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The First Christian Social Entrepreneur? Basil’s “New City” at Caesarea

An early representation of Basil, perhaps at the Basiliad

An early representation of Basil, perhaps at the Basiliad

In popular usage today, the term “entrepreneur” seems to mean little more than someone who started their own business. The term is much wider, however, and history reveals a noble line of social entrepreneurs, many of them Christian.

According to this article, a social entrepreneur is usually a creative individual who questions established norms and their own gifting, spirit and dynamism to enrich society in preference to themselves. We’re talking about a blend of philanthropist, visionary, business thinker and ‘go-getter’ – and for a Christian, a strong faith.

Christian social care is as old as Christianity itself, of course.  The Bible states that caring for widows and orphans is foundational to godliness (James 1:27). Perhaps the first instance of a more visionary enterprise was Basil the Great’s Basiliad in 4th century Caesarea.

This was a ground-breaking philanthropic foundation where the poor, the diseased, orphans and the aged could receive food, shelter, and medical care free of charge. It was staffed by monks and nuns who lived out their monastic vocation through a life of service, working with physicians and other lay people.

In his funeral address for Basil, his great friend Gregory, bishop of Nazianzus, said: Go forth a little way from the city, and behold the new city, the storehouse of piety, the common treasury of the wealthy… where disease is regarded in a religious light, and disaster is thought a blessing, and sympathy is put to the test. Oration 43, Available online at www.newadvent.org/fathers)

This ‘New City’ was the culmination of Basil’s social vision, the fruit of a lifetime of effort to develop a more just and humane social order within the region of Caesarea, where he grew up and later served as a priest and a bishop.

Image: thegreathospital.co.uk

Image: thegreathospital.co.uk

This line continued primarily through Christian hospitals, only really broadening to other areas with the coming of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. As poverty increased and health deteriorated through the factories, a window of opportunity opened for Christian social entrepreneurs. Suddenly prison reform, schools for poor children, cooperative societies, trustee savings banks and suchlike were big on the agenda, and gifted Christian men and women stood up with vision and application to see them through.

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Best Practice in Church Leadership Succession: the Early Moravians

Image: caspianmedia

Church history rightly remembers Nicholas, Count Zinzendorf (1700-1760) as a significant figure.  He was a religious and social reformer, founder of the Christian community and mission centre at Herrnhut in Saxony, Germany, from which grew today’s Moravian Church. Under his leadership, missionary teams carried the gospel everywhere, from the Inuit of Labrador to the Zulus of South Africa.

It was a phenomenal achievement. What is far less known is how near the whole movement came to collapse, and how it was rescued and restored. In many ways, we will find here a model of good practice in leadership succession and generational transition in a church. The largely unsung hero was Zinzendorf’s successor, August Spangenberg (1704-92).

He had been a theology lecturer but threw in his lot with the Moravians, aged 29. He became the movement’s theologian, apologist, statesman and corrector – for sixty years! At first, he was an assistant to Zinzendorf, who sent him to Pennsylvania to establish churches, communities and schools – and to address opposition from other denominations. Zinzendorf sought Spangenberg’s tutoring when he was preparing for his own Lutheran ordination. If the count was the visionary of the Moravian movement, Spangenberg was his interpreter and enabler.

August Gottlieb Spangenberg

August Gottlieb Spangenberg

However, all was not well in the church. Zinzendorf was more of a visionary than a practical administrator. Under his leadership, the church’s expansion was funded by personal loans. By the 1750s, expenditure was out of control and the church had over-extended itself. This precipitated a spectacular crash in the church’s credit rating and reputation. Detractors used the opportunity to attack them. One major objection was to Zinzendorf’s devotion to the wounds of Jesus, which some saw as too Catholic, others as plain weird.

Zinzendorf died in 1760 with the Moravian church in a precarious position. Spangenberg was recalled from America and, although Moravian leaders saw themselves as equals, Spangenberg was clearly first among them. Under his leadership, the church felt compelled to turn inwards for a season, to address very real issues. They looked at what was central to their call and the way it had hitherto been expressed, and realised that some realignment was necessary.

  • They took responsibility for the debts and introduced financial controls. They avoided bankruptcy and achieved financial stability.

  • They apologised for any extra-biblical teaching, admitting that some of the contentious areas had been Zinzendorf’s “private opinions”, which church members were not required to endorse.

  • They reiterated their commitment to the Bible and to mission.

A sketch of the Herrnhut community in 1765

A sketch of the Herrnhut community in 1765

These reforms worked, much to Spangenberg’s credit. With disasters averted and unhelpful trappings removed, the vibrant church life and gospel endeavour initiated by Zinzendorf flourished. The Moravians concentrated on what they did best: community and mission. Their fruit was remarkable and highly esteemed. While the Great Awakening won souls in ‘Christian’ Britain and America, the Moravians reaped a harvest among the unconverted in other lands. As the 18th century ended, the Moravians had been successfully rehabilitated as the model of a missional church.

Notes:

1. The Moravian Church teaches that it has preserved apostolic succession. In Berlin in 1735, several Moravian Brethren from Herrnhut received episcopal ordination from the two surviving bishops of the Unitas Fratrum (the Bohemian Brethren or Hussites). They considered it important to preserve the historic episcopate.

2. In their earlier years, the Moravians took literally Acts 1:26, the drawing of lots, to determine the will and guidance of God. Their covenant of 1727 included the stipulation that at any time, there should be 12 elders leading the church, all appointed by ‘the lot’. Thereafter, ‘the lot’ was used to help decide key matters like the election of elders, or whom to send on mission. Once the lot was consulted, the decision was seen as binding, since God’s Spirit had spoken.

The usual method was to place two pieces of paper in a box, one with “The Saviour approves” written on it, the other with “The Saviour does not approve”. After corporate prayer, a member of the elders’ council then pulled out one of these papers.

‘The lot’ came to be mistrusted. Some feared leaders could manipulate the lot by rewording and redrawing it until they got the answer they wanted. Others, influenced by the Enlightenment, suggested that God was too rational to use such a haphazard system and that the lot was just a matter of luck. By 1800 it was no longer being used in the Moravian churches.

For further insights, see Nigel Tomes, After the Founding Fathers; Historical Case Studies.

Accountability Turned the Tide for William Carey in India

Image: mylifeatail.com

Image: mylifeatail.com

Accountability is in the news a lot, with demands for bankers, politicians, the military and the intelligence services to be obliged to accept responsibility for their actions and to answer to someone for them. Does the same thing apply to church leaders? Opinions differ. In this article, we have a clear yes. This one is far less certain and sees dangers.

Are there examples from church history that we can look at and learn from? I believe so, and here is one.

In 1793, William Carey, a shoemaker and subsequently Baptist pastor from Northamptonshire, UK, took his family to India as missionaries. They finally settled at Serampore in West Bengal. For seven years they had not a single convert, their funds ran out and they were destitute for a time, his wife Dorothy got severely depressed and three of their children died. But by the time of his own death 41 years later, Carey had planted churches, founded colleges, overseen the translation of the gospels into forty local languages, and had secured the banning of ‘sati’ – the ritual burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre. He is still a revered figure in India and has featured on postage stamps.

Carey baptising his first Indian convert, Krishna Pal

Carey baptising his first Indian convert, Krishna Pal

What made the difference were some radical changes made when reinforcements arrived in 1799. Joshua Marshman, a gifted linguist, was a happily married man who saw immediately the strain in Carey’s marriage and his neglect of his children (whom Marshman found rude, indisciplined and uneducated). The Marshmans took the children under their wing and brought them some much-needed love and discipline. William Ward brought a practical business brain and took the weight of administration off Carey’s shoulders, as well as taking charge of the printing operation.

All this gave Carey a support structure that freed him to discover his leadership gifts. These three men thrashed through many issues and found a oneness of heart. This found an unusual expression: a brotherhood covenant, a pledge of loyalty and commitment. Entitled Form of Agreement, it was published in 1805 and has eleven points. Three times a year they read the pledge through at a special service and re-committed themselves to it. This covenant bond was faithfully kept by all of them until death. It was in many ways their backbone, the mainstay of the work in India.

This document has received little attention, but it well merits a closer inspection. Its context is specifically missionary – as opposed to the church covenants of membership that existed at the time. It is heartfelt, uncompromising and at times very strict. For example, the final point pronounces woes to the man who ever pulls away from the unity and does things on his own.

In my next posts I’ll look at the points in turn and see what they say to us of the power of radical agreement and accountability.

How Needy is ‘Needy’? Some Early Church Views

Basil of Caesarea  (330-379) was a highly influential leader in the Early Church, who laboured and wrote extensively for the rights of the poor. His stance on wealth and poverty is blunt and uncompromising. It is also very relevant to today, where consumerism has achieved almost god-like status.

This piece shows that Basil was also a keen and unflinching observer of human nature – and human excuses. The writer identifies ‘the human tendency to adjust the definition of “need” to fit one’s current level of income.’

Basil was on to this 1600 years ago. His homily (practical sermon) on the man in Jesus’ parable, I Will Tear Down My Barns [and Build Bigger Ones], treats the barns not so much as symbols of wealth but rather as representing our definition of needs based on our circumstances.

‘In effect’, continues the article, ‘Basil says that if we never have any extra to share, this is due to the fact that whenever we find ourselves in possession of a surplus, we immediately adjust our definition of need to fit the new situation.’

(You say) “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones.” But if you fill these larger ones, what do you intend to do next? Will you tear them down yet again only to build them up once more? What could be more ridiculous than this incessant toil, laboring to build and then laboring to tear down again?

In his sermon “To the Rich”, Basil sees this as a form of madness. “Those who have acquired wealth and have great possessions, desire more of the same, nursing the sickness by perpetual accumulation. Having so much here and now fails to bring them happiness, since they grieve over what they don’t have, and convince themselves they’re lacking. ‘We’re poor!’, they say. And it’s true, because a poor person lacks much, and much are you lacking because of your insatiable desires! What was it that killed Naboth? [1 Kings 21] Was it not King Ahab’s greed for his vineyard?”

And so, Basil concludes, you commit injustice to so many when you could have helped them – which applies to any level on the scale of wealth.

Salisbury foodbank volunteer Jill Plant

Increasing numbers of UK people are reliant on Food Banks  Image: mirror.co.uk

The issue of varying levels of need came particularly to a head in the monasteries. After all, if you live together, perceived inequality can be a death-knell. So Benedict of Nursia (480-c.545) had to address the matter in his Rule (which still governs Benedictine houses today, 1500 years later). He does so with great wisdom, rooted in scriptural principles, in Chapter 34:

Whether All Should Receive in Equal Measure What Is Necessary:  It is written, “Distribution was made to everyone according as he had need” (Acts 4:35). We do not say by this that respect should be had for persons (God forbid), but regard for infirmities. Let him who hath need of less thank God and not give way to sadness, but let him who hath need of more, humble himself for his infirmity, and not be elated for the indulgence shown him; and thus all the members will be at peace. 

Above all, let not the evil of murmuring appear in the least word or sign for any reason whatever. If anyone be found guilty herein, let him be placed under severe discipline.

I get the feeling that if this sentiment was more universally accepted and applied, a good measure of stress could be removed from our lives today.

 

Revival-Bringer: Hans Nielsen Hauge’s Reformation of Norway

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One definition of a social entrepreneur is’someone who finds a solution to an intractable social problem of  his or her culture, pioneers its implementation and sees it to fruition.’  Given the far-ranging social, economic, political and spiritual impact of his life, Hans Nielsen Hauge (1771-1824), pronounced Ho-ger, deserves much wider recognition outside his native Norway.

It all began in 1796, when the 25-year-old farmer’s son was ploughing a field. He suddenly felt an overwhelming experience of the presence of God.  ‘My mind became so exalted that I can scarcely express what took place in my soul’, he wrote later. ‘I asked Him to reveal to me what I should do. The answer echoed in my heart: “You shall confess My name before the people; exhort them to repent and seek Me while I may be found and call upon Me while I am near; and touch their hearts that they may turn from darkness to light”.’ He burned with love for Jesus and for mankind.

He first shared the good news at home, then set off as an itinerant evangelist. He developed a pattern of walking great distances every day, holding three or four meetings in villages and reaching large numbers of ordinary people. In the 8 years he was free to do this, it is estimated he covered 15,000 km. He often knitted as he walked; the gloves and socks were then given away to the poor who needed them. Many people came to saving faith in Jesus as a result and then they themselves went out to preach the gospel. A grass-roots revival began to spread among the rural communities.

Hauge preaching in a tavern

Hauge was a humble and practical man, full of initiative. He saw the need to educate and equip the common people as well as save their souls. He had an amazing capacity for work, which, combined with his pioneering spirit, made him an entrepreneur to rank with the best.

For Hauge, running a business and preaching went hand in hand. He started a company in Bergen in 1801 to secure a sound economic base for his gospel activities. Thereafter, there was no stopping him! Over the next eight years, he founded fishing industries, brickyards, spinning mills, shipping yards, salt and mineral mines, paper mills and printing works. These created jobs for people who needed work and taught them how to make a living for themselves. He delegated the daily management to those he thought were the most capable, but he was the strategist who planned and motivated the whole enterprise. The profits were always used to invest in new activities.

Hauge became an inspiration to all who wanted to take Norway out of the ‘middle ages’ and into a new day. New agricultural and industrial methods were developed, and literacy rates rose. A new confidence led to greater economic freedom as Christians were challenged to rebuild society. Norway began to change.

The young Hauge

The young Hauge

Hans-Nielsen Hauge’s time as a travelling evangelist were busy and fulfilling. A magnetism of God’s love seemed to draw people to him. He collected some of their testimonies and published them as tracts, to reach out to others. He made friends in many places and groups of followers formed. One particular characteristic among them was love.

It is something that God’s children have among them by the Spirit, Hauge wrote. They know each other from the first moment of meeting. It shows in their spiritual talk, their gentle and humble character and moral, simple and faithful words. One of Christ’s shepherds easily recognises his own, and they recognise him.

Some young ‘Haugians’ were entrusted with local leadership, preaching tours and the sale of books. These men had very different backgrounds and education, but all of them were stamped with Hauge’s burning decisiveness for Christ.

Alongside this, Hauge encouraged representatives of the rural population into politics, launching what has been described as the first Norwegian democratic movement. This was enough to gain him enemies. Norway had strict laws regarding sectarian preaching and ‘vagrancy’; both of these were now used against him.

In 1799, notices were read in churches warning against unauthorised preachers. Some Haugians were chased out of churches, beaten and imprisoned. Altogether, Hauge himself was arrested ten times. He once spent nine years in prison before his case was even heard! The sheriff of Hallingdal thought it would be fun to send a prostitute to Hauge’s cell; he looked her in the eyes with compassion and she began to sob and confess her sins!

Hauge's cell was under this building in present-day Oslo

Hauge’s cell was under this building in present-day Oslo

His final imprisonment lasted 10 years, 3 of them in total isolation, first in an underground cell reserved for drunks, and finally in a small cell that has now been reconstructed at Norway’s Open Air Museum outside Oslo. He wrote to his friends:

If I had 100 lives, they would all be willing for chains. Prison does not last for ever. I wish you well on the road of salvation. It is my prayer, my longing, my burden of care and my joy to find you in life eternal.

However, Hauge was by now a national figure on account of his entrepreneurial business enterprises on behalf of the poor. His long imprisonment was becoming a scandal. What’s more, the authorities still needed his business and industrial expertise. Once, they freed him for a time because they needed his advice on a marine desalination project!

Finally, his sentence was commuted to a fine, which his friends paid. Hauge was free, broken in health but filled with God’s vision. He was ready for the final stage of the adventure.

Hauge in later life

Hauge spent his last years on a farm near Christiania (modern Oslo), bought for him by his friends. Years of imprisonment had weakened his body but not his spirit. His home became a centre for Christian life, visited by many. Spiritual and secular leaders alike came to him for advice.

He wrote a number of books and articles, mainly spiritual but some economic. Two years before his early death, he gave this testimony to God’s faithfulness and dealings.

I am 52 years old and have tasted Christianity’s joy and strength, which had enabled me to leave my father’s house and to offer up my body’s peace and my worldly goods. I have put my life in danger of death many times, wandered alone through and over many wild woods and fells. I have seen many loathsome forms of sin. But in all this, nothing has been able to disturb the peace and the divine joy I have through the teaching of Christ.

My consciousness is at one with it, and I only want to live according to its command. In the darkest of prisons, where I have sat for my testimony’s sake, I have had spiritual joys that exceed all the world’s glory and joy. In a miraculous way, power is granted to all those who receive it in their inner being, such that their souls become sanctified by His reconciling grace. From this flows that purity and that friendship that far exceeds all other morals and friendships in the worlds. Let it happen!

At the end, Hauge was bedridden – but still preached. His last exhortation was: “Follow Jesus!” He died, his face radiant with joy, exclaiming, “Oh, You eternal, loving God!”

That was by no means the end of the story! Some of his followers held important positions. Three of them took part in the first Norwegian Parliament in 1814, when Norway became independent from Denmark after 400 years of Danish rule. The whole nation felt the effects of Hauge’s influence – spiritually, politically and financially. It can truly be said that he fathered the new nation.

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Hauge’s pioneering work in economic justice and ethical business continue to inspire today. Journalist Sigbjorn Ravnasen has written a book (very hard to find, even on Google) on Hans Nielsen Hauge’s Ethical Framework for Business and Management. He writes:

“When Norway became an independent nation in 1814, these kingdom values were integrated into the rhythm of daily life and were institutionalized into laws, school curricula and business practices in Norway. Economic conditions improved and led to the eradication of poverty in the land. Today, Norway continues to be the best country in the world in human development for the seventh year in a row. Norwegians have imbibed this spirit of volunteerism and have stretched their sense of responsibility from involvement in their local community beyond to the global community of nations. So Norway has the highest ratio of missionaries per capita, and (most unusually) in holistic and transformational servant-leadership roles.”

In 2005 the Hauge Institute was founded. Its aim is to raise awareness about the person Hans Nielsen Hauge, his ethical thinking and topicality; to bring inspiration to the business community, to leaders, research, education and society. Based on the thinking and practice of Hans Nielsen Hauge, the Hauge Institute focuses on the ethical dimension in three main areas: Leadership, Entrepreneurship, and Trade and the Environment. Meanwhile, the Norwegian Lutheran Mission has adopted his name and his principles and still operates today as the Hauge Missions.

The Amazing Faithfulness of Lena Tikhuie

An African settlement around the time the Moravians arrived

An African settlement around the time the Moravians arrived

In 1737, the Moravian Church sent a team to start a mission and community settlement in South Africa. They chose some land east of Cape Town and called it Genadendal (Grace Valley). You can see images of the subsequent settlement here.

The local tribe, the Khoi, were impoverished and dispersed but the Moravians reached out to them and began a school for their children. One of the first Khoi to be baptised was a woman called Tikhuie, whom the missionaries named Magdalena. Her husband, a skilled hunter, kept the community supplied with meat.

Some of the missionaries died of disease, however, and the leader grew lonely and, in 1744, was recalled to Germany. Everyone thought the community was finished. They reckoned without ‘Lena’ Tikhuie! Having learnt to read at the mission school, she gathered the people daily under a tree and taught them the scriptures.

Years passed. Travellers returning to Europe brought tales of an African woman leading a church at Grace Valley. Finally, in 1792, nearly fifty years after the withdrawal, the Moravians sent a fresh team to re-found Genadendal. On their arrival, they found the ruins of the original houses, but to their astonishment there was Lena Tikhuie, frail and almost blind, still holding the ground and ministering to the little congregation, daily, under the tree. Her well-worn bible was still with her, wrapped in sheepskin.

The missionaries were told, “Every evening we all, men, women and children, would go to old Lena. She would fall on her knees and pray. When her eyes would let her, she read from the New Testament.” As families grew, parents taught their children to pray. When Lena couldn’t read, a younger woman did it for her.

Lena became a living legend in the area. People came to see her. One, the wife of a high official in the British government, wrote: “It was like creeping back seventeen hundred years to hear from the coarse but inspired lips of evangelists the simple, sacred words of wisdom and purity.”

Lena never knew when she was born, but she lived a long life, always thanking God for His great grace. When she died in 1800, her faithful perseverance had become legendary throughout South Africa. She was one of the first indigenous church leaders in South Africa, certainly the first woman, and she had led the congregation at Genadendal for fifty years.

Antony of Egypt: the Inner Pull of the Desert

Image: artmajeur.com

Image: artmajeur.com

Antony of Egypt was a true pioneer, whose influence is still felt today. What makes him so remarkable is that he did what he did long before it made sense to do such things, but by doing it he blazed a trail for posterity.

Evangelical Protestant historians explain the migration to the desert by thousands of monks, nuns and hermits as a reaction against the political “Christendom” created by Constantine I and his successors in the 4th century. Yet Antony had already made his statement a generation earlier, at a time when the Early Church was still supposed to be in its bloom.

Born in Egypt about AD 251, his parents died when he was young, leaving him a small fortune. One day he heard a Christian quote Jesus’ words: If you would be perfect, go sell all you have, give to the poor, and come follow Me (Matthew 19:21). They cut him like a knife. He sold his estate and became the disciple of a godly priest.

Yet his heart grew restless. He didn’t belong to the world he saw around him. He felt a strong pull to the desert beyond the Nile. Here hot and cold, flood and drought engaged men in a daily, physical battle for life itself. To Antony, this mirrored the human soul in its battle between flesh and spirit, love for God and love of self. Here too was a pioneering adventure, where only the real would make it.

So Antony went to live alone in the desert. Friends sent food every few days; all else depended on his survival skills. His experiences were later dictated to a follower – and what reading they make! He fought boredom and guilt, sexual temptations and hunger for possessions. He gives graphic accounts of battles with demons, but also of sweet times of communion with Jesus. He also learned the importance of manual work for focusing the mind; he wove reed baskets and sold them in town.

Remains of monastic settlements

His reputation spread and men came to the desert to be near him. Reluctantly, in AD 305, he left his solitude and spent six years drawing these disciples into a community of hermits. In time, some 5,000 were under his authority. They lived alone or in pairs in the week, then came together on Sundays for worship, fellowship and mutual support. He taught them the foundational principles that he had based his own life on: love, patience, celibacy, gentleness and humility. Hate all peace that comes from the flesh, he taught. Gain your brother, and you have gained God. Offend your brother, and you sin against Christ.

Antony was well aware of the prophetic power of his act of renunciation of ‘normality’. A time is coming when men will go mad, he is recorded as saying, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, “You are mad, you are not like us.”

A monastery built in the vicinity of Antony’s original community still exists and is a popular tourist destination. But Antony himself found celebrity unpalatable and withdrew deeper into the desert, where he lived to be over 100. He appeared only twice: to strengthen persecuted brethren in Alexandria, and to counter a dangerous heresy. His burial place was kept secret, since he feared men’s idolatry. Today, Antony is acknowledged as the founding ‘Desert Father’ (though Paul of Thebes was the first hermit); the man who broke the mould and let passion for Jesus create a new, living ‘wineskin’ (Matthew 9:17) for the Holy Spirit’s life.

Humanity, Spirituality, Community: William Carey Advocated Them All

One of the households of the New Creation Christian Community, UK

One of the households of the New Creation Christian Community, UK

I note that I omitted to conclude my series of posts on the Serampore Covenant (or “Form of Agreement”) drawn up in 1805 by pioneer missionary William Carey. You can find the start of the series here.

The document ends with three shorter sections. Numbers 9 and 10 deal with the spiritual side of the mission. Here we are on known ground. The ‘Serampore Trio’ pledge devotion to the Bible and to religious education. We consider the publication of the Divine Word throughout India as an object which we ought never to give up until it is accomplished.

This meant translation (in time, Carey and his team would translate the gospels into forty Indian languages and dialects, in addition to Christian tracts) and publication, for which they had their own printing press, run by William Ward. Over and above this, the missionaries covenant to explain and distribute, and to excite attention and reverence for, the Word of God.

Free schools for Indian children were seen as a priority. The progress of divine light is gradual, so religious education for children was a vital tool. The missionaries should establish, visit, encourage and recommend these at every opportunity.

Section 10 is a commitment to fervent, believing prayer, both individual and corporate.

Carey’s Bengali Bible translation

The concluding section 11, however, is anything but traditional missionary fare! It is a passionate recommendation of common purse Christian community living (the Bible, Acts 2:42), and a withering blast against any lessening of covenant commitment or a turning back to selfish, independent ways. Let us give up ourselves unreservedly to this glorious cause. Let us never think that our time, our gifts, our strengths, our families, or even the clothes we wear, are our own.

The Serampore team had embraced a shared purse around 1804,  so they are able to testify: No private family ever enjoyed a greater portion of happiness, even in the most prosperous gale of worldly prosperity, than we have done since we resolved to have all things in common. This book looks at the biblical and historical evidence for Christian community living; this one looks at its relevance for today.

Having renounced self-centred living for the sake of the gospel, and having reinforced this by a pledge of loyalty and accountability, Carey, Marshman and Ward warn severely against turn back from it. Woe to that man who shall ever make the smallest movement towards doing things on his own. The moment it is admitted that each brother may act independently, a worldly spirit, quarrels and every evil work will succeed.

It is this formal, solemn and very human pledge of covenant that makes the Serampore mission both different and compelling. High standards indeed, but they were crowned with success. If we are enabled to persevere [in these principles], we may hope that multitudes of converted souls will have reason to bless God to all eternity for sending His gospel into this country. And succeed they did, as these links eloquently show.

Women of Vision and Action for God’s Kingdom: the Beguines

The last intact Beguinage, at Antwerp, Belgium

An intact Beguinage, at Antwerp, Belgium

The late 1100s were a time of great social upheaval in Western Europe. Thousands left agriculture and migrated to the towns, which grew rapidly and a new ‘middle class’ of merchants and craftsmen evolved. Also, the Crusades had led thousands of men to their death, leaving an imbalance of women.

The Church was not well placed to cope with this new climate. For centuries, the beating heart of the faith had been in the monasteries, which were almost always in the country, sticking to ancient traditions and out of touch with new social developments. Women who wanted to live radically for God had few openings. The time was ripe for a new expression of the kingdom of God. A group called the Beguines rose to the challenge.

This was a spontaneous movement that began with a group of praying women in Liège, Belgium, in the 1190s. Not wanting either of the usual options of marriage or a nunnery, these radical women pioneered a new form of community. They pledged themselves to prayer, poverty and celibacy. Seeing how society was changing, they chose to stay in the towns, especially the poor suburbs, where they could serve the people with Jesus’ love.

Adult women during the Middle Ages were expected to live under the guardianship of a man, either within the household as a wife and mother, or dedicated to the Church as a nun. The Beguines  deliberately lived outside of these boundaries. Women who entered Beguinages (Beguine houses and/or convents) were not bound by permanent vows, in contrast to women who entered convents. They could enter Beguinages having already been married, and they could leave the Beguinages to marry. Some women even entered the Beguinages with children.

 

Marcella Pattyn, the last Beguine, who died in 2013

Marcella Pattyn, the last Beguine, who died in 2013

They aimed to recover the simplicity, love and outreach of the early Church. They preached (which was not allowed), and in the language of the people, not Latin. Their communal settlements had a hospital, a place of worship, and work-shops for spinning, lace-making and other crafts that were to generate an income. They held literacy classes for poor children, supported widows, and took in orphans. And at every turn, they proclaimed God’s love for the poor.

Beguines had no mother-house, nor common rule, nor any appointed head the order. Every community was complete in itself and fixed its own order of living. Members were of varied social status: some admitted only ladies of high degree; others only the poor; others again received women of every condition, and these were the most densely peopled. Several, like the great Beguinage of Ghent, in Belgium, numbered around a thousand.

In the beginning, the clergy’s attitude towards Beguines was ambivalent. They could not fault their chastity and charity, yet the fact that they existed without men (except for priests and confessors to lead them) was greatly mistrusted. They were never an approved religious order, yet they were granted special privileges and exemptions customary for approved orders. The Church, however, did not approve of their lack permanent vows. Women were not supposed to have that much freedom. In time, Beguines were treated as heretics and persecuted.

A male offshoot began, taking the name Beghards, but never made the same impact as the women – perhaps because they were not so very different from the Franciscan friars. It was the Beguines, the visionary women who created a visible kingdom of God, who made the lasting mark. They heard the pulse of the society God had placed them in, and met its need. The movement multiplied, and by 1270 there were Beguine communities in most towns in Belgium, Holland and North Germany.

 

Beguines at work c.1920

Beguines at work c.1920

FOR FURTHER READING

This piece gives more information (not that much is known) about Lambert le Bègue, parish priest of St Christopher’s in Liège in the latter part of the 12th century. He was a reformer who preached against abuses in the established church. It is generally assumed that the name Beguines was derived from his own, as it was he who urged a new movement of godly women who would rise up to serve their generation.

Here is a general sketch of the Beguine movement and its spirituality.

This more scholarly account discusses the characteristics of Beguine life and looks at the possible reasons for their eventual decline.

An article by Marianne Dormann looks further into the spiritual devotions of the Beguines, chiefly using The Mirror of the Soul, by Marguerite Porete, a French Beguine who was burned at the stake for supposed heresy in 1310.

For some old photographs and illustrations of Beguine houses, look no further than here.

Finally, in this piece, Marvin Anderson considers the contemporary implications of the Beguines’ rediscovery of lay ministry and grassroots evangelism.

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