Radical communities: the modern community movement

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. CH

By Jeanne Hinton

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #9 in 1984]

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