In the early 1970s, the Rev. John Smith was called as rector of a small Episcopal parish in coastal Rhode Island, St. Peter’s by-the-Sea. St. Peter’s was a fairly typical mainline church at that time, with a handsome English-gothic building and pipe organ fostering a traditional worship and congregational life. The surrounding population consisted largely of middle class families, and the economy still relied heavily on the fishing industry. Decades later, after the fishing industry disappeared, this area would undergo a transition to a more upper-middle class populace, but members of St. Peter’s in this era were still, by-and-large, working class, plainspoken “Swamp Yankees.”
Fr. Smith had a personal interest in the charismatic movement that swept through American Christianity in the 1960s. He had been deeply formed by the Church of the Redeemer in Houston, which functioned as a hub for the charismatic movement within the Episcopal Church in that era, and he relocated to Rhode Island to help the movement’s efforts to expand. In 1971 he was called as Rector of St. Peter’s and began introducing some of the hallmarks of the charismatic movement to the life of the church, starting with changes to the worship customs, and soon extending to the formation of “households.” The idea behind these households flowed from the popularity of communal living in the decade preceding, much of which was not necessarily rooted in religious practice or tradition. The “household” movement popularized first at Redeemer and then practiced at churches like St. Peter’s was enormously attractive to a young generation that sought deeper, more meaningful, and committed lives. One of the household members, David Terry, describes the first time he witnessed one of the households, where he saw “lives that were visibly transformed by…a meaningful church community experience similar to the life of the early church as described in the Acts of the Apostles.” Other participants described wanting to go further in their spiritual life than standard, traditional worship practices allowed, and to “feel” more connected to God as much during the week as on Sundays. Intentional communal living with fellow Christians seemed to them a natural way to address their spiritual hunger.
The basic pattern of the households at St. Peter’s consisted of a married couple with young children who owned a home and who welcomed several single men or women, usually in young adulthood, to live with them. One of the households was formed in the former rectory adjacent to the church, and several more existed within a few miles of the church in the surrounding neighborhood. Fr. Smith and his wife led one household, and another consisted entirely of a transplanted household of six parishioners from Church of the Redeemer in Houston. At first the single residents came mostly from the nearby University of Rhode Island, though word-of-mouth quickly contributed to the addition of several more residents from around New England. David Terry reminisces,
Some were students or former students from local and other colleges. Others were recent college graduates, and some were trades people. Several people learned about the St. Peter’s community through contacts with community members and some through the network of prayer meetings and charismatic communities in Rhode Island and nearby Connecticut. A few were even hitchhikers picked up by community members.
At its height, there were six households, with most accommodating about ten residents and one being exclusively for single people. An appointed group of five men, led by the Rector, served as “elders” for the church and the households. They made assignments of individuals to specific households, functioned as arbiters in disputes, and provided overall leadership to the effort. Notably, the Vestry of St. Peter’s lacked formal authority or involvement, although they eventually became deeply involved, as will be seen.
Households were communal, in the sense that all things were held in common, but not explicitly monastic. There was no formalized Rule of Life, and the homeowners, who functioned as household leaders, had much leeway to make decisions and guide day-to-day life. “The guiding principle was obedience to the Lord,” reflects former household resident David Teschner, and beyond that simple principle there were no written rules. This spirit of flexibility and openness was grounded in the charismatic principles of the leadership, with its focus on the free movement of the Holy Spirit. As a result, some households created daily Bible study at mealtimes, while some gathered for lengthy, weekly prayer meetings. Some incorporated music, owing to the gifts of the residents, while others did not. Some households allotted all authority to the owners of the house to make decisions regarding chores, meals, and finances, though one house was eventually established exclusively for single people who had bristled at not being more equal participants in decision-making.
Importantly, all residents were a part of St. Peter’s, and this served as the strongest unifying element to the households. David Terry reflects,
These were not stand-alone communities or cells but were an integral part of the ministry at St. Peter’s. Members of households taught Sunday School, conducted youth group activities, and ran church summer day camp programs. Some household members were engaged in pastoral care ministries and conducted visits to the sick and dying.
Householders were expected to attend worship on Friday nights and Sunday mornings. They pledged sacrificially, leading to a substantial boost in the church’s finances, and a few of them were elected to the Vestry. This particular development was intended to deepen the connections between the households and the broader congregation, but it had the unintended effect of growing a sense of division within the church. There were those within the wider congregation who were not enthusiastic about the influx of new people, and resisted the stylistic changes in worship and spiritual practice. Meanwhile, there were some within the households who viewed themselves and their fellow residents as being truer, more complete Christians than the non-household members of St. Peter’s. “We saw ourselves as being the true church and…suffered from ‘spiritual pride’ in regard to the larger church,” David Teschner remembers. So it was that even as householders worked harder to support the ministry life of St. Peter’s, others felt that their church was being “taken away” from them. Perhaps inevitably, the Vestry became a place where those lines were drawn, and divisions between householders and non-householders expressed in voting and representation. The Rector’s support of the households ensured their presence, but resentment and mistrust simmered below the surface.
Eventually three factors led to the rapid decline and dissolution of the experiment with households at St. Peter’s. First, personal decisions by household members led to a few of the houses being closed. For example, a number of young adult residents decided to move out owing to job or educational relocation, a desire for more independence, as a result of getting married, or for some, simply a feeling that their spiritual needs were not being met. Likewise, a few of the homeowners also chose to end their sponsorship of households when they had additional children or tired of having several extra people in their home. The lure of “normal living” was compelling and eventually irresistible to many.
Second, the community became burdened by a lack of mission beyond the stability and spiritual lives of its own members. David Binns, who arrived at St. Peter’s late in the household era, writes, “St. Peter’s community died of a lack of mission. A lack of focus beyond ourselves and our faith. In other words a universal, ‘Why are we doing this?’ arose across the board, and the answer seemed to come from God: ‘I don’t know.’” Combined with a lack of core, guiding principles or rules, the absence of a clear mission meant that residents lacked structure or purpose. Entropy set in. When reflecting on lessons learned from the experience, David Terry suggests, “The mission or objective should be specifically spelled out. Unless the group is creating a monastic order or a contemplative prayer community, the household should have a specific outreach mission.”
Third, and perhaps most importantly, accusations of sexual impropriety by the rector, Fr. Smith, greatly damaged trust within the households. David Teschner remembers,
After the Rector was caught and our spiritual leader was found out to be doing things that were clearly not allowed, everyone lost confidence in him and the whole project collapsed. Most of us didn’t know the details except that something had gone horribly wrong. He stayed for two more years as nearly all the single people left and the households ceased to exist.
The effect of such accusations on congregations, whether confirmed or not, is well documented, and were expressed in the life of St. Peter’s over the subsequent two decades. The Vestry became further factionalized, as some knew the details of the accusation, while others only heard rumors and innuendo. Eventually Fr. Smith resigned, but not before the church began to crumble. In addition to the closure of all of the households, dozens of families left St. Peter’s in the succeeding few years, such that the church dwindled to a mere shadow of its former existence. Attendance and giving dried up, and St. Peter’s struggled to maintain operation. It reverted to mission status just a few years after, and did not attain parish status again in its diocese until the mid-1990s.
I was called as Rector of St. Peter’s in 2006, with no foreknowledge of this chapter in the history of the church. No information about it was presented in the parish profile, and no members of the search committee spoke about this aspect of the church’s history in our conversations together. This likely was not an intentionally malicious omission, as no former household residents remained in the church at the time of my call as rector, and the small handful of remaining parishioners who had been members during that that era did not volunteer any information about their experiences. It was not until I had served the church for over a year that a few stories began to trickle out, and I slowly became aware of this important period in St. Peter’s history. At first, it helped my understanding of the dynamics of the church, and at least partly explained my perception of a persistent distrust of my pastoral leadership and authority. The focus of this project is not related to family systems’ theory, or the writing of Edwin Friedman or Murray Bowen. However, from a family systems’ perspective the experiment with households, and more particularly, the way it ended, left a lasting legacy in the church’s “system.” I inherited a church that was suspicious of its rectors, with good reason.
Beyond the implications for my pastoral leadership of the parish, learning the story of the households connected with my personal interest in the new monastic movement. I have long been interested in intentional Christian communities, which are also commonly referred to as “new monastic” communities. I am a member of the Fellowship of St. John (an oblate of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Massachusetts), and I helped establish an Episcopal Service Corps house in Rhode Island during my time there. I have visited many intentional communities around the country, and read widely on the subject, even before beginning work on this project.
Yet the experience at St. Peter’s offered more than another example of intentional community; it crystallized the delicate and complicated nature of the intersection of intentional communities and traditional congregations. The experiment with households at St. Peter’s is a striking, if tragic, example of this intersection. Members of the households were members of the parish church, and sought to regularly impact its life and ministry in positive ways. The residents’ spiritual and common lives were largely grounded in the life of the households, yet they chose to remain formally connected to a church that was larger and broader than simply a conglomeration of the households. The nature of that relationship – how intentional Christian communities and congregations coexist – is the focus of this project.
In the first chapter, “The Roots of New Monasticism,” I will review three 20th century communities that serve as foundations of the current movement, and whose experiences inform my consideration of new monasticism’s intersection with congregational life. This history begins with Finkenwalde, Germany, where Dietrich Bonhoeffer briefly led a seminary of the Confessing Church that served as a sort of prototype community for the subsequent new monastic movement. Finkenwalde is the genesis of a definitive era, and despite its brief existence served as a creative inspiration for dozens upon dozens of others, including contemporaries such as George MacLeod in Iona, Scotland, and Roger Schütz at Taizé, France, each of which will also be considered in this chapter.
The examination of the communities of Finkenwalde, Iona, and Taizé will highlight their status as early adopters of the vision of new monasticism, but it will also explore the desire of these communities to serve as far more than cloistered centers of spiritual well-being for residents. To varying degrees, each of these three ancestors of the contemporary new monastic movement, two of which are still very much in existence today, anticipated and sought out relationship with the wider church. They were reinterpretations of ancient monastic patterns and practices, and one of the ways they embodied a fresh expression of traditional monasticism was to intentionally interact with, inform, and renew the life of the broader church. While none were formally in relationship with traditional congregations, nevertheless, their founders seemed to anticipate the development of such relationships in the way they created, wrote about, and spoke of their communities. Therefore, their stories inform the scope and aims of this project and provide helpful background to new, contemporary experiments where congregations and communities are much more explicitly connected.
After exploring those three foundational examples, in the second chapter, “The Rise of New Monasticism,” the project will pivot to an examination of the contemporary surge in popularity of intentional Christian communities. In the past 15-20 years, many communities have been planted around the country that seek to build upon the wisdom and experiences of Bonhoeffer at Finkenwalde, and offer a new generation of Christians an opportunity to cultivate deeper faith within a particularly intentional context. This movement has been well chronicled, and a number of its leaders have written articles and books reflecting on their experiences and offering insight into what they understand their communities to be about. Particular attention will be given to the leaders associated with a 2004 gathering of new monasticism, including Jonathan R. Wilson, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Shane Claiborne, whose writing and personal witness has made them into spokespeople for the modern movement. That gathering produced a document summarizing what they believe to be the “12 marks of a new monasticism,” which articulate the hallmarks of these contemporary communities, including the nature of the relationship with the wider, historic Church.
In the third chapter, “The Reality of New Monasticism,” I will examine three contemporary expressions of intentional Christian community.
• Community of Jesus (Cape Cod, Massachusetts) – an ecumenical Benedictine community of monks, nuns, and vowed “household members” including individuals and married couples. Founded in the late 1960s, today the community includes roughly 275 people, including many children.
• 77 Wachusett (Boston, Massachusetts) – an intentional Christian community created by members of The Crossing, an emergent Episcopal church in Boston. The house currently hosts six residents.
• Epworth Project (Dallas, Texas) – a collection of eight intentional Christian household communities around Dallas. The founders of Epworth are United Methodist Church (UMC) elders, and several of the houses are yoked to UMC churches.
Each of these three communities is quite distinct from the others in terms of setting, church affiliation, structure, and governance. Yet the witness of each contributes to a broader understanding of how churches and intentional communities coexist, and how they can (or could) organize their lives in ways that sustainably inform and inspire each other. For example, the Community of Jesus was founded by members of a local Episcopal church in the 1960s, but soon thereafter the community chose to become ecclesiastically independent. Yet today, several local neighbors of the community who are not vowed members choose to participate and support the life of the community, and it functions as their local church. Meanwhile, residents of 77 Wachusett, while comprised exclusively of members of a mission church of the Diocese of Massachusetts called The Crossing, have intentionally created a rule and manner of life that distinguishes the two entities in an effort to preserve autonomy and independence; and the communities of the Epworth Project are organized with a formally articulated, multi-faceted relationship to their churches next door. The intricacies and repercussions of these differing relationships with the churches of their founding will be further explored in later sections.
The final chapter will address the underlying questions regarding whether and how relationships between intentional communities and congregations can exist in a sustainable and mutually enriching way. In the case of St. Peter’s, the lifespan of the households was barely five years, but the goal of nearly all modern communities planted near, by, or with congregations is to endure far longer. But how? Large and important questions exist whenever this relationship is established, questions that do not exist when a community or a church exist independently of one another. For example:
• How do the two entities align their mission?
• Which should come first? Should the community be born out of the congregation, or the congregation born out of the community? Does the ordering of the origins of each even matter?
• How do members of the community participate in the life of the church, and vice versa? Are the authority structures for each connected, and if so, how do they overlap with each other?
• How can the community be prevented from becoming a “clique” or “faction” of the church, as occurred at St. Peter’s when some household members believed themselves to be the “true church,” and instead serve as a type of leaven for the broader congregation’s life, mission, and ministry?
• How do the church and community arrange their finances? How much does the church support the community?
These and other questions are extremely important to the sustainability of such a relationship. In this final section, I will offer reflections on these questions that grow out of the longer history of the movement and are grounded in the lived experience of modern communities. I will draw upon the writing of Bonhoeffer himself, who did his own reflecting on the nature of Christian community in Life Together, as well as numerous modern writers who are also critically engaging the existence and future of new monasticism, including how new monastic communities interact with the broader church. This concluding section will focus on the lessons and wisdom I have gleaned from the case studies, extensive reading on the subject, and personal reflection, though it comes with the full awareness of the limits of my knowledge: I have not lived this experience myself. I have no personal history of living in a new monastic community, be it healthy or not, and thus all my commentary and analysis is from the perspective of an admiring, curious outsider. Nevertheless, from that critical distance, I will offer my own voice to the broader conversation and suggest answers to the questions I posed above.