Embodying God's Love
Canon Dr Angus Ritchie: Journeying Out Together For The Common Good
The Centre for Theology and Community, in East London
“How can we acknowledge one another as gifts from God?” This question stands at the heart of ecumenical engagement. It offers us a way forward, even when there is deep doctrinal disagreement. To recognise one another as gifts from God does not imply that we are all equally right on matters of doctrine, or that our differences are insignificant. But it invites me to begin, not with the speck in my fellow Christian’s eye, but by looking for the ways in which they embody the life and love of God (Matthew 7.3-5).
Of course, my brothers and sisters in Christ are not simply gifts to me. We are called together to embody God’s self-giving love to those around us. In that shared mission that we are drawn more closely into fellowship and unity in Christ – for social action is not some ‘add on’ activity distinct from the ‘core business’ of the church. Our worship, our doctrine and our social engagement are all central to receiving and sharing the love of God. They cannot be separated from one another. That is a central message of prophets such Amos and Micah – and it shines forth in John’s account of Maundy Thursday, where the foot-washing and the command to love is placed where the other Gospels recount the institution of the Eucharist, and the Last Supper is followed by a ‘Farewell Discourse’ (John 14-17) in which worship, doctrine and practical love are woven together as a seamless whole.
The ‘Farewell discourse’ emphasises the connection between the love we share on earth and the love at the very heart of God:
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. (John 15.9,10)
As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us... I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17. 21, 23)
As members of the Body of Christ, we enter together into the flow of love and adoration at the very heart of God. This is what it means for us to be ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4). It is a ‘spiritual’ matter, certainly – but the ‘spiritual’ is not a separate thing from our material relationships, for our very bodies are ‘temples of the Holy Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 6.19). Our ‘spirituality’ is expressed by the way we embody, or fail to embody, the generous love of God: ‘No one has ever seen God, but when we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is made complete in us.’ (1 John 4:12). This is why Scripture contains so much teaching about our physical relationships, the way we use our possessions and the way our common life is ordered. The way we use our bodies, and the way we treat the wider material world can either build us up in communion with our neighbours, in a way that participates in God’s life – or can be a source of alienation from both our neighbours and our Creator.
The work of the Contextual Theology Centre grows out of the ministry of churches in east London- ranging from Catholic and Anglican parishes to Salvation Army and Pentecostal congregations. Most of these are members of Citizens UK, the national movement for broad-based community organising. As Christians of very different traditions, we have grown together through common action on issues such as the Living Wage, affordable housing and the care of those seeking sanctuary in the UK.
This action has been taken together with neighbours of other faiths and of none, and yet has provided an opportunity for a distinctive Christian witness. The practice of community organising encourages participants to be articulate about the motivations they each have for their action. In consequence, our action with people of other faiths and none has led us to a deeper articulation of the Christian rationale for our work.
In this common witness, we have increasingly come to recognise one another as gifts from God – and to allow these “gifts” to inspire us and indeed to change us. As a Church of England priest, I know we are a denomination with a distinct tendency to be for rather than of “the poor,” and to be uncomfortable with the tension at the heart of the Christian Gospel. Some of the sternest criticisms of this tendency have come from within Anglicanism. It was the Vicar of Thaxted, Fr Conrad Noel (1869-1942) who remarked that “Anglicans in particular imagine that the mighty would be put down from their thrones so gently that they would not feel the bump when they hit the ground.” I have learnt a great deal from our partners in the Salvation Army what it means to have a truly mutual relationship with my neighbours. Likewise, the example of local Pentecostal and Catholic congregations challenges the often uncritical identification of Anglicanism with the culture and power structures of England. There is a mutual learning here, and Catholic and Pentecostal colleagues tell me they value the instinctive commitment of many local Anglicans to the parish as a whole, and to a ministry beyond the gathered congregation and community. In a practice such as community organising – which involves the development of genuinely mutual relationships, a willingness to challenge power structures and a ministry to the whole community – we discover one another more deeply as gifts from God. Each denomination has distinctive gifts to offer, enabling us all to become more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.
...for the Common Good
The language of the ‘common good’ is vital if our social action is to be both authentically Christian and accessible to our neighbours. It enables us to engage with the wider community in ways that are both faithful and constructive. Precisely because our understanding of the ‘common good’ is rooted in our experience of the Triune God and of the love poured out for us on the cross, it will have a distinctive shape. But it is by working together on the issues where we can agree that our differences can best be explored and negotiated.
Having worked with my Muslim neighbours on issues of common concern, and shared the Biblical and Qu’ranic motivations for this action, the conversation on issues of disagreement is one between friends, not strangers.
Faithful witness: Christian-Muslim engagement
East London is a place with a great diversity of faiths, but in my immediate context (Bethnal Green and Limehouse) the primary engagement is with Islam. My neighbours’ faithfulness – their discipline in prayer, their strong sense of the Ummah, the seriousness with which they take Qu’ranic teaching on economics – invited me to examine my practice as a Christian. How disciplined am I in my life of prayer? How faithful is my sense of the unity of the ‘Body of Christ’ to the words of the Gospels and of St Paul? How often do I explain away and ‘spiritualise’ the teaching of the Bible on possessions and in particular on lending and borrowing?
As we work together, I also come to see where our understandings diverge. I share with my Muslim friends the conviction that God is ‘compassionate and merciful’, but am deeply aware of the distinctiveness of the Christian understanding of the vulnerability of God’s love. As I come to know another faith more deeply, I am made more aware of how extraordinary the claims of Christianity really are: the combination of ‘meekness and majesty’ which we confess in the incarnation and passion of Christ, and the way our faith seeks to hold together an understanding of God as “Wholly Other” with the belief that we are called to be “partakers of the divine nature.”
The fear so often expressed of inter-faith engagement – that it involves a dilution of our distinctive faith in Christ – could not be further from our experience. The diverse group of Christians involved in community organising in east London finds it deepens our encounter with, and our witness to, our crucified and risen Lord. As we work together for the common good, we experience something of the reality described so powerfully in the closing sentences of Gaudium et Spes:
The Father wills that in all [people] we recognize Christ our brother and love Him effectively, in word and indeed. By thus giving witness to the truth, we will share with others the mystery of the heavenly Father's love. As a consequence, men [and women] throughout the world will be aroused to a lively hope—the gift of the Holy Spirit—that some day at last they will be caught up in peace and utter happiness in that fatherland radiant with the glory of the Lord. (Gaudium et Spes: The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Second Vatican Council)
The Contextual Theology Centre is building up a bank of stories of engagement, reflections on what they can teach us, and resources to help churches work together for the common good.
- In our new essay collection, The Heart of the Kingdom: Christian theology and children who live in poverty (The Children’s Society, 2013), Adam Atkinson and Andy Walton describe how their church is using community organising to work with others for the common good. The collection also includes an essay in which I explores the ‘common good’ and Christian social teaching
- Our ‘Presence and Engagement’ website has a range of stories of how Christians work with other faiths, in works of mercy and action for social justice
- We have also published three case further studies of community organising in London – one on Christian, Muslim and secular engagement in Tower Hamlets, one on the theological and spiritual motivations for Christian involvement, and one on community organising among Christians in the Congolese diaspora
- David Barclay (our Faith & Public Life Officer) is the author of Making Multiculturalism Work (Theos, 2013) which develops an account of ‘practical multiculturalism’ based on this local experience of community organising, and also on the Near Neighbours programme
- Resources for reflection and action include
(a) Effective Organising for Congregational Renewal – a handbook for the local church, with stories from East London and the United States
(b) Seeing Change: Faith and the Finanical Crisis – a course(which grows out of an earlier Lent course developed with our local Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, Pentecostal and Salvation Army partners) and
(c) Urgent Patience: Christian spirituality and social action – a short essay which draws on the experience of these churches