I have a deep ambivalence about the word “community”. We talk a great deal about the pathologies of individualism, but not enough about the moral dangers of human togetherness.
Last Saturday night, I walked into the wrong pub in the East End of Glasgow. Celtic had been playing at home. The pub was decked out in green. And I was inadvertently wearing a blue jumper. Had I thought about it, I’d have remembered that blue is the colour of Glasgow Rangers, and that, in this city, a blue jumper does not go unnoticed in a Roman Catholic pub.
That’s an understatement: the moment I walked through the door, eyes swivelled to meet me like the guns on a destroyer. With my shaven head, I might well have been mistaken for someone looking for trouble. I also suspected that the polite explanation that I’m: (i) English; (ii) a Protestant minister; and (iii) support Chelsea wasn’t going to make my life any easier, either. So I left sharpish. In that pub, community felt like another word for sectarianism.
Generally, the Church only ever sees the good in the idea of community. Yet, in the name of community, all manner of nastiness and bigotry is frequently excused. Precisely because we are so focused on the sins of the first person singular, our radar is insufficiently attuned to those committed in the first person plural. It’s a moral blind spot.
This is why I often feel tempted to celebrate those forces — and especially the work of global capitalism — that thin communities out. Give me empty individualism rather than ugly togetherness. But, just as I am nearly lost to the dark side, the best of community returns to remind me of its beauty.
On Sunday morning, I met the astonishing John McCann, the uncle of little Madeleine McCann, who is still lost as I write. A lapsed Roman Catholic, John spoke of the real power of the worshipping community, and how much strength it was offering Madeleine’s parents. For people such as these, community is a warm embrace, a safe port in a stormy sea, a hand held by strangers as the tears roll down. Community is the comfort of other human bearings. Community is hope.
It’s such a pity that all the good that is offered by community is premised upon a group of people’s acknowledging each other as “one of us”. The flip side of this is the recognition that some are not “one of us”. The heart of the problem is often something like this: the more open a community is, the less it looks like a community.
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney. His most recent book is Christianity with Attitude (Canterbury Press, £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-1-85311-782-4).
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