Northumbria Community, United Kingdom

Note: The first three paragraphs in this blog post are quoted from Ancient Paths: Discover Christian Formation the Benedictine Way, by David Robinson; Paraclete Press, 2009.

Though the Northumbria Community was founded less than three decades ago, its roots lie deep in the soil of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne of northern England. In 635, an Irish monk named Aidan was sent from Iona Abbey in Scotland to minister to the people of Northumbria, located in northeast England. By invitation of King Oswald, Aidan founded the first monastery in the Kingdom of Northumbria on the Island of Lindisfarne. Over the next sixteen years, Aidan ministered as an evangelist for the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the people of Northumbria until the year of his death in 651. Aidan was widely loved and respected by the people of Northumbria. King Oswald gave him a white stallion for his mission, but Aidan gladly gave it to the first beggar family he met. When Oswald confronted him about this act, Aidan rebuked the king for loving the son of a mare more than the son of Mary. Aidan walked from village to village, always traveling by foot, willing to visit with people face to face along the road, often entering poor peasant homes to offer spiritual and physical aid while gently accept people out of love of Jesus Christ.

In April, 2008, Dr. Ian Bradley, Professor in Practical Theology and Church History at the University of St. Andrews, made a proposal to the English parliament to consider making Aidan the new patron saint of the United Kingdom. [1] Bradley’s proposal stands on sound historic foundations. Along with St. Augustine of Canterbury, St. Aidan is widely considered the apostle to the English. Unlike St. George or St. Andrew, patron saints of England and Scotland respectively who never set foot in what is now Great Britain, Aidan was born in Ireland, lived in Scotland and spent the final sixteen years of his life in northern England, then known as the Kingdom of Northumbria. After Aidan’s death, Lindisfarne Abbey became one of the most influential missionary bases in all of England for spreading Christianity among the English speaking people during the medieval period. Commenting on Aidan’s lasting influence, Bradley notes, “the monastery which he established at Lindisfarne was to prove almost as important a missionary centre as its mother house at Iona. From it monks penetrated far down into the areas of England held by the Pagan Angles and Saxons.”[2] 

Following in Aidan’s footsteps, the Northumbria Community of England seeks to live out a new form of monasticism according to the Sermon on the Mount “united in heart by our common commitment to our vows, in which we say ‘YES’ to Availability and Vulnerability, and in being companions together in Community.”[3] The foundations for the Northumbria Community date back to 1976, the year Andy Raine went to live on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, where he began to practice a daily rhythm of Celtic liturgical prayer. In 1990, John and Linda Skinner joined with Roy Searle to formally establish the Northumbria Community according to a community rule of life, on the mainland near the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Included in the community rule of Northumbria is a two-fold commitment: to availability and vulnerability. Community members promise to be available to God through daily time alone and together in contemplative prayer. They also seek to be available to one another and to others through a ministry of hospitality, intercessory prayer and mission. The commitment of availability calls community members to be teachable, uniting people through communal spiritual disciplines of prayer, prayerful Scripture study, mutual accountability and soul friendships. Dispersed across the landscape of northern England and Scotland, the Northumbria Community commits to gathering together monthly for common meals, study and worship using Celtic Daily Prayer. When scattered, the community connects in many house communities around the world, and through online connections, seeking to live “openly among people as ‘church without walls’.”[4]

Northumbria Community Nether Springs Retreat Center

Trina and made our first retreat to the Northumbria Community, August 17–20, 2015, at their beautiful retreat center called Nether Springs, located near Felton, Northumberland, England. We were picked up at the Alnmouth train station by a vibrant English woman named Phoebe who moved from London this past Spring to join the Northumbria Community as part of the team. We arrived in time for Evening Prayer. After a long day of travel from Czech Republic, including a stressful three-hour drive in rush hour traffic to the Prague Airport, barely making our flight to Edinburgh, heading by public bus and train to Alnmouth, we welcomed the silence and calm in the room as we sat down for evening prayer. 10 other people also were on retreat, already gathered in silence. Evening prayers are led by members of the Northumbria Community team from the Celtic Daily Prayer book, featuring Psalms, Scripture readings, simple folk style Celtic songs based on Scripture, and prayers. Plenty of margin is given between words for time to reflect, rest, meditate. Nothing is rushed. Sitting on a comfy couch before a framed print of Rembrandt’s famous painting of “The Return of the Prodigal Son” in a room full of fellow Christians, worshiping our beloved Christ was balm to a travel tense soul. We were then led to our accommodations, in the Aidan room. Every room is named after a Celtic saint. These two weeks in Northumbria for me are focused upon three great Celtic saints, Aidan, Cuthbert and Hilda. To stay in Aidan’s room was an additional gift of grace. The room was elegant, simple, beautifully furnished with good reading chairs, simple artwork on the walls. One art piece offers this encouragement:

Be still. Let the tide of memories wash over you.

Listen to the whispers of the saints.

Feel the breath of wisdom refresh your mind.

Return to the place of peace, your Holy Island.

(see photo of this artwork above in photo gallery)

The Northumbria Community invites people who come on retreat to enter the “monastic rhythm of the day”, which includes four times of Celtic daily prayer: 9am Morning Prayer; 12 Noon Midday Prayer; 5:30pm Evening Prayer; 9:30pm Compline. The schedule of this “monastic rhythm of the day” is posted on a bulletin board in every guest room (see photo above). Each of these prayer services last about 20 minutes, and include worship by a leader with responses by the people. The services are begun and concluded in silence, about five minutes on either side of the actual service, to simple sit together in silence and enjoy the company of Christ quietly together. Our Evening Prayer service on Tuesday was held in a little chapel on the property, lit by candles and wood stove, with a golden glow on every face as we worshiped together. Our Compline service on Tuesday was interrupted by spontaneous laughter by the whole group as several of us stumbled over a tongue twister in one of the repeated prayers. Laughter and playfulness is encouraged at the Northumbria Community as a normal part of daily spiritual life in community. Meals are around a common table, served by members of the community who eat with those on retreat. The arts are highly regarded, with regular prayers of gratitude for God’s gift of creativity, prayers for artists, beautiful sacred artwork on every wall, and original sacred art, and art cards available. Images of some of the artwork around the retreat center are found in the photo gallery above. During our three nights at Northumbria Community, we were on an individual retreat, while 10 others were on a directed retreat with the theme of “Spiritual Disciplines”. We were invited to attend any of the sessions, including talks on “Lectio Divina”, “Prayer of Examen”, “Silence” and “Simplicity”. People on retreat came mostly from UK but there was a woman from Norway and a retreat leader from Australia. Youngest was 30, oldest in her 70s. The community offers an excellent small library with books on the Bible, theology, Celtic spirituality, spiritual formation, monasticism, daily living, ethics, and other subjects. I even found a book I’d written, The Family Cloister as part of their library collection. While on retreat, I read several books, including David Adam’s The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, and George Hunter’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism. The Northumbria Community includes 300 “Companions”, those who have made a year long study in preparation to become part of the community; as well as 1000 “Friends”, those who commit to pray and support the community.

What makes the Northumbria Community unique? Quoting from their document, Journey with Northumbria Community, “Our charisms (giftedness) include: seeking God as the one thing necessary; ordinary spirituality; humor; creativity; acceptance and freedom to be who you are; honesty in relationships with God and others; committed at the core and loose at the edges; and a willingness to risk and learn from mistakes.” The basic structure of this Christian community is their “Rule of Community Life” (mutually agreed upon guidelines governing their daily life and purpose), and the “monastic rhythm of the day”, with a beautiful balance between daily prayer, work, study and service. On August 20th, we departed after Morning Prayers, on foot from Nether Springs, the retreat center run by the Northumbria Community heading north 50 miles along The Way of St. Oswald to the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne. In our leaving, we gave thanks to God for the gift of a spiritual retreat, for time to refresh, renew, reflect, and drink deeply of God’s goodness and grace at Nether Springs among the lovely people of the Northumbria Community.

[1] From “The Independent”, April 23, 2008; (June 27, 2008).

[2] Ian Bradley, The Celtic Way (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1993), 21. The story of Aidan’s life drawn from Michael Mitton, The Soul of Celtic Spirituality in the Lives of Its Saints (Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 1996); Ian Bradley, The Celtic Way (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1993); and George G. Hunter, III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Pres, 2000).

[3] The Northumbria Community, Celtic Daily Prayer (New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002), 9.

[4] Celtic Daily Prayer, 10. For more information on the Northumbria Community, explore their Web site at .