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Communities flourished in the 60s and 70s. Are they relevant today?

For over 30 years now, 'renewal' has been something of a Holy Grail for large numbers of people in the church. Some prefer the word 'revival': it is certainly just as elusive.

'Renewal' at least seems obtainable. But it never manages to arrive, or at least not quite: 'renewed' churches tend not to stay renewed, and many people find that, like Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality, with the passing years the glory of God seems to fade into the light of common day.

What was once new and exciting, offering deliverance from the chains of human nature and a bright hope for the future, now seems ordinary. More than that, there is a sneaking feeling that it has not actually changed anything very much. The way we 'do religion' has changed, but that was inevitable anyway, and underneath things are not all that much different from what they were.

Of course this is a generalisation. But it's not surprising that some of those who are long in the tooth in 'renewal' circles look back wistfully to the 'good old days' when the Spirit seemed to have a momentum of its own, when there was less organisation, less division, less eccentricity of theology, cult of personality, or even scandal.

For our part, we (community) have also done a bit of harking back in recent times, though not from a wistful point of view. We have plenty to look back to. The Community remains a beacon of hope to a great many people across the globe. But the question also needs to be asked: of what relevance are we to the church as it is today? It is easy to see our significance in the 60s and 70s. But today? The church has moved on and so have we.

The purpose of looking back, then, is not nostalgia. It is to try and get a sense of what it is that we want to say to the church today. For in the past, whatever the forms and structures, there was also a charism at the heart of things - a charism that remains today like a dormant seed waiting to start growing. Sifting that from previous historical incarnations was part of our task. The issues discussed here are examples; they are not exhaustive.

Authenticity

Why is it that church-going people often get so disillusioned? Perhaps it is that they themselves stop growing. But often the churches to which they belong seem unable to provide the right soil. Their focus is tasks and maintenance of structures. They respond slowly, if at all, to the underlying changes which are shaping people's needs and the way they see the world.

In the 60s and 70s, people were attracted to our community life because it seemed to them there was a possibility of living a Christian life in the way it was described in the Bible. At the time, there was a lot of excitement in the church generally about charismatic gifts (that was the 'new thing'), but in this case something more profound was taking place.

In effect, the community brought the Gospel to bear on every aspect of human life, including its social and economic structures. It 'made sense' of both life and the Bible, and it made a radical Gospel attractive and easily accessible even to those whose personal faith was relatively unformed.

'Making sense' of life and faith is a universal need in any age. In the 60s, 'renewal' (including our community lifestyle) was felt as a liberation from the stultifying conventions of an earlier age - over which religion sat like a layer of gloss paint. Today, the situation is very different.

Only gradually would we realise that loss of authority would lead to loss of meaning, and hence loss of hope and idealism. The big geopolitical changes of the Thatcher-Reagan years produced a kind of hedonism. For some reason - guilt, perhaps, or because we are moral beings after all, or even because of a residual effect of Christianisation - our moral energies are channelled today into helping the needy through Red Nose Day and the like. But concern with doctrine has largely been replaced with an interest in spirituality.

This is the situation in which an authentic Christian witness needs to be revealed. Thirty years ago, the witness was to a life which was not just Sunday religion only. That need still exists but it is much broader now. There needs to be an integration at many different levels: of spirituality with our moral behaviour; of secular life and sacred; of individual and common life; of this-worldliness and our sense of the transcendent; of faith and revelation with modern experience and practice.

People are disillusioned when they feel the church is not addressing these things; when it offers them clichés or traditions or tasks which fail to touch the disintegration that they can sense. Thirty years ago, authenticity came out of common life. We believe it still does today, even though the structures and forms of it may be different from what they were.

Worship

The Fisherfolk made their name from their worship. It had a huge influence in the church, but, like other streams of musical development, with the passage of time it began to seem dated. Unless we kept up our own development, we too would begin to lose our place in the religious market.

This of course reflects how worship is often seen and understood. It is almost like a commodity. The sound is very important: it needs to engage the feelings and emotions, and to do that it must follow a musical idiom that is contemporary and which people are familiar with.

Implicit in this is the assumption that true worship is an internal disposition of adoration or reverence which requires a certain form of expression in order to release it or give it authenticity. This was neatly summed up by a comment in one church, that certain people attend choir in order to sing, but go to an informal service in order to worship.

Such an attitude virtually reduces worship to something sensual - in which case, it is hardly surprising that 'renewal' eventually loses power, or else is rejected by those who are not 'turned on' by that sort of thing. It is also often assumed that 'real' worship will produce discipleship, which is by no means self evident; in fact, often the reverse. It is often the more formal worship which goes hand in hand with the deepest commitment to Christ.

In our very early days in the 60s, there were no guitars. Yet the worship was nevertheless experienced as compelling because, it was said, 'people meant what they were saying'. The connection between the worship of heart and the worship of life was apparent.

At a later stage, spontaneous and informal worship was introduced in settings apart from the main church services, often in the context of Bible sharing which included children. In other words, worship was developed in order to support a life of faith. Through a coffee house ministry, a folk idiom (basically country music) became a typical medium for many songs, bridging rather than widening the gap between formal hymnody and more popular music.

Today, folk music is not much in vogue in England. But the choice of that idiom was more than a historical accident. Folk idioms such as Irish or black South African have very deep roots in the lives and struggles of a people. Their power to express worship therefore carries more authenticity than ordinary pop, which nowadays is often largely sentimental.

As a matter of fact, the material we use has been drawn from a great many sources (not just the Community). It is not exclusive of modern songs. It supports a life which is perhaps more liturgical today than it was in the days when there were large numbers of families with children. But it is still a common life: a life of faith which is Eucharist centred.

Looked at in that way, whether or not worship songs are fashionable is the wrong question. Common life by definition must be inclusive, and we need a broad understanding of how best to undergird it and help people live through the theological and faith issues that it raises. Worship is not escapism; it is always at the cutting edge of life. It must reflect life, not merely entertain us.

Fellowship

Many people over the years have cited relationships as the key point which attracted them to the Community. However, it was never easy to define in a simple way what was meant by this. It was simply not the case, for example, that relationships in general were'deeper' in the sense of being more intense.

The particular charism of the Community was once described as 'an awakening to a pure spiritual friendship' - by which was meant a kind of friendship based on who we are in Christ, not on chemistry, common interests, mutual need meeting or whatever. It meant that each member felt fully received, accepted and valued for who they were, and even in the midst of argument or reaction there was a kind of grace which allowed them to 'be real' without feeling rejected.

In the particular circumstances of the 60s and 70s, many relational issues were confronted by this kind of spirit which were often matters of culture or convention. There was an opening up of the exclusivity of marriage relationships, for example; a recognition that the 'Persil ad' vision of happy family life belied the dysfunctional relationships and restrictive roles that controlled many marriages and families.

Single people, often the casualties of a culture that valued marriage and nuclear family as the norm, found affirmation and 'family' of a different sort in community. Gender and status issues were addressed. Hugging, regarded by some as a kind of religious cosiness, was actually a way of confronting sexual taboos (not only between men and women but also between men and men), allowing real human contact.

Today, many of the cultural conventions and taboos of the 60s have relaxed. Yet there is always a need for a Christian witness that is counter-cultural. In the modern world, many people feel marginalised not only because of social or religious factors but also on a more personal level. We all seem to be more expendable. That 'friendship in Christ', which gives people back their true identity, their sense of value and belonging, is needed as much as ever today - more, perhaps, than the church itself realises.

Authority and Leadership

Again, attitudes to authority, both in society and in the church, have altered substantially since the 1960s. In those days, authority was much more accepted as a fact of life, and structures of leadership have to be understood in that light.

In the Community, leadership was recognised as a gift necessary for the body to function. Like any gift, however, it was not autonomous or self-justifying. Authority, which is the power or right to exercise the gift, was given in accordance with principles worked out in fellowship.

Thus, there was always a consistent effort not to be hierarchical. There was much teaching on the need for mutual submission, for trying to hear what God was saying rather than protecting personal interests. As a result, elders meetings often went on until the early hours of the morning. The emphasis was on trying to come to a place of unanimity, which did not always mean total agreement. It often required a very strong degree of trust.

The system which this produced was, in its time, counter-cultural. It was quite different from the heavily authoritarian systems devised by various charismatic groups, for example. But it was always developmental, responding to changes in the Community and society at large.

The original all male leadership eventually began to be questioned and women were included. By the end of the 70s the whole system of elders and pastors had been abandoned, and for a brief period there was a 'flat' leadership or democracy. It multiplied committees, but at least gave the younger people a sense of being in charge of their own destiny. The next stage was the beginnings of the religious order, with authority resting in a 'Chapter' of those believing themselves to be called for life.

Development continued even after the religious order had been set up. The need for a focus of authority was expressed in a succession of titles (Convener, Warden, Guardian), each reflecting small but important shifts of emphasis. Today, authority is based on a Benedictine model, in which the most important concept is listening. Listening is the basis of both the exercise of authority and obedience to it.

In a modern church, there is much to be gained from listening. Far too much is controlled by prejudice and protection of interests. The position of vicar or minister is often seen as controlling, yet it may be difficult to be anything else in some circumstances. Too often, the pressures applied in various directions are uninformed by the theological and pastoral issuses that others may be dealing with. We believe the evolution of our common life provides insights into this sensitive area. It is not a marginal subject: many Christians today are searching for a deep pool of peace, which is too often missing in churches where only the influential are heard.

Structure

Much has been reported in our newsletter down the years about our development into a religious order. The early communities were often referred to as 'lifestyle' communities, thereby distinguishing them from 'covenant' or 'rule of life' communities. By the late 70s, however, it was clear that a form of religious order would be the direction we would go. It was partly the need to institutionalise; partly our desire to remain within the structure of the Anglican church.

This step was not taken without resistance, both within and outside the Community. We were warned that we would lose our charism. However, the judgement was that without some form of institution we would lose the life we had shared in any case. The wisdom of that assessment was shown not only in our subsequent survival and development, but also in the role we began to find ourselves fulfilling in the church.

Clearly, a religious order is a very different kind of animal from a local church. Yet the two are definitely linked, and since we were not monastic, there was in some ways a greater pressure on us to understand the link and enhance it.

In early days it seemed to be a matter of teaching the principles of our corporate life and demonstrating by example. However, it soon became clear that local churches could not take on board the structures that were necessary to such a life. The result was frustration, and a tendency to draw back from parish ministry altogether.

What gradually did become evident, and more important, was the fact that the Community itself was a source of hope and encouragement for many people. In a sense this had always been the case, but our following of 'Fisherfolk fans' had to some degree obscured it. We did not want to be an alternative church for those who were discontented with their own.

As the 90s drew to a close, it was becoming more and more apparent that in the present climate many Christians are looking for greater depth and stability in their spiritual lives. There has been an upsurge of interest in the monastic orders and in retreats. There seems to be an increasing need for centres of peace and reflection.

Our current structure, then, seems well suited to the needs of the 21st century, which are in many ways very different than the 60s. Yet there may be even more to it than that. For although local churches can never take the structure of a religious order, we ourselves came out of a parish and we have always held that memory in our hearts. Is it possible to locate the 'pool of peace' in the heart of a parish, albeit not in such a refined form as in a community? Time alone will tell.

Conclusion

We are in the strange position today, that in Aliquippa the local church has been closed down, leaving the Community without a parish church, while in Britain the original community chapter has been absorbed into the Aliquippa Community whilst continuing to work with the Community's charitable trust.

Perhaps we can be forgiven, therefore, for looking to our roots to gain inspiration. But it is already clear that, while the Community can offer the 'pool of peace' in the tradition of all religious communities, as individual members we too can be a catalyst for that in the local church in a way that the Community as an institution cannot. In that endeavour, not only do we all need each other, but we need also to stay open to the 'new thing' that God always seems to be doing.

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