At the end of June 2018, myself and the 14 other people I had lived in community with for a year all left Lambeth Palace to go our separate ways – back to homes, families, churches and jobs in different places across the world. At the end of the year both the resident and non-resident community were commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury to go out into the world and share what we have received during the year with others.
One of the things we received this year was the gift of community – of sharing every aspect of our lives with a group of diverse people. There were some definite challenges to this and it certainly wasn’t a utopia, but there is something undeniably beautiful and special about community life. It was deep, it was authentic, it was fun, it was messy and it was warts-and-all. We all grew in love for Jesus, each other and ourselves. It was a glimpse heaven on earth.
And so, I’ve been asking myself how this gift of community can be experienced in the local church, when its unrealistic for everyone to give up their jobs and all live together 24/7. My experience of community in the local church is one of great blessing: I have lodged with a family from church, been helped to move house (many times) by small group members and have been supported through challenging times.
But it’s also been one of disappointment. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has felt lonely in the Sunday-morning crowd, or who has looked over at a group of people and felt like I wasn’t cool / intelligent / married / male / funny etc enough to go and join in the conversation. Such experiences are forgiven as a normal aspect of any grouping of a diverse group of people and I’ve no doubt that my behaviour at times has in some way contributed to others feeling lonely or left out. But I don’t know if we have to settle for it being inevitable.
There are lots of factors that contributed to making the St Anselm community such a rich experience, but if I could pick out one that I think could help the local church grow in this area is it the fact that we all committed to a shared rule of life at the beginning of the year, and as part of that, we committed to “choose one another”.
Each of us committed to choosing every other person in that community equally – even before we met one another. This doesn’t mean that natural friendships don’t emerge, but it does mean that you can go into a room of 40 other people and without hesitation join in a conversation with any cluster of people without worrying you weren’t welcome.
This may sound trivial but I don’t think I have experienced this anywhere else in life – in or outside the church. This intentional choosing that has no partiality, that transcends personal preferences or similarities and that motivates love in action was a fundamental part of enabling St Anselm to function as a community.
The idea of the local church being without cliques (or even simply perceived cliques) is a hugely appealing one and has a distinct whiff of the Kingdom about it. So the question I will be asking myself – and the one that I invite you to ask – is “How can this ‘intentional choosing’ of one another be outworked in my local church context?” How can our relationships with one another reflect and point people to the beautiful truth that God chooses each one of us?
This blog was first published on the Anglican Communion News Service website on 11/09/18