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

11 Jan 2019

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

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