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Exactly three years ago Tim and I ventured forth from the monastery that had been our home for some considerable time. At least, it was more than a home, it was a venture, an attempt to respond to a challenge to live a Cistercian, monastic Christian life with others who came and shared it with us in the community. Founded in 1966, we were at the right place but at the wrong time. © Aelred Arnesen
In the 60s vocations to monastic life were beginning to fall away after the 50s bulge following the war. It was the time of student unrest, the 'death of God' controversy and the beginning of an immense change of life in the Western world.
Nearly half a century on from our foundation there is even greater change in the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the slow emergence of China as a world power. Now, in the West, there is great scepticism about belief in God and Christianity. But of course that is not something new. Ask any monk about God and you will probably have a very equivocal reply!
At Ewell we were not sheltered from these agnostic points of view. If anything the 'spirit of the age' enabled us to keep thinking, to go beyond what had been thought to be 'orthodox' for centuries.
Reading and thinking and, shall we say, 'praying' the challenges of faith through, enabled us to look optimistically towards the rest of humankind, both scholars and the 'ordinary' folk. Christianity has for too long been thought to be 'against' everyone else.
So what struck me on my return to Cambridge was the extraordinary facility of these very learned colleges to continue with a religion of the past in the shape of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Well, yes, many parishes may have opted for the same menu. But here, where the immense learning of generations of scholars over the past century has shaped the future path of theology, it seems an anachronism.
It would not be too strong to say that I am horrified! 1662 was a marker in our path to independence from the medieaval shackles of the 16th century but today it is flawed in many ways. Our understanding not only of the biblical writers and of God has changed, but also our understanding of the world and of ourselves as persons has changed.
Do not misunderstand me! I am not pleading simply for the new book of Common Worship! At Ewell, as can be seen from the photograph of our altar table in the church at Ewell, we had, over the years, come to a personalised view of, for instance, eucharist. (We will not have been alone in this: obviously the Spirit of God moves abroad in places and churches we have never heard of).
Our cri de coeur was in an uncluttered approach to God and in an attempt to recover the essential New Testament convictions of all those remarkable writers of the first century, that the risen Lord, and not simply the death of Jesus 'for our sins', was the heart of Gospel.
Since leaving Ewell, the only option offered to us was to 'return to the past', the past of 50 years ago, and to disregard the fact that so much water has flowed under the Ewell bridge and the Cam that has flowed by these remarkable colleges since then.
But we have opted, instead, to be seen to be part of the disenfranchised, those of our neighbours and fellow students (as well as Christian friends!) who have been alienated and disenchanted by all things Christian. That is where we belong as Christians at this time, looking in hope towards a new, integral understanding of what it can mean to be Christian and a person of the 21st century.
Perhaps it is love which is the key to this. Love which is displayed in faith and understanding and movement away from entrenched positions. There lies much insecurity in that approach to faith. But security in the dogmas of the past leads to un-love and unhappiness. May we all embrace the living Christ who approaches us in love today.
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© Aelred Arnesen