The Challenge of Community
There is an African proverb: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’
As I approach the end of the first month of “vicar school” this quote reflects the thing that has struck me the most. That these next two years are not just about my training and formation but are about treading this journey with others who are on a similar path. Seeking to be obedient to a calling to serve God and his people and learning what it might mean to do this as part of a bigger community.
So often in the church we hear the language of individuality. We all have preferences of the types of services we attend, the music we sing, the words we say, even the coffee we drink. Some of these are rooted in considered theology and some are products of familiarity. Some grow out of a sense of fear and others from a desire to see others join us in our journey of discipleship. But whatever the reason, we often speak of ‘I’ rather than ‘we.’
But, as the Bible narrative tells us, God’s mission is to see his Kingdom come, ‘On Earth as it is in Heaven,’ to bring healing and reconciliation to a broken world. And this vision is of one Kingdom where all are gathered, a community of people gathered in and through the love of God. What would it look like if we dared to dream about this Kingdom in the here and now? If we chose to live like the Kingdom is near? How much of our language would change from ‘I’ to ‘we?’
For me, this has been the core of what my first month here has been about. Trinity’s vision is to “Live Like the Kingdom is Near’ with a commitment to living this out in community. At the end of our second week we shared in a Commitment Service where we used the words of the Beatitudes to commit to seeking to live and learn together, students, faculty, staff and wider families.
Daily I am reminded that these are not just words but are necessary choices when doing life so closely with other people. As well as being part of the wider college community we are all woven into smaller groups where we can share joys and challenges, grapple with challenging issues and explore how God is shaping and changing us for our ministry. As a (fairly significant) introvert, this amount of face-to-face time with other people can be tiring and difficult, but as each week passes and these strangers are turning into friends, I am discovering the enormous privilege these smaller communities offer.
Home is now a communal space. I have my own room, and the college have kindly allowed me to bring my cats, but all other spaces are shared with an amazing group of twenty other people. We are all ages, stages and backgrounds, and God is calling each of us to serve him in many different ways. But gradually, as the weeks have unfolded, these groups of individuals have become friends and family. We eat, laugh and watch re-runs of Friends together. We pray together, cook for each other and support each other (especially when it comes to practising Greek vocabulary!). This home community is such a gift, but there are and will be times when we drive each other crazy. It is in the good and the bad times that we need to remember that community is not just about ‘I’ but about ‘we.’
My church is now an urban benefice in the East of Bristol, with a new ministry team and congregation to get to know, and all while preparing to lead and preach in a few weeks’ time. It is often easy to forget how it feels to walk into a new church community for the first time knowing that you need to build relationships quickly. It is made all the harder when everyone knows who you are (‘Oh, you’re one of the students’) and you can’t remember anyone’s name! But these churches and my incumbent have been so generous with their welcome that this community already feels like a place where I can grow and be shaped as I prepare for ministry. Where I can learn to love and serve this community and what it means to walk the path of discipleship and mission with them.
Lectures are where we are a community of learners. They are safe spaces where our understanding and ideas can be challenged and stretched. At these times we are privileged to be led in our learning by experienced and inspiring faculty members who help remind us of the bigger picture. That God’s mission in this world and what it means for our everyday lives are topics we need to wrestle with. They highlight complacency and comfortable ideas we hide behind and call us out to explore how our callings affect not just us but also our communities, both local and global.
As the group sizes get smaller we move into the communities that seek to provide pastoral support and the space to grapple with aspects of our faith and ministry that we are struggling with. We have a small group that meets once a week to discuss the exciting possibilities and the constrictions that the Anglican church with its breadth and heritage provides. With the support of a member of the clergy we discuss, debate, agree, disagree and generally leave with more to reflect on than when we arrived. With this group it cannot just be about me and my preferences, we are learning to listen well and come prepared to be challenged and changed by other’s experiences. Then we have a Pastoral Group, the group who will celebrate with us and carry us in the hard times. Supported by a tutor we meet for supervisions with our incumbents, pray regularly and take time to reflect theologically on challenging issues which have arisen in our parish context. We also say Morning Prayer together as a small group once a week. Here we are learning to serve and support each other, meeting each other’s needs with humility and grace.
Finally, all the communities gather together daily to worship in our college chapel. Morning Prayer is said every day except Friday when we have a Community Communion service. These are times when we are reminded that we do not walk this journey alone and that in travelling together, we will go far. But we are also reminded that being a community focussed on ‘Living Like the Kingdom is Near,’ requires us to be rooted in God, growing together. To daily choose to live out the values Jesus shares in the Beatitudes, remembering that his Kingdom is always bigger and bolder than we dare to imagine and that it is lived out in community.