Back in the days when books were published on paper, and the literature about Fresh Expressions and emerging church could fit on a single shelf, the Church Army began producing Encounters on the Edge. Written by George Lings and his research team, they profiled the growing number of church plants and experiments happening around the UK. Lings visited, interviewed, reflected, and drew lessons for the wider church.
As well as feeding into the whole Fresh Expressions/Mission Shaped Church initiative in the CofE, one or two of the Encounters took on a life of their own. 'Seven Sacred Spaces', published in 2009, was picked up in a variety of settings, including an entire Welsh Diocese, and is now a full length book. Bible Reading Fellowship, the publishers, have also published a suite of study, follow up and application materials.
If you want Lings' summary of the Seven Sacred Spaces, its here. In brief, his work focused on monastic communities ancient and modern, and the discovery that the same key spaces were found regularly across all of them. These spaces expressed different aspects of monastic life, and Lings explores whether they give us a creative and fruitful template for discipleship and church life. The 7 spaces are
Chapel – for worship together
Cell – for personal prayer
Scriptorium – for study and passing on learning
Garden/Kitchen – for work/service
Refectory – for hospitality
Chapter house – for decision making
Cloister - for community - planned and unplanned encounters.
Lings questions whether local church life, which invariably focuses on the 'Chapel' - both the building and the act of corporate worship - is missing a trick. Many local churches have a thin parody of the other 6 spaces if they have anything all, from grim coffee (refectory) to a dated bookstall (scriptorium), with work nowhere to be seen. What would we look like if we had a balance of all 7?
The 7 Sacred Spaces book takes us through Lings discovery of the 7 spaces, with a chapter explaining each one in more depth and looking at where it is found in the Bible, in monastic rules and Christian communities, and in the world at large. One chapter shows how different groups have put the Spaces into practice, and there are separate sections applying the Spaces to mission, discipleship and life (the chapter on the latter is mostly a critique of current church practice). Lings, refreshingly, closes the book by downplaying it, cautioning against taking these insights as a new reformation or a silver bullet, but as a resource, lens, portal or diet which can help us grow more in our life in Christ: ‘the mental battle of living a life in Christ, alone and together, is central. The spaces are but the arenas in which that life is played out’
Each chapter is worth reading on its own - the chapter on Cell will help you reflect on your personal prayer life, the chapter on Chapel should be required reading for anyone looking to rethink their church building. I can't remember the last time I read a good Christian reflection on meetings, despite the fact we spend a large proportion of our life in them. But in the Chapter chapter, Lings throws out this challenge “The church should be a community where decision making together becomes sacred, because it faces down grumbling and judging, and where it listens well, because it expresses mutual respect and humility. Bring it on.”
The section on Cloister - the connecting place in the monastery which allowed for meetings, as well as bumping into the people you wanted to avoid - focuses on the quality of community life. 'Community is the cheese grater of the soul' The monastic rules tend to say very little about what happens in these spaces, but often this is where the quality of community is found out. Every organisation has rules, but studying the rules won't tell you what it's like to work or live there.
There are plenty of insights in the chapters on Work (garden) study (scriptorium) and hospitality (refectory), each of which is probably a post in its own right. Whether you buy into the 7 Sacred Spaces or not, each of these is worth a read on its own. How do we rediscover work as a spiritual practice, part of the 'work of God? What would a church look like if it was centred on a kitchen and shared table rather than a worship space? In a culture which churns through information and attention at high speed, how do we treasure and pass on true knowledge?
Our Story Part 1
Skip this bit if you want to get back to the book. St Peters church on the Westfield estate in Yeovil is one of the two churches I'm vicar for. Last year we demolished the 50 year old church hall and built a new Community Centre, wrapped around the church. We've ended up with a single building, with a kitchen/cafe area at its heart (refectory), connected by a single door to the church building (worship). The vision for the centre includes skills and learning (scriptorium - we have a mini library in the building already), drop in (cloister), and as a hub for volunteers and the local community association to use to serve the community (work/service). Committees are part of the running of the place (chapter). The vision is not simply to be a building for hire, but to be a community hub which brings positive change to the community - better literacy, skills and employment levels, less isolation, better mental and physical health, stronger community etc. During lockdown, the sole users have been a health team, the local community midwives, which is a bit of a nod to the '8th space' of hospitals and hospices which were often found in monasteries and convents.
The 7 Sacred Spaces has given us a framework for thinking about the mission of the new Community Centre, and how it expresses the life of the church. More than that, it has given us a way of looking at discipleship. We had an away day in a nearby village hall last year. During it, we tried to tease out the values which underpinned each of the 7 Spaces. For Cloister, we identified Availability. One of the group took a walk through the village during our extended lunch break, and deliberately sought to put that into practice. She came back bouncing with excitement, having had several conversations with complete strangers as she ambled slowly up the main street, smiling at anyone she met. She now makes it her practice to 'bimble' around Westfield, usually taking way longer than she'd planned to get anywhere, because of the 'chance' conversations she gets into.
The main mission activity of St Peters is..... wait for it.... a coffee morning. Is that it? you cry. But Mondays 'Community Coffee' (Refectory/Cloister), held initially in the church and now in the cafe space, has been the way into church membership for several people over the last 5 years. A couple of years ago when Christmas Day fell on a Monday, the regulars all asked for it to continue on Christmas Day as many of them were living alone, and 15 of them turned up. St Peters has grown from 15 to 50 in the last 10 years, principally by prayer, hospitality, and being available to the community.
Our Story Part 2
Lockdown shut us out of our churches back in March, and did so again last week. Amidst the wailing and gnashing of teeth lurks the question: is there a way of being church which doesn't depend on gathering together in the same building at the same time every week? Can we be a local church if we can't meet as one body for worship? Again, the 7 Sacred Spaces offer a tantalising answer. Is it possible to be a local Christian community based on some form of rule of life and set of shared values and practices? They include corporate worship, but they aren't defined or exhausted by it. So when corporate worship stops, the church continues.
So we created a workbook of bible meditations with a week on each theme, and encouraged people to meet in 2s and 3s to reflect together each week on what God was saying. And a set of videos on each theme to complement them. And quite a few people - both from St Peters and from the main parish church - have taken these up and found them powerful and helpful. Where we go next..... we don't know!
Questions and Comments.
1. I would recommend the book for anyone who is frustrated with how we do church now, and wonders if there is a better way, but is weary of cavalry charge solutions. Lings is always worth reading, and you are bound to find something which challenges or stimulates you.
2. I see that the original 7 Sacred Spaces booklet is no longer available online. That's a shame - there are people who might read a 40 page booklet but not a 220 page full length book. The BRF resources are some help here, but there's still a space for a substantial explanation of the 7 Sacred Spaces which isn't book length.
3. There are 3 areas where I was longing for the book to go further
- Biblical material: in some chapters there were fewer Biblical examples than I'd expected, and some of the 7 Spaces take on different qualities when seen through the lens of scripture. For example, if Cloister is to do with availability, then you see this time and again in the mission of Jesus and the early church (many of Jesus healings, the beggar at the beautiful gate, Philip). The workbook we produced on the 7 spaces is based on a daily bible reflection over 7 weeks, and there were dozens of possible verses and stories which didn't make the cut.
- Mission and outreach: monastic rules tend to be inward looking, and focus solely on those who are in the monastic community. There are missional ways to look at prayer, study, hospitality, work, and cloister. Lings notes with sadness that mission - sharing the good news of Jesus - has disappeared completely from the Franciscan 3rd order. This is a failing shared by the local/institutional church too.
- Social transformation: which connects to the previous point. After the fall of the Roman Empire (bear with me), monasteries play a significant role in the history of Europe. As well as spreading the Christian faith, they became the hub for thousands of towns and cities. They transformed the land, draining and irrigating swathes of territory to make it productive. They preserved and passed on learning - monastic libraries were often the only place literature was kept safe, and the monks themselves were among the few people who could read and write, so often ended up in key administrative positions. The monasteries housed travellers, cared for the sick, educated the young, invented new technology, developed trades (those Belgian monastic beers......) and pursued science (Bacon, Grosseteste, Copernicus, Lull, Ockham). Though Lings notes that several voices are calling for a renewed form of Christian community within society, there is more to be said about the initial impact of such communities when they first spread across the UK, and what we could learn from this.
4. How the 7 Sacred Spaces can underpin both an individual and a shared rule of life. This brings things back full circle, as the monastic spaces are themselves expressions in architecture of the monastic rules. There are glimpses of this in the stories Lings shares, but I guess we don't know what this really looks like until there are communities living it.
I'm so grateful to George Lings for doing this work, and putting it into a framework which can be used in so many different ways. The 7 Sacred Spaces framework is a challenge to the way we 'do church', and Lings calls for a form of Christian community life which gives equal weight to all 7, rather than orbiting 6 as minor satellites around the Chapel space. Historically, the Church of England has always seen worship as the defining activity within the parish church. Out main buildings are for worship, and our main investment in human resources - clergy - puts them in a special caste of worship leaders. But in the days prior to the parish system, it was monasteries which spread the faith and established new Christian communities. Maybe a community along these more holistic lines is a more suitable form of church for post-Christian England than parishes centred on a worship building for a gathered congregation. And covid makes this an even more pressing question.