George Lings, author of 'Seven Sacred Spaces', highlights unexpected links between the ancient monastic traditions and Messy Church

George Lings, author of 'Seven Sacred Spaces', highlights unexpected links between the ancient monastic traditions and Messy Church

Messy Sacred Spaces

George Lings has been thinking about the themes in his new book 'Seven Sacred Spaces' for many years. Back in January 2016 he wrote about them in 'Get Messy'. His reflections are just as relevant today, as the Messy Church team considers the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on their ministry. George writes:

What on earth could Messy Church have in common with the monastic tradition? Bustle and buzz, fun and food, and paint and glue seem miles away from celibate monks, hushed cloisters and ethereal music.

What they have in common is the instinct that it takes a number of different spaces in order to fully express communal life in Christ and to live more fully as human beings. Both streams challenge the idea that being church is adequately expressed mainly or only through attending public worship. When Lucy Moore started the first Messy Church in Portsmouth over a decade ago, she built upon several values. I’d put them this way. 

Church is a Jesus centred community in which people deserve a true welcome, everyone has a level of creativity, families matter, leadership is shared, worship works best when it draws on the rest of life, and meals offer hospitality, which fosters community. I think she intuitively knew that you can’t get all those things either out of, much less into, an act of worship. The bit that is called ‘worship’ is just one contributory factor.

For some years I have been studying a whole range of monastic communities: some from 1500 years ago, others just clocking up a decade or two. Some were gathered and others dispersed. Some were for singles only, others have married members. The harder I looked and the more I read their guiding documents, the more I kept seeing a set of seven spaces with functions they all seemed to need. Here they are in reverse alphabetical order with a note on what each is for. See if you can spot the Messy Church match or overlap.

  • Scriptorium Here Bibles, prayer books and wise writings were lovingly copied by hand, to be passed on to the next generation and help start yet more monasteries.
  • Refectory In this room the community was nourished and fed, as were its guests as the monasteries became the early hotel system of Western Europe.
  • Garden Gardening helped keep people fit and staved off idleness. The garden was the source of food for the community.
  • Cloister This square colonnade joins up the other places. Planned and surprise meetings occur there, both of which are part of community life. Handling both well, in humility, matters.
  • Chapter Here part of the guiding document was read out. Then decisions were taken, but the leader was consulted before acting on them.
  • Chapel Public prayer is the function of this room, which took the pattern of a number of short services during the day.
  • Cell This is the one private space for each person to be alone with God in prayer and slow, careful reading. Some sources call it the place where God teaches us the most.

My understanding is that, throughout Christian history, God has raised up the monastic tradition to show all Christians what a fuller life in Christ looks like. Put in other language, if you want to follow Jesus’ way of travelling closely, then it is a whole-life business. It cannot be done just through better church services. Church is more than the ‘chapel’ function. That’s exactly the same with Messy Church. Healthy ones know that life is about work, rest and play. Part of the mess is that there are lots of elements. Life in Christ is neither simple nor singular. Some monastics taught that the opus Dei—the work of God—was made of prayer, study and manual work.

How do you know if your Messy Church is making progress? I really doubt that the measure to use is whether the celebration goes on longer. How about other factors such as the depth of welcome, the release of creativity, the building of family life, the empowering of leaders, and generous hospitality, as well as worship, the quality of which is fed by all the other elements? In short, is your Messy Church using all its diverse spaces so that its community looks more like Jesus and is drawing others to Jesus?

I think Messy Church has real overlaps with this monastic insight into healthy community life in Christ. Messy Church is right to insist that each element matters and that only when all elements are working together do you get a healthy expression of church. It’s time to get out of the mentality of chapel being all that really counts and into the other places—knowing they are all elements of being church. Of course worship is important and it should guard the other places. One picture of the interrelationship is that some call chapel the ‘heart’ of community, chapter the ‘head’ and refectory the ‘stomach’. Each needs the others.

There’s the surprise. Messy Church has real overlaps with the long tradition of monasticism. Any Messy Church could study the seven spaces and work out which were strongly present and where there might be issues—such as how you do cell in overall Messy Church life. I’m glad of the overlap and that both are holding out a richer way to be church to the rest of the Church.

Canon Dr 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 and 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 BRFand consultant to a number of individuals and dioceses.

Seven Sacred Spaces: Portals to deeper community life in Christ

Too often people’s understanding of and engagement with ‘church’ is reduced to corporate worship, when it is so much more. George Lings identifies seven characteristic elements in Christian communities through the ages, which when held in balance enable a richer expression of discipleship, mission and community.

In the monastic tradition these elements have distinctive locations: cell (being alone with God), chapel (corporate public worship), chapter (making decisions), cloister (planned and surprising meetings), garden (the place of work), refectory (food and hospitality) and scriptorium (study and passing on knowledge). Through this lens George Lings explores how these seven elements relate to our individual and communal walk with God, hold good for church and family life, and appear in wider society.

For more information and to order click here.

To see George in conversation with Tim Lea and Lizzie Lowrie of Fresh Expressions click here.




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