A man was going down

from Jerusalem to Jericho

Trevor Jones looks at the devaluation of the word ‘community’ and suggests a more theologically useful alternative

 

As I write the August riots are still a reverberating echo and pundits and politicians are struggling, without an appropriate framework, to understand what has gone wrong with our Society/Culture/Nation. My immediate reaction was a profound admiration of the work of Father Simon Morris and the people of St Mary’s Tottenham. In the aftermath of the Tottenham tragedy they had opened up their church hall and begun to provide hot drinks and food for the emergency services and those rendered homeless, in an imaginative example of post-modern ministry they also put together provision for people to re-charge their mobile phones. ‘What a splendid piece of community ministry’, commented a priest friend. ‘No it’s not’, thought I in curmudgeonly mode, ‘they were just being good neighbours’. From there the thought flowed.

Overused and overloaded

I have long been suspicious of the overused and overloaded community word. It came to prominence, I think, in response to Mrs Thatcher’s ‘there is no such thing as society’ comment. The problem is its ubiquity, we talk of ‘the community’ meaning (I think) everyone, and then there is ‘the local community’. Those may have a pastoral aspect from which we can theologize, but they are at once subverted and subdivided because ‘the community’ from being a wide disparate concept is reduced and sub-identified into ‘the Polish Community’, ‘the Asian Community’, ‘ the bike-riding community’, even once in a national newspaper ‘the sex workers community’. At this point community empties of value, the word becomes descriptor for anything that the describing agent wishes to claim it to be. This devalues the concept of community as a theological signifier from which we can draw models of pastoral ministry.

Secular borrowing

I am not even sure that ‘community’, used as a wider social description, is our word; it is a borrowing from the secular environment. I am reminded of the retired Archdeacon who told me that, on being asked to organize a process of ministerial review for clergy in the diocese he served, he spent many hours preparing a format based on the Ordinal; the Bishops Council looked at it, rejected it, and voted to use a model from secular industry. We have not enough confidence in our own tradition to use our own models. The New Testament word, the idea from the tradition, is that of neighbour. The Church constitutes the baptized community of faith, but those to whom we owe moral obligation and care other than the ecclesia are our neighbours. Now neighbour is our word, it comes with New Testament context and a rich seam of theological weight and application.

Two other related words have been re-valued in theological discourse in the recent past. There has been much discussion of late of the theological notions of ‘friendship’, an essential exercise when the secular media seeks to imply a measure of overt sexual content to any close relationship. To re-describe the purity of Christian friendship across gender and generation is core to our self-understanding. ‘Hospitality’ has also exercised the thought of some theologians in an effort to put theological context to local, global and future understandings of relationships between nations and people. ‘Neighbour’ stands firmly in the context of this theological endeavour.

The ‘neighbourhood’ is those who live here; some of them may self-define or be externally defined as ‘the Hittite community’ or ‘the vegan community’. They may, or may not, understand themselves as part of the nebulous idea of ‘the community’. Some, perhaps an increasing number, will reject the local community appellation completely, seeking to understand themselves only in terms of their self-selected networks. To the Anglo-Catholic model of ministry none of that matters, we minister to a neighbourhood, to those who live or work here regardless of their other self-understandings.

Theological weight

To embrace once more the theological weight and richness of a concept that comes from the heart of the Gospel is not to negate ministry to those who are not yet members of the Church. The notion of community slips and escapes on every occasion it is grasped, it morphs into new shapes, ceases to be identifiable and emerges from discussion as an entity other than the one that was the initial subject. Service to our neighbour, to the nearby and the neighbourhood is clear and definable, the neighbour is the one in need, the neighbourhood the place where we are. Even the language resonates more clearly to theological concepts; it is essentially better to ‘help the neighbourhood grow’ than ‘move the community forward’.

This is not just an alternative nomenclature; it is the exercise of a biblical paradigm and the living out of the universal of Catholic life. There is always a danger in allowing our theology of ministry to be prescribed and described by those outside the assembly of faith. Working out, day by day, our pastoral ministry, as individuals, groups, teams, PCCs, Deaneries or our episcopal structures and using as a prior question to engagement the duty to neighbour and neighbourhood, working outward from our own theologically authentic norms, could be one element in the re-visioning and re-enhancing of the Anglican Catholic tradition from our roots and in a radically engaged future. ND

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