What do you think of this as a definition of community? It comes, of course, from Wendell Berry, the doyen of thinkers when it comes to consideration of how to function as a community in the richest (and thus most localised) way imaginable:
By community, I mean the commonwealth of common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so….community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy and local nature.
A community cannot be made or preserved apart from the loyalty and affection if its members and the respect and goodwill of the people outside it….community life is by definition a life of cooperation and responsibility.
I think that we do need to, from time to time, “provoke one another to love and good works”, as the writer to Hebrews reminds us, and I think a provocation toward community is a necessity pretty much all the time, a vital block in the path towards our society becoming defined only in terms of what is private (and therefore off limits) and public (which by definition excludes relationship). Only a discussion of the role of community in public life gives us any chance at all of understanding the purpose of a life in relationship with others, and the purpose and impact of building such relationships.
In their important commentary on modern marriage, Roger Scruton and Phillip Blond argue, amongst other things, that modern married couples have turned their relationship and resulting family into a unit that is for themselves alone – swallowing the romantic ideal of love – rather than seeing it as a vital contributor to the stability of a local community. I really agree strongly with their argument, which in the paper is deployed against a redefinition of marriage in the light of the Conservative Party’s decision to legalise gay marriage.
As Berry says, community is, among other things “a set of arrangements between men and women (including) marriage, family structure, divisions of work and authority, and responsibility for the instruction of children and young people” (Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, p 120).
We may not resonate with these sentiments, but they point out a really important thing about communities – that they are volitional. Burley Coulter, one of the central characters of Berry’s writing about the fictional Port William, Kentucky, talks about the “Port William membership”. It is vital, Berry argues through Burley, that a commitment to people and place go hand in hand, and that good work, affection and the desire to cooperate lies at the heart of whatever is built.
This is a big challenge for those of us who are living in long-dysfuntional communities. Churches in Milton Keynes, no less than geographic locations in a city, struggle to build any sense of community at all. People long for something vaguely remembered from the past, but in truth, there is little to share because we produce so little in terms of household arts or economy. Gardens in MK are not tiny, yet people choose to buy from supermarkets rather than produce anything themselves. There are no traditions of preserving and bottling, outside the limitations of jam-making. There is little to meet around because our music and entertainment is canned, and has been for nearly two generations. Our culture is no longer unique, but decided by TV executives and the moguls behind record companies. There is an idea of a “public” in Britain, but very little culture that is in any way unique to an area. Meeting for meals, meeting together in neighbourhoods – very little of that is left in the UK, and in a city like ours, where people come from a wide variety of backgrounds, it is difficult to imagine what such a “community” might look like.
Berry writes that “if you destroy the economies of household and community, then you destroy the bonds of usefulness and practical dependence without which the other bonds will not hold” (p 125). Why would you be linked to people who are your neighbours if you never think of borrowing sugar from them, or asking to borrow a lawnmower, or share in clearing up your neighbourhood? Unless we are actually productive people, engaged in the arts, in good work, or in the household produce of garden or kitchen, we are unlikely, in our leave-the-home-to-go-to-work culture, to meet our neighbours in any meaningful way.
I write this as a challenge to myself and to those of us at Christ the Sower who are trying to work with the people around us who one day may form community. Maybe, it is not too fanciful to hope, our own volition, desire and intent will lead to our being at the heart of whatever this community seeks to build. It may take a while, and it may take a level of crisis before anything is formed. Traditionally strong communities often are rooted in ethnicity or in work patterns where most of the workers may have belonged to one or two interrelated industries. Building one that we actually would like to be multi-ethnic, multi-religious and serving all who live here might be desirable, but Berry’s early definition of “common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so” will take an act of collective will by people with enough sense of purpose to make it work, and the time (time above all) to see it to fruition. As Berry writes elsewhere (Sabbath Poems, 1979, x):
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.