Many Christians say they want to live differently, to go against the flow. The truth is that most of us settle for living lives practically indistinguishable from those around us.
Not so for writer Tobias Jones and his wife Francesca who, inspired by the examples of radical communities they visited across Europe, established their own ‘extended household’ – a woodland shelter in Somerset.
Tobias Jones, author of 'Utopian Dreams', has recently published 'Blood on the Altar'
An Open Home
Inspired by the Christ centred hospitality of the Pilsdon Community, Tobias and Francesca bought an abandoned quarry site and in 2009 transformed it into a home, not just for them, but for the many visitors who have found their way there ever since.
Windsor Hill Wood is not a commune, nor is it a monastery, although it has echoes of both, but it is a home, and I asked Tobias what first motivated him to live like this.
“Our aim was always to emulate the Pilsdon Community in Dorset, Pilsdon itself an attempt to emulate Little Gidding and the radical monasticism of the early church.
“At Pilsdon they take in 15-20 people in crisis, typically people going through addiction, bereavement, mental health problems, separation, homelessness, penury and so on. They have regular times of prayer in the church through the day and they share all their meals.
“They work the land, farming, planting, growing and so on. It's a very simple, sound vision. Despite all sorts of characters there, it works. It's Christianity in action.
“Even though people are united by sorrow, there's a lot of laughter and banter. It's beautiful to behold and even hardcore atheists are blown away by the radicalism of it. That was precisely what we wanted to emulate, in a much smaller way, and that vision has never changed.
“The clarity of that vision is a blessing, because everything else has, predictably, been extremely hard. The learning curve has been so steep it's sometimes seemed almost vertical.
“Unlike Pilsdon, we're not a community or a commune or a long-established institution. We're first and foremost a family home with three very young children.
“We'd prefer to call ourselves an "extended household" rather than a community. There all sorts of issues about leadership, boundaries, finances, rotas, work load, rules, expulsions, safeguards and so on. It's very difficult to strike the right balance between a loving, caring environment, and one which is also active, vibrant, creative and hard-working.
“We realised very early on that we would have to be a dry (and drug-free) household and we realised that with addicts kindness without boundaries is completely counter-productive.
“It's pointless giving people a second, third or fourth chance. Playing the good, kind host is easy; playing the bad cop - with a breathalyser and asking someone to leave - is much, much harder.
“We realised that people actually yearn for rhythm, for a schedule for work, a timetable for meals and chores and so on. Recovery is actually helped by discipline not indulgence. We have bells for meals, tea-break and chapel... the bell punctuates the day and gives people who have often led very chaotic lives a degree of order.
“It's better, we understood, to expect things of people, to persuade them not that we're noble people who can help them, but that they're noble people who can help us.
We realised that people actually yearn for rhythm, for a schedule for work, a timetable for meals and chores and so on. Recovery is actually helped by discipline not indulgence.
“We saw, in the tough, tough early years, that there are many manipulative people who come with smiles and promises and that you have to be on high alert to protect not just your own children, but all the other guests. We're now much more comfortable with rough diamonds than smooth talkers and don't have many qualms about asking people to leave if they can't be polite and kind.
“We haven't given up our possessions, but we share them with hundreds of complete strangers - meaning that often they get broken or stolen or left out in the woods. The only thing I'm possessive about is one, big yellow mug. Everything else (I'm talking about the physical objects) are shared.
“We have clear boundaries, however, on where people can go: no-one goes into the children's rooms; we never go into a guests' room without asking their permission and so on.
“But despite that steep learning curve, the vision has remained the same. We run an open door policy. We don't charge rent. We operate a common purse, so that everyone pays into a common pot for food and bills (although, inevitably, there are plenty who can't afford to and we all decide, together, if we can carry that burden).
“All the things we longed to do, or rather felt strongly called to do, we're doing. We're just a lot more realistic about how to do it, and how to do it safely.”
Longing for community
In 2007, Tobias’s book ‘Utopian Dreams’ was published, recording the family’s journey to various expressions of community life across Europe.
I wondered what he had learned during that search, about the way that people live now.
People yearn for belonging and only find it when they give up the plural, belongings.
“That people are disillusioned with modern life. That they're bored of their virtual life sat in front of alluring screens. There's an epidemic of depression.
“People might not know it, but many long for manual labour, for contact with nature and, I believe, the rediscovery of the sacred. People yearn for belonging and only find it when they give up the plural, belongings.
“And many long for community, to share their lives with other people.
“The nuclear family is promoted as the solution to society's ills, and yet I came to think that it causes so much pain: not just epic loneliness for those without a "perfect" little family, but exhaustion for those who feel that they are responsible for everything inside their four walls: all the money, shopping, cleaning, cooking, childcare and so on and so on.
“The nuclear family is an invention of the western world in the 20th century.
“I know the nuclear family is often a wonderful, warm, happy place. But it's also often abnormal and, occasionally, even hugely damaging. It promotes epic consumption, protectionism of the worst sort, paranoia.”
September 7th, 2012 - Posted & Written by Simon Cross