A community theology for the Common Good
This is a study resulting from deep listening to communities in Clapton, East London. It was commissioned by Clapton Commons, “an open network of neighbours” whose founding body includes two churches. A young theologian was engaged to spend a year in the two parishes, to research and write a bespoke theology underpinning their unique neighbourhood engagement. His findings unpack how the mission focus of the neighbourhood church should primarily be about supporting the communities in which it exists, rather than its own internal life. We are grateful to Fr William Taylor of Clapton Commons and the author, Peter Leith for their kind permission.
‘I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly’ (John 10:10).
At the heart of the good news, at the heart of Christ’s mission, at the heart of God’s love for us and with us, is a promise that we might live abundantly. What might Jesus Christ’s promise to us mean for us in an inner-city London parish that, according to multiple indices, is considered to be deprived? How do we witness to this abundant life in deprived inner-city London parishes? What does it mean for us, as individuals, as a church, and as a community, to have abundant life?
Having outlined the geographic and socio-economic context in which Clapton Commons operates, what Clapton Commons is, and what it seeks to achieve, I will then reflect on what the theological basis for this approach to mission is, and how this might inform our understanding of mission, particularly in inner-city contexts. At the heart of this reflection will be a consideration of what abundance looks like in light of a theological understanding of the Sabbath.
What is the geographic and socio-economic context?
London is, no doubt, a city of abundance. It is populous and prosperous, culturally rich and diverse. However, it is also a city of inequality. A city of pollution and poverty. A city in which people work long hours, and face long commutes. It is within this context that Clapton Commons is operating; from the roof of St Thomas’, the City, the financial heart of London, looms large, a place of extravagant wealth looking over and down upon places and people living in poverty.
This tension between wealth and poverty is well brought out by Clapton Commons’ immediate context, namely North East Hackney. Hackney, for all that it is associated with gentrification, the creative industries, and hipsters, has one of the highest poverty rates in London, and one of the highest proportion of people receiving out-of-work benefits. People in Hackney also report high levels of social isolation and loneliness, particularly the less affluent members of the local community. In the parish of St Thomas, Clapton Common, there is a particularly high incidence of pensioner poverty (ranked 294th out of 15,999 parishes in England by the Church Urban Fund, where 1 represents the highest level of deprivation). 42% of those aged over 65 in Hackney live alone, compared to 11.5% of the population overall, and we can see how this physical isolation, combined with material deprivation, can lead to profound experiences of social isolation.
These experiences of social isolation are particularly acutely felt in an area of London where separate communities exist alongside one another. One of the most striking aspects of the parish is the presence of the Haredi Jewish population. This Jewish community has a profoundly strong sense of community and support one another in ways that ought to provide lessons to those outside the Jewish community. However, for the most part, it exists in parallel to the rest of the parish, with its own shops, schools, etc. This is not to lay the blame at the door of the Jewish population, however, for the white middle classes and the Afro-Caribbean communities often have little social contact (and are less cohesive communities in their own right). This is an area of London in which any sense of shared community is both precarious and hard won, and there are few places in which members of the community can meet together and share a common life.
Indeed, rather than a well-defined area of London, Clapton Common itself is more a geographic landmark, an area of green land alongside the A107, a major bus route towards North London. Is the parish itself in Stamford Hill, or in Upper Clapton? Or both? Or neither? A lack of clarity about the geographic roots of the community serves to further loosen the bonds people between people.
London’s abundance, therefore, seems to not be accessible by all. We might also be concerned that it offers only a partial picture of abundance, one that does not seem to encourage or value the abundance found in a shared social life. There is, therefore, a prima facie case for suggesting that we might want to question the predominant picture of abundance celebrated and offered by life in London. We can readily understand from our relationship with the natural environment how one form of abundance (consumption) can count against other forms of abundance (biodiversity), and we will see below how a theological understanding of abundance might cause us to question certain alternative understandings of abundance. First, however, it is worth outlining what precisely Clapton Commons is.
What is Clapton Commons?
Broadly speaking, Clapton Commons can be defined as a membership organisation working to build up civil society for the Common Good in the area around Clapton Common. There is value in unpacking this: why a membership organisation? Why civil society? What is the Common Good? And why this specific geographic area?
So, why does Clapton Commons take the form of a membership organisation? And what does it mean for Clapton Commons to do so? Clapton Commons was established by the parish church (St Thomas’) and the residents’ association of the terrace on which the church is located (Clapton Terrace). While these remain the founding members of Clapton Commons, their vision was for Clapton Commons to expand beyond these two members. In other words, Clapton Commons is an organisation that you join. It is an organisation that seeks to grow, that wants more people to be involved. It believes in the possibility of abundance through communal life.
Specifically, you become a member of Clapton Commons by paying £1. What does membership get you? In a sense, nothing. Clapton Commons seeks to develop, through membership, a network of individuals and organisations who are committed to making a difference in society. Clapton Commons does not exist to do things for people. It is not a service provider. Rather, it exists to support people in doing things for themselves, and to do things together.
In effect, this is what is meant by civil society, the networks of relationships formed by individuals at the level that exists between the State and the Market (both of which, in their own different ways, are predicated upon contractual relationships). Civil society describes those relationships between individuals (and groups of individuals) that are not directly mediated by (though not necessarily unaffected by) the power of the State or the Market. By trying to build networks of people who are committed to working in this space, Clapton Commons is committed to trying to build up the power and effectiveness of these relationships. It envisages a world in which the primary form of relationship is sharing, and that, through sharing, through that which is given, we would have communities that are more cohesive (which is to say, better able to exist within and across – not just alongside – difference), and all the more abundant for it. It is for this reason that Clapton Commons has an inherently local character.
So, how does Clapton Commons go about building up civil society in its particular pocket of London? It does so through the gifts of the people who live there. Clapton Commons is broadly committed to the principles of asset-based community development (or ABCD). ABCD holds that communities are most effectively developed by encouraging the community to use the assets (and potential assets) that it already possesses, and to do so through relationship. The first task, then, is to understand what people’s gifts are, without concern for what these gifts might offer. These gifts can then be unlocked, by helping people to think about how they might share that gift (whatever it might be) with others. This can be done by linking people up with other people who share interests, have complimentary skills, and so on. Or it can be done by linking people up with physical spaces in which people can share their interests, experience, passions, energy, or time. This approach is about seeing people and places as assets, not to be owned or used (as the State or the Market might see it), but to be shared and given. It is about seeing abundance not simply as created, but also as already there to be found. It is these things that Clapton Commons seeks to do.
Perhaps a few stories will help make these principles more concrete. Richard likes to play dominoes. However, Richard had no-one to play dominoes with, and nowhere to play dominoes with people. Clapton Commons was able to link Richard up with others who share his passions, and arrange for a space in which he could play. This reveals the way in which attending to people’s gifts (here a skill and a passion for dominoes) makes it possible for individuals to share their gifts in ways that brings people together, builds relationships, and allows people to flourish. Richard’s passion for dominoes makes him an asset to the society he lives in. Clapton Commons also sees physical spaces, such as buildings, as assets. On Clapton Common, there is a disused toilet block, which has fallen into disrepair. Given the lack of public spaces for members of the community to meet in, this toilet block is envisioned as a community café. Turning a space that has become neglected and unloved into a vibrant community hub says something profound about sort of abundance that can be found in shared life, as well as offering a different model for regeneration.
These reflections point us towards a particular (and, I would suggest, proper) understanding of the Common Good. We can easily think that the Common Good is the sum total of individual goods, or as some good that is held in common by all members of society (a public good, in which all people ought to be able to share). Against this, the approach taken by Clapton Commons (an approach shared by Catholic Social Thought) sees the Common Good as the shared effort to achieve the good of all according to individual natures. Catholic Social Thought defines the Common Good as the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily. The Common Good is the shared life of society in which everyone is able to flourish as individuals, which is something that can only be achieved together. Therefore, if any one member of society is prevented from flourishing, the whole of society is failing to work for the Common Good. It is for this reason that Clapton Commons puts such an emphasis on individual gifts and participation through membership; flourishing is achieved together, by mutually supporting the individual flourishing of each person, rather than by determining a set of conditions (e.g. a minimum amount of wealth) that is required for us to say that an individual is flourishing.
What does it mean to live abundantly?
The picture that Clapton Commons paints of an abundant life is quite different to the sort of picture that an analysis of London might lead one to. The sort of abundance that is typically celebrated in popular images of London is that of financial wealth, diversity of experience, richness of culture. It is a picture of abundance as something that is gained and accrued. Against this, Clapton Commons sees abundance in what people receive and share (gifts, relationships, etc.). It is a vision of abundance that finds its poetic imagery in nature (the abundance of flowers growing in a meadow) rather than in commerce (the abundance of things produced). It is a vision of abundance that is concerned with what can be nurtured and grown, and not what can be gathered, bought, sold, or traded.
This vision of abundance, of nurture and growth, sits right at the heart of the Christian doctrine of creation. Christianity teaches that God created from nothing, ex nihilo. Although some deny that creation ex nihilo is a strictly scriptural doctrine, the doctrine is a consequence of what scripture says about God and so is biblically compelled. Scripture tells us that God does not need anything to complete who God is, that God does not need to create in order to be God. Creation ex nihilo is an extension of this doctrine; by claiming that God creates out of nothing, we affirm that God does not need anything to create, and that God does not need creation in order to be God. There are a number of implications of the belief that God did not need to create, and that God does not need creation. Primary among these, however, is that it reveals the radically free nature of God’s act of creation, constrained by no compulsion, necessity, or need. And, for Christians, this free act of creation is not capricious, but an act of profound love. In other words, our existence is a gift; because God does not need creation in order to be completely God (and whether or not creation exists does not change whether God is completely God), God’s act of creation becomes in the fullest sense a ‘pure donation of existence by love’. It is not simply that we receive a gift (existence), but that we are, in fact, the gift that we receive. Indeed, because I would not exist but for the gift of existence, my ability to receive my existence as a gift is in itself a gift. In other words, creation is a ‘gift of a gift to a gift’.
This recognition of the extent of our giftedness means that it is hard (perhaps, indeed, sacrilegious) to understand abundance as primarily about the things that we have produced. To recognise and affirm creation as God’s creation, as a free and loving gift of being, is to receive the ‘sustaining power and providence of the creator as sufficient’. This clearly stands in contrast to a view of abundance that celebrates above all things the acquisition of ever more (wealth, experiences, possessions, etc). This is the abundance most commonly associated with, and celebrated within, the life of London. It is a view of abundance that is rooted in self-assertion; I am what I create and have. Against this, understanding ourselves as created, as a gift, leads to a view of abundance that is rooted in self-revelation; I am what I receive and share.
In the creation account in Genesis, God instructs humanity to be fruitful, to fill the earth, and to have dominion (Genesis 1:28). This passage has caused plenty of disagreement over the years, most notably about what it means for humanity to have dominion. There is obviously scope for understanding this dominion as being about humanity exerting its authority over nature, making it serve human needs. When combined with the command to be fruitful and fill the earth, this can sound very much like an abundance that is about creating, having, and owning. However, there are a number of reasons for not understanding this verse in this way. For one, God’s intention in creation is for the earth to bring forth creatures and plants ‘of every kind’. Clearly, if humanity is to have dominion over the earth, humanity’s dominion cannot be one that stands in competition with God’s intention for the earth to be filled with plants and creatures of every kind. Indeed, ‘of every kind’, could in fact be rendered as ‘of its own kind’. This suggests to us a vision of dominion that is not about lordship, but about tending, about facilitating the growth and flourishing of all things according to their own purposes. Dominion is not permission for us to use things as we would like, but a call to work with what is there to enable it to most fully flourish.
This vision of humanity being tasked with working to bring about the flourishing of all things according to their nature finds its fullest expression in reflection upon (and observation of) the Sabbath.
What does the Sabbath tell us about abundance?
The Sabbath, that day of rest every seven days, has an obvious resonance given St Thomas’ location amongst Europe’s largest Haredi population, for whom observance of the Sabbath is taken with utmost seriousness. However, there are debates as to what the Sabbath means for Christians. Did Christ abolish the Sabbath? Has Sunday replaced Saturday as the Christian Sabbath? Should Christians still observe the Sabbath on Saturday, independent of worship on Sunday, the Lord’s Day? For instance, Pope John Paul II understood the Christian Sunday as the ‘fulfilment’ of the Sabbath, while Gregory the Great argued that Christ is the ‘true Sabbath’.
This is not the place to set out a fully formed theology of the Sabbath. However, an outline of Sabbatarian theology helps us to understand what the doctrine of creation tells us about how we should think theologically about abundance.
In Exodus, Israel is commanded to observe the Sabbath day because, in the account of creation provided in Genesis, God rested on the seventh day of creation. However, this rest cannot be understood negatively as a mere cessation from work, nor as something restorative that gives us energy to work more effectively for the rest of the week. If nothing else, we cannot understand our rest as inactivity, because we cannot understand God’s rest as a form of inactivity. As Augustine notes, God ‘neither grew tired when he created things, nor found it a relief when he stopped’. Indeed, as Karl Barth notes, the ‘first divine action’ that humanity witnesses in the creation narratives is God resting on, and sanctifying, the seventh day. Consequently, our experience of the Sabbath is never a merited rest from our toil, but rather that which precedes our work; our lives are lived ‘on the way from a Sabbath already sanctified’. Indeed, our Sabbath rest should not be understood as a resting in ourselves: we rest in God, not as God rested. Because Sabbath rest is a resting in God, it is a resting that we do together, according to our own nature. As a memorial of God’s eternal rest, then, the abundance that we seek cannot be about what we strive for, or what we seek to acquire (even if what we strive for is an easy life, more opportunity for rest, a better work-life balance, and so on). Under this picture, even our rest is a gift that we have received, not something that we have worked for. This is well brought out in the salvific and eschatological orientation of the Sabbath.
In Deuteronomy, the command to observe the Sabbath is tied not to creation, but to the liberation of Egypt from Israel. Of course, our salvation is not an event entirely independent of creation, not least because, for Christians, salvation is always already a celebration of the new creation inaugurated by Christ, and an anticipation of the fulfilment of this new creation (reflected in the tradition of speaking of Sunday as the eighth day of the week). Consequently, Christians have understood eschatological fulfilment in terms of the Sabbath. For instance, Augustine writes of the eschaton as the ‘peace of the Sabbath’, and the ‘Sabbath of Sabbaths’, something he sees anticipated in creation, in the seventh day that has no evening. This is not without biblical warrant, for Hebrews 4:1-11 understands our final rest in terms of the Sabbath. Thus, the orientation of both our creation and our salvation is towards God’s divine rest. And just as this rest in creation is not something that we have worked for, our salvation is entirely a gift, something that we cannot even begin to imagine how we might bring about on our own.
This tells us that, whatever it is we mean by abundance, it cannot be, fundamentally, about acquiring more and more. As Augustine say, ‘it was not in [God’s] making but in his not needing the things he had made that his blessedness and bliss consisted’; God’s rest on the seventh day revealed God’s true holiness to come in rest, and God can truly rest because God does not need anything. Of course, as humans, we do need things. For all manner of reasons, our lives do not exhibit the abundance that we are promised. We do, therefore, in a sense need to work towards living lives that are abundant. However, God’s Sabbath rest, the rest that we are promised a share in through our salvation in Jesus Christ, forces us to consider what it might mean to work towards an abundant life.
The above reflections suggest that working towards an abundant life is not about identifying what I want and need, and claiming as much of that as I can for myself. Rather, it is somehow about recognising the fact that I, and all of creation, is the object of God’s love, that I am constituted by this love, and drawn into this love. Of course, this is not something that we are necessarily readily able to recognise. For whatever reason, we may feel ourselves undeserving of the love that we are offered, we may feel challenged by this love, or we may be unable to act towards others as if they are equally worthy of this love. The Sabbath can, therefore, rightly be understood as ‘an apprenticeship to reality’, in which we learn to distinguish between reality as God intends it and reality as we ‘fancifully wish it to be’. It is for this reason that many have counselled the wisdom of observing a day of rest, even if it is not something that is required of us as Christians (a debate that this reflection will remain silent upon).
Once we have committed ourselves to recognising ourselves and all of creation as a gift constituted by God’s love, we have to seek out ways to ensure that others are able to see this for themselves. Perhaps the best way in which to ensure this is to live in a way that witnesses to this belief. The Sabbatarian commitment to attending to the ways in which creation is constituted by love says something important about how we ought to relate to one another. On the one hand, it suggests that there is something profoundly alike about all created things: we all receive our identity from a God who delights in each thing, which provides the basis for treating all things with equal dignity and therefore not seeing the created order as something to exploit. On the other hand, it suggests that there is something fundamentally mysterious about the other person: we always have to discover what something is created to be in relation to God and, because we can never exhaust what we know of God and God’s intentions, there is a deep sense in which we can never fully understand what another thing was created to be.
How this enables us to understand Clapton Commons theologically
What, then, does all this have to do with Clapton Commons? The vision just outlined helps us to understand the deeply theological character of what Clapton Commons is trying to achieve.
I described Clapton Commons as membership organisation working to build up civil society for the Common Good in the area around Clapton Common. I suggested that it achieves this by trying to strengthen the nature of local relationships, increasingly moving people towards non-contractual relationships (ones not mediated directly by the State or the Market), and creating a network of individuals who are committed to relationships of sharing. In order to do so, it is concerned with exploring the gifts that people have (or the gifts that a community has in terms of physical spaces), and trying to see how these can be shared. In turn, I argued that this leads us to a particular understanding of the Common Good, namely, the sum total of social conditions which allow people to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily, rather than either the sum of individual goods or some particular good that is held in common. Together, all this paints a picture of abundance in which abundance is cultivated and tended to, rather than created. This is precisely the kind of abundance that I have suggested the Sabbath fosters.
At the heart of Clapton Commons’ approach, therefore, is a commitment to the idea that abundance is something that is to be found and enabled to flourish, rather than something that is to be achieved by creating or acquiring more. Underpinning this commitment is the notion that all individuals in some sense already have within them the capacity for abundant lives. All people (and, indeed, all of creation) have within them the seeds (the rationes seminales) of who they have been created to be with all the particular gifts that come with this.
In order to discover precisely who people were created to be, and what the gifts they have been created with, it is necessary for us to pay close and deliberate attention to each individual, and this requires precisely the sort of patient, non-acquisitive attitude that observation of the Sabbath counsels and trains us in; not ‘who is this person to me?’, but ‘who has this person been created to be?’. We have to allow the individual before us to unfold and reveal themselves, in the particular way in which they are created and loved by God. It is for these reasons that the relationships that Clapton Commons seeks to build have to be local, and non-contractual; they have to be relationships that allow us to attend to the differences and particularities of individuals, in a way that cannot be done from a distance, or through mediated, contractual relationships.
Thus, understanding who an individual (including myself) was created to be requires a mutual exploration, in which I allow my (self-)understanding to be expanded by the perspective of others, and not defined by my desires and needs. As Anna Mercedes reminds us, we do not experience Christ in others (or exhibit Christ to others) in a straightforward way, but rather ‘we encounter and embody Christ in the connection between us: in the transfer, in the process of being drawn more deeply into new creation together’. Thus, the Common Good (which Clapton Commons seeks to work towards) cannot, as I have intimated above, be the sum total of individual goods (for this would simply be my attempt to assert as much of myself as I can, rather than be open to exploring who I truly am), nor can it be a particular good or collection of goods that are held in common (for this would sublimate individual goods to a lowest common denominator). The Common Good, therefore, must describe the conditions that facilitate this mutual exploration of individual goods, which is precisely what Clapton Commons seeks to do in its structure as a membership organisation that is rooted in direct relationships between individuals in a community.
Now, one might be inclined to argue that the search for individual goods risks falling into an atomistic, individualistic approach that frustrates the very intentions of Clapton Commons. However, the implication of understanding the Common Good as the social conditions that facilitate individual flourishing is that it is impossible to achieve the Common Good if any individual is excluded from their own individual flourishing. The Common Good, therefore, necessitates that our individual good is not achieved at the expense of the individual good of others.
Moreover, our reflection on the Sabbath highlights the way in which our individual good is, ultimately, always oriented away from ourselves; if the most abundant life we could live is to have a share in God’s eternal Sabbath rest, which can only be ours as a gift from God, then the orientation of our good is fundamentally towards God. Being thus fundamentally oriented towards God, we are reminded in our Sabbath observance of what we have received from God. And what we have received from God is, quite literally, everything: even our very existence is received from God through our participation in God’s life. This fundamental giftedness of our being means that we can never hold onto what we have (as we might in a view of abundance as the stockpiling of things), but must, rather, always be seeking to share what we have. My existence is never just a gift to myself (i.e. that which I receive), but always also the gift of myself (i.e. that which I give). We can see this logic in Christianity’s emphasis on being willing to lay down our lives for others (John 15:13), and in the idea that whoever wants to save their life will lose it (Mark 8:35); we are only able to truly recognise that what we have is something that has been given to us if we are willing to pass it on. In the words of Rowan Williams, ‘to understand creation as a gift from God […] is also to become able to make creation a gift’ and therefore to ‘let go of the idea that it is just there for our use’ and instead ‘use it as a means of sharing the divine generosity with others’. This insight is captured in the principle, so central to Catholic Social Thought, of the universal destination of goods; all that we have as individuals is to be used as a means for facilitating the flourishing of all things (which is precisely how I suggested we should understand humanity’s vocation to have dominion over the earth). Unsurprisingly, therefore, Clapton Commons sees abundance as something that is fostered through the intentional sharing of our lives with one another, in particular through the sharing of our gifts.
Indeed, the emphasis on the sharing of our gifts for the good of all that lies at the heart of Clapton Commons reveals the inherently Eucharistic nature of what Clapton Commons is trying to achieve. In the Eucharist, both that which we have been given and what we have created (‘fruit of the earth and work of human hands’) are transformed and re-presented to us as that great gift our salvation. In so doing, it forms us into the into the Body of Christ, re-membering us as something more than just ourselves. And, as we are formed into the Body of Christ, so we come to participate in Christ’s mission, that life of love shared so that all things might be drawn into God’s life. Hence, just as Christ shared his body and blood so that we might have life, and have it in all its fullness, so we too must give what we have so that others can live more fully. As Raniero Cantamalessa puts it, to offer our body is to offer our time, energy, or ‘perhaps just a smile’, and to offer our blood is to offer ‘all that anticipates death: humiliation, failures, sickness, […] everything that mortifies us’. In other words, just as Clapton Commons seeks to do, the Eucharist encourages us to see what we have been given (gifts that may include time, or particular skills), and to consider how we might share this with others.
Clapton Commons and the mission of the Church
This reflection on the Eucharistic nature of Clapton Commons’ vision points to how Clapton Commons can in fact help us to reflect more broadly on the mission of the Church.
As Christians, our mission begins with, and is given to us, in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is where we gather, are formed, and are sent. Mass – from the Latin, ite missa est (‘go, it [the Church, as the Body of Christ] is sent’) – is the context in which we allow all that we are and have to be transformed (over time) into who God has created us to be. Mass orients the Church towards its mission. And, as we are sent out into the world as the individuals that God has created us to be, we are also members of the Body of Christ. The consequence of this is that we cannot undertake our mission alone, for, as 1 Corinthians 12 reminds us, the many members of the body work together to support one another; the body would be incomplete without any particular part of the body, for it would lack some function that it requires.
In this context, Clapton Commons can offer a profound challenge to how the Church often undertakes mission. Very often, both the Church as a whole and individual churches, identify certain mission priorities, activities, or outcomes that are going to be prioritised. These activities or outcomes are frequently profoundly important, and undoubtedly serve to transform lives and communities (particularly when they have been developed through close attention to local needs). However, the effect of approaching mission in this way is that it can risk becoming a discreet part of what the Church does, something that only specific individuals who have the skills, time, and inclination to be involved participate in.
What Clapton Commons offers is a vision of mission that can be rooted in the gifts of all the members of a congregation. If churches approached mission in the way that Clapton Commons approaches building up civil society, then churches would identify what gifts and passions the members of the congregation have, and then equip them to use those in service of the Gospel. In other words, churches would begin by looking at the personalities of those in the church, and then at how these can meet local need; not looking at local need, and then deciding who should be involved in meeting this need. In this sense, mission would not be something that specific members of the church does, but something that all church members are oriented towards and work together to achieve. It is an approach to mission that affirms that mission is not only for you if you are a head, an ear, or a toe, but also if you are a finger, an eye, an elbow.
Indeed, even if this is not its primary objective, such an approach to mission offers a tantalising prospect for church growth (including numerical growth). By affirming that all people have something to offer (and, indeed, that any individual and community cannot be complete without that which all individuals have to offer), we facilitate the possibility of people recognising the love in which God holds them and the value that God attaches to them. Particularly in contexts of deprivation like Clapton, this is quite a radical affirmation, and can help to transform the ways in which people who feel like they have nothing to offer see themselves. In turn, this offers the possibility of cultivating flourishing congregations that more fully recognise themselves as gifts of God’s creation, and who are therefore more confident and more hopeful. In other words, approaching mission in this way both trusts that congregations are abundant (even when it might not appear to be the case), and helps to cultivate congregations that are more evidently abundant. By building up the Body of Christ, you create churches that are more fully alive and therefore more attractive. And you create congregations that are better able to go out and share that life, by showing and telling the glory of God revealed to us, and the Good News that brings.
However, it is also important to note that Clapton Commons is primarily focused on life outside of St Thomas’, even if St Thomas’ is a founding member of Clapton Commons, and even if the principles that Clapton Commons affirms could arguably be put to good effect within the life of the Church. Recognising this is an important reminder that the Church is not the arbiter of mission. As the above reflection on the Eucharist highlighted, our mission is received from God. Our primary task in mission is, therefore, to attend to God’s mission, ‘to apprehend God’s presence precisely in the odd ways in which God is present’. And, of course, God can be present in a game of dominoes, or an exercise class, or a disused block of toilets transformed and given new life. God does not only work in the Church, and our mission derives from being attentive to where God is working, wherever that may be. In affirming this, we recognise that our task is not simply to build church communities that witness to the Kingdom of God, but also to find ways in which to allow all people everywhere to experience something of that Kingdom, to allow the world to reflect in however small a measure, our promised-for hope.
Indeed, while this may be the call upon all Christians, it may be of particular relevance to the Church of England as the established church, with its network of parish churches. However, a reflection on the specificity of the mission of the Church of England, and the central role that parishes play in this lies beyond this current reflection. Nevertheless, Clapton Commons points to the way in which, as the established church, the Church of England’s mission focus should primarily be about supporting the communities it exists in, in the particular ways each community exists, rather than its own internal life (including numerical growth, even if this is desirable and important).
© Peter Leith for Clapton Commons
Peter Leith is currently training for ordained ministry at Westcott House in Cambridge, where he is working on a PhD focusing on the importance of place for what it means to be a creature and our common life. His research draws together semiotic theory, the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, the Gospel of John, and the theology of Augustine. Before moving to Cambridge, he spent a year learning from and working with the people of the parishes of St Thomas’, Clapton Common and St Matthew’s, Upper Clapton, and worked for a number of years in politics and public policy.
You may also be interested to read We Grieve, Fr William Taylor’s story of how his parish, St Thomas’ Clapton Common, mourned with its neighbours during the first lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic.
For more information about Clapton Commons, click here.
-  The King James translation used here powerfully reminds us of the present significance of Christ’s incarnation. The NRSV translates the Greek ἐγὼ ἦλθον as ‘I came’, which, two millennia later, has a distinctly past-tense ring to it. The KJV, however, translates the Greek as ‘I am come’. As we wrestle with what it means for us to love God and our neighbour in our present context, it pays to heed this translation: Christ did not just come so that we may have abundant life, but is with us so that we might have abundant life. Indeed, as the Body of Christ, the Church is thus called to be this present coming of Christ, bringing with it abundance of life for all those it encounters.
-  Statistics from the Trust for London – <https://www.trustforlondon.org.uk/data/boroughs/overview-of-london-boroughs/> [accessed 20.06.2018].
-  Survey reference in Hackney Council, Profiling the Needs of Older People in Hackney, 2014, p.14 – <www.hackney.gov.uk/media/7990/profiling-the-needs-of-older-people-in-Hackney/pdf/ profiling-the-needs-of-older-people-in-hackney> [accessed 26.09.2017].
-  Hackney Council, Community Cohesion and Social Networks in Hackney, 2016, p.9 – <https://www.hackney.gov.uk/media/8176/society-and-environment-section-1-community-cohesion-and-social-networks/pdf/JSNA-society-and-environment-Section_1_Community_cohesion_and_social_networks> [accessed 26.09.2017].
-  Church Urban Fund – <http://www2.cuf.org.uk/parish/230096> [accessed 26.09.2017].
-  Hackney Council, Profiling the Needs of Older People in Hackney, p.1.
-  See for instance, Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, nn.32-42 – <http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html> [accessed 27 June 2018].
-  Note, this is not an obvious gift that would be celebrated by society. This reminds us of the importance of understanding what people’s gifts are, prior to any consideration of how those gifts could be used.
-  Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Gaudium et Spes, nn.26, 74 <http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html> [accessed 27.06.2018]
-  Janet M. Soskice, ‘Creatio ex nihilo: its Jewish and Christian foundations’, in David Burrell (ed.), Creation and the God of Abraham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 24-39 (p.24).
-  Not least, this is one of the startling implications of Trinitarian theology. God, in order to be both one and three, must need nothing outside of God’s own being in order to be fully who God is, otherwise we risk the possibility of separating God into parts.
-  Simon Oliver, Creation: A Guide for the Perplexed, (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017), p.59.
-  John Milbank, The Suspended Middle – Henri de Lubac and the Debate Concerning the Supernatural (London: SCM, 2005), p.90.
-  Oliver, Creation, p.24.
-  Pope John Paul II, Dies Domini, n.59 <https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1998/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_05071998_dies-domini.html> [accessed 19.07.2017].
-  Ibid., n.18.
-  Augustine, ‘The Literal Meaning of Genesis’, in On Genesis, trans. Edmund Hill (New York: New City Press, 2002), IV.25, p.255.
-  Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics,14 vols (London: T&T Clark, 2004), III/4, §53, p.52; III/1, §41, p.228.
-  John Paul II, n.16.
-  Ibid., n.26.
-  Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 13.50.
-  The Works of Saint Augustine, trans. Edmund Hill, 42 vols (New York: New City Press, 1990), III/1, 9.16.
-  Works of Augustine, III/1, 8.9.
-  Augustine, ‘Literal Meaning of Genesis’, IV.29, p.258.
-  Norman Wirzba, Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), p.132.
-  Anna Mercedes, ‘Christ Given, Christ Given Away’ in Dialog: A Journal of Theology, 53/3 (2014), 233-239 (p.236).
-  Rowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), p.177.
-  Cantalamessa, The Eucharist, Our Sanctification, trans. Frances Lonergan Villa (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1999), p.22.
-  David H. Kelsey, To Understand Truly: What’s Theological About a Theological School (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992),p.166.