One of those symptoms of anxiety I often feel is that point where I will have the feeling that there is something I have forgotten, or forgotten to do. It’s that feeling that makes you turn around and go back and check that you did lock the front door. Sometimes you are right, and the door wasn’t locked. Sometimes it is that you have simply operated outside of your usual routine, it just feels strange. Other times it is simply one of those nagging feelings in the back of your mind.
I have been feeling, for a while, like this about our strategic plan especially our vision statement: growing a Christian Community for All. Yes, we have been implementing activities, what we have called strategies, to enable us to connect with the community outside our church. Yes, we have been implementing strategies that speak of our prioritisation for the whole family and the primacy of the role of parents and guardians in the raising of children in faith. Yes, we have been implementing strategies to provide formal pastoral care of our membership. The question that is nagging at the back of my mind is what are we doing about growing as a community, being a community and maturing as a community?
Community can be defined as “a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government and have a cultural and historical heritage.” But there is something missing from this definition in relation to how those members relate to one another. All of the former are true and necessary, but community also has something to say about how we relate to one another. Whether as a couple of friends, a family or a church, we are community if we relate in such a way that we can speak in terms of an interdependent and interconnected “we” and “us” and not an isolated “I” and “me”. In such a community each member is nurtured to their potential and the community maintains the diversity of the members. This is no easy attitude, but one that needs to be worked at.
In some part, if not the large part, this is the intention of the strategy relating to house groups. Each house group is intended to become a community.
As I consider this nagging feeling that something is missing, something has been forgotten, something has been overlooked, I hear the words of St Paul to the Ephesians today.
This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. (Ephesians 3:1-4)
“Which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ.” This word noesai translated perceive (NRSV); realise (RSV); understand (KJV and NIV) has its roots in the word nous?, a word with which we Australians are familiar regarding someone who has some intelligence, wisdom, smarts. It is the word from which we get neuro relating to neurologist, those who are medical practitioners specialising in the brain and nerves. Is the word in the conjunction that gives us repentance, meaning to change our mind about God. In the Bible the word nous relates to the mind of the divine or human, the intellect. Noesai then, from the derivation noieo means to exercise the mind, to think, to work out.
The idea of “mind” as a work in progress is a difficult concept for those of us who live in this so-called enlightened and western society. We see life in concrete absolutes, that which can be proven, things on which we can all agree. More extraordinarily, biblically, central to the noieo is the heart; there is no separation between the brain and the heart. We hear this in movies and soaps where one of the characters tells another to stop thinking with the head and think with the heart, or vice versa. But this is not a distinction between the rational and the emotional.
I can think something to be true but it does not necessarily change how I behave or how I feel about the world around me. This is because we have separated the two. The idea of this noieo is that what we come to think as a result of the mind work we are invited to do will change the way we view the world and, therefore, will change the way we behave because of how we feel about those and the world around us.
One of the greatest compliments someone from St Stephens paid me was how they appreciated not having to leave their brains at the door when they came to church. Being people of faith is not an invitation to leave our brains outside and simply do what the preacher or others tell you to do. What we Christians believe is, I think, empirical, rational and logical. We are expected to work out our own faith and own it for ourselves. We cannot enter into the promises God has made to us on the shirt tails of others. We are not asked to give up thinking – we are asked to keep our minds at work.
This understanding of mind, noieo, puts a whole new meaning to, ‘all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind (noi) and the same purpose.’ (1 Corinthians 1:10) Unity is not achieved when we are all thinking the same thing; unity is achieved when we are all thinking, we are all participating in working “it” out, when we are talking about the struggles we are having, the questions and concerns before us. We lose our unity when some stop thinking, stop talking, stop relating and begin trying to convince others that my way is the only, final and right way. The history of our relationships with other denominations speaks loudly of this.
The “it” of which I said we need to all be participating in working out is the being community. In reality, like most other churches, our level of community is very superficial. The role of our house groups is fundamentally important in this process and will be and should be the primary place for community to be lived and expressed. But there needs to be a point where we also make an opportunity to express this work of building community in the big picture of our parish.
Although there still needs to be a leader, a president of the community, a focus of unity of the community, it is unfortunate that the seating arrangement of this worship space speaks to me of exactly the opposite of being a worshipping community. One of the things that I would like to do is to explore how we can rearrange the furniture in the church building that is more representative of our vision, to grow a Christian community for all.
As I said earlier, a part of the work to build community is the participation of everyone thinking together. I think it would be helpful for us to meet regularly and do the mind-work of community. These will be an invitation to participate in regular meetings of the parish. The meetings will not be the same as our Annual Meeting of Parishioners; they will not be concerned with deciding what we are going to do, this is the job of Vestry. The intention of the meetings will, hopefully, be times where we can listen to one another, air our dirty laundry if necessary, and resolve conflict rather than let it fester.
Just recently I was challenged by one of our parishioners concerning my willingness to listen. It is not the first time such a charge has been addressed against me. I was saddened because I thought that person would have known that I do indeed listen to what every person says, both in and outside the church. Firstly, I was hurt that those who have complaints about the things that are taking place do not come and talk to me about them. This is destructive to true community. My response was twofold. Firstly, the church is not a democracy. It is not majority opinion rules. There are voices within the church that are expressing opposite opinions. Which voice am I to listen to? As soon as I change things to suit one person, another person becomes unhappy.
Secondly, it seems that some think that the indicator for having listened to someone is to do what they want. It seems to me necessary to make time to spend time with one another with the intention of listening to one another so we can hear that others have different opinions and grow in understanding of the frustrations that seek to do things differently.
The role of consultative leadership is to listen, identify the need, implement changes that will best meet the need and, more importantly, will enable the church to grow as a true community and the individual members to come to maturity in Christ.
Therefore, a community, a group of people participating in this suburb of Belmont, participating in this church dedicated to St Stephen, within the leadership structure of the Anglican Church, sharing in this common faith in Jesus Christ, is not in unity by agreeing on everything, but is in community because of their willingness to think it out together.