The Abbey of Our Lady Help of Christians, at Worth in the Weald of Sussex, is becoming the centre of a new movement in English religious life. Building on the "family life" provided by the monastic community, a lay cornmunity is being developed which attempts to give a contemporary face to the ideal of "lay monasticism", which has always had its place in the Benedictine tradition.
To some the idea of a lay monasticism might seem gimmicky or even plainly contradictory. In fact behind the idea there are historical and spiritual forbears going back many generations. In the beginning the monks who followed St. Benedict's rule were not necessarily in orders, and so in a sense the first Benedictines were laymen.
The existence of oblates men living in the outside world connected in a special way with a particular community — has been as persistent a theme in monastic history as the idea that monasteries have an active as well as a contemplative roll. The great missionary effort of the AngloSaxon monks was only part of a continuous process in which the monks have done work where they were most needed. "their continuing work in English schools and parishes bears witness to this.
The public school at Worth is a reflection of the outgoing side of monasticism, but, as Dom Andrew Brenninkmeyer (who has been charged with the responsibility of the lay community by the Abbot of VVorth) told me recently, the community at Worth (some 24 in number) has something to give which could spread far wider than the school could ever hope to do.
The life at Worth, Dom Andrew feels, with its triple emphasis on prayer, community and service of others, has something to say to a whole society whose need for spiritual refreshment seems particularly urgent at the moment. The searchings of many — especially among the younger generation have led to a rediscovery of the virtues of contemplation and peace, those very insights which monasticism offers.
How can these people be brought into contact with the well-established religious communities with mutual benefit? At Worth two practical answers have been given to this question. First, a house in the grounds has been set apart — and renovated — to provide accommodation for a residential lay community who will form an integral part of the Worth Family under their Father Abbot, Dom Victor Farwell.
They will eat and relax with the monks and pray together with them in the great new circular abbey church which has recently been completed. A number of people have already offered themselves for this full-time lay community, which will engage itself in practical as well as spiritual work in much the same way as the monastery itself: one of the first recruits is going to help out the monks in Worth's daughter house in Peru.
Secondly, alongside the permanent community the monastery has become the venue for "events" which have brought many people to Worth and go far beyond the traditional ideas of the "retreat". At Easter last, in the most striking of these meetings, more than 100 young people came to live, work and pray together.
A hundred people forming a community, even for a week, is a striking affirmation of the possibility of creating a real lay community. The experiments at Worth reflect the durability of the idea of the family which is as central to monasticism as it is to Christianity. They also suggest that the Christian Family is capable of extension to all men nucleated, as it is, in Cod.