“Excuse me, can you tell me what does the word ‘Community’ mean?”
Doubtless, if we were to walk along our local high street and, at random, ask a range of people what the word ‘community’ means, we would receive widely different answers: ‘It’s where I live, my neighbourhood’; ‘I belong to a community college – we all come from the local area’; ‘Oh, I belong to an on-line scrabble-playing community’; ‘With Brexit we are leaving the ‘European community’. A few might say, ‘Community? Monks and nuns living in a monastic community, following a strict rule of life’; perhaps we might even stumble across a Christian who knows their Bible – ‘The Acts 2 church was the ultimate community when the early believers shared their lives and possessions’.
Broadly, perhaps, we can say that community is a group of people connected in some way. They share a common interest or aim that links them.
The ubiquitous use of the word ‘community’ demonstrates its popular appeal. This is hardly surprisingly in this day when there is so much social isolation.
Churches these days are very keen to describe themselves as communities – and to develop community. Some, like ours have, over the years, developed a way of sharing, seeking to follow the example in Acts 2. This is relatively rare. Much more often, community is spoken of in terms of connectivity amongst members that extends beyond the set services that punctuate the church’s week.
I love a bargain and, in Coventry where I live, we have the ‘St Clare’s at the Cathedral’ where all the second hand books are £3. Wandering in a few weeks ago, I chanced to see a book lying on top of a pile titled, ‘Creating Community’, by Simon Reed. I seized it and brought it home.
Simon Reed is an Anglican vicar in London, keen to grow genuine and lasting community both in the two churches he pastors and in the dispersed Community Of Aidan & Hilda of which he is a member.
Let me summarise a little of what he said:
Our connectedness to one another as Christians springs out of our connectedness to God. The all-important question is this: how can we foster our connectedness to God? Many believers stall at this point, showing a noticeable lack of confidence in their connectedness with God. Reed’s suggestions to address this vary: a daily rhythm of prayer and Bible reading, the use of liturgical prayers as well as our own spontaneous prayers, retreats and pilgrimages, learning from the lives and devotion of past saints (in his case the Celtic tradition), spiritual reading and maintaining a healthy balance of work, prayer and rest so spiritual restoration can take place and time is given to allow God to speak into our usually hurried lives. Crucial, to help bridge this crisis of confidence and know-how, we need others to help and walk with us as we seek to develop this most important connection. This is when we need ‘community’.
For community to flourish there are three vital ingredients: a prayerful rhythm of life, a rule or way of life and a network of soul friends.
Firstly, the rhythm of life and prayer mentioned above spills out into connectedness to each other because it is something we can share – either physically or at a distance. The Community Of Aidan & Hilda is a dispersed community and yet a rhythm of prayer is followed wherever you are – and whenever possible (an important plus to many is the lack of legalism in this). Prayer is glue – it binds us not only to God but to each other.
Having a core group of people who meet to pray daily therefore becomes the heartbeat of a living Christian community, setting the rhythm for each individual, wherever they may be.
Secondly, the Community Of Aidan & Hilda have developed a rule– or better a way of life – something monastic communities have done through the ages – not a list of do’s and don’ts but a broad set of principles to follow. Again, the encouragement is that others are walking along the same path as oneself, being both inspired and grappling with this same way of life. Separated by distance, we are not alone.
The third vital ingredient for the Community Of Aidan & Hilda is the connection with an anamchara (a Gaelic word for Soul Friend) – not a pastor, not a councillor but a mature friend who can engages in double listening – to us and to God – and at times speaks into our situation and dilemmas, someone we can bare our soul to in confidentiality. There is no question of our anamchara carrying some sort of authority over us but, rather, as we share with them we find ourselves discerning God’s direction for ourselves and the renewing of our priorities and hearts desires – all with a little help. Anamcharas are met with on at least two occasions in the year.
Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Many congregations are seeking to build community. That’s great. Perhaps ideally our outward expression, our services, should spring out of community.
Personally, I find much to explore here. But these things are not new. They are wisdom passed down through centuries – particularly, the Community Of Aidan & Hilda have found, via the Celtic missionary movement of the 6th and 7th centuries that was so instrumental in bringing the Gospel to these islands. Let’s keep the explore’s heart.