Rather than about Christian communities in general, this is the story of two specific Christian communitarian movements: The Catholic Worker and Camphill. McKanan, professor of theology at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, Collegeville, explores not only how these movements manage to survive, but “to uncover the complex process by which lofty idealism is translated into transformative presence in the world.” Approaching the study from the ethnographic perspective of participant-observer, McKanan’s position that the value of such intentional communities, is to be found in their ability to challenge and connect with the larger society.
For readers unfamiliar with these movements, the first chapter provides a thumbnail sketch of the origins, founders, and development of both movements. Although radically different in their philosophies, both embrace a Christian worldview and sense of mission founded on faith. Both have attracted permanent and less permanent members to their communities, members who often do not share the same Christian spiritual and religious commitments. The question McKanan asks is two-fold. How do these communities maintain their Christian identities over time, while making room for the others, who arrive for only a temporary stay or who stay, but with ideals and beliefs that diverge from those of the founders? In the course of answering these questions, the author explores the kinds of practices the communities have developed “that allow their members to connect self and community in such a way that they can touch the world…”
Through numerous testimonies of members and former members of these movements, McKanan succeeds in painting a picture of each community’s ability to positively adapt to its own power of attraction. It is, indeed, this attraction that draws to the communities idealists, optimistic about changing society, as well as those disillusioned with society and looking for an alternative. Such is the power of the Catholic Worker, with its incarnational Christian personalism and that of Camphill’s Christian cosmological foundation of inclusive community. Detailing practices that are supportive of members whose vocational discovery leads them away from the community; that are inclusive of members who marry and build a family distinct from the community; and that are respectful of members whose spiritual and religious views are at odds with the community, the book describes a sense of Christian identity that is not threatened by diversity nor reinforced by control. It ends on a realistic note. Pointing out that many Catholic Worker and Camphill communities are short-lived, McKanan reminds us that the movements themselves continue and that their values and beliefs have indeed touched the world in the lives of those who have shared in their vision.
The book is readable. Its first hand accounts move the reader quickly into the praxis of the communities where one can see for oneself what McKanan is saying. Although at first sight the focus of the book may seem narrow, in fact, it tells a story that has application to a variety of intentional communities and of those institutions (e.g. schools, hospitals, religious congregations, etc.) that are trying to re-establish their identities as Christian communities and cope with the uncertainties of post-modern society.