[Episcopal News Service] Forming a monastic community of young adults at Lambeth Palace to embrace a yearlong commitment to prayer, study and service may have been an audacious experiment, but members of its first class say the initiative has been a major triumph and an extraordinary life-changing experience.
“It’s been grounding, deeply rewarding,” says the Rev. Shannon Preston, one of two Episcopalians who joined the Community of St. Anselm for its first “year in God’s time” last September. “Because we have the opportunity to wake up every day and pray – that’s our priority – there’s no excuses of why Christ is not at the center of my life or the lives of the people around me.”
Preston, 27, an Episcopal priest and graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, said there’s a constant reminder that the community members have chosen to love and to live with one another. “Living with people from around the world who are excited and exploring, who recognize that there is an endless mystery to learn from and grow into and serve, is so valuable,” said Preston, who also is assisting at St. Luke’s Church in Peckham, London.
Lay Episcopalian Peter Angelica said that he’s “learned a lot about how to listen – not so much listening to people but listening with people to see … what God is saying through them. It has been a really fruitful journey.”
A former investment banker from New York, Angelica, 24, didn’t realize how much the experience was going to transform him. Six months in, he already has recognized changes in his personality and “the ways I’m thinking, new habits I am forming and old habits I’m letting go of. It’s been incredible.”
Central to the community’s ethos and pattern of life “is to pursue likeness of Christ and welcome his transforming touch above and beyond any thought, attitude, doctrine or value that we might hold dear,” the Rev. Anders Litzell, an Anglican priest from Sweden who is prior of the community, told Episcopal News Service following a recent service of Holy Eucharist at Lambeth Palace. “It’s a radical, sacrificial commitment to the likeness of Christ.”
The community was formed in September 2015 when Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby opened up Lambeth Palace to 16 adults aged 20-35 to spend a year together as a radical new Christian community.
The 16 residential members from around the world are joined by 20 nonresidential members who live and work in London. They all go on the same formational journey of prayer, study and service to the poor, but the nonresidential members live it out in their home, work and social environments.
“In many ways, what [the nonresidential members] are experiencing now, the residents will experience when this year ends,” says Litzell. “So the cross-pollination between these two very different ways of doing the same thing, I think, is going to be richly rewarding within this community and hopefully across the wider church as well.”
In addition to prayer and community, service is also a key element of the Community of St. Anselm, with all members spending about a third of their time with local charities and agencies serving the disadvantaged, the marginalized and the poor throughout London.
The community follows “the Franciscan insight that becoming more like Jesus is inseparable from serving others, especially the poorest in society,” according to its website.
Ministries include volunteering with local food banks, hospitals, refugee shelters, schools and homeless ministries.
Through their commitment to study, the community welcomes a range of speakers from a variety of contexts who bring their knowledge and expertise on topics related to theology and ethics.
“What is central to the community is that the spirit is in it, the spirit is giving birth to a new way of doing something old, a new way of engaging with Christ through prayer, through going deeper into the Scriptures, through serving the poor and most vulnerable in society, and doing this not as a solitary endeavor, but in a deeper intimacy of relationship between people,” said Litzell.
Ordained in the Church of England in 2012, Litzell’s path to the priesthood began some years earlier during his undergraduate studies at Wheaton College, outside Chicago, where he discovered “high church” Anglicanism through St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in nearby Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Litzell also has served parishes in the Diocese of Natal in South Africa and in the Diocese of London.
Preston said that there are so many pressures in the world “that we constantly have to be busy … so for me, stepping away into a more monastic lifestyle has made me look differently at what it is to live in the world, but that there’s a rhythm underlying all of that. … Community makes me a better person; it makes me consider other people and suddenly my own views are not the final word.
“Having a schedule that’s built around prayer and having that be the first and most important part of my life continually brings me back to God as the center of what we’re doing. … It’s been clear in this year that the Holy Spirit is doing something extraordinary.”
To find out more, visit: stanselm.org.uk
– Matthew Davies is an editor/reporter of the Episcopal News Service.