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Beliefs are not a barrier to service

by
07 June 2024

Working with non-religious groups need not dilute a church’s mission, says Deiniol Heywood

Deiniol Heywood

A woman talks to volunteers at Prestwood Community Fridge, in Buckinghamshire

A woman talks to volunteers at Prestwood Community Fridge, in Buckinghamshire

OUR parish looks affluent, but, like so many, when you scratch the surface, a different picture emerges. There is social housing and hidden deprivation. Many households generate decent incomes, but the cost of living, specifically housing, is so high that margins are wafer-thin. People might be able to afford it when they pop one tyre in a pothole, but, if it happens again in the same month, it can push them into further debt, or they go without.

So, when we sought to extend our food-security work beyond our foodbank, a community fridge seemed the logical next step. It is a more convivial way of making food available. It has good green credentials. You can give as well as receive. Use does not imply need in quite the same way.

Crucially, for us, we did not want this to be something that the church owned. We have built up a great deal of service provision on our church site — we are blessed with that kind of resource. We wanted the next stage of our community action to be owned and located in the community: building the Kingdom of God in the world.

This brought into focus a problem that churches engaged in community action often face, but can ignore. It meant that we were going have to form close and resilient partnerships with non-religious people and organisations to make this community-action project a success.

There has been a great deal of work done in both the ecumenical and interfaith worlds to help different types of Christians and people from different faiths work together in their communities. Differences can be worked around, and even celebrated, for the good of the project. Fears and suspicion about proselytising or recruitment are set within boundaries, and managed by good will and a sense that what we share is greater than what divides us.

 

BUT none of this infrastructure exists for churches that want to enter into partnership with specifically non-religious people and organisations. Does this matter? “If it doesn’t matter to them, then it doesn’t matter to us,” the community-minded Christian might say.

But it often does matter to them. Non-religious partners will be aware and alert to the risk that churches might present. They will be aware of abuse scandals in the Church. They will be aware of coercive practices that have taken place in churches (for whatever reasons). They may have experienced them themselves. And, therefore, they will ask: “What do these Christians really want?”

There is also the danger that, in a memorable phrase of the theologian Sam Wells, when forming partnerships with non-religious people and organisations, we “flow towards embarrassment”. We could end up as a doughnut church, where all the energy is at the edges in our community action, but it has no real Christian identity, is just another form of social work, and leaves our centre drained and hollowed out.

What we came to understand, as we worked on this project and others like it, is that we needed some theology and a scriptural model for good practice to undergird our partnerships with non-religious people and organisations in our community action.

We needed to have a self-understanding about who we were, what we were doing, and how it was integrated into the life and mission of the church when we gave away, rather than held on to, our resources.

 

WE FOUND this most naturally in St Luke’s Gospel. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the free choices of the Samaritan and the innkeeper, and the partnership that they formed, gave us a theology for community action and the surprising partnerships that we were forming. We gained a confidence in ourselves as a church that allowed us to meet quite stridently non-religious people without anxiety.

In the sending out of the 70, we found a model for good practice: going where Jesus wants to go, finding people who will share our peace, and sticking with them. It helps us to keep our anchor as a Christlike community when tossed around by the vagaries of other people’s priorities, funding constraints, and suspicion of our motives.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams has described the economic model of the New Testament as one of gifts that are freely given to be given again. The community fridge is owned by a community-interest company, of which I am a director. It is staffed by a team of volunteers far beyond the (amazing) “usual suspects” who support church life. In the past three months, it has distributed more than 1000kg of food. It was raining this morning, as I write this, but there was a queue outside.

Many churches do amazing work in their communities. When they have good theology and practice undergirding their partnerships with non-religious people and organisations, then their community action not only provides vital social support: it is an authentic expression of Christian witness in making a more Christlike world.

The Revd Deiniol Heywood is Rector of Prestwood and Great Hampden, in the diocese of Oxford.

He is the author of Partnering with Non-religious People and Organizations: Theology and practice (P177), published by Grove Books at £4.95; 978-1-7827-377-0. grovebooks.co.uk

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