“Take heed, then, often to come together to give thanks to God, and show forth His praise.” Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians
Amid the fields and rivers of eastern North Carolina, Father Thomas Ricks, a bi-vocational Anglican priest who makes his living as a software sales executive, seeks to bring believers from across the country and around the world to form a community of the faithful. His movement, the Community of the Holy Cross, focuses on the regular observance of the daily office and a commitment to intercessory prayer for one another and the wider world.
What Ricks hopes to accomplish is revolutionary, in its own small way. In a culture that moves ever faster, that demands more and more of our time and continually seeks to innovate and change, the Community of the Holy Cross invites believers back to rhythms of worship that have been practiced since the early days of the faith: a life built around the daily recitation of morning and evening prayers, fasting, acts of charity, and, perhaps most importantly, a relational faith whose members set aside the excessive individualism of the current culture. Instead, they will rely on the strong foundation found in a community of believers sharing their burdens and joys with one another.
“This is an audacious thing,” he says, “to suggest that people pick up stakes and move across the country to be part of some vocation. But I’m not calling people to anything. I’m not trying to persuade anybody to do anything. I believe that God has already called particular people to faithful intercessory prayer. I’m just trying to connect with those people and bring us together.”
Holy Cross is an Anglican community but is not limited strictly to one Anglican denomination, or even to Anglicans in general. “The Community of the Holy Cross seeks to transcend divisions by welcoming into membership Anglicans of all jurisdictions,” Ricks explains. “We also welcome Christians of other traditions who are willing to adopt our way of life and worship.”
“Anglicanism at its best is authentic ‘mere Christianity,’” he continues, “that is, Christianity that is neither sectarian in its emphasis, nor bound to a particular culture. This ethos is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that Anglicanism has no doctrinal statement other than the Scriptures, the ancient creeds, and the teachings of the seven ecumenical councils.”
The Community of the Holy Cross does not seek to erect barriers against—or withdraw from—the modern world. This is in keeping with Anglican tradition, which encourages members to be active and positive influences in their communities. It does focus on living a life of community with one another. Members will share meals, worship, and study, and they will often spend recreational time together as well to cultivate bonds of sisterhood and brotherhood and to do charitable work. Citing former Christianity Today editor David Neff, Ricks contrasts this embrace of community support with the general individualistic bent of American Christian thought and practice. “Weaknesses can overcome us,” Neff points out, “unless we experience the rhythms of repentance in the context of the communal assurance of grace.”
An emphasis on shared daily worship necessitates physical proximity between church members. “Several people have reached out to me assuming that by ‘community’ I just mean something online,” Ricks says. “The Community of the Holy Cross is a Christian community in formation, seeking to build a common life of prayer and discipleship.” Ricks envisions this physical proximity facilitating relational community in other ways, such as sharing mutual encouragement, meals, entertainment, and ministry.
This echoes the philosophy of the Celtic monasteries of the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries, communities of faith that became a beacon in the days after the decline of the Roman Empire because of their way of life, their regular practice of prayer, and their commitment to acts of charity.
Also like the Celtic coenobia of old, Holy Cross welcomes believers from differing backgrounds. “We are different from religious orders in that we are open to people in various walks and stages of life—single people, married couples, families with children, and widows and widowers,” he says.
The daily gathering in celebration of morning and evening prayer that is at the heart of Holy Cross is a tradition that dates back to at least the fourth century. It played a significant role in drawing Ricks, the son of a Baptist minister, to Anglicanism years ago.
“There’s this wonderful expression that the daily office of morning and evening prayer is the duplex cardo, the double hinge from which our day hangs,” says Ricks. “That Anglicanism has preserved the tradition was something that was extremely beautiful to me.”
Ricks hopes to lead the Community of the Holy Cross in returning to those gentle rhythms of worship and prayer and to follow the cycles of the liturgical year, in particular Advent and Lent, seasons of repentance, purification, and renewal.
Ricks insists, however, that Holy Cross will not be simply about recapturing a mythical golden era of Christianity.
“I live in the time and place that I do as an act of God’s sovereign will,” Ricks said. “I find myself in this incredibly messy, distressing period of human history, and my calling is to be a Christian here and now. There’s no harking back to some golden age.”
Today and Tomorrow
Father Ricks encourages Christians who are interested in the Community of the Holy Cross to connect with him to discuss their own calling to intercessory prayer and the life of community living that Holy Cross is fashioned around. He encourages believers to submit themselves to a time of reflection and prayer before visiting.
As our world adopts a new, socially distanced reality, Ricks expects to spend this year, 2020, in discussion with those who hope to join the community. “We will study the experience of other intentional communities, seek like-minded people who may wish to be part of the Community of the Holy Cross, and prayerfully develop ideas about what our common life may be like,” he says.
Next year, Ricks says, “we will begin to gather as a community living near each other. We will begin a life of common prayer and begin working on ways to cooperate in catechesis and in the works of corporal and spiritual mercy. In these early days, there will be no physical community. Members will live in sufficient proximity to each other to facilitate their common life.”
Though members will share many aspects of their lives and may one day develop a physical community, they will not be forming a commune. Private property and individual family structures are important and respected. Members will continue to own their own homes.
Ricks quotes St. Ignatius of Antioch on the power of believers who are gathered together:
For when ye assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and the destruction at which he aims is prevented by the unity of your faith. Nothing is more precious than peace, by which all war, both in heaven and earth, is brought to an end.
That message is much needed today, and it is one that will help in the creation of a better tomorrow.
John B. Graeber is a writer living in Chattanooga, Tennessee, whose work has appeared at Curator Magazine, The Blue Mountain Review, Ekstasis Magazine, Nooga.com, and Fathom Magazine. His poetry has been featured on Chattanooga's local NPR affiliate. He is also co-founder of Tributaries, a literary newsletter that explores the inspiration behind great writing. Follow him on Twitter: @jbgraeber