You never know in the routine of your day when a chance meeting, a stray word in a conversation or an unforeseen event will change the course of your life. The moment will probably go unnoticed and only later be acknowledged for what it was, a gentle collision prompted by the Spirit of God.
When we try to find a conversation, a meeting, an event that would lead to the formation of the Northumbria Community, two defining moments become apparent.
In 1979 a young lady, Diana Ellis a member of Alnwick Prayer Group sent a letter to Andy Raine who at that time was in the Canada. She said that “more than all” the presentation he had left them to prepare would not be ready by the time he returned. He was not to worry because God had shown her in a vision to prepare excerpts from the original presentation to do that year. Next year, 1980 they were to do the whole show at the end of a two week workshop. She went on: the workshops were to be small schools of creativity; a place for sharing vision; a time of sharing and joining together as one.
The first Easter Workshop took place in 1980 in Berwick upon Tweed. Easter Workshops became the meeting place for many who would go on to form the community and a melting-pot of hopes and fears, prayers and protest that would give substance to the ethos of the Northumbria Community.
A few years earlier, in 1977 an unforeseen meeting took place between John Skinner and Andy Raine, again in Berwick upon Tweed. Both made a mental note of that initial encounter with an entry in the margin that they should meet up again. They did, several times. A year after there first meeting, Andy would share a home with John and his wife Linda following several months in Canada. This began a relationship that would span two decades and the fruit of which would be The Northumbria Community.
What is it that distinguishes those who are called founders of a community from other people who were at the beginning?
“Leaders articulate and define what has previously
remained implicit or unsaid; then they
invent images, metaphors and models
that provide a focus for a new attention.
By so doing they consolidate or challenge
prevailing wisdom. In short an essential feature
in leadership is the capacity to
influence and organize meaning
for the members of the organization.”
Warren Bennis & Burt Nanus
From a life lived together and with an increasing number of faithful friends came the images, metaphors and models that would eventually characterize the life and spirituality of the Northumbria Community, many of which they introduced themselves. This would begin to develop a language that would draw attention to and give coherence to their way of living.
The thirteen pioneering and formative years of the community are best described as chaotic. In a diary entry in ’85 John quotes Stringfellow who captures the life they were living:
“dynamic and erratic, spontaneous and radical, audacious and immature, committed if not altogether coherent, ecumenically open and often experimental, visible here and there now and then, but unsettled institutionally. Most of all – enacting a fearful hope for human life in society. Almost monastic in nature.”
It was the desire to ‘organise meaning’ in their own chaotic lives and to give ‘coherence’ to the way of life to which they had been called that would become the defining influence in the formation of the Northumbria Community and would ‘organise meaning’ for those who were to follow. If nobody had followed they would have continued to have prayed the prayers that made sense of their life, now found in the Daily Office. If nobody had followed they would still have chosen ‘availability and vulnerability’ as their way of living now expressed in the Rule. This is what gives Andy Raine and John and Linda Skinner the distinction of being the acknowledged founders of the Northumbria Community.