Nicholas Ferrar's holy calling

Cross against treesIn the mid 1620s, a businessman called Nicholas Ferrar felt a 'holy calling' to leave power and prestige behind to be ordained a deacon and leader of a semi-monastic community called Little Gidding.

Unsettled times

He could scarcely have ministered in more unsettled times. The church was caught up in the nation's steady drift towards civil war. Grievances against Kings James I and Charles I ran high, within the church and beyond. Political coups fomented and then failed. Strong church leaders like the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, had so closely identified with the royal despotism of the day that, as one historian puts it, 'when that despotism was broken he was broken too'. Partisan division prevented effective communication - people with different points of view on the identity and mission of the church were unwilling to listen charitably to their opponents. The church was in a mess.

An odd notion

Ferrar was possessed by the odd notion that the kingdom of God might best be sought outside the contentious human kingdoms of his day. So, according to one of his biographers, he 'attend[ed] to the one thing necessary': 'to serve God in his holy calling, to be the Levite himself in his own house, and to make his own relations, which were many, his cure of souls'.

Ferrar was possessed by the odd notion that the kingdom of God might best be sought outside the contentious human kingdoms of his day

He accomplished this through the adoption of a very practical rule of life in the context of Christian fellowship and service. This sounds like Benedict, doesn't it? But the community founded by Nicholas did not take monastic vows, though members of the community felt a keen sense of obligation to the pattern of life that quickly emerged. The rule of Little Gidding was actually quite unique in this regard.

A Christian family

The chief concern was to live as a Christian family, extended in the direction of love to God and neighbour. It did, in fact, begin with the Ferrar family, but it welcomed others into this household of faith. Eventually, their remote country house north of Cambridge became what we might call a retreat centre, attracting the rich and poor, kings and bishops, scholars and ordinary folk who sought healing and renewal, physically and spiritually.

A structured way of life

Little Gidding adopted a structured way of life that centred on co-operation and service in an atmosphere of friendship and humility. There were daily hours for communal worship, but also periods set aside for study and work. Particular time was allowed for artistic expression and craftsmanship in the illustration of texts and the binding of large holy books containing gospel 'harmonies' and the Psalter.

Simple meals were prepared for the poor and hungry, and a wide range of other activities in the 'discipline' of the community produced a rhythm of daily life. One observer noted that the members 'were in the World, not of the World. All their Practice was heavenly...'.

Active reading

BiblesThe practice of active reading was one of the more interesting developments. Nicholas thought that the gospel narrative should be the unifying story of Little Gidding, but he wanted the story to point to all the other parts of the Bible, especially the Old Testament's prophecies and prefigurations of Christ. This was accomplished by compiling indexes, concordances, commentaries, and so on - each a result of the collaborative efforts of the readers. The work was exacting and extensive, becoming something of a spiritual discipline for the community as a whole.

So while the gospel narrative defined the community, there was also a simultaneous broadening or comprehension of the whole story of God. Each day, a new connection between one passage of Scripture and another might be discovered by a member of the community and recorded in the appropriate book. This attentiveness to the coherence and correlation of the biblical text was a persistent feature of study and devotion at Little Gidding, producing a storehouse of wisdom, especially in regards to the details of Christ's life.

This, along with the reading of the Psalms every day, in hourly turn, allowed the larger patterns or 'constellations' in the Bible to be discovered, ordered and internalised. Such an acquaintance with the words and structures of the Scriptures shaped hearts and minds, and provided a richly imaginative world of shared meaning and purpose.

Shaped by the biblical text

The reading community was, in a sense, shaped by the biblical text. The Bible had that much power and privileged status in its everyday life. This is why Nicholas and his friend, the poet and pastor George Herbert, saw all of the physical, mental and spiritual activities surrounding the Scriptures as transformative. Transformation occurred, they thought, because the Holy Spirit was given ample opportunity to speak and act - revealing, pointing, stirring and nudging individuals and the community as a whole to respond in particular ways.

The responses included the painstaking restoration of a nearby church, the launching of an elaborate programme of religious education for children, the distribution of free meals to the poor and medical care to the sick. Clearly, Little Gidding was not separate from the world, despite its quiet resolve to study Scripture in depth.

Stiff opposition

Cloud conflictThe Little Gidding experiment met with stiff opposition in the Church of England. Some found it at times a bit 'dutiful and severe' in its manner of life. In an age of strong anti-Catholic and anti-monastic sentiment, rumours circulated about its 'nuns', prayer vigils and 'canonical hours', its richly decorated crosses - both outdoors and indoors - and altar. All of this was associated with the 'adorations, genuflections, and geniculations' of 'superstition and popery'.

There was also the charge that too much time was spent in praying, not preaching. Others thought the community's interest in Christian education and the meticulous compilation of Bible study resources departed from more 'orthodox' modes of instruction. In many respects, Little Gidding could satisfy no one - that is, unless the critics came to see for themselves what the communal life was really about.

The 'Congregation of Saints'

This 'Congregation of Saints' remained a vital witness to the transforming power of Christian fellowship, well after the experiment came to an end in 1657. Even though it did not explicitly reach out evangelistically to the lost, it is attracting increasing attention today. The Little Gidding Trust has begun to revive some aspects of the spiritual vision of Nicholas Ferrar, and a growing number of pilgrims are hoping for more Little Giddings to spring up across the land - following the 'good old way' in a fresh expression of gospel light and life.

A revival of interest

What is this revival of interest in Ferrar's experiment about? In many respects, it suggests a 'river of faithfulness' in neo-monastics' rediscovery of intentional forms of Christian community. That's what Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has in mind in his Rutba House project in Durham, North Carolina. He describes the new monasticism - whether in the USA or UK - as a 'lively convergence' of concern about:

The move towards new forms of Christian community, and neo-monasticism in particular, are an effort to recapture the social embodiment of the gospel
  • what it means to see all of life under the Lordship of Christ;
  • how to build up strong communities without divisions between religious and secular vocations;
  • appreciating the disciplined or 'ruled' life as a means to an end - 'the faithful life and witness of the church';
  • a community that engages in 'deep theological reflection and commitment' to keep 'right belief and right practice' together.

That sounds like Ferrar's vision, doesn't it? The move towards new forms of Christian community, and neo-monasticism in particular, are an effort to recapture the social embodiment of the gospel. Ferrar ensured that his community formed - quite literally - round the biblical text. Today, communities are taking that insight in all sorts of new directions, but with particular regard for the ministry of presence in places and networks where the gospel is not expressed in communal form.

Mission-shaped Church reminds us: 'To be an Anglican is to want to be rooted in communities and to be accessible to those communities (however those communities define themselves).' Perhaps the new Little Giddings that are popping up across the landscape will be more accessible than was Ferrar's community, but it would not be surprising to see many of the Scripture-centred dynamics of his experiment carried forth.