In the following reflection, Joshua Searle considers the emergence of the Northumbria Community against a backdrop of major cultural change and the decline of Christianity as a religious institution. He reflects on how the history of the Community has shaped its values and approach to mission. The monastic tradition, which the Northumbria Community is seeking to reclaim for the present age, has always been about renewal – not only of the church, but also of culture. This reflection addresses how the spirit of the Community’s Rule of Availability and Vulnerability can contribute to the renewal of the church and culture in our times.
Responding with Hope to the Cultural Crisis
Despite substantial disagreement over the nature and causes of the current crisis, there is a general consensus among theologians, sociologists, philosophers and historians that Western cultures are experiencing a period of great spiritual crisis. Old certainties are being rejected as expressions of an obsolete modernist worldview and the failed ‘Enlightenment Project’ of progress, science and modernity. John Stuart Mill remarked that the precursor to every period of social and intellectual crisis has been “a change in the opinions and modes of thinking of society.” Many theorists have sought to describe this change in terms of a transition from the ‘modern’ to the ‘postmodern’ condition. Despite the conflicting interpretations of the meaning of postmodernity there is a widespread recognition that it constitutes a period of crisis that is causing a deep-seated change in public attitudes towards religion and faith. In terms of mission, these changes are manifested in a paradigm shift from a “Christendom” to a “Post-Christendom” era.
In contrast to the secularist insistence on the inexorable decline of religion, the advent of postmodernity in Britain (and arguably in Western cultures in general) has been associated with a resurgence of interest in religion (or, more accurately, in religious experiences and ‘spirituality’). This new approach to religion emphasises the individual’s experience of inner well-being and self-fulfilment rather than collective conformity to creeds and confessions.
Sociologists have pointed out that, generally speaking, the faith communities of Britain have not responded well to these new challenges. The picture presented is one of a floundering church, which, after the turn of the cultural tide, has been left stranded on the shore. At the institutional level sociologists have observed a marked decline in church attendance figures of the British people since the 1960s. Average church attendance figures across the population of the British Isles decreased from 20-25 per cent at the beginning of the twentieth century to less than 8 per cent in the year 2000 with the results indicating that churches would continue to decline well into the future.
Despite the seemingly inexorable decline of the institutional church in Britain, the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have witnessed a strong remnant of religious belief among the British people. This phenomenon has been described in terms of “believing without belonging” and “religion beyond the churches.” Other analysts have referred to “the present religious impulse”, and even the “spiritual revolution” to describe the resurgence of interest in spirituality among the British people at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
According to the Community’s Heretical Imperative, we recognise that despite the “huge interest in spirituality… the institutional Church, with its external trappings and traditional expressions of Christianity, is often charged with playing a minor role in the central problem associated with this spiritual search.” As a community, we have tried to reflect on the spiritual context of Britain at the end of the twentieth century and have sought to act on what we believed is a call from God to be a community that responds with hope to the prevailing crisis caused by the churches’ perceived inability to adapt to the emerging post-Christendom culture. The Northumbria Community came into existence to provide companionship, coherence and community for those believers who have felt isolated by this crisis of faith; who, while honestly addressing their doubts and fears, still retain that fearful hope for human life in society, nurtured by their allegiance to Christ.
The Rule: Availability and Vulnerability as a Framework for Missional Living
The Northumbria Community seeks to express the light and hope of Christ through its Rule of Life, which acts as a framework for our faith and missional practices. Our aim is to derive inspiration from the past as a means of constructing a framework for hopeful living in the future. In particular, we are trying to draw from the depths of the monastic tradition in order to learn from those who have gone before but interpreting it in a way that is relevant to the new situation today. This monastic vocation is embodied in the Rule of the Community which arose out of a desire to live as a people of hope by conveying the light of Christ to a “Post-Christendom” culture in which Christian values are no longer determinative of social values.
The Rule emerged as an unintentional by-product of the monastic emphasis on the priority of seeking God with singular devotion in every aspect of daily life. In the Northumbrian context the Rule is regarded as a narrative of hope that provides a structure for one’s spiritual search. “The Rule”, explains Andy Raine, one of the founders of the Community, “has become our story. It is a story that needs to be lived out, not just talked about. The Rule continues to challenge our hearts and lives, as it is immediately relevant to real living.”
The Rule comprises two basic commitments: Availability and Vulnerability. Availability entails a commitment to respond to the call of God in the practice of service, mission, prayer and hospitality. Vulnerability is expressed through “being teachable in the discipline of prayer… applying the wisdom of the Scriptures and through a mutual accountability in the advocacy of soul friends.” Vulnerability also extends to a commitment to value relationships higher than reputation and to be live openly among people as Church without walls. The Rule is what bands the Community together under a common identity. The Northumbria Community exists to encourage people to seek God for themselves through the embracing of a common way for living in order that they may share a sense of belonging and identity as they live out the Rule of Availability and Vulnerability.
Although the Rule is deliberately flexible and adaptable in order that it can be contextualised according to the different lifestyles of Community Companions, the Rule (wherever it is lived out) is based on the daily rhythm of prayer of the monastic life of the Community’s Mother House, known as ‘Nether Springs’. The Mother House is, a centre where monastic values and spiritual disciplines from the monastic tradition are outworked, lived, taught – the Rule of Availability and Vulnerability, the rhythm of the Daily Office and the monastic disciplines being our framework. As such the Nether Springs is a symbol of hope in a fragmented world. In its role as a “symbol of hope”, the Mother House exists, “to provide Hospitality – living in the paradox of stable instability, certain uncertainty — a response to ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ (Psalm 137) and in so doing offering a safe place of Refuge. All these together provide Hope – a story to live by.”
The hope of the Northumbria Community is therefore embodied in a narrative; it is a “story to live by.” The Rule is clear that in order to become meaningful to Companions, this story needs to be “acted out.” This is achieved not only in the commitment to the Rule but also in the shared practice of prayer of Community Companions. The Community has a Daily Office consisting of Morning, Midday and Evening Prayers, as well as a Night Prayer known as “Compline”. These prayers resonate with the biblical vision of hope and serve as a contextual embodiment of this hope in a “fractured and changing world.” Morning Prayer begins with a reminder that God is to be sought with heart, soul, mind and strength. The declaration of faith uses the words of Peter’s confession in John 6:68-69: “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life and we have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” Midday prayer likewise expresses hope through an affirmation of God’s presence and activity in every sphere of human life. Echoing the Psalmist’s plea, Midday Prayer includes the request: “Teach us, dear Lord, to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom… and let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish thou the work of our hands” (Psalm 90:12, 17). Evening Prayer speaks of the hope that is in Christ by reminding the community that God’s light is greater than the powers of night: “The Lord is my light, my salvation; whom shall I fear?”(Psalm 27:1). Hope is expressed through the paradox of faith in such expressions as: Lord, you have always given strength for the coming day; and though I am week, today I believe… Lord you have always kept me safe in trials; and now tried as I am, today I believe… Lord, you have always lightened this darkness of mind; and though the night is here, today I believe…
Hope is also communicated through the collective memories of Companions of Community. The meaning and importance of our collective Memory and Story is highlighted as we recall and remember the covenant times of past years. These times are to be celebrated with thankfulness. They support us, re-energise us and encourage hope within us for our ongoing faith journey to see the kingdom extended in our hearts and in Northumbria and wherever the Father leads.
The collective Memory and Story of the Community give rise to further hopes and the promise that God will continue to bless their efforts in the future as he has done in the past. Trevor Miller once remarked that, “It never ceases to amaze us that God has taken such a diverse, struggling group of very ordinary people with nothing to offer but Availability and Vulnerability, and because of their deep desire to seek after God and be obedient to Him, has used them to bless so many lives. Why is this?… perhaps it’s because we are pioneering a new way to live that has mirrored the heart’s desire of many, sick of materialism and consumerism, for a different way to express the gospel.”
Through our Rule we are attempting to pioneer an “uncompromising allegiance to the Sermon on the Mount” that embodies a new hope that can serve as a paradigm of initiation into an alternative way of living, rooted in Christ, which engages with people who are disillusioned by the prevailing cultural alternatives of materialism and consumerism.
Our understanding of mission
Nigel Wright of Spurgeon’s College, London, aptly remarks that “congregations do not endure and they do not thrive unless they are characterised by covenant – open ended commitment to God and to each other in Christ.” Although the Community does not have a regular “congregation”, it has always been a community of people in covenant relationship with one another. We exist as a Community of people covenanted together within the love of God, embracing a Rule of Life expressed in Availability and Vulnerability towards God and others.
This covenant is defined as, “something distinctly relational … It is a shared lifestyle; a life lived with a common purpose and mutual intention… we are banded together as Companions under a common Rule of Life.” This “common purpose and mutual intention”, expressed through a shared commitment to the Rule of Availability and Vulnerability enables each Companion to participate in a common story out of which arises a shared hope.
From this perspective the covenant not only provides a framework of hope for existing Companions, but serves as an invitation to people outside the Community to share in the same hope. Such people include not only those who are disillusioned with traditional expressions of church, but also people with no church background or Christian upbringing. This is expressed in the Community’s commitment to live as “Church Without Walls”. The Community continually refers to the following quotation of the Victorian theologian, Henry Drummond: “In many lands the churches have literally stolen Christ from the people; they have taken Christianity from the city and imprisoned it behind altar rails.” The Community thus uses the metaphor of the “Kingdom in the Streets” to express its vision to extend the kingdom of God beyond church buildings into the realm of “secular space.”
Therefore, the practice of “mission” is seen as an opportunity to invite people to “come and see” (John 1:39, 46) the Community as an authentic embodiment of an ongoing narrative of hope in which all people are invited to participate. As our Rule puts it, we regard unbelievers not as “creatures of some lesser or different species, but people with one sense not yet developed, their spirits dormant like a balloon waiting to be filled with the breath of God.”
What lessons do such teachings offer to the wider church in terms of mission? The Northumbria Community’s notion of covenant could be used to supplement traditional models of mission. The “covenant evangelism” expressed by the Northumbria Community takes the form of an invitation to participate in the living hope that is embodied in the common life of Community Companions. Steve Chalke, a leading figure in contemporary Christianity in Britain, has compared what he calls the “attractional model” and the “incarnational model” of discipleship in the context of British churches. Whereas the former expresses an attitude of “Come to us. You know where we are”, the latter emphasises the importance of the church’s involvement in the surrounding culture as a means toward an embodied witness to Christ. Chalke argues that the mission of the church in the twenty-first century should be both incarnational and attractional.
The Northumbria Community may perhaps offer an example of how these two approaches can be contextually embodied through a commitment to living as “Church without walls” and by living out the common hope in which all Community Companions participate. Such an approach is both “incarnational” and “attractional.” Nevertheless, with its emphasis on “covenant”, the community represents an advance on the “incarnational” and the “attractional” prototypes by offering a distinct third perspective which draws on the strengths of both. The Rule of Life is thus an expression of the covenant commitment that each companion makes to one another and to God. This covenant has an important bearing not only on the intrinsic life of the Community but also on the Community’s witness and missionary engagement. As well as the shared Rule, the covenant is also based upon “a common vision to see the kingdom of God extended in Northumbria… and to carry the torch of the Gospel wherever the Father leads.” This common vision serves as a focus for the Community practices in which all Companions participate.
Is the Northumbria Community a Church?
From the time of its origins up to the present day, the Northumbria Community has consciously avoided the “church” label. The Community maintains that it is not “an alternative church but a new monastic community that is part of and committed to the Church.” Thus, as one of our leaders, Trevor Miller, put it, “We are not a church; we are a community of believers who are the church.” Elsewhere Trevor takes the distinction even further, saying that, “NC is different to church. In church we retain our privacy; here we lose that and become exposed in our hearts and vulnerable. How do we appropriate the powerful message of the cross in community? We need to cultivate relationships with the people we find most difficult.”
Like the emerging church, the Northumbria Community is similarly engaged in a search for an authentic expression of Christian living that will communicate the hope of the gospel to a changing culture. The Community, reflecting the desire of the emerging church to respond to the perceived changes in culture, seeks to embrace the call “to seek God, to sing His song in a strange land, and to ask how we might live as believers in a changing church and emerging
culture.” Like the “liquid church” paradigm advocated by the British theologian Pete Ward, the Northumbria Community “takes the present culture seriously and seeks to express the fullness of the Christian gospel within that culture.” The Northumbria Community is serious about the challenges and opportunities posed by a postmodern culture, as the following statement makes clear: “We are… seeking a language that can be heard, understood, intuited and appreciated in the reconstruction of society in the post-modern world.
We have learned that in order to avoid becoming submerged by the cultural tide of postmodernity, all emerging communities must retain a core set of convictions that arise out their common commitment to live faithfully as Christ’s followers in the present age. For the Northumbria Community, these core convictions find expression in the Rule of Availability and Vulnerability.
In other emerging faith communities, such convictions may be very different. For instance, it would be expected that the core convictions arising out of the embodied life of an emerging community in the countryside of the North-East of England would be very different from the convictions of an emerging faith community in an urban setting in Eastern Europe or the Developing World. For instance, in other contexts where any form of Christian faith expression is outlawed by the ruling authorities on pain of death or torture, a commitment to “Availability and Vulnerability” might be not only wholly inappropriate but positively suicidal. The important issue ultimately is not what the convictions are per se or even how they are expressed, but whether they are able to embody the living hope of the biblical narrative in their own particular contexts.
 Grace Davie, Religion in Britain since 1945: believing without belonging (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).
 Steve Bruce, Religion in Modern Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 46.
 Martin Robinson, The Faith of the Unbeliever (Crowborough: Monarch Publications, 1994), 69-73.
 Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead, The Spiritual Revolution: why religion is giving way to spirituality (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005).
 Trevor Miller, The Heretical Imperative (Hetton Hall: Cloisters, 2003), 5.
 Roy Searle, Caim, 14 (Autumn, 2000), 1.