Last month, we held a really interesting Bishop of Kensington’s Community Ministry meeting at the impressively renewed St Andrew Fulham Fields. These meetings, held across the episcopal Areas, are principally an opportunity to make connections between those engaged in community ministry and to share good practice. One of the questions raised from time to time is this issue of retaining Christian distinctiveness as church members engage in/develop community projects.
For me the distinctiveness of our Christian identity comes from our eucharistic worship. In response to Jesus’ command, recorded in the first three gospels, we remember him in the shared meal. Strengthened by this sacramental sharing we respond to the command recorded after the foot washing in the fourth gospel to ‘Go and do likewise’. ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ and ‘Go and do likewise’ are very close in meaning and should be the two halves of our response to the gospel – worship and service:
‘One well known saying in the church states: the eucharist makes the church and the church makes the eucharist. We could easily say the washing of feet makes the church and the church makes the washing of feet. The question is not to separate these two memories, both are important and linked. They recall Jesus’ teachings and his life of service. To do that is to recall the presence of Jesus. We must avoid forgetting either one of these two memories because if we do, we lose both. We do not recall half; we lose both if we forget one of them’. Gustavo Gutierrez – A Theology for Today – CAFOD lecture, London 2005.
So how should this distinctiveness be visible in our community ministry?
I would expect to find a preferential option for the poor. This phrase is almost guaranteed to be misunderstood in wealthier parts of the diocese and viewed with the same suspicion that the Vatican has for its expression in central and south America…….is there no good news for the wealthy.….does God only love the poor? The love of God is universal to poor and non poor alike, but we would not be doing justice to the memory of Jesus if we did not point to his special concern for the marginalised, so the challenge to all of us is ‘how is this fulfilled in your parish?’ Is your local response determined by an awareness of how your community is changing, which groups now have the greatest need following the cuts to services, and what new opportunities for mission and ministry these changes bring? Do you have room for a mental health support group, a food bank, debt counselling…..are you part of a winter night shelter project?
Commitment 4 of the London Challenge 2012 underlines our determination to serve the poor and vulnerable, but how will this be updated in the new Capital Vision 2020, in a city which is increasingly impacted by inequality. If the poor really are our teachers, what do we hear them saying. We are not called to be the voice of the voiceless, the poor have their own voice, we must help to make it heard. For me,this is the heart of the gospel and this is where true Christian distinctiveness is found when we enable the marginalised to regain their self belief and sense of self worth through the contribution that they make to their own communities. When a parish church becomes a welcoming community hub that enables this healing process by encouraging church members to be volunteers, perhaps initially making no charge so that a support groups can form, then this is truly distinctive.