New monastics stay in the world, but walk into great silence

Communities based on old monkish orders are springing up all over the country to answer a yearning for spirituality

This article was published in The Times on November 17, 2018

The Peckham Pelican in south London is perhaps an unlikely place to tune into God. Yet, on Sunday nights, the trendy arts bar is host to a friendship group with a difference: a dozen or so people, aged from 20 to 70-odd, who, in-between working normal jobs, aim to live a life similar to that of monks and nuns: praying together each day, living in community, and trying, in various ways, to help the world around them.

The Wellspring community was founded by the Rev Ian Mobsby, vicar of St Luke’s. Three members live with him at the vicarage. Another has moved into a flat across the road. The rest commute. Their shared life consists of services several times a week, a weekly meal, and, of course, Sunday night at the pub. Unlike traditional monks and nuns, they do not commit to a life of chastity. Instead they make yearly vows, dedicating themselves to a “rule of life” focused on prayer, hospitality, learning and service.

Wellspring isn’t unique. Similar communities, offering a part-time version of monastic life, have sprung up all over England, from south London to Leicester, Oxford and Ipswich. Supporters say they answer a hunger for community and a search for a deeper spirituality without the severe lifelong obligations that entering a monastery would require.

One Wellspring member is Simon Bubb, an actor. Even though his commitment is lighter than others – he lives further away now, and only attends a meal and one weekly service – he has found comfort, he says, in having a “sense of a home, a sense of people sharing life alongside me”, and in “slowing down” for a part of each day. The regularity, far from being onerous, “enables the rest of your life to grow and flourish”, he says. A large focus is on contemplative prayer – on “finding God through stillness and silence”. Unusually, the community is open to non-Christians to try out too.

A new group starting in Leicester has a similar focus. The Community of the Tree of Life, as it is called, will offer a kind of “gap year” experience of monastic life. Fourteen members will live in a refurbished Georgian building on the site of Greyfriars, a friary dissolved by Henry VIII – thus picking up where the Franciscans left off 500 years ago. (The site is just next to where Richard III’s skeleton was found.) They will study scripture, take part in community projects, and have an hour each day to pray on their own. They will become practised in silent prayer. “Silence isn’t an easy thing,” says the Revd Rachel Bennett, the prior. “It’s like building a muscle.” Members will learn to use prayer beads and meditate on scripture. “When you become still, you become attentive – you are able to hear what God is saying to you.”

The Tree of Life is not quite a pioneer: it follows the model of the Community of St Anselm, set up by the Most Rev Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, at Lambeth Palace three years ago. That has seen dozens of Christians from all kinds of denominations around the world, from Serbian Orthodox to Pentecostal to Open Brethren, living together for a year on the palace grounds, studying the traditions of (largely Catholic) monasticism.

Welby is a strong supporter of such communities. His first priority as archbishop, announced shortly after his appointment, was the “renewal of prayer and religious life”. At a synod debate earlier this year he said it was “almost impossible” to find a period in Christian history where there was a “renewal of spiritual life without renewal of religious community”.

The Bishop of Manchester, the Rt Rev David Walker, a Third Order Franciscan and an expert on new religious communities, says the revived interest shows that, even in a largely secular society, people still have “strong spiritual yearnings”. Informal religious communities, he says, allow people to embark on a spiritual journey accompanied by others and as part of a tradition. “It’s not just buying a few books from the Mind Body Spirit shelf of Waterstones,” he says. “Almost inevitably it is life-changing and leads to a deepening of life.”

Part of the story, he says, is about evangelicals rediscovering traditions that once would have been regarded as suspiciously Catholic. “A previous generation would have felt quite reluctant to look at the monastic traditions in that way,” he says.

For Mobsby, the vicar in Peckham, the effect of having a prayerful community around him has been profound. “I could not be a parish priest if this community wasn’t in the parish,” he says. “It enables me to do a really tough job.”

For centuries after the Reformation, monastic life disappeared from Britain. Then, from the 1840s, a wave of Anglican communities of friars, monks and nuns were founded in England to meet the needs of the poor. At the same time Catholic convents and monasteries began to be established, prompting alarm in Parliament. Sir Thomas Chambers MP called for an inquiry, fearing nuns were being held against their will.

New monastic communities are unlikely, of course, to provoke the same anxiety. But supporters like Welby hope they are the start of something just as far-reaching.