My husband and I have recently returned from visiting Windsor Hill Wood in Somerset. Founded by Tobias Jones and Francesca Lenzi, this community ‘aims to create a peaceful environment where people going through tough or uncertain times can come and reflect on life’. Toby’s book ‘Utopian Dreams’ is what initially inspired our ‘purposeful adventure’, so it was very exciting to meet him and witness the goings on at Windsor Hill first hand. After a week of mucking out the chickens, planting trees, chopping wood, entertaining and being entertained by three very energetic children, making focaccia and herding geese, we have returned buzzing with lots to reflect on. We were welcomed so warmly and generously that it was truly sad to say goodbye.
Our week began by meeting Toby at the local church. The text that was preached on included Matthew 5:29 – ‘If your right hand causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.’ I found that the issues raised by this text framed my thoughts during the week. What needs to be sacrificed for the health of the body? How does a community know what to accept or reject? What demands should we make of our members? How do we balance inclusive welcome with having clear boundaries?
‘You cannot take all luggage with you on all journeys; on one journey even your right hand and your right eye may be among the things you have to leave behind.’ (C.S. Lewis, ‘The Great Divorce’)
When boundaries and demands go wrong
Talking of ‘boundaries’ and ‘demands’, like ‘power’ and ‘authority’, can provoke strong reactions in liberally minded folk. And rightly so. Examples abound of communities with dogmatic and harmful attitudes towards the behaviour of its members. A community that establishes and enforces rules without mercy can cause devastating emotional damage. Some churches will cut off all contact with those who deviate from their orthodoxy, some require huge financial contributions of their members, and many deny certain rites and duties to the ‘wrong’ people, such as women and LGBT people. Outside of religious groups, all manner of jingoism and scapegoating should make us wary of hard and fast rules that dicate who is in and who is out.
However, something I am learning as I read about and experience different intentional communities is that boundaries and demands are essential components of life together. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Boundaries and demands at Windsor Hill Wood
Windsor Hill Wood is probably one of the most welcoming and inclusive places I have ever encountered. It is also a place with very clear boundaries and demands. Toby and Fra do not shy away from making rules explicit and requiring community members to participate in the daily tasks of wood chopping and bread baking.
Not long after arriving at the community, we encountered a volunteer having a difficult conversation with a visitor. Windsor Hill is a dry community. No alcohol or illegal drugs can be used on site, and no one can visit whilst under the influence. This visitor had smoked something they shouldn’t have, and had to be sent away. The rule is clear and unbendable. When the community has guests grappling with addiction, for their own healing they need an alcohol and drug free environment. Safe spaces need protecting. In ‘Community and Growth’, Jean Vanier writes that ‘it takes much time and wisdom to build a community. But it can take very little time to break and destroy [it].’ Boundaries are necessary for the health and well being of all involved.
At Windsor Hill Wood, making demands of community members is also a vital part of the healing process. Toby and Fra welcome those who have lost all sense of self-worth, and put a sledgehammer, bag of flour, or bucket of pig-feed in their hand. By setting them to work on the essential task of chopping wood for fuel, baking the daily bread, or caring for the animals, they are useful. To make demands of people acknowledges their value. Sara Miles, in setting up a food pantry at her church in San Francisco, discovered that one of the most important gifts the food pantry had to give, as well as food, was the opportunity to work. She recounts a volunteer saying “I came here to get food, and then I thought I could volunteer, and volunteering changed me. After all those years of being a drug addict, living on the streets, this gave me the sense that there was the possibility of happiness again. Now every time I give out food and make contact and am able to smile at somebody, even if I can’t speak their language, I’m just really touched – I’m being fed by it.”
The discipline of the Sabbath teaches us that our value is not defined by what we create, but the Sabbath can only exist in the context of work. I’ve heard Hell described as a place that resembles the popular image of Heaven, with all wants and desires catered for, except there is no work to be done.
Jesus came to call the sick, not the healthy
Windsor Hill Wood’s rules arise partly as a response to the challenging nature of their guests’ situations In the past they have welcomed guests with eating disorders, so now attendance at all communal meals is a requirement for all community members. However, I would suggest it is wrong to think that only communities engaged in such demanding work require boundaries and demands. I believe that all communities need these systems.
From a Christian perspective, this springs from recognising that we have all fallen short. At Windsor Hill the divide between guests and volunteers is often very thin. There is a formal weekly opportunity for every individual to talk about their well being with the whole community. We all have our demons to deal with. I once heard a member of the L’Arche community explaining that ‘disabled’ wasn’t a dirty word. We all have disabilities, be they of the mind, body or heart. (Just to be clear, I don’t want to conflate addiction and disability, just that in both of these situations, perhaps our need for others is more keenly felt.) Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said he had come to heal the sick, not the healthy. Community can only arise when we recognise our need for others. Sara Miles writes how recognition of our own brokenness can throw us together and start something miraculous:
‘The transformation amazed me. I’d think about it as I unpacked the food: blushing red potatoes and curly spinach and ripe peaches that grocers had discarded, and that instead of being trash were feeding people. Once I picked up a huge grapefruit and showed it to a volunteer from St Gregory’s. “That’s the stone the builders rejected,” I said, quoting scripture with only a twinge of embarrassment. I could see, now, how we were like that, too: the volunteers, and the families who came for groceries. Each of us, at some point, might have been rejected for being too young, too poor, too queer, too old, too crazy or difficult or sick; in one way or another, cracked, broken, not right. But gathered around the Table in this work, we were becoming right together, converted into the cornerstone of something God was building.’
(It is also challenging to consider that churches that make demands and have clear boundaries, though they may not be the boundaries we would choose, are the ones that are growing. Something to think about…)
When a community does not acknowledge human frailty from the very beginning, it risks losing everything that makes it a community. I was talking with a woman recently who spoke of how she moved in to a community founded by a well-meaning pastor with grand designs. She stressed how lovely the people were, but good intentions are not enough. She encountered a lack of clear demands, no daily rhythm, no cleaning rota (humdrum but vital), and leaders reluctant to share responsibilities. The absence of regular house meetings left things assumed and unsaid, allowing resentment to fester and isolation to grow. A house member monopolising the cooking is rarely a positive thing, even if everyone else in the house is a terrible cook! Everyone needs a chance to make mistakes and improve their skills. To live in community you have to be prepared to eat bad cooking!
The complete lack of boundaries and demands has created a place with no identity and no communion. It is no longer a community, but a house-share. If there are no boundaries, is there anything worth protecting?
This prompts me to ask, what is it that Quakers should be protecting? The first thing that springs to mind is the sacred space we create in our silent Meetings for Worship. It’s a form of worship easily open to abuse. I’ve seen people knowingly take advantage of the silence, using it as a soapbox or a platform for guilt-tripping money out of others. I’ve witnessed occasions when these people have been asked to leave and occasions when they’ve been uneasily tolerated. And what about latecomers? I’ve seen Meetings wrangle with the question of whether to stop admitting people after a certain time, for fear of being exclusive. I would say if we allow anyone to say anything, however disruptive or manipulative, and if the time we arrive at worship is immaterial, then what’s so special about the silence in the first place?
The City of God
I’d like to finish with an image from the book of Revelation that was on my mind for much of my time at Windsor Hill:
‘And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.’ [Revelation 21:22-27]
The New Jerusalem represents the community of God in all its fullness. God is not separate from creation, but intimately involved with it. The gates are never shut. Everyone is welcome, and there will never be a moment when someone is forever shut off from the possibility of healing and forgiveness. A fiery hell of eternal conscious torment is revealed to be an illusion. The open gates are balanced with the fact that nothing unclean can enter. Welcome is balanced with boundaries and demands, mercy with justice. It’s a tricky balance that can only be achieved with careful discernment. We’ve got it wrong many times before.
Windsor Hill Wood is not a perfect place. Tempers get frayed, people can be loud, whiny and fussy, and there were times when the stink of wet dog permeated everything. Yet, in the week we were there, it seemed that the Kingdom of God was coming out the taps. Such a place can only exist when protected by boundaries and demands tempered by love. True community can only grow where peace and righteousness kiss [Psalm 85].