One of our friends remarked when he heard of the impending closure of the community that 'it is hard to see how community life fits into the modern world'. Despite the large number of communities in the UK and on the Continent between 1000 and 1700, life in a Christian community has always been a very particular calling. But our friend had put his finger on the nub of the crisis facing the traditional communities of women and men in the Christian church today. In the Middle Ages (seen now very often through rose tinted spectacles!) the communities were really part of society while living apart. They 'belonged' in a very necessary way not only in their position as the 'pray-ers' of the church (as understood in those days), but also in the help they gave both economically and socially to the society around them.
At the time of the revival of communities in the nineteenth century in the Anglican church and on the Continent among Roman Catholics, communities took on a way of life which had more in common with the church and world of the past. They were pushed to the fringes of society unlike their brethren, the pre-reformation monks and nuns. But to anyone who felt called to enter a community in the period between 1850 and 1950 it was a real response to the Lord and there were many who found the balance and tradition of worship a fulfilment of their Christian commitment. But since 1950 the world, society, and people have changed. How shall the communities face this challenge? There are no leads from the past as community life before 1600 was bound up with an era in the world which has passed away.
The real crisis lies in our understanding and response to the gospel today. The past has important lessons to teach us but our guide, as it has always been, lies in our commitment to the Lord understood in terms of real life in the 21st century.
So, for instance, the tradition of worship in Anglican communities has generally been seen as anglo-catholic in orientation. But today it is essential that communities should not be led by the traditions of the past, whether catholic or protestant but to respond as a community, in life and worship to the living Christ who is present to them and to the church and to the world as Lord.
While the communities will diminish in the coming years, individuals will surely be found by the Spirit to witness as Christians in their lives and worship and service to others from within society, and lead to new possibilities for the space and silence and worship that community life has always required.