Restoring Community

I was sitting in a cell group of the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, Domestic, as Sr. Carolyn taught, discussing the origins of the BSCD.She noted that John Michael Talbot had had his earliest vision of Christian community in 1971 (see Changes, pg 4), before becoming Catholic in 1978 (Signatures, pp. 105-107; the year before I was ordained in the Episcopal Church). Suddenly, there in the group, it dawned upon me: this BSCD movement (originally, just the BSC) happened in context. John Michael Talbot was not the only one dreaming of Christian community in those days – I did a quick search on my iPad – Dave and Net Jackson had published Living Together in a World Falling Apart in 1974, which arose from a tour of already-existing Christian communities in the United States of America. (It would be followed in 1978 by Dave Jackson’s Coming Together: All Those Communities and What They’re Up to.) Community was “in the air” and in fact, around the world in Germany, it would be our interest in community that would trigger our own diving into the long history of Christian spirituality and our charismatic renewal in 1975, both of which were linked to communities.

As any biblical interpreter or historian knows, context is very important in interpretation and understanding. Let us look at a wider context. At the same time as the rise of Enlightenment rationalism, the West got the fracturing of the Holy Roman Empire into what became the modern nation-state, the fracturing of the Church in the west into what became a multitude of Protestant denominations (often tied to the nation-state in which they were based), and the fracturing of the tribe and extended family into
Western individualism, which exalted the nuclear family over the extended family and often even the individual over the nuclear (or any other) family or tribe. This would develop through the French Revolution (the cry of liberté was central, as were other seminal ideas that would become mantras for those peoples who took up its ideas) and take its deepest root in the colonies that became the United States of America.

Several wars later (on both sides of the Atlantic) the ideal of the independent nuclear family probably reached its height in the USA in the 1950’s. Yet this collapsed in the 1960’s on several fronts. First, the Vietnam Conflict (war was never declared) was highly unpopular (and in many ways equally immoral) and revealed the degree to which Americans were controlled by forces other than themselves. It was accompanied by and followed by a series of other conflicts, some proxy wars sponsored by or supported by the USA, some conflicts in which US soldiers were engaged, none of which, so far as I can remember, had a clear victory, although success was usually declared, and if not, quiet
disengagement). This undermined trust in the collective ideology of the USA and the idea of equality. Meanwhile, the Civil Rights struggle was also going on in the country, which also revealed how little liberty and equality, much less community, really existed in the USA (the issue of Native American rights would come later). During the same period the development of the oral contraceptive pill (while it was first approved in 1960, and continued to be further developed after that, it would take a series of court cases for it to become widely available) was viewed as putting a woman in control of reproduction
(which also meant that the man could abdicate responsibility) and so undermined
the connection between sexual intercourse and marriage/nuclear family. But the
breakdown of unity and community and the conflict between individual liberty
and societal control (i.e. control by the government) led to a predictable reaction, the search for a new type of community. Hippies and the like promoted love and a community without rules, dropping out of mainstream society, while those realizing that there was a need for some structure in community developed communes of various forms, some of which became cults, some of which collapsed quickly, and few of which endured for more than a decade or so.

In this context the development of intentional Christian communities was quite understandable. What was going on in society was clearly not Christian, but neither was the very individualistic Christianity as practiced in many churches and the new parachurch organizations. Surely salvation was more than just “asking Jesus into my heart” and “my personal relationship with Jesus.” And sitting the pew thinking my individualistic thoughts about Jesus seemed a long way from the New Testament. And it was also clear that Christianity had social implications and that it was only in groups
that Christians could either influence society or demonstrate a counter-culture to society. This was the void that spawned the many intentional Christian communities.

Some of these communities drew on precedents. Reba Place and the Bruderhof (Society of Brothers), among others, drew on the Anabaptist tradition (which in turn, at least in its South German form, drew on monastic movements, trying to expand the ideals to an integrated community of families). Others, such as St Gregory’s Abby and Word of God drew more directly on Catholic monastic precedents, although St Gregory’s Abby was Episcopalian in the Benedictine tradition, not Catholic. Others, such as Church of the
Redeemer, Houston, grew out of the charismatic renewal, with the experience of the Spirit being the binding force (it too was Episcopalian). Koinonia Partners was rooted in the vision of one man, Clarence Jordan, a Southern Baptist, and his New Testament-inspired vision of a new society. Others were more eclectic, such as the People’s Christian Coalition (which later changed its name to Sojourners) that developed as a social justice community in the seminary that I attended (although the year after I graduated). Some called on the ecumenical vision of the Taizé community in France. A number developed out of relationships formed in and reactions to the individualism of a variety of evangelical parachurch organizations. One should note that the older communities that preceded the turmoil of the Vietnam era in the USA often developed in the context of a previous era of turmoil in Europe, the Bruderhof in Germany in the aftermath of World War I (migrating to the USA via England and Paraguay during and after Word War II) and that Taizé community in Switzerland in concept during World War II and then being established in France in 1954. A number of communities experienced persecution – the Hutterites being driven into Canada during World War I (with some members martyred), Koinonia Partners undergoing a variety of persecutions, mostly from people who would
have called themselves Baptists, and the People’s Christian Coalition from Christians who tried to get them expelled from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Finally, there is almost always a strong charismatic leader in the foundation of these communities no matter how equal they claim that the status of the members is.

This is the context in which the Brothers and Sisters of Charity was birthed and developed. It is also the context that caused some of the significant developmental pains for the BSC, for a community tends to attract those interested in community, often the semi-gyrovague type who had tried other communities and feel that they finally have found “real community,” and sometimes those with emotional issues needing acceptance and support. It is a wonder that any community survived. Most did not survive for long. For some the demise was quite dramatic: Church of the Redeemer had spawned its daughter communities, Community of Celebration (as each was called) and the Fisherfolk traveling teams, but collapsed internally, in part due to accusations of sexual
impropriety on the part of its founder. The Church of the Redeemer itself lost members to the extent that it could not sustain itself and was closed. The building with its mural in the auditorium that more or less announced its vision was razed. I do not see this as absolute failure, for a lot of good grew out of most of the failed communities. It is only if they see decades of continued flourishing and even spreading as the criteria of success that they are failures.

But my concern is in asking what this context can mean for the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, whether monastic or domestic? Certainly is explains a bit of the look and sound (not of his music, but of his earliest talks) of John Michael Talbot – I can think of a number of other community founders for the time he could have been mistaken for, other than the habit – but that is too superficial. It does explain a bit of the “why then?” and “why those people?” and the like. But again, this is of historical interest and perhaps of systemic interest (communities are an interest of Bowen Theory analysis, just as families, churches, work systems, and even nations). The meaning of this context is in the questions that it raises, so let me name a very few of them.

First, what makes the BSC/BSCD different. It is not an ecumenical community, but a Catholic-based community that is open to integrating in as much as possible others who are not Catholic who wish to be part of it. So, the community is not Taizé, and it is not Anabaptist-based, and so forth. It is very much Catholic. Those who are not Catholic can become permanently professed, but not voting members of the Public Association of the
Faithful. The BSC does exist under the authority of a Bishop and is based in a Diocese. But there is more than just this canonical arrangement. I doubt the cradle Catholics who are part of it realize how often conversations in cell groups or at the Gathering make Catholic assumptions and assume Catholic culture. And the fact that either the final mass or Eucharistic Adoration at the Gathering is the high point makes a significant statement to the non-Catholic (in theory and theology the mass is the high point, but ceremonially and emotionally I doubt that the Eucharistic Adoration can be best). We try to integrate, but unless one is interested in Catholic culture and worship, one will not be drawn very far in. The BSC is Catholic. Fine with me, for I am a Catholic priest. Perhaps it is more difficult for some others.

Second, the BSC was originally Franciscan and now is said to have a Franciscan base with in Catholicism. It certain uses monastic language (although the Liturgy of the Hours is at root Benedictine, even if St Francis used it), habits, and the like, but (1) the Franciscans were a preaching order, going out to preach and coming back to rest, heal, and reflect, and in the BSC most of the traveling, the going out, is done by John Michael Talbot, at least at present, so, with the exception of some short-term missions that serve under other groups at the destination, this aspect is quite limited, and (2) the Franciscans are at present quite varied, as they have been over time, so which Franciscans? Some are quite unorthodox, some quite new age, and some quite orthodox. There is Franciscan simplicity, but that is difficult to explicate over the levels of monastics and domestics – what exactly is simplicity of life? Is it simply an individual choice? Are there rules? I do not know of any of us who approach St Francis in his level of simplicity. Perhaps this will
always be a tension, and I say this as someone for whom the call to simplicity of life was very important in my being drawn into the community.

Third, the BSC integrates the charismatic and the contemplative. Excellent. But how? What aspects of which? And which charismatic? It looks to me like it is the neo-Pentecostalism of the 1960’s and 1970’s that was taken into the Catholic Church during that period with sacramental addition, but without theological revision. That was the spirit of the age, found in many of the books of that period. That is more or less what I
saw at the National Catholic Charismatic Conference for Priests and Deacons in Steubenville, OH, in 1980. But that raises challenges, for, as I have pointed out in a recent blog post, that charismatic movement appears to be dying. (And there are many other charismatic styles than those I mention – what about African styles of worship and charismatic expression, to name one example.) In that same point I also raise issues about how integrated this can be with the teaching on the Holy Spirit in at least Eastern Christian contemplatives. It looks like the eastern contemplative vision is the stressed version in the emphasis on the Jesus Prayer. But all contemplative visions have a good deal of asceticism, and that is difficult.

Fourth, we try to integrate all walks of life, so we have monastic families, couples, singles, and celibates. In the domestic expression we do not make those distinctions, but we do have people in various walks of life, some living in a deliberate cluster, others widely spread from one another. This is such a tricky balance, perhaps more on the monastic side, which has seen more obvious “churn” as people come and go, but in other ways on the domestic side. Nowhere is this seen more than in the relative cultural
homogeneity. Afro-Americans are conspicuous by their absence. We have a few Hispanic members, but they must function in English. In the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston I must be able to function or at least pretend to function in Spanish (I do speak German, but that overlies my Spanish). I have stretched to do so: I have said mass, preached, and hear confessions in Spanish, although the latter with great difficulty. But I will not be able to spread the vision of the BSCD to these cultures and communities if I do not find a way to fully integrate them, and integration means both of us sharing parts of our linguistic and social cultures, not just their learning my home culture. I might add that I find a bit of this challenge with the Byzantine Catholic Church, but I am learning and do have some past exposure to Slavic and Greek culture.

Finally, the elephant in the room is, so to speak, the passing on of our values to coming generations. Now the Constitution does give a procedure for replacing the Spiritual Father (and Mother) of the BSC. Easy on paper, but difficult in practice. I face my mortality and so I can hope that I pass off the scene, either through disability or death, before John Michael, but he too will pass out of active leadership, either through disability or death. The general rule is that groups with a charismatic leader choose a
manager as a leader in the next generation. I could name more than one such group. Some groups do not survive the loss of the original charismatic leader. While we will hopefully face that issue much later (ideally, after my time), the time to start praying about it is now. There is always talk (some of it quite appropriate) about who might be a good next pope well before the current pope dies (or resigns), and so it also proper in Public Associations that elect their leader(s).

Along with this is integrating in the next generation. The Bruderhof allow the next generation to grow up in the community, then send them away from the community for at least two years for trade or university education, and only then, after they know they are capable of living outside the community, are they allowed to return and ask for baptism, which means life-commitment to the community. In that way they ensure that the next generation has made the same type of commitment that the previous generation did. Religious orders do not have this problem, for there are no children. They have to recruit every new generation from “outside,” which has its own advantages as well as risks. The Catholic Church as a whole tries to do both, both evangelism and initiating the young into the Church (the young often actually being members of the Church from soon after birth). We lose a lot, as do other religious denominations. One reason is that our youth grow up in a different world than that which is the roots of the parish in which they grew up. The same is our challenge. The BSC(D), as I have noted, is rooted in the
post-Vatican II 1970’s and 1980’s. Our youth have grown up in a different culture, danced to different music, walked on changed streets. Their perspectives will have to be taken into account in communicating the vision, and that will mean dialogue and a perhaps adjustment. I know from teaching university students that I could not use the illustrations, metaphors, and practices of my early years of teaching with students of my later years of peaching. The illustrations and metaphors did not communicate. The practices were not those of their world of experience. Something analogous to this will
have to happen if we want our youth to integrate into the BSC(D) and rise to leadership in a future generation. The other alternative is to recruit from outside the group, but that has the disadvantage that any group tends to recruit people like themselves – their age and culture and the like. Others may come and try it out, but do not “stick.”

I am indeed not pessimistic at all about the BSC/BSCD, but optimistic. My purpose in the blog was to lay out some (by no means all) of the challenges facing it, in part because it is itself rooted in a particular context and culture (which is why I was attracted to it). The future will involve change, but change is good, if it is healthy change accepted graciously. Regent College, Vancouver, changed its leadership structure and style while I was there. There were some sighs and regrets, but it was good and bode well for the future. The vision of that institution lives on and seems to be prospering. That is indeed my prayer for the BSC/BSCD. It was birthed in a world that needed the restoring of community. That is still needed today in our fractured, individualistic world, even if the shape of the restoration may change over time.

It is indeed interesting what one comment by Sr Carolyn in one cell group meeting can trigger. I guess it pays to pay attention, including paying attention to what the Lord wants to do with such comments.

About Peter H. Davids

I am a retired Director of Clergy Formation for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, a retired professor, and an active Catholic priest (and former Episcopal priest for 34 years), writer, and editor. I am also a husband, father, and grandfather. I am presently Chaplain to the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist in Our Lady of Guadalupe Priory in Georgetown, Texas
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