Churches Connect Communities

Published: Friday, November 1, 2013


Paul Bickley and Nick Spencer from Theos celebrate the place of churches in the public realm

The Inuit have lots of words for snow, but we only have one. Likewise, we use one word – church – to signify a variety of different things. ‘Going to church’ might mean membership of an organisation, participating in a specific act of worship or simply going into a church building.

When we meet the word ‘church’ in English translations of the Bible, it is in fact being used in place of the Greek ekklesia – the same word that ancient translators of the Hebrew Bible into Greek used to refer to ‘the assembly of God’. It was not until the third century that the word kyriakon was used of buildings – literally, houses of the Lord. It is the latter which provides the etymological root for the contemporary English word church. Theologically, though, the ekklesia meaning is vital, and no ‘church’ worth the name would pass up the opportunity to say so.

The role of buildings

Partly as a reaction to the way in which churches have been perceived to be too wedded to clubbish gatherings of the ageing faithful (“the sacrament of coffee and walnut cake”, as Alan Bennett so rudely puts it) inside buildings which are not particularly open to the public, there has been a diminution of the role of buildings in the ministry of churches. They are seen as blunting mission by locking people into the interminable battle of maintaining the proverbial church roof.

It almost goes without saying, church buildings are rarely purpose built modern facilities which obviously serve the immediate needs of the congregation or the community. They can be over a thousand years old or – perhaps even more awkwardly – 40 of 50 years old, and coming to the end of their intended life span. They can be burdensome.

Yet mission and ministry of churches are closely bound up with their physical presence in a community. For the Church of England in particular, their building, ministers and their congregations are located within the community they are intended to serve. There is a paradox: a good building, creatively used, can act as a real catalyst for significant impact in the community. A building requiring massive amounts of attention and maintenance can equally become a catalyst for a lack of impact and engagement. 

When it is working well and being managed imaginatively, a building can provide a community with significant public space. Civil society organisations, such as the Girl Guides, the Scouts, amateur dramatic groups, or the Women’s Institute will use (and shape) that space. 

But beyond serving as a simple venue for hire, churches can deploy their space in ways that create association, connecting different parts of a community together. In areas of high deprivation, community space – and the nature of the community space – is really significant. In one area we visited, the neighbourhood policing team had been struggling to create a sense of trust and connection with local residents. Drop-in sessions were organised, but poorly attended. They had more luck when they made themselves available at a church run community café – a place where residents felt far less vulnerable, and a space which belonged to them. 

A ministry of hospitality

Similarly, in a research project that Theos and the Grubb Institute conducted for the Association of English Cathedrals over 2011-12 we found that these institutions managed to combine all these factors – though by no means, as the phrase usually goes on to say, effortlessly. They were places of hospitality, where different groups that shared the same physical and social space in the locality but which otherwise rarely interacted, could come together. As such, they built up what sociologists call ‘bridging social capital’, those relationships between disparate groups within a community.

They were places of memory, in which individual, community and national narratives were preserved and retold, in such a way as to foster a sense of identity, belonging, and security.

And they were understood and appreciated as Christian institutions. This was particularly significant for an age that celebrates – but is often vexed by – both individualism and diversity, and also contends that the public square should be neutral with regard to value and identity. Cathedrals not only discharged a ministry of authentic hospitality but did so as Christian institutions.

On a more humble and more local level, this is precisely what the parish church does at its best: a building that is simultaneously Christian – in foundation, purpose and practice – and public – open and accessible, even feeling as if it belongs to, a more plural and more secular community.

Simultaneity of this kind is messy and problematic, as those who work in and around parish churches and cathedrals like will testify. But – again, at its best – this is where and how the kyriakon, or house of the Lord meets the ekklesia,or assembly of God, and offers a foretaste, however faint, of the kingdom of God.