Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Five Hours at Darvell

Bernard, from the Bruderhof in Robertsbridge, sent Huw an email inviting some leaders to visit.  This followed several rounds of contact between our members and theirs.  The Strong Light saints have been joining with Bruderhof members when evangelising in Luton.  Some of our Living Light and Living Stones J Generation went to visit Roberstbridge for a weekend late last year.  Huw and Mick liked the opportunity to link in a visit to the new sea-front Abundant Grace house in Brighton.

So Wednesday found me catching a train to Northampton to meet up with them, and Kelly, for a drive down together.  On the M25 we listened to a video of Justin Welby visiting Trent Vineyard, which Mick's brother had recommended.  The Brighton saints settled us into their first floor lounge.  It boasts (in estate agent language) an enviable and unrivalled panoramic view over the beach.  We had tasty home-cooked pizza for supper, while Len rehearsed the trials and joys of moving from their previous larger property in Seaford. 

Next morning was bright and cold, with a sharp wind.  I ventured along the Prom; the few puddles were frozen over.  Len timed our journey to Roberstbridge well, and we arrived a few minutes before 10am.  Bernard's father, David, is Guest Warden, and showed us up to Felix's and Emma's apartment.  There are 320 members and guests in residence, in five or six very large houses.  The Darvell site started as a redundant tuberculosis hospital.  Buildings have been added in the last 50 years to suit the Bruderhof's growing needs.  There's a primary school, modern wood-workshop, etc.  Their dozen or so cars are parked at the entrance, making the 80 acre site virtually a pedestrian zone. 

Emma served us delicious home-made apple and cinnamon cake.  Johnny, Bishop and Servant of the Word, joined us to explain their background and practice.  After four years in compilation, last year the Bruderhof worldwide published a statement of faith, Foundations, which Johnny summarised.  There was lots for which we needed no introduction: covenant, common purse, simplicity, pastoral leadership, shared work, temporary guests.  However, one obvious difference is that they haven't planted church congregations, and don't run anything equivalent to Jesus Centres.  Think Jesus Fellowship in 1983, and you've got a fair comparison.  They have a deep pastoral care and yet prophetic lifestyle.  Just before 12.00, David suggested we took a walk ahead of lunch. 

Kelly had spotted diggers a work at two points on the site: one to house a new biomass boiler system, and the other to replace a residence block that was progressively being demolished.  "What's this place?" I asked David.  "The dining room."  Sure enough, we walked into a huge modern hall, with views over the fields on three sides.  The uniform lines of tables and chairs were set out with equally matched cutlery and plates.  Without a signal, the tables filled up.  A voice from the PA bade us welcome.  The diners tended to sit in family groups, and conversation was muted.  While we ate, children from the school related the highlights of their previous day's visit to a local aquarium.  They began with sincere thanks for the adults arranging this field-trip.  As an exercise in burying self-consciousness in front of 300 people, it was excellent.  I didn't realise a puffer fish can only inflate nine times because of the strain on its heart. 

After lunch we tramped round the fields they cultivate for self-sufficiency, and looked into the school.  David commented that neighbours scrutinise everything: erect a tool shed and the complaints pour in.   In the workshop, Oliver explained the manufacture and assembly process, and how they rota the jobs.  Although the workshop pays its way, with no wages, or congregations or Jesus Centres to support, their business ventures are held well within the Bruderhof's balance of life.  They've chosen to be self-supporting from cradle to grave, so need this means to earn their keep.  I took some photos in the workshop showroom; they were for Jack, but I felt a little awkward. 

Back for a cup of tea before we left, I asked Emma about her experience.  She spoke of keeping the covenant living by daily resolving misunderstandings or tensions that arise.  Beautiful.  As we parted, I commended Felix on his name: he truly has a sunny disposition.

The four of us came away with different impressions.  Mick loved their honour for all members, including the children.  Huw saw warnings how the Holy Spirit's urge to move on could be lost.  Kelly valued the spontaneity and ownership of decision-making, and flexibility of programme.  I felt that nobody coming into leadership in Jesus Fellowship in the last 20 years could understand how this lifestyle formed us, and how different we have subsequently emerged. 

Len told me since, that Darvell regularly hold open days.  Although they don't encourage "sightseers", you'd receive a warm and genuine welcome. 

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