Community – what community?

Just down the bottom of the road in my village stands an empty pub waiting to be turned (probably) into an expensive country residence. On the gate is a notice telling us that the District Council is being asked to designate it as an “Asset of Community Value” (ACV). The fact that it is an establishment that could not be made financially viable, should tell you a lot about this particular “rural community”. Meanwhile, I watch with interest as colleagues engaged in what is called “Asset Based Community Development” (ABCD) gathered at a conference of the Church Urban Fund, where the speakers have included the Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC) and advocate of Blue Labour, Lord Glasman (no letters available I’m afraid), tweet their enthusiastic comments about “community”. Some examples: “whatever the question; community is the answer”; “community is not just a place of need, it’s a place of incredible untapped resources”; “it is in community that everything comes together”; “we are often trying to engage community before we have built community”. Whilst not wanting in any way to denigrate the efforts nor dampen the idealism of those currently engaged in faith based community development work – and I applaud (I think) the ABCD approach which begins not by identifying local needs and responding to them, but instead by identifying local skills and attempting to build upon them – I am amazed at this use of the term “community”.

The difficulties with this wonderful word were highlighted back in the 1980s by such political philosophers as Ray Plant (now Lord Plant of Highfield) and levelled at church based community development which took a hold in the Diocese of Manchester for a while, and which others of us caught the appetite for. The main problem is that there is no one thing called “community”, and that it is the sort of term that can be used in so many different ways depending on who is employing it and for what purposes, that it is best left on the shelf. It is essentially a “feel good” word. Who, after all, could question that it is a good thing to try to build community? Well, quite a lot of us actually, having experienced at first hand the down side of some of the forms of human association that are identified with the term!

What are the options available? There are statutory definitions of community for a start. Operating in a rural context I am aware that these are far from straightforward. How large does a place have to be to be regarded as a “rural community”? It rather depends where in the country you are! The more remote, the smaller the number of gathered dwellings that counts as a community. Some in the South East though would be large enough to be “small towns”.

Are we referring simply to the dwellings within a particular geographical location? Then where does one draw the line between one community and another, particularly in areas where towns impinge ever deeper into the surrounding countryside and people exercise the power of choice to live in one place and send their children to school in another. Leaving the geographical criterion aside, does one mean a particular association of people based on a shared interest? Communities of interest might form around schools, places of worship, sports clubs, gardening clubs, for instance. Then how does one describe relationships formed and sustained through the social media – Facebook, Twitter etc? How many different communities is it possible to belong to?

Other attempts have been made over the years to describe a positive form of human relationships avoiding this vexed term. in 1994 (“Local Theology: Church and Community in Dialogue”, SPCK) I borrowed “communio” meaning a feeling of togetherness that people can experience in relatively small groups, which is short of full comradeship but more intense than friendly acquaintance (P60). In 2005, aware that the sort of relationships being created by many churches were actually fragile, transitory and based on temporary shared interests, I coined the phrase “enclaves of interim intimacy” (“Blurred Encounters: A Reasoned Practice of Faith”, Aureus, P137). Another phrase that became familiar during the 2000s was “social capital”, itself then subject to critique and replaced, up to a point, from within faith circles by “spiritual capital” ( “Christianity and the New Social Order: A Manifesto for a Fairer Future”, Atherton, Baker and Reader, SPCK 2011, P96ff). From a more exclusively political perspective, “economy of regard” was briefly in fashion (David Halpern: “The Hidden Wealth of Nations”, Polity Press, 2010, P118-9), Halpern being an advisor to the then Labour administration. Then of course we have had “the Big Society” and its various versions. Now, it appears, we have travelled full circle and come back to “community”. Does this matter?

Well, it does to the extent that we have no agreed definition of what we mean by this, and that if the term is being employed in policy statements and funding agreements, then it has a purchase which may determine where and how public funds are allocated. It also means that faith groups become quickly entangled in what can be ideologically driven and determined policies that fail to take into account alternative forms of human association and relatedness. Exactly what type of human relationships are being advocated (and financially supported) by current government policies and what is the real motivation behind this? How might these match up to faith based ideals of human relatedness? If they are significantly different how can the latter be critically engaged in current political process rather than simply being appropriated by a potentially alien set of values? Community – what community? Which particular form of community are we talking about? Inclusive, exclusive, based upon what shared values or interests? Convenient gatherings of individuals which enable politicians or even church leaders to claim that they have created something which has no real sustainable foundation? It does matter that we use language more carefully and that we treat the word “community” with appropriate caution.

Revd Dr John Reader. William Temple Foundation