Paul Dominiak, Vice-Principal at Westcott, draws lessons from the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for living in an intensive, intense and intentional residential Christian community.
Although I am now Vice-Principal, just over a decade ago I was a fresh-faced ordinand from York Diocese arriving at Westcott House after only having visited overnight once before. Someone in the House wisely suggested in the summer before we arrived that new ordinands might wish to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. This work was written while Bonhoeffer taught at an underground seminary in Nazi Germany, and after his execution it soon became a classic reflection about Christian community. Bonhoeffer’s Life Together was the best possible thing to read in preparation for entering into an intensive, intense and intentional residential Christian community like Westcott. I have often returned to the work over the subsequent years as I moved between curacy and chaplaincy posts. It speaks into three things for me about the precious gift of residential training such as is found at Westcott, and life more broadly in Christian community that every minister experiences.
First, Life Together focuses on the essential, incarnational quality of being together in discipleship. Being together in community is a gift and a necessity. The incarnational aspect of formation at Westcott was so vital to my own flourishing. Our vocation as Christians – and as those training for ministry – is fundamentally social and relational. Bonhoeffer recognised in Life Together that it was Christ who personally brought people together to be formed in relation to Him. It is not any particular idea or skill or aspiration that brings us together and constitutes who we are. It is the Word of God broken open in Scripture and in the sacraments. As the Gospel of John puts it, the Word of God dwelt among us – or more figuratively ‘pitched up a tent in our midst’. This is what makes community uniquely Christian, for we are called to find our true selves in relation to Christ in our midst and in relation to one another as we co-exist in Christ. Bonhoeffer therefore opens Life Together by quoting from Psalm 133:1: “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” For Bonhoeffer – and certainly in my experience at Westcott – such Christian unity flows from how we discover ourselves together in Christ, cutting through whatever might ordinarily divide us and drawing our distinctiveness into the rich tapestry of life together coram Deo. Christian community for Bonhoeffer “is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ, in which we may participate”.
Second, Life Together focuses on the reality of (and realism about) Christian community. This was good preparation for living at Westcott. Bonhoeffer describes the attempt to create a sustainable concrete model of Christian community by spending moments with others, in solitude, service, confession and communion. These are the rhythms I discovered at Westcott through daily prayer, fellowship, study and ministry. Yet, these rhythms can be challenging and disruptive to how we perceive ourselves, community, and other people. As Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together, “I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me”. What a challenge that makes – but one we face throughout our discipleship if we take our Lord’s command to love seriously. Even our notions – and I might even say fantasies – about what Christian community will be like, or ought to be like, are challenged when face-to-face with the messy realities of actual Christian communities. “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community,” wrote Bonhoeffer, “but the person who loves those around them will create community”. It was at Westcott House, then, that I truly learned how to love – really love – the messy realities of actual Christian community and find the incarnate and risen Lord there rather than in some escapist illusion of what the Church should be like.
Finally, Life Together reminds me that true Christian community is ecstatic. I don’t mean ‘giddy’ by this; I mean it is drawn outside of itself. This is of course true because Christian community is an extension of the incarnation: the Church is the Body of Christ, and we find our individual and social selves in relation to being in Christ. It is also true, however, because the Church looks not towards itself but gazes upon the world that God loves and in which the Holy Spirit works. God interrupts us in community. “We must be ready,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and cancelling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions”. Elsewhere, Bonhoeffer wrote that “the church is church only when it is there for others.” Westcott formed me – and I trust forms everyone who comes to study at Westcott – into the idea that Christian communities are a people for other people, a people drawn out of themselves into Christ, into the activity of the Spirit, and into the mission of the Trinity, in order to bring all creation into communion with God.
The Revd Dr Paul Dominiak
Vice-Principal of Westcott House