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The communitarian ideal

16 March 2010

For the past three years I’ve been doing research into the charismatic renewal movement in southern African Christianity. It flourished in the 1970s, and in the 1980s it disintegrated, fragmented, and fell apart. One of the historical questions one has to ask was why it flourished, and why it fell apart, and what, if any, was its enduring legacy to southern African Christianity, and to the world in general.

Some social analysts have tried to account for it in terms of social conditions in South Africa at the time, but it was a worldwide movement, and seems to have followed similar patterns everywhere, so peculiar local explanations are unconvincing.

In the worldwide movement one recurring theme is the communitarian idea. One of the effects of the charismatic renewal in various parts of the world was the formation of intentional communities. And that ideal still persists as can be seen in Cori’s Blog: How we live:

Kevin and I have been talking with friends of ours about the possibility of living in community and embracing alternative ways of living. Dan is writing from a Christian perspective and I share his sentiments but I think that the movement towards communal living is not only motivated by Christian values. In the case of The Edukators it comes from a general dislike for the arrogance and injustice brought about by wealth. I know of communities that exist out of ecological motivations. All these reasons add fuel to my desire to explore and embrace alternative ways of being in this world.

That seems to contradict one of the books I was reading, which said that by the early 1980s the communitarian wing of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement was beginning to lose its influence, and the balance was beginning to shift to clergy-led parish groups. In March 1976 the Paulist Press produced a new magazine, the Catholic Charismatic, which was something of a rival to New Covenant (which was produced by the Word of God community in Ann Arbor, Michigan). The former was more clerical, and described itself a “second generation”.

It must be remembered that the growth period of the CCR (Catholic Charismatic Renewal) communities paralleled the boom period of the more general commune movement in the United States. Hugh Gardner (1978) discusses the period between 1965 and 1973 as that time in American history that witnessed the emergence of both rural and urban communes at a rate that dwarfed anything similar during the previous 200 years. He also ties that emergence of the commune movement to prosperity and to the feeling of many youths that America had become “a complete social, political, cultural, moral and ecological wasteland” (1978:4). Gardner also sees a search for transcendence in the drug culture that was an integral part of the modern commune movement. Like the CCR communards, their secular counterparts “were white, came from middle-class and professional homes, had been to college and often held advanced degrees, were twenty to thirty years old, …and had been at least peripherally involved in the protest politics of the time” (1978:240).Gardner also suggests that many of the secular communards were users of psychedelic drugs. While some of the CCR people have admitted to drug use prior to CCR involvement, this is certainly not true of the bulk of the leadership or membership.

The point is that the CCR communitarian influence flourished, in part, because certain general societal conditions favored that form of societal experimentation. The conditions promoting communal living seem to have all but vanished In particular the prosperity (or, more importantly, the image of prosperity) of the mid to late 1960s is gone (from Richard J Bord & Joseph E. Faulkner, The Catholic charismatics.

But it seems that the communitarian ideal just won’t go away, and it seems to be enjoying a revival in Christian circles in the form of the New Monasticism. There are many kinds of such communities, and those who wish to form them can learn from the experience of others, both secular and Christian. Solidarity and Resistance in New Creation Communities: On Journeying with those in Exile:

One of the implications for those of us involved in intentional Christian communities is that we must be more deliberate about building relationships and networking with others who, although they might not share all the same beliefs as we do, share similar goals and objectives… After all, the anarchists have been doing ‘new monasticism’ a lot longer than the new monastics – we’ve all heard of the Simple Way, but how many people know the history of anarchist or communist communities in Greece and Italy? How many of us are aware of the anarchist collectives and efforts to ’share space’ that occur in our own cities? There is much we can learn from these brothers and sisters and many bridges that must be built. These are steps we must take if we, like Jesus and Paul, are genuinely interested in the new creation of all things. We should not just be creating local communities, we should be creating a social movement. Or, more precisely, we should be communally participating in the movement of God’s Spirit that brings new life and conquers death in all areas of society.

In the meantime, I’m still looking for information about intentional Christian communities in Southern Africa, new and old, especially those linked with the charismatic renewal. And Carl Brook is also interested in the topic — see his African Monastic blog. One of the more long established examples is the Grail Movement, but there are probably others as well.

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