Shaping debate on religion in public life.

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

30 Nov 2018

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

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