on Benedictine principles.

There is not space here to analyse the characteristics of our various types of community living in the past. Individuals joined the community for all sorts of reasons: some out of need, some for the experience, some in order to learn, some for doctrinaire reasons. But underlying all the various expressions of community in the past has been the wellspring of religious and spiritual impulse which structures were developed to serve.

To recommend "community" as an expression of Christian faith is thus an exercise of doubtful value, apart from its context. As we have already noted, monastics speak of vocation not to community as such but rather to the religious life which it supports - a concept which is well understood, despite many variations. Do we have any such equivalent, commending itself to a broad spectrum of practising Christianity? Or is the Community of Celebration itself, in all its unique particulars, the object of vocations which are as limited as that of a specialist mission agency?

For us, community is a way of being the church. It is not simply the pursuit of personal sanctification; it also involves bringing the gospel to bear on the very fabric of secular life, on its social and economic relations. It is not a mission or a ministry, with all the limitations that those words imply. Being "church" gives us an affinity to the religious life, for that too is recognised by the institution as a valid form of church.

Yet "religious" is a technical term which cannot simply be extended to include, for example, non-celibate living. The institutional church has had some difficulty in dealing with this problem (at least within Anglicanism), though the canons of ECUSA have in recent years recognised a distinction between Christian communities and religious orders.

Time alone will tell whether a true alternative has been found to the options of ascetic life or withdrawal from the institution, for those who wish to take both faith and church seriously. Our instincts tell us that it has, for no-one can read the scriptures without a strong sense of lively and vibrant faith present among ordinary men and women, who were fully a part of both church and society in earliest times. But does it have to be expressed through communal living?

The reasons for community in this sense are ancient. It is, first of all, for protection and support. The forces which extinguish faith in God (true faith as opposed to intellectual belief) have great seductive and destructive power. Second, some aspects of faith cannot be fully explored apart from a stable environment in which withdrawal is not an option. Love, sharing, obedience - all these are relational matters whose depths are rarely known outside a context of committed relationships.

There is a third reason. One important development in the church in our time has been the recovery of the insight that the powers of darkness operate through social and political structures. Yet for many Christians it is hard even to maintain awareness, let alone resist. Community not only offers support for resistance, but it allows the possibility of transforming everyday structures - cultural values, economics, marriage and family life, and so on - with the gospel, and hence providing a different experience.

All these things add up to a life which, in our view, constitutes a valid vocation for Christians. Yet, because it is a vocation, it cannot be for every believer - just as the religious life cannot be. It exists in the recognition that we have to be both salt and light; the church has to be fully absorbed into the world as well as offering it the light of Christ from its own watch towers.

Our experience has shown us, however, that the taste of this vocation can often change lives forever. Acquaintance can be so rich in comparison to what is frequently on offer in cultural Christianity that a lifelong calling to it is unnecessary for the majority. It is enough that an experience has been gained, a different dimension of faith awakened, and a network established through which that perspective can continue to be nurtured.

And that surely is the function of such communities in the church. Celebration has never espoused the notion of the gathered church, the set apart group of the truly faithful. Yet the alternative, a church which has open boundaries and provides the world with an access to the sacred which is Christian as opposed to pagan, must preserve at its heart an authentic memory of the life and faith of its founders. In every age there need to be those who will fulfil that task.

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