It reads like a pitch for reality TV: young bankers wanted to found a monastic community at Lambeth Palace. Intrigued, ADAM WEYMOUTH went to meet the man in charge of recruiting Britain’s least likely-sounding novitiates.
Back in October the Financial Times carried a curious news story: the Archbishop of Canterbury was launching a scheme for young bankers to enter monastic life and spend a year in God's time. It sounded like a penance, an atonement for their much-documented sins, to be undertaken in a new community at Lambeth Palace, right under the Archbishop’s nose.
Whether savvy marketing or a quote out of context, it was the sort of message that got the mainstream media to sit up and take notice. It made me curious too: the birth of a new Christian community is always interesting, all the more so when it seems to be recruiting the least likely novitiates.
On closer investigation the truth was a little more nuanced. The Community of St Anselm will in fact be open to anyone in their 20s and 30s, and aims at a diverse mix of professions and backgrounds. So not all of them are likely to be bankers – but it’s true that Archbishop Welby, a former oil industry executive, takes a particular interest in business ethics.
On a panel at the IMF in October, sitting alongside Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, he questioned why, if we wouldn't let a surgeon operate on us if we doubted their inner motivation, do we not hold those in the financial services to the same exacting standards?
“Bad business models corrupt good people,” Welby had said, and spoke of the need to enable the leaders of tomorrow “to find time for really rigorous, self-critical and painful self-reflection.”
This new venture aims to be one way of achieving that. Welby recently described his vision for the Community of St Anselm as “both ancient and postmodern: that young adults be steeped in the rich monastic traditions of the likes of Benedict, Francis and Ignatius, while discovering their striking relevance for the transformation of self and society today.”
But will it work? Keen to find out, I went to meet the man Archbishop Welby – now also Abbot Welby - has appointed as his Prior.
At 34 years old, Anders Litzell is the man now tasked with turning the vision into a reality. I met him on only his second Monday since taking up position in the building, and he turned up late for our interview after getting lost on the way.
Lambeth Palace, built over 800 years ago and added to ever since, a wing here, a chapel there, is notoriously difficult to navigate. The elusive venue for our meeting was known as Chichele – named, like most of the rooms, after one of the former Archbishops. It will be the common room for the soon-to-be-formed community, a modern, chrome kitchen with medieval windows – setting the tone, perhaps, for the kind of eclecticism we can expect in his novitiates.
“Who is the spirit preparing now to say maybe I should apply to join this thing? I don't know,” said Litzell, who has thick stubble somewhere between a beard and mutton chops, and quick, intelligent eyes. “But what I do know is that I fully expect these people to be world changers. I just don't want to define that too narrowly.”
Born in Sweden, he grew up in the Pentecostal Church, and was only ordained into the Church of England in 2012 after moving to London to work with Alpha International. His evangelical background could make him seem a surprising choice for the job: by contrast St Anselm, Archbishop at the turn of the 12th century, was a Benedictine monk.
Yet Litzell sees his transition to this post as a natural one that has come from a growing fascination with tracing the roots of his faith back towards the early church. Trained at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, he currently ministers at St George's Holborn, focusing on students and young adults, and is also studying for a doctorate on the relevance of St Benedict for contemporary leadership.
“In Anglo-Catholic worship I found a wealth of history, rite and symbol that conveyed meaning and continuity of witness throughout countless generations.”
Litzell sees no contradiction between ancient monasticism and the archbishop’s prioritisation of ‘evangelism and witness’. “It is rather like bringing out of the church's treasure-house things old and new,” he said. “Both are incredibly relevant.”
A COMMUNAL EXPERIMENT
Even before the novitiates are chosen, it’s already a community enterprise. Sister Sonia Béranger, a senior member of the Chemin Neuf community at Hautecombe Abbey in France, was recently commissioned as director of spiritual formation and communal life at St St Anselm, while the Archbishop’s Chaplain, the Revd Dr Jo Wells, has pioneered the practical setting-up of the community right from its inception.
“Anders brings an experience and hunger for spiritual formation which is both wide and deep – crossing a variety of continents and traditions,” said Rev Dr Wells, at the time of his appointment. “He brings much energy and imagination to the work - a work in which he will participate even as he leads.”
But who exactly will he lead? For the first year there will be 16 students in the scheme, aged between 20 and 35, male and female, and Litzell hopes that those who come to live at the Palace will derive from all across the church, and indeed the world.
Alongside the 16 there will be 40 part time members, drawn from London and its surroundings, who will attend the Palace on weekends and in the evenings and for the occasional residential week throughout the year. The full timers will live in two adjoining cottages, formerly servants' quarters, two to a room, with Litzell, along with his wife Kate and their two young children, in a third.
They will cook and eat and clean together, and as Litzell described it I found myself wondering how many times they have already been approached to sell the rights to reality TV. It is easy to imagine journalists rubbing their hands, waiting to see who sleeps with whom. Yet the image of communities pedalled by Big Brother et al is one of of winners and of losers, of dysfunction and inevitable collapse, where only the canniest, sexiest individuals triumph.
Maybe some find it comforting to believe that such experiments in communal living are doomed from the outset, that our journey from a collaborative society to one of nuclear families and atomised individuals has been a journey of progress. But true communal living, Litzell suggests, is perhaps not what we have been sold on the small screen.
“When people live together, close enough to rub each other up the wrong way, that is an opportunity to let the parts that don't look like Jesus to get rubbed off,” he said. Of course, those aren't necessarily the bits that do end up getting rubbed off, as Big Brother amply demonstrates.
“So that's where the intentionality of community comes in. We will persist in finding the good in the other person. How can I choose to see Jesus in the other person and bring out the best in him or her? And at the same time as I'm doing that I will also bring out the best in me, because I'm actively looking not for what the person did wrong, but for the gold in the other person.”
The community will strive in its daily life for a balance of study, prayer and work, inspired by the Benedictine tradition: Archbishop Welby is a Benedictine oblate. The spirituality and self-examination will be Ignatian in flavour, whilst the work undertaken in service to the poor comes from the practice of the Franciscans.
That might mean working in prisons, in hospitals, with those that have been trafficked or with the homeless. “No one's going to walk out of here looking like Jesus in every aspect of life,” Litzell told me. “But the idea is that we're intentional of advancing this process of sanctification, to use an old word, by every available venue.”
He describes Jesus as a radical character, and the process of coming to be shaped more in his likeness as a radical one. But radical' is a word that is all too easily used, a word that has drifted far in meaning from its own roots. What exactly does he mean by it?
“This is radical because we're being shaped into the likeness of Jesus, and he's a fairly radical character,” he replied. “Monastic life is always radical. It is intended to be radical, it is intended to be a witness of a different form of life to what culture looks like at this particular point in time.
“Because culture looks different from time to time, radical looks different from time to time as well. It's going to look very different from average life in London.”
SUSPICION VS LOVE
That average life in London is one which is currently experiencing a dearth of trust. Litzell quoted philosopher Paul Ricoeur, who described the condition of the postmodern age as a 'hermeneutic of suspicion'.
“I experience a lot of mistrust of all forms of leadership,” he said. “There is a suspicion of motives, there is a suspicion of power, of authority, and in many cases very rightly so. And if our culture is imbued with a hermeneutic of suspicion then we can't just go out and say 'stop being suspicious'. How do you rebuild trust in community, in culture, in society?”
Given the many strands of Christianity that stand to be united under this roof, building trust does not sound a simple matter. But Litzell is much more interested in finding unity between the individuals than between disparate philosophies. “Uniting our heads without first uniting our hearts is putting the cart before the horse,” he said. “Diversity is not a threat to love. What we have to do is to learn to choose to love one another with integrity even where our differences are, or appear, irreconcilable.”
CRISIS OF INTEGRITY
Out the window, on the far bank of Thames, the residents will be able to contemplate the Houses of Parliament as they eat their breakfast every morning. If anywhere is suffering from a crisis of integrity it is there: our politicians seem as disillusioned as the rest of us that we could ever learn to trust them again.
Integrity can't be fudged and it can't be faked. Whether our leaders have lost it, or whether social media and twenty-four hour news have made it impossible to conceal that they never had it in the first place, restoring faith in public life will be more than a matter of new spin. Perhaps it will require the sort of application and dedication that the community is demanding.
“I fully believe that the people who leave this year will be people who will over time become known as people of integrity, people you can trust, with your bank, or your company, or your country, or you fill in the blank.”
BEYOND THE WALL
One suggested etymology of 'community' is that it derives from the Latin 'munis', meaning wall. Community, then, is to build a wall around, to enclose ourselves within, and these walls at Lambeth Palace are more than a metre thick. Is there a danger, I asked Litzell, of his 16 monks losing their desire to engage with the outside world once their ten months of retreat are up? What if they don't want to leave when the next cohort of initiates arrive? In Matthew 6 it says that you cannot serve both God and Mammon. What if, having seen through Mammon for what it is, they find no desire to return?
Litzell chose his words carefully: “By being transformed into the likeness of Christ you don't cease to be who you are. You don't cease to have passion, or to think that things are important that you started out thinking were important.” The inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he said, accentuates and develops the passions already inherent within us which are most Christlike. It brings them to the fore, sustains them, makes them impossible to deny and thus impossible not to act on.
“I don't think that this is going to create a lot of people who will turn away from the world,” he said. “I think it will create people who engage with world more deeply. Who see through it, as you say, but who see through it into what it could be.”
That the website received 30,000 visitors in the first month attests that there is something here which has struck a chord. But how do you possibly whittle that down to 16? He laughed. “By the grace of God!”
As well as considering how each individual will benefit from the year, Welby and Litzell will also be selecting for the group dynamic. “All Christians are called to be shaped into the likeness of Christ, but not all according to this way. I fully expect there will be some fantastic, wonderful, Godly people who, for one reason or another, will end up not on the 16 for the first year. Or the 40. But how am I going to do that? That is a really good question.”
His enthusiasm was infectious; he seemed thrilled and sometimes almost shocked to find himself in this position. It is a wild and uncertain experiment, the results unknowable, and Litzell did not want to second guess what the benefits might be.
There is a tendency for many to feel that the Church in modern Britain is little more than some beautiful buildings in increasing need of repair. Yet many of the issues with which we currently grapple - rapacious capitalism, environmental degradation, social isolation - are issues that Christianity has been exploring for millennia.
Producing cohorts of young people who embody this accumulated wisdom and who are driven to engage with society has great potential to reassert the Church's position in modern, public life.
“We are investing in the future,” said Litzell. “Look at the older generation. Many of them have extraordinary depths of prayer life that are perhaps unrivalled in the younger generation. If we are being carried today on the prayers of the previous generation, who will carry the next generation? In that sense we're pouring new wine into a new wine skin, so that there will be some mature wine tomorrow.”
“So are you hoping that 2016 will be a good vintage?” I asked.
He smiled. “It's hopefully going to be one of those clarets that get better with every year.”
First published in Third Way, April 2015
Applications for a residency beginning in September are now open for the Community of St Anselm: for details go to stanselm.org.uk