Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Author Archives: Jenny Leigh

Healing Division and Building up Common Life II: Community Organising and the Church of England

Leave a Comment

Jenny Leigh is in the third year of her PhD at Durham University. Previously, she worked in Westminster—as a parliamentary researcher, and in social policy. She is currently involved in the Tyne and Wear chapter of the community organising group Citizens UK.

In the second of a pair of blogs, Jenny reflects on how community organising can help to develop lay leadership in the Church of England.

In part one of this blog, reflecting on a recent symposium on what community organising has to offer the Church of England, I suggested that community organising helps us to understand and reimagine the Church of England’s ministry in our divided communities. In part two, I look at the way in which community organising can help the Church of England to encourage lay participation and leadership in ministry.

The Church of England’s missional imagination can often be marked, not only by territorial tendencies, but also by a tendency towards clericalism. Too often, the priest has been seen as the central figure in the life and ministry of the church. However, with the shifting social position of the church, this top-down model of being chaplain to the congregation and public servant to the neighbourhood is no longer viable. (This comes along with growing financial pressures which mean it is increasingly rare for clergy to have responsibility for a single parish and congregation.)

At the symposium, Revd. Canon Andy Griffiths spoke of the need to ‘endanger vicarhood’—by which he means the ecclesial model where the life of the church centres on the activities of the priest. He argued that community organising offers a way to think about reshaping the polity and ministry of the church from a priest-centric model to a model of organised communities. Giffiths believes that this model expresses a confidence that God has given each local church all the gifts they need to join in the mission of God in the way they’re being called to (without someone coming in from outside).

So, priests encourage, train up, troubleshoot, and sometimes intervene (when things are being done that are unjust or unkind), but they do not run everything. This approach means that, rather than trying to be involved with all of the church’s ministry, the priest is allowed to rediscover the joy of their own distinctive calling (at the heart of which is sacramental ministry).  This in turn allows them to attend more fully to the callings of others.

Here the methodology of one-to-ones is again able to help us, in encouraging attention to one another’s formative life experiences (‘key moments’), hopes, and ambitions. To attend to someone’s self-interest (the term in community organising for the composite of these concerns) is to recognise that they have a God-given vocation (whilst also recognising that this will be overlaid with a great deal of sin and self-deception). (This second truth must not be overlooked if we are to avoid colluding with the power imbalances and vested self-interest that are encoded in the ambitions we each nurture.) So, clerical leadership in a reimagined Anglican ministry is about lovingly attending to needs and vocations in order to unlock lay people’s gifts and energy, which enables them to step up to lay leadership.

Community organising is also able to help the church in thinking through what kind of leadership it values. In community organising, leaders are defined as those who have a following. This is a challenge to understandings of leadership based on position or qualifications and expertise. Relational leadership is not limited to particular roles (such as priest or church warden). As noted above, this form of leadership also involves a willingness and ability to turn followers into leaders themselves.

We can see then that drawing on community organising thinking can allow lay leaders to more fully participate in the life of the church. During the symposium, several lay leaders reflected on how their community organising training had equipped them to build power with others and make change—and to use the structures of their church to do so. One church warden spoke about how her PCC had used the tools of community organising to coordinate a listening campaign during an interregnum, as part of the process of putting together a parish profile.

There are, of course, challenges to developing leadership in this way. There is the danger of power shifting only in short term or tokenistic ways, and so simply collapsing back into the priest’s role following an interregnum, for example. Or, power can end up being wielded in obstructive or domineering ways by a small number of lay people. It is out of an awareness of such dangers that community organising methodology describes an ongoing cycle of organising, disorganising, and reorganising. This is important if we are to avoid power being concentrated in the hands of just a few, whether lay or ordained.

The scope that community organising offers for developing a more receptive ministry and encouraging lay leadership shows how political participation can help us to more fully enter into the mission of God in the world, and so more deeply inhabit our identity as disciples.

More blogs on religion and public life…

Funeral poverty: we cannot rest content by Val Barron

Peace on earth and goodwill to all people? by Greg Smith

We have already Brexited ourselves by Chris Baker

Healing Division and Building up Common Life: Community Organising and the Church of England by Jenny Leigh

Share this page:

Healing Division and Building up Common Life: Community Organising and the Church of England

Leave a Comment

Jenny Leigh is in the third year of her PhD at Durham University. Previously, she worked in Westminster—as a parliamentary researcher, and in social policy. She is currently involved in the Tyne and Wear chapter of the community organising group Citizens UK.

In the first of a pair of blogs, Jenny reflects on how community organising can help to reimagine the ministry of the Church of England.

How can the church help to heal division and build up common life? We understand ourselves to exist in divided communities, which presents a missional challenge to the Church of England given its commitment to being a church with a presence in every local community.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a symposium, put on by Citizens UK, which focused on how community organising is being used to fulfil the Church of England’s third Quinquennial goal, Reimagining the Church’s Ministry. It was attended by bishops, clergy, lay leaders, and local community organisers. It was an incredibly exciting conversation to be part of. In particular, the symposium moved the conversation on from considering why participation in community organising might be understood as part of the ethical and political calling of the church. Instead, it offered insights into how the ministry and polity of the church might themselves be shaped through this participation: we are not simply formed in the church and then sent out, but rather our formation as disciples can take place through our participation in political practices.

I want to offer here a flavour of what was discussed.

There was a widespread consensus at the symposium that the we cannot pretend any more that the inherited model of Anglican social action in relation to ministry can continue. For, the Church of England’s commitment, through its parish network, to being tied to particular places has often given rise to territorial tendencies, leading the parish to become something inward-looking and nostalgic. This concern with territory is closely tied to another typically Anglican preoccupation: with power. Ministry is often understood in terms of going into new places, and fixing the problems found there, bringing the people there something they previously lacked. Whilst it is certainly true that the church is made up of those who have encountered the good news of the gospel and wish others to know this truth more fully, this model allows the church to remain in control of God’s mission in the world.

So, it is worth noting that the conversation about reimagining ministry was not conducted with the aim of offering community organising as a technique or strategy through which the church can regain its power and relevance. Rather, the concern was with how community organising can help us to adjust to the Church of England’s eroded status in society. How it can help us to give up our sense of being in control of everything, and to accept that the Church of England is no longer the default position. Rather, we are one among many. An important but small member of the wider community.

One of the ways in which community organising wakes the church up to its shifting social position is by forcing us to go out and listen to those in the parish. To find out what is going on in their lives and to try and find out what they value and want to change about their local community.

Central to community organising’s methodology is the one-to-one: a conversation between two people who belong to the same local area in which they engage deeply—discussing key moments in their lives; their ambitions; how they spend their time, money, and energy—with the intention of identifying shared areas of ‘self-interest’. That is, the areas in both people’s lives where the hopes they each have for themselves, their families, and their neighbourhoods overlap. In the context of the ministry of the Church of England, one-to-ones offer an opportunity to get to know the parish—and, importantly, to make people feel listened to.

In this, community organising returns us to the true concern of the parish. The Greek word paroikia, from which we derive ‘parish’, can be parsed as ‘the people outside the walls’. So, the parish was originally conceived of in terms of a relationship of ministry to those outside the church’s walls. Core to reestablishing this relationship is listening.

We can see then how community organising can help us to understand that the Church of England’s changed status in society is not pure loss, but instead a chance to receive from those outside the church. The language of asset-based community development, in particular, can help us to see how the people we encounter in our neighbourhoods are gifts, not problems. This is reflected in the practice of one-to-ones, in which there is an expectation that one will encounter in the other person distinctive experiences and gifts which will enable you both to better pursue a common good.

More blogs on religion and public life…

Sacred Secularity
Stephen Edwards

Remembering Utopia?
John Reader

Preaching truth to power
Hayley Matthews

Defining the Borders of our Island at the time of Brexit
Tim Howles

Share this page: