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The inspirational Othona Community

PAUL SIMON reports on the endurance and contemporary relevance of England’s often overlooked Christian socialist tradition

IF THE Othona Community is an anachronism, then it’s one whose time has surely come again. 

Sited at the edge of Essex’s remote Dengie Peninsula, Othona is a living testimony to the endurance and contemporary relevance of England’s often overlooked Christian Socialist tradition. 

Hard-pressed by both the encroaching North Sea and the imprint of the defunct Bradwell A nuclear power station, for nearly eight decades it has offered a living alternative to the prevailing one of capitalist exploitation and war. 

Othona was founded in 1946 by the Revd Norman Motley, a working-class Church of England vicar. His wartime experiences as an RAF chaplain led him to write a Peace Manifesto seeking to encourage ecumenical dialogue within Britain and, more controversially, between British and German churches. 

In spite of opposition within the armed forces, Motley’s Nails Movement had the backing of some significant heavy-hitters, including the then Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple. 

With demobilisation, Motley sought out a location that could become a focal point for these aims and alighted on a plot of land next to the 7th century chapel of St Peter. 

Although possibly a geographical coincidence, Motley had chosen a county associated with various revolutionary figures, including John Ball of Peasants’ Revolt fame and Conrad Noel, the “Red Priest” of Thaxted. 

Dr Janet Marshall, Motley’s daughter, recalls her father’s guiding Christian socialist principles that informed much of his early ministry. 

“His background was quite poor, leaving school at 14 and going to work in a factory before being drawn to his long struggle to become a priest. 

“As a young child I remember going out with him campaigning for various Labour Party candidates. And when I was young there was a debate as to whether I should go to a private school and he was absolutely adamant that I attend the local state school, like all his parishioners. 

“Like everybody else he was very grateful for the NHS when it was inaugurated and he very much supported that.”

Motley was on first-name terms with a number of senior Labour Party figures in the 1940s and onwards, including Clement Attlee. He also knew the colourful local MP for Maldon, Tom Driberg, because he lived in Bradwell village.  

“He was an interesting and complex character, who knew a tremendous amount about English hymns. Driberg was very helpful in the early, pioneering days of Othona, allowing the community to overwinter its meagre goods and chattels in his barn to protect them from theft and rain.” 

Motley’s wider connections quickly ensured that the initial Othona community, which unlike today was housed in tents and Nissan huts, attracted a wide range of participants. 

Marshall recalls: “Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop would come down to Bradwell  and put on plays in the village hall, and of course they were very socialist. One of the best compliments paid to us by the Theatre Workshop was when they said that they hadn’t encountered such a spirit of community anywhere as they did at Othona.”

Two of the initial signature principles that still underpin Othona is a commitment to peace and close relationships with working-class communities. 

“Having been an RAF chaplain and his father having been in the Merchant Navy in the first world war, Norman knew all about the horrors of war and was a tremendous advocate for peace. 

“His ambition was once the war finished to gather similar-minded people together to make sure it didn’t happen again.”

Was he a pacifist? 

“I don’t think he could be described as such, but obviously he wasn’t in favour of nuclear armaments and was later a member of CND. I was certainly a member and went on demonstrations, including at Trafalgar Square and although he was frightened for me as an only daughter, he always allowed me to join in. 

“So peace was central to this mission and a lot of his writings were about the irreconcilability of war to the Christian life.”

As was the community's ongoing solidarity with working-class communities, with Motley writing in his 1947 newsletter: “We want to tie-in with a great working-class area.” 

And year after year, Othona has ensured that working-class families from London, Essex and beyond have had the chance to have break surrounded by glorious land and seascapes as well as meeting people from many different backgrounds. 

Marshall says that when he was a young priest “he was aware that apart from the soup kitchens and social aspects, Christianity didn’t cut much ice and he wanted somewhere where it could become relevant to the whole of life and not just focusing on religion.

“He wanted to make life more worth living for everybody, involving music, art, literature and nature. He wanted the whole person to be nourished in community.”

In recent decades, Othona has grown considerably. For those not wanting to sleep in tents, it can now accommodate nearly 50 visitors at any one time — including in yurts.

The breadth of those who form the community — whether as life members or those staying for just a few days, plus the small staff team  — continues to widen. Green activists rub shoulders with anarchists, socialists and communists as well with those from a range of faith communities: from Quakers to Evangelicals. 

And the pioneering spirit remains intact. 

Debbie Sanders, who job-shares as warden with her husband Richard, says: “Having installed solar panels in the 1990s and more recently a 5Kwh wind turbine — with a planning application put in for a 25kwh model — we are a genuinely off-grid community. 

“We continue to run a full programme of events and lectures that span key topics of the day, including the vital issue of climate change during the Essex Green Weekend in April. 

“We’re proud to be a Christian community open to all regardless of their faith or none. Our aim is to create a welcoming and loving environment for all; one where people can discuss important topics and disagree respectfully. One where people can truly be.” 

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