Andy Walton’s battered black New Balance trainers crunch on the gravel as he strides purposefully past the Tudor gatehouse.
He turns left at the ancient fig tree, his black skinny jeans and slim-fit denim jacket — sleeves carefully rolled up just the right amount — giving him the air of an off-duty indie band member. Then the 36-year-old ducks inside, takes a floor-length white gown from a hanger and slips it over his closely-shaved hair. Suddenly, the band member is a monk.
Walton, together with 14 others like him, is a member of the Community of St Anselm, a ‘radical’, mixed-sex new religious community set up by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in 2015. Here in the heart of London, tucked away inside Lambeth Palace, millennials from around the world have waved goodbye to flats, jobs and friends to spend 10 intense months in prayer, study and service — and being very, very quiet.
Silence, as I am soon to find out, is a major part of the experience. It is 8.30am when Walton dons his alb (the technical name for the gown) to descend to the 13th-century crypt, and he and his colleagues have not spoken since getting up. They have eaten their breakfast absorbed not by smartphones but by Bibles, and — save for the prayers they will say as part of the morning service — they will not utter a word until their hour-long ‘personal prayer’ time ends at 10am. On Wednesdays the silence lasts until 2pm, and many members go on a 30-day silent retreat in Switzerland.
But that’s not the only challenge, the community’s nattily dressed 38-year-old dean, Rev Simon Lewis, explains. The community, born as part of Welby’s drive for the renewal of religious life and prayer, has a budget of just £3 per person per day for food and toiletries — which doesn’t allow for a lot of avocado toast. Meals are cooked, eaten and cleared up together, with cleaning and laundry divided among the group. Most members share bedrooms, and they’re banned not only from starting new romantic relationships, but also from forming exclusive friendships. So there’s no buddying up with the people you naturally click with and ignoring the ones you can’t stand.
‘We talk about this idea that you haven’t chosen these people, but we’re asking you to actively make a choice for everyone,’ Lewis says. ‘To say, “I choose you, and you, and you — even though actually I hate you and I find you really irritating.”’ It is, he admits, ‘flipping hard’.
Down in the hush of the crypt, kneeling deeply or holding their hands out before them as they pray, the group looks every inch like a traditional religious order. But they have come from everyday lives and jobs, with regular outside interests; in the first three years members’ backgrounds have included investment banking, engineering, sales and marketing, law and the media. Many are active on Twitter (devices aren’t permitted in group time, but wi-fi is provided), where Walton writes thoughtfully about left-wing politics and reveals his love of bands The National and The War on Drugs. Other members this year include Demarius Walker, 27, who has been involved in the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements in the US, and Tollin Thumra, 28, from Shillong in north-east India, who has come from working with women rescued from human trafficking. What, aside from the deep faith they share, makes them want to come here?
Katy Hirst, a former drama student originally from York, applied after reaching ‘burnout’, pushing herself to achieve more and more with the dementia charity she had co-founded eight years earlier. ‘My life was very full, I had a lot of responsibilities,’ the 31-year-old says. ‘I didn’t have time to think about myself and what might be going on underneath. For me it’s been a real time of healing and restoration. It hasn’t always been fun, because the more you want to sort yourself out, the deeper into your crap you have to go. But it’s been great to do that.’
The set routine and the silence have been instrumental, she says — even for a self-declared extrovert. ‘Everyone said, “Oh my gosh, Katy, how are you going to cope?”’ she says, laughing. ‘But I really enjoy the morning silence. It’s actually really restful because you don’t have to be anything to anyone. You don’t have to put a face on, you don’t have to pretend everything’s okay.’
Weekdays in the community are structured around worship in the crypt three times a day, with prayers often led by Welby himself if he is on-site. Outside that, there are talks from eminent theologians, discussions in small ‘sharing groups’ and time for chores. Two days a week members leave the palace to volunteer with local charities.
Personal prayer can be done anywhere on site. It’s a gorgeous sunny day when I visit, and Hirst chooses a spot in the extensive gardens where roses climb over a wrought iron arch. It feels idyllic — though Lewis is quick to point out that it’s not like this in the depths of winter.
In fact almost everyone I speak to says the hardest thing is living at close quarters with people from such varied cultures: the members, who include a married couple, come from nine countries — Britain, Pakistan, the US, Kenya, South Africa, India, France, Zimbabwe and Australia — and six different Christian traditions. The community is ecumenical and this year brings together those from Church of England, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Pentecostal, Baptist and Lutheran backgrounds. Conflicting ideas about how to ‘cook and wash up and Hoover and clean are very real’, says Lewis. ‘We don’t escape that because we’re kind of super holy.’
Yet for many it’s the main draw. ‘I think we live very atomised lives, particularly in London but also in the UK in general,’ explains Walton, a freelance journalist who comes from Bolton but has lived in Bow for the past 12 years. ‘We don’t know our neighbours; loneliness is a huge problem.’
Eight months in, he describes the experience as ‘incredible’. ‘It’s inevitable you’re going to have some friction. But the fact that [we] can not just live together, but thrive together, is pretty impressive; it shows an alternative way to live. It’s not a year of group therapy, but there’s a sense in which, as you discover more about community, you discover yourself in relation to other people.’
Walker, from Atlanta, Georgia, was also attracted to the shared existence. ‘There’s a deep reaction to the fracturing of the world right now and there’s a deep hunger in me that cries out for community,’ he explains as we sit in the beating sun outside the converted cottages where community members live. Dressed in jeans and a hoodie, he is at once deeply serious and full of infectious irreverence. ‘I was listening for the sound of the genuine, and the sound of the genuine brought me to this place,’ he says, solemnly, then adds: ‘Which is strange, because I really dislike authority, and I find myself living in a palace with a guy who wears a funny hat.’
The community is heavily oversubscribed: this year there were around 200 online applications (candidates, who must be aged 20 to 35, are asked why they want to join and what they think they would find hardest if successful), whittled down via Skype interviews to the final 15. But what happens when they leave? About 30 per cent will go on to a religious calling, such as joining the priesthood or a religious order, but most return to their old lives. It’s hoped that once back at work they will inspire others to get involved with community or charitable work. There are also non-resident members who continue doing their day jobs but spend every Monday evening and one Saturday a month at the palace, as well as going on retreats.
‘One of the things we find with millennials today is that they have a big vision and they are desirous of being influential and changing the world,’ the community’s prior, Reverend Dr Rosalyn Murphy, tells me. ‘Those who are in positions of leadership need to be challenged, and challenged by those who are sitting round the table. Hopefully, we’re putting young people around the table who are not going to be afraid to come up with new creative ideas and challenge the status quo.’
For Hirst, who will now consider becoming a vicar, the time here has brought a new sense of clarity. ‘It has taught me that it’s quite irrelevant what you achieve,’ she says. ‘I rarely see that high achievement is synonymous with happiness. It’s been a real journey of learning that my value, significance and meaning doesn’t come from what I do. It comes from the fact that I believe God purposefully created me and he loves me. I don’t think slogging my guts out in an office to try and make a name for myself is going to add to that.’
At 5.30pm we head back to the cool of the crypt for evening prayer, and half an hour of silence. As Walton kneels at the foot of the stone steps, a helicopter buzzes insistently somewhere above, a reminder of the hectic capital city just beyond the palace walls. Can this kind of traditional religious life, reimagined though it is, survive in the modern world?
The community has to ‘make sense of itself to those outside’, says Lewis, and resist being seen purely as a haven from the bustle of London. ‘We live here in a site which is 900 years old and we’re in year number three,’ he says. ‘This is still a fragile possibility. But we believe it’s a transformative possibility.’