Plain Life, Plainly

Plain chores

It looks like we are seeing the leading edge of a Plain revival. The twentieth century left many people stranded spiritually; we moved from an all-encompassing Modern philosophy to a Post-Modern zeitgeist. The Moderns are still in control of most institutions, but those of us outside the mainstream of those same institutions are, from a Post-Modern perspective, looking to the past and lost tradition for a way to follow into the very uncertain future.

What is Modern and Post-Modern? In my context, the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, a move in academia, society and politics to a philosophy of Progress and optimism based on human achievement, is the beginning of the Modern era. (Most academics would agree, I think.) Post-Modern (don`t be afraid of this term) is based on experience and philosophy of the twentieth century, when the senseless destruction and chaos of the world wars and other conflicts brought into question the legitimacy of Progress. Its seeds were sown in the Enlightenment itself and in the social protests of the nineteenth century. Widespread genocide and ecological destruction reinforced this philosophy amongst academics and influential thinkers. Post-Modernism asks:

How can we believe what we were taught when those beliefs brought so much destruction –

How can chaos and violent anarchy be Progress –

This is the meta-question that has led many of us to find another way. We want a way that follows the teachings of Christ without the excesses of culture that we now reject, such as materialism and consumerism. The cultural churches – the mainline Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican institutions – seem to be still enmeshed in the dominant, destructive culture. So in the late twentieth century, other ways of faithful living have been explored, rejuvenated and reworked, such as the New Monasticism and the Plain movement.

I can`t speak to the New Monasticism; while we live in an informal community, it is not ordered in any way except that we are all Anglicans and the centre of our week is Sunday attendance and participation at worship. Nicholas and I are very Plain but have accommodated ourselves to the way of living here in the rectory. We have electricity, a vehicle, an internet connection and television. The house is old and not particularly up to date. But we are unable to garden since that would mean the removal of old trees much valued by the neighbourhood, and recycling is not as efficient as I could wish it. I make my own clothes, do some canning and we interact with other Plain people when we have the opportunity. We are trying to maintain our Plain philosophy in a more worldly church community. I don`t see that we have any influence on them at all.

It is what it is; this is a transition stage for us, and with some matters becoming realized, we should be able to move on to a more suitable place for small scale farming and a self-sufficient life.

I think this is where many of us Plainers are headed. While not Anabaptist in profession, we are looking for suitable places to adopt some of the best of Anabaptist and traditional Quaker ways. (I will acknowledge that not all Plain followers are necessarily traditionally Christian; we need to make room for Quakers and others who are more liberal in their theologies.) I hope that as a movement we do not fall into the sectarian errors we have seen in the past. (Formal shunning and the ban, for instance, are inappropriate. We can avoid close association with those whose influence on us is deleterious, but we cannot withdraw from our witness.)

The great irony, of course, is that one of the tools we use to be a Plain community is the internet. Most of us express some concern and even dismay that this is the best we can do, but I doubt if we can give it up without losing community. I would prefer a more traditional form of communication myself. Scott Savage tried this with Plain magazine, but the funding fell short and he could never exceed a certain circulation number due to the printing technologies he used.  (I have still not written to Scott as I had planned. He`s been through some rough stuff in the last few years, and I don`t want my concern and curiosity to sound as if I am criticizing him for choices he made.) I envision something more like the Amish Budget, a newsletter with many columns written from many locations, giving the local news and views. But publications are supported by advertising, and no one wants to advertise in a publication for people who reject consumerism; we are not a very good market.

I`m not at all sure we can define ourselves yet. We are Plain, but we have so many expressions of that. We don`t have an ordnung and won`t, since we don`t fall under but one authority as a group, and that is Christ. We are working out our salvation with fear and trembling, day by day, question by question, leading by leading. We are drawing on the Anabaptists who have been the living encyclopedia for Plain life, and the traditions of Quakers, monastics and other groups who chose to be isolated from the Modern world. I would prefer that we do not quarrel amongst ourselves – I had enough of that sojourning with the Orthodox and their many cries of `You are not canonical!` (If you have been part of an Orthodox community you know what I mean. The Paedalion is both beacon and cudgel.) This is a weakness in the Anglican church, which will ignore the dissenters until they get tired of the yelping and throw the pups out. (Puritans, Quakers, Methodists and now the Biblical Conservatives, whatever they are going to call themselves.) The Quaker meetings are, in their erudite and polite way, at odds internally all too often.

Let`s keep it simple and courteous. Let`s speak Plain English (not Plain speech, except amongst ourselves) and give the St. Francis sermon – preach with our lives, using words only when necessary.

11 thoughts on “Plain Life, Plainly

  1. I am really interested in what you have written here, but I don’t want to leave a too lengthy comment, so I’ll post some related thoughts of my own over at Kindred of the Quiet Way, with a link to this to make the connection.

    Sorry your problems with posting a comment on the Kindred blog have persisted. I put what you said on Facebook up as a comment in the thread following the post on colour (red).

  2. magdalena,

    A most thought provoking article indeed. As i have mentioned in previous comments, I’ve seend to gravitate almost unconsciously toward a ‘Plainer’ kind of outlook, finding fault with consumerism and materialism that invariably ride on the backs of the developing world nations, and our fragile eccology.

    Plainness is indeed a growing movement, drawing from, and developing beyond the Anabaptist experience; be its adherants and enquirers Quaker, Anglican, or Catholic (Plainness is taking route within a Roman Catholic understanding also;

    I would not be surprised if there are individuals within Orthodoxy also drawn to Plainness.

    It is my belief that a growing interest in Anglican and RCC third order participation is also parallelling the growth of Plainness as an expression of Christianity that seeks to offer an alternative to materialism and consumerism.

    Concerning technology, for many of us, especially those of us with print disabilities (such as vision impairment) technology is a great boon that enables access to information only dreamt of fifteen years ago. I can very easily reconcile plainness and technology. Ideally, two overarching principles would serve to govern its usage in a long-term sustainable way;

    1. ensuring that technology being used is made ethically (production, working conditions, full, closed circle recycling as far as possible, and where not, the development of ways to make this so) capability from battery and its elements to circuitry, keyboard, screen and cover (phase out the immoral principle of ‘Planned obscellesence – build upgradability into each unit manufacturerd, for a start).

    2. Mature use of technology – that is, its non destructive use only (this is a broad church, so to speak, in and of itself).

    It is important to remember that there are many for whom it will be completely unpheasable to adopt a self sufficient farmsteading life (due to age, disability, medical situation etc). As the Plain Movement develops, ways of preventing exclusion of individuals in these situations need to be factored in; for now, those of us who will never be able to adopt full plain life can start to make a difference in small ways; what we use and how we use it. Long-term, established Plain communities will best function if, among other things, they offer a safe, nurturing, encouraging environment where the giftings of individuals with all manner of disabilities, illness, or those among our number that are ageing, will be welcomed and cherrished as valuable participants (Magdalena, this links in with the ‘Faith and Theology’ article I sent you a few days ago, re-prinmted here for others to consider also).

    I think this movement will only grow across the denominational spectrum, and be a great witness to the world around us.

    Thank you, once again.

    • I have been in touch with Plain Catholics, and might have ended up with them except they are very Vatican I and I’m too independent for that! Some of them have been around for about a century. As for those who can’t farm – the model in Anabaptism and early Christianity itself is that the rest of the community is responsible to help them. Whether this is a close-knit commmunity living in geographic proximity or a widespread group with some members who are in need of aid in other ways, the Church has this responsibility and we can’t get away from it. (I don’t really need to cite the passages from the gospels, do I? You all know them.) Of course, our Christian responsibility is outside the group as well, and there’s no way to softpedal that either. Christians are always called to live for others, and not just for themselves and their group. Christ literally gave His life for us, and we need to give our lives – our work, our time, our energy and prayers – for others as well.

  3. Magdalena,

    Brilliant response; my thoughts exactly. It is because the church has corporately let the side down in so many ways, that such care has fallen to big Govt., who by ‘beaurocratic necessity’ often miss the mark – hence the appalling situation in Australia of young people with disabilities winding up in nursing homes for the elderly rather than purposed programmes (when family either cannot continue to provide care themselves, or need resbyte to recharge their own batteries). Groups like the Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul society, Catholic Care, Anglicare etc do what they can, but should be supported to be able to do so much more. Prior to the disillusion of the monastaries in the UK in 1535-36, for the better part of a thousand years, they had been the centres of communities, providing assistance and far more. is one example of what can and needs to be done across the board.

    We, as Christians around the globe and spanning the denominations, have a mighty work if we are to live out Matt. 25: 34-40, Acts 2: 42-47, and the book of james with fresh vigor.

  4. Just a little addition here. Plain Quakers often were city dwellers. Still are, though some are being drawn to the rural life.

    I enjoyed the perspective of this article – especially chewing on the parts about the Enlightenment and the beginning and meaning of the modern era.

  5. I am so thankful for the internet! Since I am the only one in my church or family who covers and dresses as I do it could be a pretty lonely exiestance otherwise.

  6. I can make you feel a little better about the movement being internet based. If we were printing a budget newsletter think of all the papers that would cost. The energy used to make the paper is more than each of us turning on our computers for an hour or so a day.

    As a Plain Methodist I can relate totally to Michelle. I am the only one in my church, family and professional life that wears nothing but skirts or dresses and covers my hair. Every now and then there is a woman in the grocery store with homeschooled kids and long hair and jean skirts on her and her daughters and I think she is probably a lot like me, but she braids her hair and does not cover.

    Last weekend we went to the high school to watch my son play at the football game (he plays base drum not football) and my husband asked me to look “less Amish” So I wore a jean skirt and a pony tail with a hat. Compromise is a wonderful thing

    • Unless I am in in an Anabpatist community, I know I will most likely be the only one in Plain dress. My husband stand sout a bit, too, as he has a very full beard and wears Quaker Plain shirts and hats. (He now has a mustache as he is unable to see well enough to shave his upper lip, and electric razors aren`t practical for us.)And you are right about a newspaper – it has to be printed and mailed and that costs money so people would have to subscribe. I used to work for old-fashioned newspapers – my family did this over three generations, although not together in the same business. It is a fulltime job for several people!

  7. Hello Magdalena, Thea here. As a Quaker I’m not sure what to make of thy posts. I do use plain speech and I wear a Quaker bonnet.
    In our Jesus, Thea

    • As thee knows I use Plain speech with Quakers and other Plainers (and when I want to give a bit of a serious tone to my replies!) And I wear a Quakeresque bonnet. Still, Austere Quaker Plain is not for everyone. I would happily settle into it but do try to please my husband.

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