Last week we released our latest eNews, within it were a couple of articles – including the last blog post by Adam Bonner on lessons the church can learn from our libraries.
We are going to be uploading a couple of the other popular articles from the eNews onto the blog so they are more accessible going forward. This is one written by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. We asked him to write on what community and the churches role within that.
These days, there is a great deal of talk about community, and very little practice of it. The idea of what healthy communities look like varies very much according to who is speaking at any given time. For example, John Major’s famous speech in the 1990’s about a traditional view of Britain – complete with old ladies bicycling to Evensong, warm beer in the pub and cricket on the village green – was a (carefully) calibrated attempt to portray a certain idea of solidity and reliability.
But what is a community? It is much more than people who simply live in the same area, or even people who have a shared interest. It is certainly a great deal more than people who sign up to the same part of Facebook or are members of the Twittersphere.
Electronic communities or virtual communities are phrases that have become increasingly well established. And certainly they add a dimension to building community which must not be ignored. Communities are about contact. In any normal life in an urban environment, keeping in contact with people is very difficult. The use of electronic media changes all of that.
And yet, what electronics cannot provide is love and physical contact and a sense of belonging.
Some weeks ago I went to a church in London, when owing to having moved jobs quite recently I found that I had no particular engagement on a Sunday morning. It was a rare treat, and one that I had not enjoyed for a very long time indeed. The service was good, and there were quite a lot of people in church. Towards the end, having received communion at the front of the church, I noticed an elderly man sitting in a wheelchair who was in deep distress. He hadn’t gone up for communion and was weeping bitterly. My wife had stopped to talk to him, and so did I. It turned out that a close friend had recently died, and although he’d not been to that church for some years, the loneliness and isolation he felt had drawn him back and found that the act of worship opened up the wound of his recent loss. We sat and I held his hand for a while, I couldn’t think of much to say if I am really honest about it, and just sat, feeling helpless and wishing I could be more useful. He had no idea who I was, and I had no idea who he was. After a while I prayed for him (I was not in a clerical collar or anything like that) and went back to my seat. He had stopped weeping and had calmed down. It seemed like a very feeble bit of community, but a week or so later I had a note from the vicar saying that the simple act of a stranger stopping to spend time with him in church, had brought him back to a sense of the reality of God and given hope that the agony of his loss would find some measure of healing over time. For me it had also been a moment of healing; so much of what I do has to do with bureaucracy and administration, and this was a simple bit of human contact, not because I was the Archbishop of Canterbury but because I was another human being.
In that moment I think we found a little bit of community, which that church has been particularly good at establishing, especially with people on the edge. I’ve been thinking about it since, and it has helped me see the balance between virtual and physical community and the complementarity of the two.
So what does it say? Those of us who are Christians know that as we grow in our faith, we are called and brought to life in two directions. First, there is the vertical sense of being brought into the community of a relationship with God. That is the great miracle of Christian conversion. The Holy Spirit of God enables us to know that we are loved, often in the midst of deep darkness and much pain. That is the ideal community, the community of the Trinity. There is a famous picture, which I’m sure many people will know, by a Medieval Russian icon painter called Rublev. It is about the three strange guests, who in the Book of Genesis go and visit Abraham. In the Christian tradition, they are usually seen as an image of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The icon is remarkable, and one of the noticeable things about it is that the three are seated around a table to eat a meal, and at the front of the table there is a gap, where the viewer looks at it. The gap is for the viewer, a place to join in community with God.
But secondly, Christian conversion calls us into a horizontal community, with all those others who are walking the path of Christian discipleship with us. Those are the communities that Livability is working with to help make them more effective. When they are good they are the most beautiful things on earth. Good does not mean perfect. Good means that they are open, hospitable and accepting. They start with the same basis that God starts with us, they accept people where they are but love them too much to leave them there. It is a rare treat to be part of such a community.
So what are the chief contributors to these horizontal communities, usually called ‘the church’? It is very similar to the vertical community. They always needs to leave space for the guest. In the sixth century Saint Benedict, in his rule for monasteries speaks of guests. He says (I suspect with a slight sense of weariness) that ‘there will be many of them’. Guests at medieval monasteries were there because they were travelling and needed somewhere safe to stay. You had no idea who they were, where they came from or where they were going. Rublev’s icon of the Trinity is like that, the space is there for whoever turns up. Real communities are not closed, like wagons trains in the Westerns, where the wagons are circled at night to keep all strangers out, but have space for all who turn up to take part.
Building real community means leaving space to accept all who come through the door and giving them the sense that the place to which they have come, the gap at the table, was there waiting especially for them. They may have disabilities (like many of us), or appear very on top of life. Either way the reality is of a community that is not there for its own sake but to bring those who find a place at its table to find a place at Gods’ table, where immeasurable love opens the way to extraordinary healing.