A Simple Life - Roland Walls
A remarkable book about a remarkable man and a remarkable community
A Simple Life
Roland Walls and The Community of the Transfiguration
By John Miller
Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh
Reviewer: Alec Gilmore
A remarkable book, a remarkable man and a remarkable community. Founder Roland Walls was an atypical priest, first Anglican, then Roman. Some would describe him as a misfit, others more generously as a nonconformist, but for me a visionary with a remarkable life and a legacy which the church of tomorrow still has to come to terms with. Three incidents tell us a lot about him.
First, his introduction to theology at Kelham, where the founding principal, Father Kelly, took the new students out of the classroom to the farm to see a huge sow lying in straw. ‘Do you see that sow?’ he said. ‘Now, either God has everything to do with that sow of he’s about nothing at all’ (page 18).
Some years later, now training industrial chaplains at Sheffield, he introduced his students to ‘the Nail’ which ‘spoke of three mysteries’ to support their prayer life on the shop floor: the nail of jesus in the carpenter’s shop (daily work), the nail of crucifixion (sharing the world’s suffering), and and the nail holding together the simple cross on the altar where they worshipped — their connection with the here and now (page 24).
Then, many years later as a lecturer at New College, Edinburgh, after listening to a post-graduate essay on the three persons of the Trinity, he sat quietly for a moment. Then he said, ‘This afternoon, I have to go to see a lady who is about to be evicted from her house because she keeps a horse in it. On the basis of what you have discussed in your essay, what would you say to her?’ (page 75). Theology only lives when it has ‘an application in ordinary daily life’.
This is the man who created the Roslin Community of the Transfiguration, South of Edinburgh, in the mid-60s, when the air was filled with living in communes, the drug culture, the charismatic movement, the aftermath of Vatican 2 and the demand for change, and which for more than 40 years (1965-2010) offered practical and moral support to a wide variety of burdened and fragile people and created a New Testament-like atmosphere for scores of others scarcely aware of its work but living under shadow and benefitting from it.
Theology only lives when it has ‘an application in ordinary daily life
The Community, never more than five, embraced the Carmelite vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, with an open meal-table, hospitality for all comers and lots of laughter, thus embodying the truth of Lionel Blue’s remark that ‘humour is not simply a means of the alleviation pain but a manifestation of the divine on earth (page 82).
This book is more than ‘a good read’. It offers interesting insights into church life and theology and demonstrates what can be achieved when a very few people with a common mind and enthusiasm come together.
It also highlights the nonconformist weakness of small communities dominated by a powerful or charismatic figure unable to absorb similar characters who are then left to ply their wares elsewhere, and is a sad (if timely) comment on how established institutions (in this case the Church of England) can fail to change or respond positively when confronted by anything other the ‘norm’ and feel obliged to halt it or at best to damn it with faint praise, leaving the visionary as something of a loose canon (pages 29-31).
Alec Gilmore is a Baptist Minister