L’Arche and fresh expressions: learning together (Hugh Nelson)

Hugh NelsonHugh Nelson explores how L'Arche and fresh expressions are learning together.

The life and energy associated with the fresh expressions movement may well be the most exciting thing going on in British churches at the moment. But it's not the first time that a changing cultural landscape has been the seed bed for new ways of living the Christian faith.

Fifty years ago, in the midst of all the changes of the 1960s, a generation of young Christians wanted to find new ways to follow Jesus. From them grew a range of Christian communities, many of them founded within the Catholic church, but all of them with a desire to be engaged with those on the margins of society, to be deeply ecumenical and to make faith the foundation of daily life – communities like TaizĂ©, Chemin Neuf, Sant Egidio, and Pax Christi.

Each of these groups was founded with a specific vocation, but they all share the call to live as intentional communities, in which members commit themselves to sharing their life and faith day to day, not just for an hour on Sunday.

Amongst these communities is L'Arche, now an international network of 130 communities in which people with and without learning disabilities live and work together. Founded by Jean Vanier – and the home for many years to theologian and writer Henri Nouwen – L'Arche communities seek to live as a sign of hope in a world which has too easily neglected and rejected those labelled as suffering from a learning disability. L'Arche communities are places in which what is shared is more important than our differences, in which our deficiencies and difficulties are a source of healing and transformation rather than shame and embarrassment and in which God is sought in the day to day messiness of life – not in a separation of sacred and secular.

There are 10 L'Arche communities in the UK hidden away in our towns and cities, each of them a simple witness to the kingdom of God. The communities are made up of between 20 and 100 people, who are seeking to deepen their faith together, build friendships and experience the transformation that God longs to share with his people.

As a provider of professional care services to people with learning disabilities, L'Arche has a particular call to stand in the difficult place between the world of faith and the world of statutory services, a place which is more and more complex to occupy at the moment. Meeting the clear targets and regulations of local authorities and Inspection services while remaining faithful to the founding values of L'Arche requires careful reflection and thought. This is just one area in which, in the 45 years since L'Arche began, it has learnt about Christian community living and I believe there is therefore a fruitful conversation to be had between the fresh expressions movement and L'Arche. 

As well as learning how to live with hope as Christians in a secular world, L'Arche has had to engage in questions about its relationship to the local church. It has:

  • developed liturgy and worship resources that are creative and which work for people for whom words may be difficult;
  • grappled with issues relating to authority, conflict, money and time;
  • benefitted from the wisdom of theologians and church leaders, including Rowan Williams and David Ford;
  • developed practical ways to support those in demanding roles who live and work alongside people with learning disabilities;
  • learnt how to welcome diversity of belief, ability, personality and background and it is currently learning about how to remain true to its founding vision as Jean Vanier – who began L'Arche and is now in his 80s – steps back from leadership.

The world that fresh expressions is stepping into is exciting, daring and Spirit inspired. It's a world that L'Arche inhabits as well. Let's get the conversation going.