[Source: Baptist Times Published: Saturday, 24 May, 1980]
Story by Lewis Misselbrook
I had heard much about Bugbrooke so I went to see for myself. I spent a day with Noel Stanton and the community at New Creation Farm, Nether Heyford.
When I arrived Noel was out in the fields working. He came in, mud all over his gum-boots and gave me the shy, welcoming smile I remembered so well.
I had known Noel many years before. He was then a printer, working in Bedford and living in Bugbrooke where he was pastor or the village Baptist chapel.
He is still the same quiet, deep man but now once held by a vision that by the Spirit, the Church is to be a visible and powerful expression of the Kingdom of God, a true messianic rule on earth, God's alternative society within the kingdom of this present world.
"We recognise", he said, "that the prevailing spirit of our age is one of materialism and greed, of uncertainty and political instability, of selfish relationships and injustice. But God has led us into a new life-style, a corporate life in which we seek righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
"Every member of the community renounces self-interest in order to serve one another and any who will not renounce self in this way cannot stay in the community. But the result of obedience to this rule is a rich harvest of righteousness and peace, deep and wholesome relationships and above all, an environment in which those who have been bruised and battered by the world can come and find healing for their souls through the love of Christ expressed in His Body".
David Hawker, one or the elders, showed me round the farm which the members of that house run. It supplies produce for the whole community, particularly eggs, fruit and vegetables. There is also a fair sized pig unit.
Some members work in jobs outside the community and bear their witness there but an increasing number are now employed in businesses owned and run by the community.
I went to see the health food shop, the builders' supply yard and the car repair shop at Towcester. There is a bakers shop at Broughton and a good number of businesses in Northampton and elsewhere.
Said David, "The community has never sought to be self-sufficient in the normal sense of the word, but we do seek lo obey the scriptural injunction to 'mind your affairs and work with your hands… so that you may command the respect of outsiders and be dependent on nobody.'
"In our businesses we find we are, able to supply some of our need and also provide a measure of freedom from worldly pressures so as to be a sign of the presence and quality of God's Kingdom in the locality."
Life in the community is very full and there is always something happening. Every member of the church is occupied in ministry of one form or another, from elders and evangelists to the many practical tasks which keep the community running smoothly.
Yet in spite of all the activity there is plenty of time for relaxation, for family life (within the "family" life), for reading, music and recreation.
The focal point of the day is the evening meal together which is a time of bodily and spiritual refreshment after the day's work is done.
The household eats together, sharing fellowship and encouragement, worshipping and singing together and often ending by sharing the broken bread and the wine.
The things I had heard about Bugbrooke were conflicting. Some were hostile and these I wanted to bring out to discover what really happened there.
I asked Noel Stanton whether he was saying that every Christian should live in a community house. "no", he replied, "not all members of Bugbrooke do. But every Christian must live in a community. After all that is what a local Baptist church is.
"Not every Christian will want to live in this particular form of community life but what is important is that churches should not only attempt to articulate the Gospel message but also to live it out in practice together in a clear way.
"The medium needs to be the message. We here are one way of attempting that under the Spirit of God".
I asked him the hard question about members handing over all their money when they go to live in a community house.
"Our vision", he said, "is of a Christian community that has all things in common. No-one under 18 joins and we accept nothing from under 21.
"We press no one to join but for those who want to do so there is no other way of having all things in common except by sharing all we have.
"That may come as a shock to a non-Christian world of individualism, selfishness and possession – worship but it is our way of living according to the principles of God's righteousness.
"We practise equality through our common purse and are able to give freely to those in need.
"We seek to eliminate all forms of oppression and injustice. Among us there are no rich or poor, 'Jews or Greeks', but we are brethren together living a common life in simplicity and in truth.
"We live healthily but not in affluence, in fact our living costs around 40 per cent less than the average Englishman.
"Our vision is that of God's true society -a revolutionary alternative society, where truth and justice are seen to reign in love."
From time to time as we talked people came into the room. I was introduced to every man who entered but never to a lady. I asked about this.
"The women seek to be obedient to the New Testament revelation", said Noel. "Our women do not have authority over men, they dress modestly and serve Christ by good deeds. Our Eldership both in the community and in each house is male and within that the husband is also regarded as the elder in his own family".
I would have liked to ask him how much a man's theology is really his hidden psychology. Noel is a bachelor! And how seriously his Reformed theology took both sides of the New Testament teaching about women and how far they read it as eternal principle and how much within the culture of that time.
But I was there to learn not to argue.
I also questioned the exclusiveness of the Jesus Fellowship. Did they encourage members of other churches to come and join them? They did not but some people came nonetheless.
When their evangelising teams went out all over the place, did they send converts to the nearest evangelical church or did they attach all converts to themselves?
Normally, I was told, they regarded care of their converts as their responsibility but would hand over converts to other churches if they were sure their doctrine was sound.
Another line I would have liked time to pursue.
I then asked if members were free to leave the community if they wished.
"Yes", said Noel, "We are not trying to keep anyone here. It would destroy the community if we did. People choose to come because they share our vision and they choose to stay.
"While here we live in community and in submission to each other but it is entirely voluntary. Some do leave us and we help them, financially and otherwise, to rehabilitate themselves outside the community."
My talks with members of the community confirmed this. All were there because they wanted to be there and thanked God for it.
Typical was the remark of Huw Lewis, another Oxford graduate. "I was once a loner, searching for something true, something to live for, searching for roots. All these I have found in the Jesus Fellowship and so much more beside in love, relationship and humility".
One man in his late twenties said, "I have explained my faith in Christ to my parents, and I have explained this community to them but they don't understand. They still think it is one of the cults and are ashamed that l am here.
"I write regularly and go home when I can but they won't come to see me here and won't accept that I am here because God called me here and I want to be here".
He was fortunately, an exception but more than one member had Christian parents' who wish their child would get back and settle in an ordinary church".
Most or the criticism of the community has been unfair and uninformed and some has been malicious. Some or the members have been deeply hurt by it and some have become defensive.
However, the early Christians suffered it (it was said they murdered babies and ate their flesh and drank their blood in special feasts!), the Anabaptists and Baptists suffered it and several pastors known to me, making quite simple and biblical changes in their churches, have received really scurrilous letters.
It is a fear-ridden age and Christians do not all love one another.
What matters is not what people say but what the Lord is saying. The worst that could happen to Bugbrooke is that harsh criticism might make them unloving to the unlovely or to fix their eves on the criticism rather than on Christ.
There is, of course, also good criticism that comes from Christians of a sympathetic spirit and we do well to listen to that lest we miss the voice that speaks.
Bugbrooke is not perfect, Noel Stanton is not always right.
But it is a bold venture of faith that calls for our true interest, our loving understanding and prayers.
The Jesus Fellowship Church appears to me to be important for us all for several reasons:
First, it is a genuine effort to express the Gospel in practice. In an age of individualism, selfishness and security-seeking, comfort, prestige und materialism permeate all levels of society and often the lives or church people too. So life, creativity and love are stifled. Bugbrooke shows another way.
Second, it is a lay movement. There are no clergy / laity divisions. All are the people or God, the Body or Christ and every member plays his part according to gift.
So often the unchanging, traditional church wastes, frustrates and freezes the living members of the Body or Christ and the laity are devalued and deskilled. Not so at Bugbrooke.
Third, it reveals the Kingdom of God as a true alternative and revolutionary society, not as a patching up or attempted reform or present world structures. The great problems occupying the Church about injustice, oppression, racism, inequality and Mammon are here solved in microcosm by the Spirit of Christ for all the world to see.
The Fellowship has an excellent record through the grace of God, for bringing, new hope and new life to drug addicts, ex-prisoners, single mothers, those with personality disorders and others.
In helping such "outcasts" they do accept risks unknown to the "respectable" church and become vulnerable to attack by those who wish to be hostile.
Fourth, for the Jesus Fellowship mission and community are inseparable. "Community without mission becomes self-centred. Mission without the reality or the gathered Body of Christ begets children only to murder them". This is a needed emphasis.
Fifth, it is a dynamic and ongoing movement. They have not moved from one fixed form only to fossilise into another, The Christian life for them is something you go on praying, sweating and working at together under the Spirit of Christ, learning together at every stage what discipleship and membership or the Body mean in the present.
At last week's Baptist Union assembly it was said that God is doing a new thing in our time.
Baptists have never had "Orders" in their ranks in the way that some (like the Roman Catholics) have. Francis of Assissi would have had to form a para-church organisation outside the denomination had he been a Baptist.
Now a genuine Baptist "order" is emerging. Others – perhaps quite different – will follow. If we are not too afraid of change to lift up our eyes to see, we may well be considerably enriched whether we follow the Bugbrooke pattern or not.