By John Parsons
Lately, religious conferences, publications and broadcasters have taken an interest in cohousing. A number of newer projects and groups are overtly religious. At the 2006 Cohousing Conference speaker Kathryn McCamant, while describing the growth of cohousing, half-jokingly asked “what are we going to do when the religious right discovers cohousing?” As religious groups of different stripes explore cohousing, it is important to consider how religion and religious norms might affect a cohousing community’s core principles.
From its inception, cohousing was decidedly not based on overtly spiritual or religious principles. Cohousing is a distinct form of intentional community, using physical design to encourage both social contact and personal privacy. Although altruistic mission statements for cohousing projects are common, they generally promote the value of safe neighborhoods, friendships, individuality and environmental responsibility. They seldom advance an overarching mission of persuasion or conformity to a particular system of truth or morality. In most cases, religion is respected in individuals, but irrelevant to cohousing governance.
The defining characteristics of cohousing include (among other things) a non-hierarchical, consensus decision-making process. As most readers of this site know, consensus is one of the most difficult aspects of cohousing group process. It will get messy, because it assumes equality of authority and true respect for any viewpoint. It imposes a heavy responsibility on each member to actively listen, express true feelings, and work hard for solutions that meet everyone’s true needs.
Religion or organized spirituality has occasionally embraced consensus. (Quakers come to mind.) Very often, however, religious practice involves personal submission to a sacred text, an interpretation or a specific world view. This very naturally evolves into a hierarchy (those who know/teach/lead stand above those who follow) with the exercise of authority on matters of faith and practice. Sometimes this is a formally recognized system, but it is often more subtle, affecting both doctrinal matters and personal or social behavior. The question is not whether such authority is “good” or “bad” in itself. The question is whether hierarchical authority, visible or not, is at all compatible with consensual decision-making and, therefore, with co-housing.
It is important to read a group’s governing documents carefully. The existence of consensus-limiting authority can often be found in a group’s vision statement, for example. If it explicitly claims a spiritual identity for the whole group, then there is cause for concern, especially if diversity is also espoused. If the core principles are immutable, or based on an unquestioned text or creed, then it is very likely that an authority structure is in place, competing with consensus, whether it is acknowledged or not. If a community nominally tolerates the difference in creeds its members hold but does not give those creeds equal respect, the situation is not much better. It’s really a two-tiered system (those who “get it” and those who don’t), that hobbles true consensus from the start.
A Non-Consensus Authority Structure
Other questions will reveal the likely presence of a non-consensus authority structure. (See sidebar, “Warning Signs.”) This includes the use of esoteric language, for example, or the heavy use of religious “we” statements – verbally asserting the identity of the entire community and its opinions. Another danger sign is a high level of deference to the opinions of those deemed spiritually mature, an emphasis on being “nice,” or viewing the community as a surrogate family.
True consensus decisions are unlikely when a significant part of the group is un-yieldingly committed to one sacred text and its interpretation or vision, and when those personal convictions clash with others’ words or behavior in the community. The “I’m right” assumptions on matters of doctrine are easily transferred to practical matters. Ordinary issues – like ignoring consensus-based rules – devolve into judgments on personal morality. Those who dissent on doctrinal or moral issues are likely to carry less weight in committee or large group discussions. In fact, where hierarchy exists, dissenters are often treated as being the problem.
Approaches to Dissenting Behavior
Personal attacks, gossip and the tendency to diagnose and label an antagonist are not limited to religious communities, of course. These are part of the human condition, and the bane of real cohousing. However, some religions or sects have developed approaches to dissenting behavior which are very troubling if applied to cohousing and residential life. If religious persons feel they have special qualifications to judge right and wrong, or diagnose people, it will not be long before they routinely assign blame and “adjust” members who do not conform. Nothing could be further from consensus.
Other human behavior – not at all limited to religion – can also undercut consensus. Cliques and in-groups tend to form in any endeavor. However, when decision-making for the whole is done by such unofficial groups, consensus is by definition not being followed. Influential religious members of a community may succumb to the same temptations. For example, prayer meetings or religious discussions may become occasions to diagnose absent members, strategize to “fix” bad behavior, or otherwise influence community decisions – outside open business meetings and committees. If this happens, then some members are clearly not respecting the rights of others. Respect is, after all, the foundation of true consensus and, therefore, of real cohousing.
In practice, religious authority may actually be benign. However, this is usually in the context of intentional religious community — not cohousing. Hierarchical communities like the Bruderhof or neo-monastic communities like Lindisfarne openly declare their requirements for doctrinal and personal submission. This is as it should be. However, when such practices are employed at the expense of the non-religious, or those of different faiths, it is not cohousing. Current and prospective members have the right to ask communities to clearly identify themselves by established definitions and principles. Assumptions and misinformation about community identity can lead to confusion, strife and dysfunction. Once the consensus-vs-hierarchy issue is honestly defined, people can freely make their choice.
It is possible, in theory, for overtly religious or spiritual humans to create a viable cohousing neighborhood. To do so, however, the members must be able to resolve conflict outside the bounds of their respective sects’ discipline, or their need to have conformity. The group’s core values must be subject to true and ongoing consensus, not bound to the orthodoxy of even 99 percent of its members. Above all, the group must acknowledge that cohousing means neighborhood. It is not a means to another end or cause – no matter how righteous some of its members believe their cause to be.
When considering involvement in a cohousing project with a spiritual component, investigate and spend enough time with the community to be able to answer the following questions:
- Does the group’s vision statement make broad claims about the spiritual identity of the entire group?
- Do members frequently resort to all-encompassing “we” statements to spiritually define the entire group?
- Are the group’s core value statements subject to consensus discussion and change?
- During community meetings, what is the group’s response to the statement beginning with, “I’m uncomfortable with...” regarding any aspect of the project?
- During community meetings, are important issues commonly handled with little substantive discussion?
- Are religious texts used to justify actions on practical issues?
- Is there undue pressure to participate in others’ religious activities?
- Is there undue emphasis on surrogate family or inter-dependency?
- Is shame, guilt or social pressure used to induce conformity?
- Is there undue pressure for individuals to reveal or discuss their personal problems in a group context?
- Are private conversations or situations commonly divulged in meetings without the parties’ knowledge or consent?
If the answers lead you to believe there is a hierarchy issue, then you are probably not looking at consensus or cohousing. Let the buyer beware.
John Parsons is a cohousing advocate and a person of faith who has experienced and actively participated in a variety of different religious communities and institutions in this country.