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Captivated by the First Church

A Personal History

Tobias Jones

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  • Peter McCallum

    I too have been challenged by those verses. But they raise more questions and solutions. I think they need to be read in conjunction with Acts 2:41 "Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day." Three thousand people living communally? I know of no communal living of that size either in the New Testament or in subsequent church history. Is there any evidence of Christian communities of this size that comply with "in the world but not of it" (John17:15-16)? Then there is Acts 4:4 "But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand." Five thousand men - presumably between ten and twenty thousand in total living communally? This number represents a small town in any part of the world. Is there such a community anywhere? ... that is out going in the sense of Matthew 28:19 "make disciples of all nations" or Acts 1:8 "you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." And finally Act 4:32 "All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had." That is the last time we hear of communal living of any kind in the Acts, or in the gospels, or in the epistles. Why is this?

There’s a passage in the Acts of the Apostles that planted a seed in my teenage self and stayed there, dormant, through my early twenties, as I turned my back on traditional church. It stayed, I suppose, because it contains verses in which the most politically radical atheists and devout Christians can find common cause: the sharing of possessions. “No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. . . . There were no needy persons among them.” It sounded eerily similar to the founding vision of socialism, “from each according to their means, to each according to their need,” which had also been a lodestar throughout my youth.

Wherever I was on the faith spectrum, I had always been politically radical. With the daft certainty of youth, I started labeling myself a socialist and communalist in reaction to the politics of prime minister Margaret Thatcher. I was six when she was elected and eighteen when she resigned, so my formative years were spent honing my arguments against all the relatives, teachers, and school friends who believed, like Thatcher, that capitalism could resolve inequality better than charity. After the miners’ strike and the Falklands War, I added “pacifist” to my list of grand-sounding labels.

Growing up in a hospitable household also influenced my political views. My parents took in friends suffering marital or mental breakdowns. There was always a spare bed and an extra place at the table. These were needed just often enough for me to appreciate that a strong marriage and a healthy family could serve as a fireplace around which plenty of excluded or broken people could find warmth.

Not that I was at home much. From the age of eight, I was educated in what I still consider to be a repugnant system: the English public school. These schools were founded to provide an education for the poorest in society (hence “public”) but over the course of centuries became redoubts of the wealthy. As a boarding student, I loathed the elitism of my school and missed my parents’ home. Most of my memories from childhood are not of a family setting, but of different dormitories with one (very kind) housemaster for seventy boys.

It wasn’t grim, but my teenage years were a kind of slow-motion bereavement for the home I had left. At school, Christianity was strident and patriotic, with prayers for soldiers and the queen, and military banners hung in the chapel. My dislike for the school bled into a dislike for those easily distorted Gospels.

On the other hand, the school gave me a very high tolerance for, and fascination with, communal living. (Public schoolboys notoriously find barracks or prison less tough than others.) It gave me an exceptional education. And it’s almost impossible not to emerge from public school with a confidence that verges on chutzpah. Life seems, not surprisingly, easier. You’re taught you can shape the world.

It was only when I moved to Italy at age twenty-five that I realized how thoroughly Protestant I was. I found myself defending a Christian tradition I hadn’t thought I cared about. I locked horns, tactlessly, with devout Catholics who asked what I believed. I started going to a Waldensian church, a proto-Reformation church inspired by the twelfth-century radical, Peter Waldo. The Waldensians had been persecuted for centuries in Italy, often for the strange crime of carrying a Bible. Perhaps because of that persecution, the church felt decidedly countercultural and humble. They didn’t talk about soldiers or monarchs, but about Jesus washing his followers’ feet.

I was making my living as a writer and researching a book about communal living. While my wife, Francesca, and I were traveling around, visiting different communities for that book, Utopian Dreams, we discovered the Pilsdon community in Dorset, England. Pilsdon had been founded in 1958 by Percy Smith, an Anglican priest who believed in “the survival of the weakest.” In a large Elizabethan manor house, surrounded by a few fields, woodlands, and a stream, he gathered those who were excluded or dispossessed. Here, at last, I saw a close approximation to those verses in Acts: everyone sat down to eat together and worked the land together. It felt like a lay monastery, with manual labor – they had sheep, pigs, cows, and poultry – punctuated by a regular rhythm of prayer in the community’s medieval church. It was a community where ex-convicts, soldiers with PTSD, those with addictions, and the previously homeless lived alongside dedicated families and their children. The more we looked, the more we discovered other small communities doing similar things.

Serving as a trustee at Pilsdon for a few years, I began to appreciate the frenetic hard work – finances, documents, lawyers – required to maintain that enchanting communalism. Fifty years since its foundation, Pilsdon was in that delicate phase of maintaining the radicalism of its early years while formalizing its structures, rules, and roles. The deeper into communal living you go, the harder and more admirable it seems. You realize the waiting lists are long because – apart from those scattered Christian communities – there are very few places where those who have fallen through safety nets can go to have material and spiritual needs met.

We felt a very strong calling to emulate Pilsdon. It was clear to us that Pilsdon was doing something exceptional and charitable, and that it was inspired by the early church. The need for more places like it was undeniable.

There were also subtle personal reasons behind our decision. As a writer, my day job is solitary and solipsistic, so I was drawn to the idea of combining it with something sociable and giving. Those were years in which the themes of belonging and intentional community were on everyone’s tongue. Perhaps it was my vanity that made me want to prove that Francesca and I – amidst all the chit-chat – could actually do it.

We were lucky to find an abandoned quarry in Somerset, England, a wasteland turned deciduous woodland. The former quarry-master’s house was on the edge of the land, and we liked its solid-sounding name: Rock House. Since the quarry was a cradling bowl, it felt strangely self-enclosed and protective. We named our micro-community Windsor Hill Wood. Our mission was identical to Pilsdon: to create a family home offering shelter to people in crisis. Like Pilsdon, we had only a few rules: no alcohol, no drugs, and no violence, either verbal or physical.

We started very small, with just a few chickens and one or two guests. But quite quickly our reputation with doctors’ offices, mental health clinics, and surrounding churches grew. We found ourselves being referred evermore guests: teenagers suffering psychosis or eating disorders, the bereaved, those struggling with addiction, victims of sexual violence, and so on. We didn’t have any professional training to deal with the issues which arose, but we were surrounded by doctors and therapists who helped us create a safe place where love, listening, and a fun family setting were the main cures.

Over the years it became bigger. We planted hundreds of trees, kept pigs and sheep and bees, grew vegetables, dug a pond, set up a forest school, and built endless rustic furniture – chairs, benches, tables, beds. We shared all our meals and ran a common purse. We built a tiny chapel where we went twice a day. Guests stayed, on average, between six and twelve months, although some came for just a weekend and others for a couple years. We didn’t call it a community, just an extended family home. I wrote a book about our experiences, A Place of Refuge, which people usually call “honest.” As anyone who has lived communally knows, outsiders tend to have a rosy image of what such living entails: they are superficially enchanted, but often don’t hang around long enough to go through the period of disenchantment and come out the other end. So it was a book which tried to explain how hard, even excruciating, sharing your life can be.

We ran the community for eight years, with one sabbatical towards the end when my mother was dying. The week our trustees advised us to close for that sabbatical, someone donated £20,000 to our common purse. It was, to say the least, strange timing. When I sheepishly replied that we had sadly decided to have a sabbatical because of our impending bereavement, he said simply that we would know what to do with the money. We had always wanted to move back to Italy and, after so many years living intensely, even claustrophobically, we were suffering from compassion fatigue. With our trustees, we decided to recruit a new family to take over the reins. We found a brave couple with two young sons who were ideally suited.

Italian Fishing Vessels at Dusk by Adolphe-Joseph-Thomas Monticelli

Italian Fishing Vessels at Dusk by Adolphe-Joseph-Thomas Monticelli

It’s been two years since we passed the reins of Windsor Hill Wood. For us it has been a period of both mourning and relief, with time and space to ponder what we learned about sharing – and about that totemic passage in Acts. Looking back, sharing possessions was the easy part. I’ve never been overly attached to stuff and we discovered that the more we allowed people to use, and break, our furniture or tools, the more other people donated new ones. We received solar panels, rugs, armchairs, and food. The more we gave away, the more we received.

It was harder to share failure and weakness. Our guests occasionally irritated me, but it was far more common to be disappointed in myself for bursts of anger, vanity, or greed. Living in extremely close quarters (a dozen people sharing two bathrooms and two composting toilets, always eating together and working at the same tasks) meant that there was nowhere to hide your human foibles. Thankfully, some committed mentors guided us through those disappointments, as did the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jean Vanier, Simone Weil, and others. We came out the other side having learned to forgive each other and ourselves.

The hardest thing to share, however, was the reason we were there in the first place. For me, it was still those lines from Acts: we were attempting to recreate the way the earliest disciples announced that they were followers of Jesus by loving one another. Not only did they share possessions, but they were “of one heart and mind.” Those lines always worried me. Only a minority of our guests followed Jesus. What we did in our chapel over the years was often a tug-of-war between differing faiths and no faith at all. We were never of one heart and mind.

I wasn’t even sure if I could say what that oneness might be. The few Christians who lived with us were Quakers, Catholics, Methodists, and everything in between. Many of our guests were decades my seniors; I wasn’t comfortable choosing a specific liturgical practice to impose upon them. And it’s safe to say that they did not appreciate the few times I tried. My reticence also arose because the implied homogeneity of being “of one heart and mind” somewhat alarmed me: we had visited plenty of communities in which all members subscribed to the same beliefs. A few of our guests called themselves “survivors” of such communities, where they had felt excluded, even scapegoated, because of different intellectual or spiritual positions. At Windsor Hill Wood we preferred woolly inclusivity over an imposition of sameness. That, I’ve realized, is one of the greatest challenges of communalism: to create unity while also respecting diversity.

After we handed off Windsor Hill Wood in 2017, we moved back to Italy. Becoming a nuclear family again, with a locked front door and a table laid for five, seemed selfish, yet blissful. For two years we’ve tried to concentrate on our kids and acclimatize them to their mother’s native country and language.

Although we’re not, at the moment, living in community, the siren call of Acts hasn’t left me. And Italy seems a good place to pursue a communalist vision. Catholic activism, the Waldensian Church, extended family households, and a historically significant Communist Party mean that everywhere you look there are alternatives to materialism: sanctuaries, refuges, rehabs, and communes.

I’m still convinced there’s not much good in gathering on Sunday morning if it isn’t the organic result of sharing the rest of the week. And that’s the rub: twenty-first-century living is so frenetic and isolating that everyone has a seemingly infinite amount of other commitments that take time away from deeper engagement with people. In my experience, when a congregation meets only once a week, the peripheral aspects (which hymns we sing or the time of the service) become central. People irritate each other over relatively minor details and become convinced that any further sharing is ill-advised.

It’s an uphill task, but I’m still trying to persuade people that we need to share much more. Holding possessions in common is rewarding, even exciting, both politically and spiritually. Who doesn’t want to overcome greed, whether or not you are religious? The more we’re able to demonstrate gracious sharing, the more eloquent our invitation.

Francesca and I are trying to discern our calling. We know there are many needs to be met and that our means are limited. But I still find that passage from Acts inspiring and am drawn to anyone who yearns to emulate it. I will continue aspiring, cautiously, to the oneness it extols, though I’ve also learned that harmonious sharing only happens if God’s grace is “powerfully at work.”

Contributed By Tobias Jones portrait

Tobias Jones lives in Parma, Italy. His book, A Place of Refuge, is published by Quercus.

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