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REBUILDING COMMUNITY

I have spent the last couple of weeks bewailing the loss of community and personal relationships in so many aspects of our lives. So, what can we do about it?

We cannot put the clock back. There may be political or economic changes in the future that will do something to reverse the trend towards more and more travel. There may be curbs on the influx of people from other countries that will reduce the growth of immigrant populations. But these are complex issues and there will be no quick or easy fix for the general loss of community.

As individuals we can do what we can to create relationships with our neighbours, and to help one another where people are in need. In this day and age, even this is not easy. In retirement my wife and I lived on a new housing estate in which we could count 14 households as our immediate neighbours. Over a period of time we invited all of them to come to our house for coffee or some other little gathering. But after five years we would exchange occasional greetings with ten of these neighbours; with two we had failed to establish any contact at all; with only two had we managed to form any more than a casual acquaintance.

Covid 19 certainly stopped us all in our tracks, in more ways than one. Perhaps some of us at least may have paused during this time to re-evaluate our priorities. Is the literal pursuit, around the world, of novelty, money and pleasure, worth the sacrifice of family and friends, of a place and community that we can call home? Would we not find more satisfaction in cultivating relationships with the people around us, wherever we happen to be, of settling down, putting down roots, enjoying the familiar, rather than the exotic? Would we not get more from belonging again to a community, rather than just being 'citizens of the world'? Would we gain more by 'staying at home'?

One consequence of the recent cost-of -living crisis is that there has been an upsurge of organisations set up to redistribute food to needy families and individuals, or to provide ‘warm-spaces’ for people struggling with fuel bills. Maybe the increased cost of petrol may have persuaded people to look for work or leisure activities nearer home. Maybe, both Covid and the economic crisis have made us more aware of the needs of our immediate neighbours. But it is doubtful if these effects will produce a lasting reversal of the loss of community.

We Christians have another answer. Our task is to build or rebuild the community of the church wherever we may be. A shared faith is the strongest of all the elements of community. It was the strongest element of those old English communities. In the villages, the church was the central point of the community, around which the life of the villagers, even those who did not go to church week by week, revolved. The churches never kept up with the growth of the towns and the suburbs, but even there, a couple of generations ago, the population almost to a man or a woman had had a Christian upbringing in school or Sunday School and professed to be a Christian in faith and morals. Christianity was the bedrock of society. Even in the 1940s England was a country that the King could call to prayer in the face of a national enemy.

Both Jews and Muslims understand the fundamental importance of faith in their communities. That is why they form ghettoes. The difference should be that our churches should be open communities: not designed to keep others out, but to bring others in. We build such a community in the church by sharing our faith, by preaching the Good News, by inviting others to believe and be saved. Whether we like it or not, we are back where it all began: back in a multi-lingual, multi-racial, multi-faith society, similar to the Roman Empire in which the Apostles, such as Paul and his companions, set out to change the world. They did it, or rather, God did it. It will take more than a life-time to rebuild the wider community, but we can make a start on rebuilding the community of the church, and the church is, or can be, and should be, the best community of all.

Founded on the rock which is Christ, the rock that never moves, the church unites people, as nothing else does, or can do: people of different colours and races, people of different nationalities and languages, people of different ages and classes, men, women and children, loving and trusting one another, until Jesus comes again.

I would like to share next week, with his permission, a piece written by the present curate, Adam Poole, of the church I planted (by mistake) in Norfolk. This church has recently planted another congregation in the nearby town of Swaffham and has been exploring how to serve the community in the town.

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