What does ‘community’ mean? The word crops up everywhere, from David Cameron’s ill-fated ‘Big Society’ to a way of trying to help new first-year students settle in to university life. It becomes a go-to word when bad things happen. When my city flooded last Christmas, a great deal was made of the ‘sense of community’ that was created as we tried to respond as best we could to the loss and damage to people’s lives.
In Christian circles, the phrase ‘intentional community’ often means a group of people who have chosen to live out their faith together. For some, like monks and nuns, the balance between an individual sense of calling and a commitment to the common life is regulated by formal vows. Other communities are drawn together by a distinctive form of worship, a particular kind of ministry, or a shared commitment to justice.
Throughout history, Christians have been inspired to try and live the lifestyle of the first apostles, as described in Acts 2: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:44-47)
It’s a really attractive picture: a simple life, without luxuries but making sure that everyone has what they need; eating together, praying together, caring for each other, modelling the generous love of God. But you don’t have to read much further into the book of Acts before the cracks start showing. Because living in true community with other people is really hard. If you’ve ever shared a house, you’ll know how difficult it can be; and for those who have made a promise to live this way for the rest of their lives, the fact that they’re trying to do it for good and Godly reasons doesn’t make it any easier!
Living in community confronts us with our own deep selfishness and self-absorption. It’s not easy to accept that other people’s needs are actually just as important as mine, and that I need to pay attention to them, even at my own expense.
Living well in community requires an honesty and openness which can be very challenging. Jesus kept reminding his disciples of that. They struggled with each other’s vanity, ambitions and failures – and with their own. Because community life is not a place to escape, but instead come face to face with yourself, and that isn’t always a pleasant experience.
But in an encounter with yourself and with others, you also come face to face with the reality that each of us is made in the image of God. Even the one who drives you crazy. Even you.
Actions and questions to consider when living in community:
Try eating a meal in silence round a table with a group of friends: no phones, electronic equipment or reading material allowed.
How do you make sure that everyone has something to eat and drink? How do you work out what they need?
What do you notice about each other’s mood? How do you create a feeling of being together when you can’t speak? If someone’s finding it hard, how might you acknowledge that without breaking the silence?
Written by Revd Rowan Williams, Anglican chaplain at the University of York. This post is adapted from a devotional Rowan wrote, which you can read here.