Lambeth’s Benedict Option

Twenty Minutes with the Rev. Anders Litzell

By Sarah Puryear

The Rev. Anders Litzell serves as prior of the Community of St. Anselm at Lambeth Palace, one of the new initiatives begun by the Archbishop of Canterbury. An Anglican priest from Sweden, Litzell has a background in charismatic and Lutheran churches and attended St. Barnabas Church, Glen Ellyn, while studying at Wheaton College in Illinois. The Community of St. Anselm, which launches this September, will consist of an ecumenical group of 16 residents and 20 other members living and working in London. Members have committed to one year of community life, daily prayer, and service to others.

In your doctoral work you have focused on the leadership of St. Benedict. Because of his creation of an intentional Christian community in a time of cultural change and political chaos, Benedict is considered a timely example for the church in a post-Christian culture (e.g., Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option”). How has St. Benedict’s example guided you so far in creating the Community of St. Anselm?
St. Benedict is a great influence on me and Archbishop Justin alike (who is a Benedictine Oblate) and the flavour of our Rule is much inspired by St. Benedict, both in particular emphases (restating in our context St. Benedict’s exhortation to his monks to “prefer nothing whatever to Christ”) as well as the basic balance between work, study, prayer, rest — and the importance of silence in our daily schedule. Also St. Benedict’s wisdom in shaping and facilitating deep human relationships is a wealth of riches that continues to inspire and challenge me as we make the smaller, but ever so important, decisions that will guide our day-to-day life.

What experiences in your own past, both within and outside of the church, will you be drawing upon most as you lead this community?
That is a very good question — but I can only answer “all of it and more.” Drawing together a global community of young men and women from the whole range of the Christian family tree is going to take every ounce of wisdom that I have and then some. If I were to become complacent about my personal experience working across denominations, in foreign countries and cultures, in a range of styles of worship and theological contexts, etc., I would be setting myself up for failure because my experience is only my experience. I am so enormously grateful for the gift of my team, which brings with it a range of other experiences of international and cross-denominational relationship and community experience, not least through our close friendship and partnership with the French Catholic community of Chemin Neuf, some of whom have been resident at Lambeth Palace for a couple of years now.

The Community of St. Anselm will be unique in part because members are committing to a one-year term. What do you see as the opportunities and challenges of committing to this community for a period of one year?
The opportunities are a group of young people who have never met coming together to share everything for 10 months; being shaped into the likeness of Christ by a balance of prayer, study, and service to the poor in growing mutual love; and transparency of lives towards one another. That carries an enormous potential in and of itself.

The challenges are exactly the same; they’ve never met, they come from all over the world with a vast range of differing cultures and ways to understand life in Christ. Add to that the inherent challenges of sharing life and we have a set of challenges that, when embraced in a commitment intentionally to learn to love, are going to bring forth exactly that likeness of Christ. It is a work of God’s grace; it is also a work of deep humility and commitment from these young people.

Much has been said in recent months about millennials and their relationship (or lack thereof) to the church. The Community will be made up of people who are 20 to 35. You have received hundreds of applications for only a few spots, demonstrating a great interest among young people in such a community. What is it about this venture that appeals to millennials?
Just under 500 people from all over the world, and from a very great range of denominations, started the application process, applying for 16 resident and up to 40 non-resident places (the latter for people living and working in London). By any standard, that’s a phenomenal response.

Yet on one level there is nothing special about the millennials’ response to this at all; it is the call of the Holy Spirit to be shaped into the likeness of Christ. That call is the same and equally attractive in every generation, which is why we are able to draw on treasures from throughout the life of the Church in this formational year. Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever, and he calls a people to his name today as before, and it is not only attracting millennials. But for this to be a gift to future generations, we are inviting people in the earlier stages of their lives.

On another level, this year of community life is addressing a series of needs and wants in society, which the Holy Spirit is even today equipping the Church to respond to. The word community is being used widely by both Church and increasingly in secular society today (and it is even bent out of shape from time to time). It is a banner waved around by politicians, banks, even the police, at least in the U.K. There is a distinct need for a different way of relating to one another in life than transactional connections, than isolating individualism and self-identification, and I think that need and desire is what secular society is reflecting.

In that sense it is not about millennials per se, but about the signs of the times, perhaps most visibly embodied by the millennials. Community life in the name of Christ; a life shared in increasing transparency to one another, self-giving to each other, and to those most in need in society. A life shared in sacrifice, prayer, discipline, study: this kind of community life is not another add-on to be slapped onto Western individualism/consumerism. It is a different paradigm of social existence, and I am delighted that we can model that in such a visible place, and annually send more young people out into the world with a deep experience of that way of life.

How might the example of the Community of St. Anselm inform local churches as they seek to reach, form, and equip young-adult Christians?
I can guess, but my guess will be as good as yours. This is the kind of question that we can answer looking back. But on a broad scale, we can model something and so be a visible encouragement to others to implement what God has put on their hearts, which may bear some likeness to what we are doing (and in fact I am already seeing that effect reflected in my inbox on a significant scale). What’s also very important is that we can show that there is a profound willingness, even eagerness, among the hundreds of young people we’ve been in contact with to be whole-hearted disciples of Christ, and they are looking for ways to articulate that authentically — in thought, word, and deed — in their lives. That is enormously encouraging.

Ecumenism is a central part of Archbishop Justin Welby’s vision for the Community of St. Anselm. How will ecumenism be woven into the identity of the community, and what do you hope it will contribute to the ecumenical movement?
The ecumenical movement as a phenomenon needs only one thing to be sustained: the continued example of persons who find and embrace their common unity as members of the body of Christ. We are creating that kind of unity in a place that is very visible. We are also doing it while inviting branches of the Church that structurally, historically, and/or when engaging in current issues find it difficult to engage with one another at all. But, and this is so important, our visible unity does not come from our ability to agree, our unity comes from searching for and discerning, by the light of the Holy Spirit, the presence of Christ in each other — and honouring that presence even when, or especially when, we disagree on important matters.

Describe what an ordinary day in the life of the community will be like.
I’ll answer for the resident community; we have a non-residential membership mode also, where people keep their jobs and accommodation in and around London and go on this journey completely embedded in the workplace. The press has largely picked up on the “you get to live at Lambeth Palace” thread.

Every day will begin with silence: breakfast, shared Bible reading, morning prayer, and personal prayer — all in silence until 10 a.m. (with the exception for sharing in the liturgy of morning prayer). Then the rest of the morning and afternoon is given to an even split of either study or service outside the walls to the most vulnerable in society. This is broken by a midday Eucharist. The day concludes with Vespers and an hour of joint silent prayer. The content of the evenings vary between learning transparency with each other in smaller groups, having fun together, and a range of other things. On Sundays all members will find a local church to worship in. On top of this all household activities are shared — cooking for each other, doing laundry for each other, cleaning, etc.

What passages of Scripture have been resonating with you as you prepare to launch and lead this community?
Oh, that varies a lot with my needs each day and what the Holy Spirit brings to mind for my comfort — but as for constant voices this refrain has resounded from the Psalms: “Arise, Lord, and come to your resting place, you and the ark of your might” (Ps. 132:8, from the dedication of the temple of Solomon in 2 Chron. 6:41). I have a very acute sense of our building, through our lives as a community, a house for the dwelling of the Lord (1 Pet. 2:5), and the power of having such a breadth of the Christian family tree in the building of this community is far more than symbolic. It is the potential of being more fully the whole body of Christ, indwelled by his Spirit, revealing the Father’s love to the world in thought, word, and deed, and then everything becomes possible.

How can we be praying for you and for the Community of St. Anselm?

Whatever you would pray for any family: for unity, for thriving, for relationships to be true and deep and honest, for our dealing with conflict, for our searching for and finding the image of Christ in each other when our words and actions hide that image well, and for the grace to honour that image and so to bring out that likeness more fully in each other. Perhaps especially when we are at odds with each others’ opinions or actions (or seeming inability to pick up our socks from the floor). And pray for the fruit in the lives of our young people when they leave after a year, to return to the mission of God in the world.

The Rev. Sarah Puryear is priest associate at St. George’s Church, Nashville.

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