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This is a text-only version of an article first published on Monday, 10 June 2013. Information shown on this page may no longer be current.

IN his new book, Living Faithfully, Bishop John goes back to basics to consider what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century.

A community street party It was the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and it was raining.

Our street party had to move indoors to a local school.

Over 200 people turned up, dripping from the unwelcome weather but bearing gifts - mountains of sandwiches, cakes, paper cups, bottles of cloudy lemonade. These were my neighbours and I hardly knew any of them.

We live in our domestic fortresses and drive past each other every morning without recognition or a smile.

But now I think it will be different.

We've met, talked, laughed at the rain; we've learnt names and interests and recent experiences (nothing too heavy yet).

We've begun to build community. One of the gifts the Church has to offer society is its experience of building community.

Politicians and pundits bemoan our social fragmentation and cast around for cures; the Church modestly gets on with it.

Building community is part of our discipleship - living in God's world, in God's way, with God's help. What's the problem?We live in an atomized society where everyone gets on with constructing their own 'this-must-fit-me-precisely' world.

This involves smoothing out the rough edges and creating a bubble of work, leisure pursuits and friendships in which we feel comfortable. It also means eliminating from our bubble the people we don't much like.

Since the 1970s there has been a noticeable decline in participation in political parties, trade unions, civic groups, church life and the like.

Repeatedly, surveys show younger people to be less interested in public life and more interested in personal relationships and private lives. At another level, in the West we are the prisoners of rationalism: 'I think, therefore I am. ' In Africa they prefer 'I am, because we belong. ' The individualism of the West asserts our unique identity, but sadly it nearly always seems to do so at the expense of others. How could we think about this?Christians can root their concern with community right back in the nature of God.

To put it at its most basic, God is community, a free and interactive fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It's in the loving interplay of the Trinity that we see the model of creative interdependence that we seek to replicate in God's world. Jesus clearly decided that the way to approach his glorious and dangerous task was to gather and nurture a small community of young people who would be his core team of kingdom-builders.

If he hoped that they would 'get it' in his lifetime, he was badly let down.

But he knew the raw material he was taking on; the seeds were being sown. At first sight, when reading Acts 2 it appears that the disciples did indeed 'get it'.

The earliest days were idyllic.

They shared possessions, looked after the needy, ate together, prayed together and found people joining them in enviable numbers (Acts 2. 42- 47). Isn't that what they were meant to be doing? Well, no, actually.

They had been a travelling, missionary community gathered around Jesus, and now they had become a static community locked into Jerusalem.

It took the killing of Stephen and the resulting persecution to scatter the disciples, and help them recover their original mandate to be a missionary community on the move.

There's an important principle here: community happens when you're not looking, when you're doing something else. Paul was the Church's first theologian and he did his theology on the run.

But he realised early on that what the death and resurrection of Jesus had done was no less than to inaugurate a new creation under their noses.

The old hierarchies and barriers had collapsed: 'There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus' (Galatians 3. 28).

The secret is that 'in Christ' there is a new world; we come out of the cave and into the reality we never knew.

And in such a world, community is natural, inclusive, outgoing and full of light. What could we do differently?We need to focus here on two types of community.

One is the community of the church itself, rooted in the Trinity, centred on Christ and free of the restrictions of the old order.

The other is the civil community around the local church, of which the church is a participating member but one with a special gift to offer.

It was noticeable that at our Jubilee street party just two people were asked to speak - me and the local parish priest.

Even in secular north Oxford the church was recognised as having something to say about community.

But are we saying it?Roy Searle, leader of the Northumbria Community, says that the main vehicle of the kingdom today is community.

Brother Sam of the Franciscans says the same thing: 'I sense that both the renewal of the church and society will come through the re-emerging of forms of Christian community that are homes of generous hospitality, places of challenging reconciliation and centres of attentiveness to the living God. ' But this will only come about if the church is missional.

Have you noticed how energized people are by going with a group on short-term service in Africa or putting on a theatrical performance or playing in an orchestra or taking part in a sports team? Are Christians fired with the same passion by being members of their churches? Only, I suggest, when the church is focused beyond itself, when it's missional. This is where our commitment to the local community ties in naturally with commitment to the church community.

We are at our best in the church when we are working actively for the flourishing of the community around us.

We need to serve the community around for its own sake and not to go fishing for souls.

Any by-product like that is God's business. What the church at its best can demonstrate is the inclusiveness of a good community.

Where else in society do you get such a wonderful mix of unlikely friends? Civic groups are usually self-limiting and like attracts like.

In churches, age, background, education, employment, colour, gender, sexuality and all the other variables shouldn't matter, for we are 'all one in Christ Jesus'.

Yes, we sometimes get it horribly wrong, but usually we get it wonderfully right.

Our church life should be committed at the centre but distinctly loose at the edges.

Everybody should feel welcome in the radically inclusive community of the friends of Jesus. They said this"If you live alone, whose feet can you wash?"(John Cassian, Desert Father)"What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us .



this time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers.

They have already been among us quite some time and it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.

We are waiting not for Godot but for another doubtless very different St Benedict. " (Alasdair MacIntyre)Taking it furtherAnchor passage: Acts 2. 37- 47Read once, take a full two minutes to reflect, then read it again. To think aboutOpener: What has been your best experience of community, in either a church or non-church context? What made it so good?• There were many strong features of the life of the church in those first months, described in Acts 2.

What do you affirm most, and where do you see the limitations?• What kind of 'wonders and signs' (v.

43) do you think are inevitable or necessary in a vibrant Christian community now?• Do you expect the church to have 'the goodwill of all the people' (v.

47)? If not, why not?• What difference is your church making to the local community? How could it make more impact?• How can we balance the use of a finite amount of energy between building up the fellowship in faith and serving the community around?Prayer: With a map before you, identify the main centres of life and activity in your area or parish (schools, town hall, commercial life, leisure centre, village hall and so on).

Place a night light on the map where that activity is going on, and pray for the flourishing of that place and the people involved there.

This is an edited extract from Bishop John's new book, Living Faithfully (April 2013, SPCK).


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