‘Seven Sacred Spaces’

George Lings is a retired researcher with the Church Army, and also a companion of the Northumbria Community. He’s recently written a book entitled ‘Seven Sacred Spaces’. Basically, he’s looked at spaces common to monastic settlements and translated that to the spaces our lives in habit, both individually and corporately as a church. He is seeking to flesh out a balanced way of being community and being church that goes beyond the ‘bog standard’.

Here are his seven spaces – see what you think:

  1. Cell – obviously, the resident monastic has his sleeping/alone/prayer space. So do we – and by that, I don’t just mean out bedrooms etc…but that cell with in us – the place of encounter with God. We must inhabit this space. It’s the seat of encounter, transformation, relationship and growth. It is being alone with God and all that means.
  2. Chapel – this is the place of corporate prayer and worship. We’re all familiar with this I guess – and most of us will love some bits an not others. For many, this can be the most occupied space of our lives and so we call these spaces ‘sanctuaries’, ‘churches’ etc. There is, of course, a place for corporate public worship – but it’s not all there is!
  3. Chapter – in a monastery, this is the decision making place. Every church community does this differently, but it’s a crucial space. These days it can be reduced to ‘mere democracy’, which, in Baptist circles, really isn’t the point. It’s a place of discerning together the mind of Christ over and above our own perspective in order to reach unity. The question here is ‘what is the Spirit saying to the church?’ Another question here is ‘who gets to participate?’
  4. Cloister – in a monastery, these are the places between the spaces…the corridors. This is the place of chance encounter, infomal chats, chewing things over. These can be creative or destructive places, depending on how we are in them. This can be a missional space too – the encounters we have every day
  5. Garden – most monasteries needed to grow their food to be sustainable, and most monastic rules carried a commitment to ‘work.’ That is why monasteries produce beer, wine, and have farms and the like. Our work may not be in the realms of the church community, or we may be retired, but there are still things we turn our hands to, even in the confines of our own homes. It strikes me that there are a few places in the NT where Paul elevates the sense of ‘working with your hands’ and making a living. Very honourable. What is our work to do individually? And what is our work corporately? This might be a work of mission in the community too
  6. Refectory – this is the canteen, the dining room, the place of richest fellowship. If you’ve ever eaten in a monastery, you may know that you might expect to eat in rich silence, or to the sound of someone reading to you, but even in that, there is a sense of family and community. In our homes, for many of us, the key place is the kitchen table, or wherever we eat together. The sharing of food is both a leveller and a way to open up relationship. Church around food is very biblical (see the Corinthian church or the churches in Acts, for example), and is a key space. Faith and live worked out here is a different kind of approach to being in some kind of theatre. Of course, the table can be a missional space.
  7. Scriptorium – this is the place where manuscripts and texts we copied and preserved, and a place of learning. Think of the glorious Lindisfarne Gospels, with their amazing artistic work, and think scriptorium. But also, thing of any book before the technology of printing, and you have the scriptorium. Our churches (and our lives) need places of learning and growth in this way all the way through life – not just at the start of learning Christian basics. This, too, can be a missional space! The Lindisfarne Gospels were the equivalent of a church livestream or a flashy website – artistic tools of the day to share the news of the gospel.

George’s aim is not to suggest that every church renames a room to echo this. Not at all. He is drawing comparisons and noting that there’s more to church.

In a ‘village of God’, how might either the church community or the physical church space be transformed if there was a place for this full range of life, learning and development? I find the delineation of places to be a helpful prompt to thinking about how the life of church can look – not as a crusty institution – as a living community seeking to mediate the presence and message of Christ in our day.

Can you identify when any of these seven spaces have been significant in your own life and faith development?

Villages of God

In my Masters degree dissertation study, I started to explore the concept of ‘villages of God’. Built on the old vision of the Celtic monastic settlement, I started to imagine what an outward-looking hub of study, hospitality, creativity, prayer, worship and service might look like. This was a community that didn’t just see their one hour on a Sunday as the sole focus of ‘the church’, but who pioneered a whole life community open to the world, 7 days a week.

I was prompted to look at this after reading a book by a chap called Rod Dreher called ‘The Benedict Option.’ I read it with interest, but there was something missing in it for me. Dreher’s motivations was mainly to stem the moral and political disintegration of the USA, and his reaction of creating Christian communities was simply to preserve the church, and, to some measure, act as preserving agent in the society. He foresaw a day when there would be greater persecution for Christians – and that’s not necessarily unfounded. There’s lots of questions surrounding his vision, and I explored some of those. There was more ‘retreat from the world’ than ‘engage missionally with the world’ in his writing – but then, he’s talking from a different Christian context of Eastern Orthodoxy.

However, my view was that Celtic monasticism…an open, missional and ‘grass roots’ movement in it’s day was a better model of both strengthening Christian life and faith and also engaging more deeply with the wider world. Ray Simpson, the founder of the Community of Aidan and Hilda, has spoken about the concept of Villages of God at some length, and it was his ideas that I compared and contrasted.

As time moves on, I continue to reflect on this study as I reflect on the setting of the local church – in particular, the one I’m in. Our context is one in which the inherited pattern of evangelical church isn’t going to make significant inroads in future days. The ‘preaching station’ concept of Church, whilst very familiar to evangelical Christians, is not one that will effectively reach a post-Christendom, post-post-modern society very easily. This isn’t to say anything about the value either way of preaching, but more about my sense that the purely ‘gathered church for an hour on a Sunday morning and midweek group’ model is not fit for the future. This is a hard message for many to hear because, for many of us, it’s our key definition of church. As I look more broadly than my own local situation, the pandemic has done a little bit to question this for some, but not for others.

I’d love to see churches think more deeply and creatively about what Christian community could be beyond the hour. I’d love for us to divest ourselves of our ‘holy cow’ mentality and, rather than think of church as a meeting, think of church as a dynamic, prayerful, worshipful, creative, practical and engaged 7-day-a-week community which keeps the balance of devotion to God, devotion to community and devotion to mission equally…an equal trinity of life in the Trinity! I’d love to see the vision rise within the church that equates to a stronger desire to return to wholistic community than to a weekly event. I think that if my sole experience of my family was a weekly event, it wouldn’t be the best vision of what a family is. Same with the church, I think.

Our 21st C church is siloed, partly because 21st C life is private and compartmentalised. Church becomes a compartment of our lives, and we can treat it accordingly. For some, this is as far as they will go in their experience of church. I find that deeply sad, because there is something inherently more glorious in the life of the church than that. But, it is difficult to imagine how this might be more when we are each so entrenched in our culture and see church as just one more demand on our time to control. I believe that for much of the early church’s life, before Christendom, church was highly communal and familial – they saw themselves as communities of new creation, outposts of the Kingdom, deeply committed to each other and to the mission, as they lived lives of total allegiance to God.

I’m going to riff on these ideas for a while here on the blog. We all need to stretch our noggins as we move to post-Covid church…not just because of Covid, but because of what Covid has taught us about life, priorities, connection…and about the brokenness of our world and its people. The ability of the church to listen to it’s context is the extent to which it will meet its task under God. I don’t think there has been such a crucial time for some time – we can’t stick our heads in the sand.

The Cult of Busy

I’ve had a helpful week off work – restful, reflection, creative, and many other things…mainly pottering!

It is very tempting to return to ministry and work at 100 miles an hour but that won’t be any good for anyone. Rush and busyness are the cult of our day, and we’re all summoned to ‘worship’ at its golden calf incessantly. It just isn’t possible to maintain ministry at 100 miles an hour and still have meaningful time to offer to people, to the ministry of God’s word and to prayer.

Early on in last year’s lockdown, a group of us read together a book entitled ‘The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry’ by John Mark Comer. The book invites people to take a fresh look at the demands of our day, and simply to reflect on them. My own observations are that we are the creators of our own busyness because this bolsters our sense of value. It is more socially acceptable to say ‘I’m really busy’ than it is to say ‘no, things are spacious and I have time for all the things that are important.’ Even less acceptable to say ‘no, I can’t do that right now.’ I can even feel myself judging myself for that being the goal! I can also hear the ‘opinions of others’ – the other disciples of busy – raising their critical grumblings (or, it could just be my lunch…).

There is value in really investing ourselves in our work – don’t mishear me. But in the bigger scheme of things, it’s so easy to lose the soul of life in the living of what life has become in our 24/7 society!

The call of the gospel reminds us that there is one thing necessary: to glorify God – to seek him and his rhythms. Yes, that will involve many activities of various descriptions, but it is primarily about a posture of the heart.

‘Why am I writing this?’ I ask myself.

Well, I’m writing against a backdrop of the temptation to rush unreflectively back to life as it was ‘before’ the pandemic with a strong sense that not everything that was part of life before the pandemic is worth rushing back to.

I hope that most of us realise the things that really are important: being with the people we love; enjoying beautiful spaces; lingering over long meals; the honest satisfaction of the simplest of things; the buzz of a little coffee shop on a restful day off.

As far as church is concerned, there are many things I do miss. All boiled down, however, it is this: people. Living life with the body of Christ. For me, it really isn’t about the provision of religious goods and services like we’re just some niche country club. Nor is it about putting on the best, biggest or shiniest show in the town. It is about finding the way of helping a community of people flesh out the life of Christ collectively and individually in the places where we are. In doing this, we fulfil the call and the mission of Christ, because this life rightly lived will flow into our communities in abundant love.

I am looking forward to this next season in life and ministry which will allow for increasing levels of re-establishing face to face connection. I mean, praise God for the internet for making possible things which would have otherwise been impossible, but humans are made for a different kind of connection.

So, today, I am choosing to worship at a different altar.

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” – Matt 11: 28 – 30 MSG

Sounds good to me. You?

Night Church

This is a blog in the middle of the night – in the small hours. It’s 3.14am according to the clock. I’m three quarters of the way through a week of holiday and here I am lying awake thinking about the church.

I’m not thinking about the particular church I lead, but the church in general, although it’s not unrelated, obviously.

I’m mainly thinking, yet again, of the disjoin between the life, authority and task Jesus handed to the disciples, and how that became the thing we currently call the church.

I’m thinking that it’s quite inconceivable that Jesus had anything so complicated and expensive in mind, or anything so difficult to replicate in the various places around the world that he intended it should spring up.

I’m thinking that our present day models of church not only shaped for disciple making, but certainly aren’t places that help disciples fulfil the task of making disciples.

I’m thinking that the UP (worship etc), IN (Christian community) and OUT (all aspects of mission) dimensions of church are not a reduction, but are a sharpened focus of the essentials.

I’m also thinking that most churches can identify those three elements (to some degree or the other) but not all of them focus on them in a way which releases the church for exponential growth, or in a way that helps them see that their current method or tradition might hamper Kingdom extension.

I’m thinking that our expressions of church have largely created safe Christian ghettos detached from real life, and certainly real people, and that detox from this church culture is probably one of the biggest challenges the advance of the gospel.

I’m also thinking about how this shapes the leadership task…I’ll save you my conclusions.

Now that it’s 3.31pm and I’ve pit these night thoughts on church on record, I might feel more of a challenge to come back to them with earnest intention in the light of day…and now maybe get some sleep!

O Church of Christ, arise!


I need resurrection every day. I need the Holy Spirit power that raised Jesus from the dead in me every day. In him I live, move, and have my being. It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me. And I’m glad.

This has been a year like no other in living memory. It has been challenging for us all, but I reflect personally on challenges I did not anticipate, and if I had, I might have been reluctant to turn the page on the calendar. Sadly, the lowest point was a desire that I’d never see another day. Taken to the lowest point again in my life-long struggle with mental health. Yet again, at the very bottom, are the arms of Christ – strong arms, mighty to save.

It’s all grace.

After our Sunday morning service on Facebook, I joined a Zoom with fellow Companions of the Northumbria Community to renew our new monastic vows, centred around AVAILABILITY and VULNERABILITY. That was special, but hard.

There is so much in me that still wants to retreat and put up the walls, but this is not the way we live. Being available and vulnerable when you’re still raw and healing is hard, but Christ is our example. In the pain of crucifixion, he spoke mercy and grace. Being available and vulnerable when you’re in the tomb seems impossible, but Christ wrestled the powers of darkness and came out fighting. Yes, availability and vulnerability is only possible with resurrection power.

None of us knows what is ahead. When we put our lives into God’s hands for him to bless and break, we join a story that is not our own. We are not in control.

There were two lines from our vow renewal in particular that spoke to me:

Let us embody your ready kindness in our day, for things will not be as they were before“, “Call out in me a willingness to love and serve,” and ‘teach me to dream again, to hope again, with my heart already in tune with Heaven.”

I’ve taken these sentences to my own Gethsemane this weekend. I’ve crucified stuff again. Taken up the cross. Sat in the tomb. Been raised again.

Turns out that Easter isn’t only a time in history past, but a reality in our day-to-day lives.

Every day is a walk to Emmaus, and his companionship makes our hearts burn within us once again. Praise God!