With the Greenbelt Festival, our ‘Purposeful Adventure’ reached its conclusion. Our travelling amongst intentional communities has ended (at least for now) and we’re settling into our new home in the West Midlands. After all the unpacking and associated life admin, I’ll eventually get to reflecting on the whole experience, but first our time at the Othona Community in Bradwell-on-Sea deserves a post of its own.
Othona Bradwell has a sister community in West Dorset. In this post, for the sake of simplicity whenever I refer to Othona, it’s to the Bradwell centre that I refer. I encourage everyone to visit both centres!
Back in January I wrote an introduction to Othona, and then, despite grand plans, didn’t write anything else about it for the next seven months. There were some very difficult times, and it’s hard to write about those when you’re in the midst of them. We were also extremely busy, working five days a week (often ten hours in the day) without a fixed weekend. That doesn’t leave much energy for writing. Now that I’m no longer on the Othona core team, I feel able to write a balanced account of my time there, celebrating the good things as well as addressing the challenges.
I arrived at Othona in January with many expectations. I envisaged a weekly vlog covering in detail all that is special about Othona, from the history of the chapel to the technicalities of the reed-bed sewerage filtration system. As it turned out, I had little energy for such personal projects, with days off dedicated to resting or getting out and about. We quickly learnt owning a car was essential, as when you have a day off you have to get off site or get cabin fever.
Another, more fundamental expectation was that I would be living in a faith-based intentional community. This was after all the focus of our ‘Purposeful Adventure’. I struggled to accept that living and working at Othona did not match what I understand as intentional community living, and is better described as being a member of staff at a Christian holiday camp. This is not a criticism, either of Othona or Christian holiday camps. No one promised me that I would be living in an intentional community. When visiting Othona as a guest I had powerful experiences of community living, but I quickly discovered that being on the core team is very different.
Community or staff?
Perhaps something that contributed to my skewed expectations is the inconsistent way those who live permanently at Othona are referred to. They’re generally known as the ‘core team’, sometimes the ‘core community’ and sometimes ‘staff’. The building itself is called ‘The Othona Community’, but the building isn’t the community. So does that make the ‘core team’ the community, as an outsider might assume? Not really. In my experience, when people at Othona talk of ‘the community’, they are referring to a particular group of people who have been coming to Othona for a long time, specifically those who come during the summer weeks (Othona was originally a summer camp). This was coupled with the notion I sometimes encountered that the core is transitory. Core members come and go, marking them out from the ‘community’ who return year after year.
One factor that defines us as staff rather than community is that we provide a service people pay for. Whether we’re dealing with someone whose been coming for sixty years, or a first timer, we have a staff-customer relationship. An important part of being in community with others is the freedom to share openly and honestly with each other. In community, if someone asks me how I am I want to be able to tell it like it is. At Othona or any similar centre, when a paying guest turns up for their holiday and asks a similar question, if things aren’t going well you still need to smile and make them welcome, putting your feelings to the side.
But if we were just staff, would we be living here and working such long hours? To work at Othona and not leave burnt out and bitter, I feel you need some sort of calling to community. It’s important that our professional separation from the ‘community’ is recognised, but we’re perhaps something more than ‘staff’. Is there a way to describe the core team that more fully encapsulates this dynamic?
Who’s a member?
So if the core team aren’t members of the ‘community’, then who is? On paper, you can become a ‘member’ for £12, which gets you a yearly subscription to the Othona newsletter. This formal membership requires no commitment beyond the financial, which at £12 a year is not much of a commitment. So how do you become a member of the community in a meaningful way? I’ve heard some people at Othona say that one visit alone makes you a member, but is that just wishful thinking on our part, a sort of pseudo-inclusivity? How long do you have to come to feel like a member? I know people who’ve been coming to Othona longer than I have, who don’t feel they are part of the group referred to as the ‘community’. I’m not suggesting that the way to meaningful membership is purposefully obscured, like the ivy-covered door in the Secret Garden. I suppose I’d like to offer the question, ‘How can we be a truly inclusive community, if even its members don’t know the real way in?’
The ‘real’ Othona
The question of being staff or community, and the confusion around membership, is compounded by the idea that there is a ‘real’ Othona. I can see how long-term membership of any community can imbue you with a sense of ownership, not just over the physical aspects, but over the community’s very identity. As someone who for the last six years has only ever visited Othona in the autumn and spring, to be told the ‘real’ Othona is found during the summer season is somewhat confusing. In the seven months I was there, Othona was a different place with every new group of people we hosted. I believe that there probably is no ‘real’ Othona, rather there are lots of different Othonas, and the only ‘real’ Othona is the one that is happening right now. Or if there is a real Othona, then it’s simply: the place + prayer + shared food and chores + roots in reconciliation = Othona.
During ‘community time’ when Othona runs it’s own programme of events, there is a rhythm of chapel twice a day. However, outside these times, particularly when we are hosting private bookings, the rhythm is likely to dissipate. The nearest we have to a common rule of life is meeting regularly on Thursday nights for the dedication service, when the names or everyone we’ve welcomed that week are read out. In June I reached a point where I needed an ‘Othona Survival Strategy’. This involved going to the chapel twice a day, everyday, whether anyone else came or not. This practice led to the most prolonged sense of being in community that I’d experienced yet. Through praying with others everyday I really felt part of a team. We were deeply grounded. In community, when things are tough, prayer is what gets me through. Wishing each other ‘the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’ everyday really drums into you that grace is absolutely central. The moment we start to talk about who deserves what, community is over. Community is constantly extending grace to one another. I encourage the Othona core team to keep daily prayer at the heart of their life together at all costs.
The ministry of Othona
I feel it is Othona’s ability to welcome that is at the heart of its ministry. I have witnessed Othona as a place particularly able to welcome children, people with disabilities, people recovering from addiction, the lonely, people from across the class-spectrum and people of all faiths and none. Adrian and I realised that the parable of the workers in the vineyard was central to Othona’s call to hospitality. It felt so good to be able to offer food and conversation freely to whoever passed by. This culture of welcome means that in high season Othona is attracting up to ninety people a week, most using the chapel twice a day. If you want to see a vibrant gathering of God’s people, go to Othona. I was most strongly moved by Othona as an affordable place of retreat for other churches. Members of one church from East London were in tears as they thanked us for the space we had given them to grow as a community, with so many other retreat centres being way beyond their budget.
Messy and glorious
Life at Othona is not perfect, and I often found that difficult. My fellow core members did a very good job in putting up with me when I threw the occasional tantrum. I’m so thankful for their love and care, and the kind words and listening ears of so many people who passed through. I’ve eaten many delicious meals, listened to hilarious stories and received many a lesson in humility and forgiveness. There were times when I thought working there would spoil Othona for me, but far from it. I’m looking forward to rediscovering Othona as a guest in December, and I remain convinced that it is a very special place. The opportunity to revel in wild nature every day – spotting butterflies, watching birds and swimming in the sea – is one I will greatly miss.
In my final days at Othona, we put on a musical. It was a week that seemed to condense the joys and challenges of the previous seven months into one hectic, loud, glorious and bonkers week. In the conflicts and frustrations, laughter and music making, the messiness of community and the riskiness of hospitality were starkly revealed. Holding things lightly was the key to getting through that week in one piece, and our performance on the final night was very special. These last seven months have had their messy moments, but I’m so thankful that I stuck with it. I’ve learned such a lot and I’m overflowing with thankfulness. After Othona I feel ready for anything.