New Communities in the Aftermath of Vatican II


This essay was written in the early 1970s after we did some work for I-DOC International on the new communities that were spontaneously springing up in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.

Spontaneous groups, or the so-called underground church, has received a great deal of comment in the past four or five years, but unfortunately, many of these formulations were hampered by a lack of factual material and the strong emotions generated by the movement. Recently, however, there has been a considerable increase in the amount of material available, and a lull in the storm, so that it is time to try to examine this phenomenon more closely.

First an attempt must be made to describe the different types of groups that fall under the generic heading of underground or spontaneous movement, and then the interpretive tools that must be created in order to assess properly what is happening. The study of this spontaneous movement is clearly at a basic stage of development where we have just recently had enough material to work with and now discover that new instruments of analysis are needed if we are to understand where the experimental movement is leading the Church.

A Summary of Factual Data

Basic factual information about who and where these spontaneous groups are is now accessible through a number of listing services, which have sprung up around the country. By far the best organized and more comprehensive source is the directory published by the Free Church of Berkeley entitled, "A Directory of the Liberated Church in America." Its October, 1970 edition contained over 400 entries. More specialized cataloguing is done by the Sisters for Christian Community listing new religious communities, True House of Notre Dame, with its collection of Pentecostal groups, and the Office of Experimental Ministries and the Joint Strategy and Action Committee of the National Council of Churches. In addition, various churches have special publications dealing with their own work, and the spontaneous groups, themselves, produce a fluctuating tide of newsletters and mimeographed bulletins.

The initial sorting of this material is a problem, for nowhere else in the church are things so fluid, and a name and address with a supposed list of activities is very little to go on in order to evaluate what the groups are actually doing. In final analysis, there is no adequate substitute for personal contact and observation, and even better, participation.

There are four or five general categories, admittedly somewhat arbitrary, that we can use to gain some idea of the scope and nature of the movement.

A good place as any to begin is with liturgical groups and their offspring, the floating parishes, for they are among the most common type and perhaps the oldest. There is no need to go into detail concerning the forms and innovations that are practiced here, for they are becoming more and more universal in ordinary parishes. Liturgical groups are everywhere, and floating parishes are to be found in California, Oklahoma, Connecticut, New York, etc. Perhaps the most significant fact about these groups is the growing disinterest in them. Small liturgical gatherings are no longer in vogue, and their more permanent brothers have fallen upon hard times. This poses a serious question for the established churches, for the floating communities supposedly had all the advantages which the big churches were counting on to bolster them up in the future. They have small memberships where everyone can get acquainted and fully participate, as well as no serious financial problems, and the most progressive clergy. We will touch on some of the reasons for their demise later on.

The groups in the second category are the ones that first come to mind when we think in terms of the underground and radical innovation; these are communes with a small but intensely active core membership. They are politically aware and turned-on to the Movement and probe the sensitive areas of race and war and ecology. Here we have Emmaus House in East Harlem with its work in non-violence, the Free Church in Berkeley, and the Submarine Church with its loose network of hippie-style protesters who gather at major Protestant Church conferences. Most major cities across the nation have at least one such organization from Project place in Boston to the Umbrella in Kansas City and St. Andrews in Denver, which minister to the street people with switchboard and crashing operations; they serve as the meeting ground for the Church and the counter-culture.

Despite their notoriety, they are understaffed and under-supported with a considerable portion of their funds coming from the established churches in one form or another. As conservative pressure on the mainline churches increases, there is a real danger that these more radical and controversial experiments will be the first casualties in budget cutbacks.

The radical communes are also threatened from within by the question of how to present the message of the Gospel in a contemporary way without it being lost in the rhetoric of the movement and the jargon of revolution.

Closely allied and overlapping with the communes are the urban and special ministries which form a third general type in the spontaneous movement. They share the small numbers and the political sensitivity of the communes but they are more strongly mission oriented. They are the new styles of ministry which form the bridge between the standard church activities and the priorities and challenges of modern urban America. In this category can be included the Guadalupe Center in Salt Lake City, a state-wide focus for Mexican-American activities, the Joseph House in the westside ghetto of Baltimore with its Discovery School for young children, the Methodist Inner-City parish in Kansas City with a Montessori school staffed by neighborhood people, and the Logos urban training center in Colorado Springs, among many others.

The concrete service programs that are found here are some of the most worthwhile and most easily verifiable fruits of the spontaneous movement. They are a healthy blend of creativity and professional competence and the pressing demands of the work to be done makes them leave the burden of the ideological pondering to the communes, though this is not always the case.

The area of religious life and monasticism forms a fourth area of experimentation. There are scarcely any religious groups in the country which have not given birth either voluntarily or involuntarily, to at least one experiment of this type. Here, again, the range is very large, covering everything from the hundreds of former Immaculate Heart sisters on the west coast, to the little groups of three or four ex-religious living anonymously. The major monastic orders have produced a series of experiments in simple monasticism attempting to recapture their original spirit and adapt to the modern world.

The attrition rate in this fourth area is very high as it is among the liturgical groups, and we hope to focus on some of the reasons for this later on.

The final grouping proposed are the experiments going on in the field of prayer and spirituality which are related to the monastic and religious reforms, like the urban ministries are to the communes. Among these are numerous Catholic Pentecostal groups like the houses in Ann Arbor and Notre Dame, the house of prayer movement among religious orders, the Spiritual Life Institute in the Arizona desert, the Thomas Merton Center in Quebec and the Center for Spiritual Studies in New York. They represent positive attempts to bring back the relevance of prayer and to open up a dialogue with the world's major spiritual traditions, and in this way resurrect basic questions which have tended to become lost in recent years. They feature a return to silence and nature, and inner questing.

Our ??????????????? summary, but at least two important facts emerge about the nature of the spontaneous movement. First of all, there is a wide current of reform in the churches which is attempting to create viable alternatives to the ministry of the established churches. Therefore, it strives for a certain identity by developing its own language and modes of communication and sense of community which defies existing denominational boundaries. In this way the various types of groups in the movement embody enough common values and attitudes to merit a distinctive name.

On the other hand, our image of the underground church is misleading if it depicts a movement which exists independently of the established churches. The spontaneous movement is by and large composed of people who have been formed in the churches and often retain active membership in them even in a ministerial capacity.

The experimental groups draw recruits and monetary support from the churches even for supposedly anti-establishment activities and exist physically, morally and structurally in a love-hate relationship with their parent churches. The movement is spontaneous inasmuch as it has little regard for the official channels of authority, but the whole matrix in which it lives is conditioned by the established churches.

There are, of course, individuals at work in the movement who have a more radical stance of separation, but they are exceptions, at least for the time being. In order to find a movement which is independent of the churches we have to look to the so-called counter-culture, but here we are in a very different world. It is a very long step from even the more radical church groups to the lifestyle and ideological motivations of the hip commune or the weathermen, and a serious question whether a lot more is lost than gained in making it.


Part II:
Spontaneous Groups and the future of the Church:
Developing Interpretative Tools

The preceding description brings us to the difficult question of how to approach the interpretation of these groups. Undoubtedly they are prophetic for the rest of the church, though the precise import of their message is not yet clear, for we are lacking the hermeneutics to understand it.

There are two broad alternatives in approach that we would like to touch on here. The first emphasizes the motivations of the individuals involved in the movement, while the second deals with the vitality and momentum of the communities themselves.

For an example of the first more psychological mode of operating we will look at the modern churchman in light his mythologizing capacity, and of the second, some of the sociological ground rules necessary for the successful formation of new religious communities.

Spontaneous Groups and the Future of the Church

Man has a deep and incurable need to create myths, and this remains true even if he calls himself modern, and has all the technologies and philosophies to prove it. Myth-making is a vital and health-giving inner activity, for by it a man attempts to frame an answer about who he is, but when myths are not recognized for what they are, they can be projected outward and become deadly.

The modern Churchman is no exception to this inexhaustible capacity to mythologize, and in the past few years he has given himself over to a whole new series of mythical images. These he refuses to see within, but rather, he is determined to find them living independently without. The myth we have in mind is the great hope that is put in the movement of spontaneous groups, the so-called "underground church" and its multitude of experimental forms. This is a dangerous state of affairs, for if we confuse a process of inner transformation with organizations, we have relinquished most of our ability to plan and act effectively. Naturally, the Churchmen we have in mind are the liberals and progressives, and perhaps even the radicals, rather than the conservatives. The conservatives retain their old myths, and have no inclination to leave that security.

When the liberals suffered the shock of renewal, they lost the objects they had formerly put their hope in. Religious and monastic life had their old aura destroyed, and this vacuum could not long go unfilled. There was a need for something to pin the hopes of the future on, and this choice fell squarely on the new experimental communities.

Five years ago there was endless talk about liturgical groups, floating parishes, inner city ministries, and new religious communities, and even today the tide of enthusiasm is just abating. In fact, there are signs that not only is enthusiasm lessening, but a large number of these groups are in deep trouble. This trouble, as we hope to show, is the result of projecting and objectifying inner needs and hopes. It would be worth our while, then, to examine this process of birth and death at work in order to get a better idea of the dynamics involved and, hopefully, to understand what it means.

For example, when members of religious communities suddenly found themselves ex-religious, or at least "enlightened" religious, and got together as little groups of exiles to compare notes, they came up with a common diagnosis. Religious life had been depicted as a perfect world where the will of God could be exhaustively known at almost every moment. Once the insight came that the whole system had not descended fully armed from Heaven, then everyone began to get ideas on how to do things better, and perhaps this was not too difficult to do. But what was left to hope in once the tradition of communities had been dealt such a serious blow? Obviously, it had to be a new renewed community, and so a myth was born. I have to call it a myth because it was an interior feeling and aspiration which, for not being properly recognized for what it was, was projected outward in the form of small and simply-structured communities. Scores and scores of groups sprang up, and late shoots are still sprouting. We need no more convincing or cogent proof that many of them were seeking a chimera than to look at what has become of them. Perhaps the majority have already died, leaving the positive contribution of easing the shock of transition for a great number of people leaving religious and priestly life. On the negative side, their collapse brought a deadening of faith to many who had put their hope in them. The myth died hard, leaving a bitter after-taste and, unfortunately, there was still too many people who have yet to realize that it was a myth to begin with.

We see a somewhat similar process in the ministry to the inner city, when the cloisters and seminaries revealed their dehumanizing routine. The inner city shown as the promised land where life could be lived in all its beauty and misery. The very middle-class Church people were ripe for a replay of the myth of the noble savage, and marched off to run-down flats in the ghettoes and barrios of the nation. It didn't take more than a few years to strip away this veneer of magic and deplete the ranks of the clergy in the slums. Today contact on the streets and fighting the city power structure has turned to talk of working in the suburbs with "one's own kind," but the underlying projection is basically untouched.

A final example of this process can be found in the floating parish, the elder daughter of the numerous ad-hoc liturgical groups. There seemed to be no way the floating parish could fail to be the trail blazer for the rest of the Church. It has a small well-educated membership, which allowed for full participation, no serious financial problems, and the most progressive clergy. The fact is that most of them are in serious trouble, paralyzed by internal dissentions with no unanimity of where they want to go, themselves, still less lead anyone else.

We could continue to see this same painful development throughout the whole range of current experimentation. This criticism, however, is not intended to deny that the spontaneous movement is the most promising aspect of Church renewal today. What the movement has been lacking, though, is a thorough exercise in introspective self-awareness. In good typical American fashion, we have externalized our hopes, and are trying to build and organize our way into the future without ever taking time to find out what is going on inside ourselves. This is at the root of many false starts and the high mortality rate among new communities. All our wonderful constructs dance before our eyes while we are unconscious of what God is trying to do within us. Perhaps the only thing that has gone underground is the Spirit, and we don't know how to reach Him yet.

The process of de-mythologizing that we have just suggested necessarily has a somewhat negative aspect to it. A look at the dynamics of new communities will produce converging results, but hopefully wearing a happier face.

Religious life in the United States is in very serious if not fatal trouble, and as I have tried to point out before, new religious communities have problems of almost equal magnitude. What they need among other things is a well-developed understanding of how communities tend to form and grow, but unfortunately, it is sadly lacking.

The new groups cling to a mystique of originality as if they were heading into completely virgin territory. This prevents them from putting their attempts in an historical perspective, and so the lessons of the past have to be painfully relearned anew. Religious history, especially that of religious reform, is a virtually untouched storehouse filled with significant parallels for modern communities.

This ahistorical sense would be easier to correct if it were not fostered by an even more deeply rooted difficulty. The new creators of community have been pursued and badgered most of their lives by the organizational church, and this relentless pressure has polarized them in an anti-institutional manner. This anti-institutionalization does not allow them to relate to even the minimum of rules and guidelines that are necessary in order that their new community function adequately: they would rather believe in a fictional non-organization.

Anti-institutionalization wears many faces today. It is found at the heart of the difficulty in organizing coalitions of ex-priests, and in the pronounced look of battle fatigue on the faces of religious who are destined to leave their communities no matter what reforms are carried out.

Another legacy that has been brought over into the new communities is the idea that just about everybody normal fits. Religious communities in the past have had remarkably amorphous and flexible qualifications for admission. The theological dictum that God wills all men to be saved was the rationalization for a laissez-faire attitude of admissions that allowed the most diverse types to co-habit under one roof, with destructive effects that are well-illustrated by the history of many religious orders. This policy of open admissions is still in vogue, but the underlying rationalizations have been changed into "respect for individual conscience" or "everybody doing their own thing." The end result is still the same with people of all different temperaments and ideological convictions at each other's throats. This might be more acceptable in a situation where endless discussion is considered a prime objective, but in groups which have many practical concerns for sustenance, as well as distinctive work goals, there is a limit to the amount of diversity that is feasible. Naturally, groups that engage in a concrete work like social service can afford a greater diversity than a group that conceives itself as having an ideological mission.

The tactics necessary for forming a reform party within a large religious community is another area where the children of this world are wiser than the children of light, for at least the former have their handbooks for homemade guerilla wars and coup-d'etats. Small experience of priests and religious living in apartments in one type of experiment that is being carried out with the members maintaining their ties with the parent community. We have seen some of the reasons for their high mortality rate in terms of mythologizing, anti-institutionalization and faulty admission policies, and all of these syndromes are intensified by living "in the world." What remains to be seen is how this type of community tends to interact with the mother community.

Such reform groups always have a perfectionist quality to them, for at root they are an attempt to live a more relevant or prayerful or simple existence, etc., depending upon what their motivations are. At the same time, they entertain no conscious intention, at least initially, of breaking with the parent community. A few years ago there was a matricidal taboo connected with this thought, but now it is much less strong. Then, too, the reformers often cherish the idea of somehow being the leaven of the whole community, and this binds them to the parent group.

The justification for reform is easy to come by, both ideologically as a return to the sources and relevance, and factually in the poor state of the Church. The theoretical need of reform is often accepted by the parent community, and the initial permission for the experiment is given with a mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation. The experiment is usually conceived as one involving a certain few for a definite period of time, at the end of which there will be an evaluation and a determination whether the experiment should continue or not. On this level everything appears well-ordered and rational, but beneath a storm is brewing.

The reformers, in fact, are saying by their actions that the community is in need of deep renewal, and there are very few mothers that can really believe that their own children can teach them how to live, especially when they haven't been around as long as she has. In short, the very existence of a reform experiment has to be a reproach to certain elements of the parent community. The experiment becomes the symbol of a more far-reaching controversy, which at heart centers on the question of which faction is living the better kind of life. The innovators are accused of breaking the rule and illicitly extending the original permission it received, while the parent community is accused of engineering a suppression on trumped-up charges. In reality, there is very little real communication going on, for the two parties are speaking different languages, and each one feels that it is fighting for their life. The charges and counter charges have little to do with the actual state of affairs, for a community can limp onward despite all sorts of rule-breaking, but what he cannot tolerate is a deep ideological diversity.

There are a number of ways in which the scenario can end. The parent can reabsorb the experiment by transferring the members involved or refusing to renew the lease. This simply does not work much any more. On the other hand, the majority of the members of the new group can disperse, having had quite enough of the whole business, and the third is the formation of a new community.

On the supposition that a new community is born, it still has a difficult road to travel. The bonds of a common struggle against an arch enemy have allowed the group to maintain some sort of coherence during the birth pangs, but once the group is independent, it loses this factor of unity. The innate diversity of its members now starts to make itself felt, and since the mechanics of new community formation is known, and the fear of killing the mother is overcome, the new community can soon find itself in a struggle with its own offspring. This process is hastened by over-anxious recruiting policies, and the ease with which goods are stock-piled and bureaucratic systems are constructed.

If at the outset of a planned reform the innovators were acquainted with the basic moves of the game, they could plan ahead much more effectively and increase the odds for their survival. The first question would be to determine the feasibility of remaining in the parent community. If it is feasible, granted certain conditions, how is it possible to bring these conditions about? If it is not feasible, then what is necessary in order to break successfully? In most cases, the odds will be weighted towards a complete break. However, any premature disclosure of this intention by the reformers will result in their expulsion before they are ready. The political realities of life, even religious life, must be faced if one wants to succeed. In large communities the most apt members for a renewed branch of the community have often been silently forced out one by one before they could get together to act, while the experiments that are started are usually too small to prosper on their own. On the other hand, a carefully planned move on the part of a coalition of twenty or thirty reform members could break successfully for suitable conditions or even take control of the community.

Naturally, there are many variations on this composite picture, depending on the type of religious community that is to be formed, the origin of the new members, the degree of anarchy existing in the parent community, etc. What remains, though, is the possibility of isolating the various factors and the basic steps in the formation of new communities, whether they are religious or a commune or liturgical groups. This involves the detailed study of a good number of these attempts, and a comparison of the common factors involved. It also calls for the construction of sociological tools that are sufficiently sensitized to the specific questions and values of religious reform. Hopefully, a coherent picture would finally emerge of how to go about creating alternative forms of community. The name spontaneous groups has a pleasant ring to the ear, for we have had our fill of authoritarian structures. On the other hand, the only hope for the spontaneous movement lies in its growing ability to discover the laws which govern its life and to use them to build anew the Christian community.

Now it is your turn to contribute to this discussion. Send us your questions and comments: