SEVEN SACRED SPACES: PORTALS TO DEEPER COMMUNITY LIFE IN CHRIST
Church Army was a key part of the story of how I bumped into the reality that I call ‘The Seven Sacred Spaces’. For 20 years I was part of the Church Army community, as the Director of the Research Unit. In the years 1997 to 2011 the small research team lived alongside what was then the residential training College in Sheffield for evangelists. We shared in aspects of its life: eating together, learning, and studying, worshipping, and informally meeting along the corridors or in its open spaces. It was a rich experience.
Throughout my Christian life, from time to time I’ve been entranced by a quality of community life which was deep, authentic and transformative. Sadly, at other times, I’ve found myself thinking ‘there must be more than this’; when worship was mind-numbingly boring, when Christians disagreed disagreeably, when the church was obsessed with its own agendas or divorced from real life. I’ve known both scenarios and may have been part of the problem! So, a key question is ‘what makes the difference?’
How do we find a deeper community life in Christ?
I no longer think the answer is just better worship and teaching, or even having effective evangelists, worthwhile though those factors are. What I began to grasp was that it was living out seven aspects of being Christian community that created the better way. Looking back over my life I saw the same elements time and again. They were there at the best times in my Sheffield story. As, on sabbatical I studied monastic writings, and lived for months in two different monastic communities, I saw these seven again: they have names and specific roles.
The Seven Sacred spaces:
Cell is being alone with God, and oneself.
All the others are done together…
Chapel is public structured worship
Chapter is the decision-making place
Cloister is planned and surprising meetings
Garden is the place of work
Refectory is for eating and hospitality
Scriptorium is where knowledge is gained and passed on
Together these seven teach us that the Christian life lived well needs the discipline of being alone and the further disciplines expressing being together. They reveal that Church is so much more than gathered worship – it is all seven lived out. The seven are holistic. It’s as though Cell and Chapel sustain the soul, Chapter and Scriptorium demand the mind, Cloister will test our spiritual reflexes, and Refectory and Garden link to the body.
It’s also fascinating that you can spot these seven in university colleges, in conference centres, cathedrals, and larger houses. To ponder, pray, decide, meet, work, eat and convey knowledge – all these go towards what makes us human. Christians have long thought that being truly human and being Christian are profoundly connected. That’s first because humans are in the image of God, second because that image is being restored in Christ who is the definitive image of God.
Is this a magic bullet to deeper community?
Don’t imagine simply having the seven spaces is a magic cure, or that they can be imposed on a group. They are just portals to pass through to the qualities of life, or virtues, that are truly transformative in community.
Here are some starting connections:
Cell requires vulnerable honesty with ourselves
Chapel is aided by thankful praise
Chapter takes humility and refusing judgementalism
Cloister needs availability and gentleness
Garden demands patience and faithfulness
Refectory requires a hospitable, welcoming spirit
Scriptorium asks for humility to learn and generosity to pass it on
And beneath, and across all seven, is love – of God, of others and ourselves.Our single greatest mission challenge today is for the Church of God to live and demonstrate a quality of shared life that is attractive - and inexplicable except for the presence of God. It’s been like that before and it can be like that again. During the time of the Roman Empire, it was not by evangelism (for that was too dangerous to do), not their worship (for that was in secret), but their everyday life that convinced others. The seven spaces give contours to what that ‘life in all its fullness’ in community looks like in practice.
If you want to explore this more you could read my book, Seven Sacred Spaces: Portals to deeper community life in Christ, about it all which is being published on 18 September. And the BRF website, section Living Faith will have more resources for you or a group to apply this to your own context.
1 September 2020
George Lings has been a banker, student, vicar, writer, mentor and researcher. From 1997 to 2017 he led Church Army’s Research Unit specialising in fresh expressions of church, gaining a PhD. In 2017 he was awarded the Canterbury Cross for outstanding service to the Church of England. He now serves as a companion of Northumbria Community, vice-president of The Bible Reading Fellowship, is a selector of pioneer ministers, and mentor to a number of individuals.
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