No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, December 13, 2008

#41: Much Ado About Something: A History of the Othona Community -- Norman Motley

There is no doubt that Bradwell is what some call a 'holy place'. There is a silence and a stillness. Even in midsummer one can walk in a southerly direction along the sea wall without meeting another soul and with only the wail of the seagulls overhead. The great skyscapes and the spread of the saltings bring an immense degree of peace to mind and heart. (p.19)

The Othona community is an open Christian community, founded just after WWII by former RAF chaplain Norman Motley. I've been aware of the original Bradwell community since my childhood: it's located right out on the east coast of the Dengie peninsula, next to St Peter's Chapel (built by St Cedd in 654, most recently restored in the 1920s) which is partly constructed from the ruins of the Roman fort Othona. It's a wonderfully silent, bleak, peaceful place. (Robert Macfarlane writes wonderfully about it here.)

I hadn't really paid much attention to the Othona community until a visit this year, when my companion pointed out that it'd been founded just after the end of the war, and that several similar communities were founded by ex-servicemen. That intrigued me, so I sent off for the book.

Motley writes briefly of his time as a curate in Spitalfields (then a slum and ethnic melting-pot) before the war, and of his wartime experiences, providing a sense of community and a forum for discussion of the 'fearful equation' of a loving God and a genocidal war. One gets the sense that he trod on a few toes by refusing to confine his work to the RAF and / or to Anglicans.

After the war, Motley's wife mentioned 'a chapel in the marshes' and -- after the first visit, the day that the field in front of the chapel had been cleared of mines -- Motley realised that this was an excellent location for the community he wanted to found. Initially, there were weekend meetings and a summer camp, attracting a wide range of attendees: German POWs who hadn't yet been repatriated, refugees, members of the International Voluntary Service for Peace, local parishioners, Borstal girls ... Motley's account of the tribulations faced by the proto-community (conflict with the neighbouring farmer, the lack of a mains water supply, building the community from Nissen huts and tents, paying the rent) is entertaining and without recrimination, though it must have been an extremely frustrating period.

The common desire of the survivors of both wars was for a fuller personal understanding between people, an understanding so strong that if manifest on a large enough scale -- at home and internationally -- would at least contribute to a climate in which further war would be unthinkable and in which society within the nation could grow without rancour and violence. Such was the hope. (p. 28)

After some years the community founded a second site at Burton Bradstock in Dorset. Both sites operated on the same principles: forcing people to live on their own resources ('transistors and televisions are not available or encouraged') and providing a space for them to engage in meaningful worship, good discussion and spiritual refreshment. There's a good deal of outreach, within Britain and abroad, and the community runs 'family weekends' which combine rural / wildlife pursuits with more spiritual activities. Motley died in 1980, but Othona continues to thrive and to attract those of all faiths and none.

I'm not a Christian and I haven't attended any of the events at Othona, but I was struck by the strength of Motley's mission, his vocation: I have nothing but admiration for his achievement, and I am comforted that a community like Othona has endured and grown for so long.

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