Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Living in Community.

I recently published an article on my experiences of living in community in the Pisky Provincial magazine "Inspires" (or "Despairs" to the congenitally cynical!).  Evidently a fair number of peeps have asked for copies of it (flattering) and m'learned friends in da House are fed up photocopying and posting the darn thing out to the punters!  So after a wee consult with his Very Reverence the Convener of the (Dis)Information & Communications Committee (aka the Ministry of Black Propaganda), I have decided to put it on the blog so the Universe can access it via a link if necessary.  Enjoy!

“Living Together – reflections on living in a Christian community”
by John Penman

Being part of a Christian Community living and praying together has been a recurrent part of my journey of faith. When a student in Aberdeen, I encountered the Sisters of the Society of St Margaret in their beautiful (and now sadly defunct) Comper Convent on the Spital.  And noted a mystery explicable only to God – why do nuns sing the Office at a pitch audible only to bats and other nuns?  Before Theological College, I spent a year living in community in London.  That community (the Community of St Mark) only existed for a year and we worked with the Homeless. Interestingly, we lived in the Vicarage where Fr James Adderly started the Society of the Divine Compassion which became SSF (our story is told in “The No Nonsense Vicar” by Fr Derek White – complete with photos of a young Penman in the habit of the “Acid House Monks”!)  I was also in the resident community at Iona Abbey, with it’s ministry of worship and hospitality to some wonderfully diverse pilgrims (I’ll never forget the New Agers who greeted the Sun on Whitsunday with nude dancing on the beach – they fair flustered the Children’s Worker at the MacLeod Centre!).

My next experience of Community living and praying was both more traumatic and more significant.  I am one of the last Scottish clergy formed through lengthy residence in the quasi-monastic setting of Coates Hall.  In some ways it was very unsatisfactory, especially for students who were married with families. They had to work out the tension between their commitment to community living and praying and the legitimate needs and demands of their domestic faith community.  Living together with different levels of commitment to shared life bred resentments – the “live in” single students were not happy at being required to attend both Morning and Evening prayer when the marrieds got let off with attending one or other of the services.  And the Chapel could be far from a place of spiritual unity when the diversity of theological perspectives took liturgical flesh.  I clearly recall some fierce clashes over inclusive language – although it totally depended on who was doing it and how they presented it as to how fierce the rows were!  But the enforced living together (the Colditz experience!) certainly made you try to understand what made you and others ‘tick’ in relation to God and self.  Which is very monastic!

In parish ministry, I encountered the religious life occasionally.  Retreats at Mirfield, the Franciscan House at Glasshampton, Pluscarden Abbey and the Kelham fathers Priory in Durham taught me that male religious do pray but can’t cook! (At Mirfield this is dealt with by the sensible employment of decent cooks!).  The Parish I was curate of in London had a week’s mission led by CR and I went for quiet days to the Benedictines at Elmore Abbey.  Regular trips to Walsingham meant renewed encounters with the St Margaret’s Sisterhood and SSF.  When a Rector, I always had (by chance, not design) Carmelite nuns in the district who were always delightful and hospitable, even lending us a cottage in the convent grounds for Vestry away days (though like  Anglican nuns, they sing the office way too high for mere mortals to join in!).  So Christian Religious communities have part of my life for a long time.

This partly explains why I am where I am today.  After 16 years of parish life, I moved to live in a Community in Central Edinburgh.  Personally, I realised that I functioned best as a human being in a community.  Living alone was not good for me.  And praying alone was an utter disaster.  For me, praying alone = not praying much.  In the spring of 2009 I joined the Community at Emmaus House.  Based in a Georgian former B&B in Tollcross, the Community was established in 2008 by Andrew Bain and Janet Matthews.  Both had an idea that they wanted to run some sort of retreat/hospitality centre.  Their shared vision was underpinned by a mutual interest in Benedictine spirituality.  However, other influences have been felt too.  Whilst there are links with the Diocesan Lectio Divina network, the Daily Office used is that of SSF, a close and friendly relationship has developed between Emmaus House and the Community of the Transfiguration at Roslin (Franciscan/Cistercian ethos) and also with a small RC Augustinian community in Fife. Whilst the Core Community are Anglican, long term residents have included Lutherans and Roman Catholics and many of the guests who come to the House are Roman Catholic or Quaker.

Most religious communities have as part of their “Charism”, some sort of “work” to do.  At Emmaus, this consists primarily of Hospitality in the City.  The house was a B&B and is run in part as a guest house.    But Hospitality extends to a wider community through Open House sessions: on Tuesdays Midday Prayer is offered, followed by a simple lunch of soup, bread and cheese.  On Thursday evenings, there is a simple meal, some study of a topic of spiritual interest (we spent some months reading Joan Chittister commentary on the Rule of St Benedict) and Night Prayer.  In part, we fill a gap left by the departure of SSF from the city in the 1990’s.  We also host gatherings of local Church groups and have accommodated a rich tapestry of visitors –including Finnish Lutherans and clergy from our companion diocese of Cape Coast.  Plus an Afghan family (who set the lunch table so we could go to Church on Palm Sunday), an Iranian school group (part of a United Nations Youth Assembly) and a group from a Boys Home in Palestine visiting the UK. A second part of our charism would be Prayer.  Morning Prayer and Night Prayer are celebrated daily in our chapel (“The Holy Hut”) in the back garden.  The Sacrament is reserved and the interior decorated with a Franciscan crucifix and some icons.  No pews though – IKEA do lovely benches!  Community members and associates, joined by guests join in the rhythm of the Church’s prayer to build a sense of sacred space in the midst of a busy city.

Emmaus House has proved to be (for me) a haven and a place of profound transformation – even Transfiguration.  That is the power and genius of community life.  There has been a decline in vocations to traditional expressions of the Religious Life in most Christian denominations in the West but there has also been a rediscovery of the need for new expressions of that life.  This New Monasticism has taken diverse forms – the Lay Community of St Benedict under the aegis of Worth Abbey for example.  Emmaus House fits somewhere into that spectrum as the SEC’s particular contribution to this Fresh Expression.  Rooted in prayer and hospitality, set in the midst of a vibrant capital and with an open attitude to the human and spiritual condition, it is a resource for all of God’s people.


  1. Really nice and enjoyed it thoroughly. You write so
    well and I found it quite charming and informative.
    I've only once lived in community and it was years
    ago. I many times think it would have been neat
    to have done it again.

  2. Great stuff: consise, warm & touching.