Yesterday I began a mini-series of blog posts reflecting on a conference I went to at the weekend exploring the role of Churches in developing sustainable communities and today I will continue by reflecting on the second session on the subject of “Community, Church and Transition”.
One of the biggest movements in sustainability at the moment is the Transition Network which is a network of villages, towns and cities around the world, all trying to increase their community resilience. This involves recognising that fossil fuels are going to continue to get more and more expensive and that communities of all sizes need to be more resilient against fluctuating oil prices and consequently food prices, resource availability etc. Although Transition initially began in response to the challenge of Peak Oil (the idea that global oil production has reached its peak and is now declining and any future extraction is going to get more and more expensive and dangerous), they are beginning to move away from that narrative towards a wider response to the threat of climate change but the principle remains the same.
The basic premise is that if we wait for governments to act it will be too little too late, if we try and act as individuals it will bee too little and too hard but if we act as communities it might be just enough, just in time. To this end communities are encouraged to set up transition groups to look at where their food comes from, what their transport systems are like, even how their monetary systems work, and to work from the ground up to strengthen and localise these. This plays out in very different ways depending on the community and responses have included community allotments and farms, education initiatives (particularly in schools), sustainable housing developments, even in a few places (such as Bristol and Brixton) a local currency that can only be spent in local independent shops.
There are a couple of major hallmarks of the Transition movement that I have been particularly impressed with. One is their refusal to ally themselves with any political party, even one like the Green Party which would seem to share many of the same aims. That is not to say that they don’t engage in politics, particularly on a local level, but at its heart Transition is for everybody and to have a particular political affiliation would be counter-productive. Another feature of Transition is that it is overwhelmingly positive, even in the face of serious challenges. It recognises that to dwell on the problems would again be counter-productive and our focus must be on what we can do, not what we can’t do. Finally, although I’m talking as if it is a coherent organisation, it really is a network in a very broad sense. The network has produced a number of books giving advice on how to set up a Transition Town or Village but these are predominantly stories and the accumulated wisdom of people who have had a go at it before rather than hard and fast rules about what you must do. This stems from a recognition that every community is different and has different needs so what works in Totnes or Bristol may not work in Houston or Sao Paolo.
Churches and Transition
I am telling you all this because the second speaker at the conference was Timothy Gorringe, professor of Theology at Exeter University and author of Transition Movement for Churches. He began by outlining the history of our understanding of ‘community’, particularly in relation to the growth of industrial capitalism and subsequently financial capitalism over the past couple of centuries. In a society which is built on the premise that competition is good for the economy, the idea of community can be a good counterbalance. The danger comes when communities turn against one another, for example Protestants vs. Catholics or City fans vs. United fans.
He then went on to explore the early Church’s understanding of community which was built around the idea of shared possessions – Ta Koina in Greek – that which is in common. He drew out from this several things which the Church’s experience of two millennia of trying to build community can offer to the current debate. Firstly that communities will always, always be fractured and we must accept that. There is no such thing as a perfect community and the Church has become pretty adept at recognising that and getting on with things anyway. Secondly that community is always primarily local. There is no substitute for the daily grind of actually seeing people face to face. Thirdly communities live by memory and tradition. Tradition is the passing on of communal memories and to be part of the community is to stand within that tradition and hold those memories as your own. Fourthly communities survive through forgiveness. If all communities are places of brokenness, the ability to say sorry and to forgive are key to not getting bogged down in the problems of the past. Fifthly communities are constantly being re-formed. As memberships change and experiences change the community naturally changes and recognising this as positive is important. Sixthly the understanding that God is fundamentally community. To be human is to be made in the image of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, and to grow in community is to grow more into that likeness.
Finally he suggested a few ways that Churches can engage with the Transition movement and it is one of these points that I would like to finish by exploring.
The Church can’t be selfish about this
One of the interesting things about both Timothy and Ruth’s stories was that they ended up working closely with people from very different faith backgrounds from atheists to a cross-dressing shamanist! The thing that struck me was that, so often, the Church tries to do things in isolation for fear of being polluted. We worry that, if we start working with atheists or Muslims or any other group we will be seen to be ‘endorsing’ their views and so watering down the gospel. We even refuse to work with other Christians in case we end up getting some of our theology wrong! The problem is that this ends up in self-righteous arrogance which does nobody any good.
The Bible is clear that humans are called to care for the earth as tenant gardeners (Genesis 2:15). We are tasked with caring for our fellow creatures and ensuring their flourishing as much as our own and must recognise the limits on our ability to make use of it (Genesis 2:17). The problem is that we treat the earth as little more than a resource to be exploited and because of this creation is groaning as it waits for us to recover our original purpose and to work towards its redemption (Romans 8:19-22). The thing about this is that it is a calling for all humanity, not just for Christians. Yes absolutely Christians, as adopted sons and daughters of God, must begin to act with compassion towards his creation but to be honest if only Christians behaved in this way (and that in itself is a far cry from reality), the planet would still be in a mess. In the face of human-induced climate change, rapidly escalating biodiversity loss, mass deforestation and all the other problems that the planet is facing this is an all-hands-on-deck situation.
Christians have to be ready and willing to recognise, celebrate, and work with all who are making the effort to live in a more fully human way, regardless of their faith or theology. If, as we are often told, mission is about “seeing what God is doing and joining in” then I think that the Transition movement and others like it are one of the biggest signs of God’s Spirit around. Ultimately I don’t believe the Christian faith is about just turning up to Church on Sunday morning, as vital as that is. It’s about loving your neighbour, be they Anglican, Methodist, Atheist, Shaman, Badger, Sparrow or Earthworm. It’s about pulling on your wellies, grabbing a spade and getting muddy as we work together for a renewed world.