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We now truly need each other  

by
26 June 2020

Co-operation across boundaries: Working with other denominations and groups requires courage — but it is essential, says Ann Morisy

elisa cunningham

SHIFNAL HELP has answered more than 1000 phone calls during lockdown, according to the Shropshire Star. St Andrew’s, Shifnal, near Telford, has set up a community partnership to run the phone line for people in the area who are self-isolating. An MHA Live at Home Scheme trained the volunteers, and then Shifnal Town Council gave some money, and then the Co-op and Boots got involved, and then the White Hart pub offered storage for food donations. . .

Lists like this can be tedious, but not if you heed the repeated phrase “and then”. The phrase “and then” indicates momentum. It speaks of people wanting to make the most of each other’s efforts. “And then” is a signifier of a virtuous cycle that carries the thrill of inspiration, and, if it is not already recognised as a mission “outcome”, then it ought to be.

In Selsdon, south Croydon, a fire crew use their fire engine to help Jubilee Church to deliver hot food to those who are self-isolating. Someone at the church knew a crew member, and things went from there. This is an illustration of what sociologists call the strength of a “weak tie”. Weak ties are important, because it is how networks are extended, and they enable new ideas and possibilities to emerge.

Lockdown has probably increased the number of weak ties that we have. Because of clapping for NHS workers and carers each Thursday, I now know two people who live in the flats opposite, and, at some time in the future, after I have said hello, I will risk a conversation.

The weekly visit by that fire engine creates a spectacle, and a spectacle gives people something to talk about — after they have said hello. Spectacle, by its nature, makes for conversation; it also creates a “line of memorability”. Some time in the future, someone will say, “Do you remember when that fire engine used to come down the road to deliver food during lockdown?” The involvement of the fire crew and fire engine has added to the wellspring of stories that build cohesion between people.

Good reciprocal relationships between neighbours make for a community in which people are pleased to live, and this, in turn, adds to people’s well-being; it is another virtuous cycle.

Social geographers and urban planners know that this is a precious and hard-won process, as do an increasing number of Christian initiatives, such as Urban Expression and the Eden Network, to name just two. Fostering a positive sense of place from a once troubled neighbourhood is a new-found mark of mission. It also adds to the justification of “parish” as an axiom of Anglican identity.

 

YEARS and years of reshaping our buildings and developing community networks have meant that the Church of England has become a uniquely reliable provider of community space.

Churches have learnt how to make building assets sweat: rental income from dance classes, Zumba, Slimming World, badminton, Brownies, WI, and so on. Business plans built on sturdy community involvement have now fallen apart, and nobody knows when or how to reconstruct them.

Maximising the financial return by the hire of our buildings has kept us afloat: much of the income repurposed as the parish share was paid to the diocese. This sudden financial vulnerability reverberates through every nook and cranny of the Church of England. Every parish will be weighing up commitment to its own life against its obligation to the diocese.

In this deeply worrisome situation, we must all tread carefully. Each email from the diocese in which is secreted a plea to pay your parish share risks intensifying antipathy. Parishes are vulnerable and hurting, and, in this context, co-operation with the diocese can wither quickly and risk the “tragedy of the commons”. All it needs is for a well-heeled parish to reduce its contribution to the diocese, and, in turn, for the diocese to harp on about financial pressures, and the co-operative benefits held in place through the common fund will unravel.

In addition to our financial bond, other modes of co-operation between parishes are essential, especially if poorer parishes are to survive. Who is best placed to convene working groups to produce this inventiveness? At deanery or diocesan level — or both? Where is proactive vigour located in our structures?

Parish twinning will have a part to play, because such partnership allows informal developments to find their place, but we need to rouse greater ingenuity. Every clergy fraternal and deanery synod could put co-operation between parishes on their agendas, and every diocese and department in Church House needs to simplify its operations.

We need openness and wit to hold to our breast awkward visionaries, if we are to have sufficient daring to get through the next decade with our unity intact. There can be no shibboleths; the NHS has shown how organisations can flex in a crisis. More pertinently, lay people have weathered a spiritual interlude in a way that once seemed inconceivable. This privation tells us that ecclesiastical theology will find its place in times of crisis.

 

THERE is a cautionary adage in relation to partnerships and co-operation: the farmer’s breakfast — bacon and eggs. The contributions to this breakfast are not equal: the pigs give so much more than the hens. The senior clergy in a diocese are hens, and, while they may contribute to the survival practices that we are discovering, they do so from a sheltered place compared with the on-the-ground challenges faced by parish clergy.

This unequal yoke carries a dastardly hazard: Schadenfreude. As the Japanese say, “The misfortune of others tastes like honey,” even for Christians. This furtive pleasure from others’ setbacks may be thoroughly unchristian, but, oh, how we relish the new reality of bishops and archdeacons’ also having to face up to “lack”!

This unseemly reaction speaks of our need not to feel alone in our distress, and to find consolation in being not the only ones malfunctioning. Rather, we are a community of the failed, only to remember that this is the very reason that we rejoice in our Saviour, Jesus. Covid-19 has brought us to greater awareness of our need for salvation; for we are all newly humbled.

We thank God for this, because privilege is anathema to co-operation and collaboration. A co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Janaya Future Khan, suggests that privilege is not about what you have gone through: it is about what you have not had to go through.

Our Methodist cousins must be tired of seeing the C of E bristle with privilege; so, too, other denominations, as they recall their fight for legitimacy in the face of opposition from the Established Church. Unused to privation and rebuff, today the C of E has to contend with both.

 

THIS is and will be painful, but this sudden exposure can prompt creativity and change. We now truly need each other, regardless of denomination or non-denomination. In reaching out to other groups and denominations, however, we must have the courage to say that we are sorry — sorry because we failed to see and understand the potency and extent of our taken-for-granted privilege.

Repentance and vulnerability can bring growth, and they can also inaugurate gracious collaboration and partnership that expresses more distinctly God’s Kingdom coming.

 

Priorities

  • This week, pick up the phone and talk with someone from a parish near by, or from another Christian denomination, or from another faith. Talk about our shared struggles and future possibilities.

  • Bishops, for the sake of solidarity, make plans to reduce your number to enable the Church Commissioners to transfer money saved to ground-level ministry.

  • Take the risk of asking others, Christian and non-Christian, whether they can lend a hand, and humbly ask whether we can lend a hand.

 

Ann Morisy is a freelance community theologian, a lecturer, and a churchwarden.

Read the articles in our special post-pandemic issue here.

 

Recommended reading:

Schadenfreude: The joy of another’s misfortune by Tiffany Watt Smith (Welcome, 2018). 

Bothered and Bewildered: Enacting hope in troubled times by Ann Morisy (Bloomsbury, 2011). 

Urban to the Core by Juliet Kilpin (Matador, 2013).

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