How has our Community changed through the process of moving?

An article from the Anglican Religious Life Year Book 2018-19
by Brother Thomas OSB of Mucknell Abbey

In the first place, we changed just through the period of coming to the decision to move at all!

It is easy for a Community, after living a long time in a beautiful, familiar setting, to assume that the life will just continue in that place and that the only things to change will be deaths and arrivals of Community members, the timetable and the name of the local electrician. The initial decision-making process introduced us to new ways of evaluating our Community life, learning to listen differently to our visitors and local supporters, and learning to communicate more honestly and reflectively with each other. In that period we changed from a divided Community – on this issue certainly, for or against – to a Community united in the realisation that it would be good for us to move. Also, our horizon was pushed back: the issue was no longer about where and how we lived but more about where and how the next generation of the Community lived.

We changed further in the period of imagining a new home and identifying some of our needs and wishes. We chose our architects before we even sold our old home and they – never having designed a monastery before – came to spend 48 hours with us, attending everything we did alongside us and asking us how we used the spaces we had. That made us articulate our Community life in a way we hadn’t previously: what features of it were essential to our charism, which were determined by the place where we live and what we might like to do differently if we could. They then produced a symbolic structure of interrelated spaces which we refined with them. Finally, they left with us a few inspirational books of glossy photographs of modern buildings, including churches, for us to look at and identify some styles we liked.

The third phase of change was the period of exploring and assessing properties on the market. We were sent mounds of paper and megabytes of brochures by the agents and these were checked against our needs and favoured styles. The agents justified this by saying that a lot of customers ended up buying something different from what they had originally said they hoped for – we found the same, with our architects sometimes reminding us, for example, “but you said you didn’t want a listed building”. There were two issues here. The first was the handling of expectations: when we were dreaming and hoping, we reached for the ideal; when we saw real properties, none was perfect. In the second place we had to face real trade-offs: the more we spent on the purchase, the less we would have in the bank to make alterations or additions. Community life can have a lulling, sometimes institutionalising effect, and we had to relearn how to be hard-headed, responsible adults.

The next group of changes was around the period of our specific design. We received details of about 100 properties, we visited (some of us) about eight and the architects sketched a rough idea of how to apply our symbolic structure to three. The final choice had to be a compromise between different parts of the ideal and different strands of practicality. Nothing in this life is perfect and our homeland is (only) in heaven. So some of our expectations were dashed and we had to handle that too. But, having decided on and purchased our new property – in our case this was more a less an empty shell – we had to work intensively with the architects on the specific design. Of course, by now there were actual physical constraints on what was possible, actual Planning constraints and – from that earlier trade-off – actual financial constraints. All these constraints affected the actual design and dashed some of our expectations. We had to think hard about our priorities and focus on what we needed for a viable Community life.

The fifth period of change was the on-site period, while demolition and then building work took place. It was a very steep learning curve and we discovered just how dependent we were on the professional competencies and management skills of others – not just the architects, but landscapers and various engineers. We kept reminding them that we wanted a monastery, not a hotel or a school or even a church. They kept reminding us of what we couldn’t afford – or what we might want to do more cheaply so as to keep money in hand for some other features. Sometimes we were delighted by their inventiveness or thoroughness, and at other times we were appalled by their misunderstanding or carelessness. We kept having meetings with the architects, who supervised the building, and had hundreds of details or amendments to agree with us. While the abbot attended the monthly site meetings with the architects and quantity surveyors, the whole Community also visited the site several times and were shown round – and sometimes noticed things that were not on the plans! The Community gained a new appreciation of our vow of obedience: so many details came to us for decision, and so many of those were urgent matters of opinion or relative – rather than absolute – merit, that the abbot had to make a number of difficult decisions after inconclusive meetings.

Alongside much of this work we were saying ‘goodbyes’ and packing and clearing our home of sixty years. That in itself was demanding emotionally, pastorally and practically. It is all too easy, in a large community house, to keep things in case they’re needed one day… We had a huge turn-out and had to try imagining what would be useful long-term and what would be unnecessary or inappropriate. Again we were facing the distinction between needs and wants, between imagined needs and uncertain actual needs…and mistakes were made: “If only we hadn’t got rid of…”

And finally, we moved into the new buildings and furniture arrived from store. Already then we were envisaging some changes of use even since the design! We were finding all the things that had been forgotten, or badly done, by the various contractors, and the 12-month ‘snagging period’ was almost busier for us than the build-period! We were also discovering that some of our ideas were in fact reactions to the problems of our old home rather than necessary features of the new one; and, of course, there were some things we simply hadn’t been able to visualise. We were surprised by the complexity of many of the ‘sustainable’ features we had asked for in the design and the expense of servicing them.

At the same time, we had lost our support network in terms of service and maintenance – that electrician whose name we all knew! And some of our local friends just thought the distance was too much for them to go on visiting or volunteering. But at the same time we were making new contacts and many people were welcoming us gladly – so we needed time and space to get to know them.

The whole exercise of moving, then, prompted and required considerable change in the Community, but of course the charism is the same and the life very much in continuity. The changes, while exciting, were also draining, and a certain number of Community ‘treats’ and rest periods were needed to get us through. We have also found that the change from venerable old buildings to sustainable new buildings has given us not only a new look but something of a new outlook, a new face towards outsiders which many find attractive, and a new openness to ways of welcoming those outsiders whether as guests or through our ‘alongsider’ programme. The entire project gave a boost to this Community.