Simon and I did a talk at Greenbelt festival about community, based on some of our experiences in Aoradh. We spoke a lot about the challenge, the exposure and the pain of community- how it was impossible to move closer to one another without also being wounded, hurt and (hopefully) changed.
If I were to pick one man to discuss this with in more detail, it would be John Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities. He speaks and writes with such gentle integrity about his own experience of being broken. I was reminded of this recently when reading a short review of one of Vanier’s books From Brokenness to Community.
When we follow Jesus, writes Vanier, we are called to reject certain aspects of the world. We accept loss of wealth and status and comfort. We embrace downward mobility and climb back down the world’s ladder of success. This process can begin when we discover our mutual brokenness. We acknowledge our poverty and then we understand what it means that Jesus came to serve the poor. We recognize our infirmity and then we discover God doesn’t work primarily through those who think they are well, but through those who know they are sick. All this happens in the context of community—a place of pain and trial, but also reconciliation and celebration. Community is where the ego goes to die, and in its place we find resurrection, communion, and even salvation.
Here is Vanier himself talking about the same things;
It is worth watching some of the rest of the clips in this series. There is a deep sigh in me when I hear him speak about love and community and the possibilities of finding our being as we give it away in love of others. I know these things to be true.
I also know them to be elusive. I know them to be things that can not be grasped or owned- they are not aspirational as one might seek promotion or personal fulfilment- they are rather discovered in the shit of our own failure.
May we find the place of becoming, not because enlightenment is something we can conquer, like some spiritual Everest, but more because this is the only honest and hopeful thing possible when faced with the brokenness in me, and also glimpsed in others.
We had a lovely Aoradh gathering today. The kids planned their own worship service, around the theme of food (food in the bible, being grateful, being more fruitful) then- well we ate of course!
Sharon had made a cake, which we all wrote our names on in icing, then we ate that too.
Lots of our young people are in transition. Two of them away to university, one to college, others to new schools or new exam years. We decided to give them all an envelope full of things each adult had written to each child.
A good cake takes care.
All those lovely ingredients gathered and mixed and moulded.
Bowls licked clean.
Oven warmed and ready to raise and brown.
So it is with you my girl. All the lovely parts of you are in the mix. God is stirring them up, and the oven is warm.
You will feed many with rich lovely things.
You will feed many with love.
I am half man, half compost- as will be most attendees of this year’s Greenbelt festival.
This is partly the highly digestive social-spiritual mulch that Greenbelt always is, but also down to more corporeal matters;
I live in a place famous for rain sweeping in from the sea and using us as blotting paper, but the rain that fell on the festival on Saturday was something else. Half the site was flooded and thirty thousand feet mixed anything not tarmac to gloop. The less stoical left, but the rest of us had more room to skirt the deepest mire and enjoy still some fantastic music, conversation, art and poetry.
Highlights for me;
Social- meeting up with friends from Lancashire, from Wales, from London, from Leeds etc. Sharing many a cup of tea and catching up with lives lived at a distance.
Spiritual- I managed to miss all the well known speakers like Tony Campolo, Tom Wright. I enjoyed Dave Tomlinson talking about a being a Bad Christian. Jonny Baker was really good on ‘A different world is possible’ too. I also loved being in the old Cathedral for the pre festival feast hosted by Feig (thanks guys!)
Musical- Bruce Cockburn– my guru for decades – was like a comfortable woolly jumper on a dark night. I knew every song, and most words too. Phantom Limb (Country, R and B, Eagles-like harmonies) blew me away. Then there was the folk fest on the last day- dancing in the mud to the Imagined Village (simply brilliant) and the wacky theatricality of Bellowhead. Martin Joseph reduced me to tears with one song.
Art- LOVED Si Smith’s new work on the book of Job.
Aoradh’s contribution to the festival was characterised by technology issues! Our sculpture/soundscape installation became, well, just sculptures as the ultrasonic speakers failed to deliver what they promised. They still looked great though. As the weekend unfolded the ground beneath them turned to deep oozing brown sucking mud, but they remained defiant and proud.
Our talk/discussion entitled ‘Don’t do it like us, making real community in small towns and ordinary places’ was very well attended, and we were bombarded with questions. The power failed for half of it so we had to shout!
Another great festival, that somehow, despite the long distances and the conditions, has nurtured and encouraged me.
Now, need to get down to DIY!
We are doing some work for installations to be used at Greenbelt festival– a combination of sculptural pieces and soundscapes/poetry. It is so lovely to be actually producing something- much of our work of late has been of the mental/community building kind.
There is an interesting old discussion which has at times been quite heated in Aoradh– what comes first, the task or the community? One of my friends actually left because he found the community bit too ambling and directionless- he wanted to get busy and use time efficiently. The business of community is rarely efficient. However, community for the sake of our selves, with no reaching out, no service, no connection- this would be a pointless thing, and certainly not a Jesus-like thing.
This years GB theme is ‘Saving Paradise’ and our part of contribution involves three pieces, representing sea, forest and river. We will use this in conjunction with soundscapes made in wilderness locations, along with poetry. These will be projected using ultrasonic speakers, which is a bit of tech that I am looking forward to playing with.
The sculptures are a bit trial and error, but here is the work so far- firstly the ‘Sea’ piece, which will have ‘sails’ attached;
Then there is the work that Pauline has done in designing some ‘flowers’ that will be attached to another piece of wood to represent ‘forest’. They look great- better than I had imagined they could be. Here is the prototype along with William for scale;
I am in a strange place at the moment- all about transition. The ending of one thing and the step into an uncertain other. It is on the whole a good place, but not without it’s physical and psychological challenge. I have less than two weeks left in my current job (perhaps even my current career) and then I plunge into a time of relative free fall.
There is a plan of sorts- I will have some redundancy money that will keep us going for a little while and allow me to invest in alterations to the house. We hope to have two double rooms available for holiday letting/bed and breakfast by the end of the summer, which (along with our self catering accommodation) will allow us to make some kind of a living through hospitality. Our real hope is that we can start to offer a combination of activities around the old house- retreat weekends, pottery courses, outdoor activities etc. (We have a FB page and a website if you are interested to see where things are up to at present.)
I also hope that I get some time to spend writing. It is perhaps what I love to do most- a private secret thing that may well have no external application, but if I do not give some serious effort towards, will be a source of regret.
Then there is social work- I am not entirely sure I am done with it. I hope that in the process of stepping off the tread mill I might rediscover some of the passion and idealism that made me a social worker in the first place. I will probably need to do some part time work too.
On Sunday, during our Aoradh family worship day, Andy spoke about slavery. He described the context of slavery in the time of Jesus- people born into slavery, captured there in war, or selling themselves into slavery in order to cope with life or debt. Andy made the comparison with our relationship to money in our age- which (given what I have said above) clearly resonated with me.
We are all caught up in things that hold us, for good or ill. Some of this we fell into out of the womb, some caught us through circumstance, yet others we willingly tie ourselves to. Often it seems that these things become bigger than us- they offer us no choices, no release; we become slaves.
There is this other word however, which we have heard rather a lot of over this year in the UK- Jubilee.
I am not talking about elaborate celebrations of the anniversaries of monarchs, but as Wikipedia puts it;
The Jubilee (Hebrew yovel יובל) year is the year at the end of seven cycles of shmita (Sabbatical years), and according to Biblical regulations had a special impact on the ownership and management of land in the Land of Israel; there is some debate whether it was the 49th year (the last year of seven sabbatical cycles, referred to as the Sabbath’s Sabbath), or whether it was the following (50th) year.“This fiftieth year is sacred—it is a time of freedom and of celebration when everyone will receive back their original property, and slaves will return home to their families. “
I have been thinking about leadership again of late. This is in part because the group I belong to Aoradh has had to tackle some thorny issues without a ‘leader’ as such recently and we are not part of a wider network from which external advise/encouragement might be sought.
The way Aoradh has stumbled upon doing leadership is something like this;
- We started out very task centred – we were promoting a festival – for which an organising committee was more than enough. We asked one of our members to take leadership of this committee, as we were a disparate group and there was a need for clear communication with media/professional clergy/local authorities.
- There was a process of chaotic competition of ideas and principles concerning what we were about. Some people left, and the ones left were mostly in the process of considerable change- and this was reflected in what Aoradh was becoming. The group was small enough not to need ‘a leader’ and there was general resistance to formality and structure.
- Aoradh progressed from task focus towards an increasing community focus. More people joined, some left. There was a real sense of freedom to do things differently, which was highly valued in particular with people who had been part of hierarchical and even oppressive church structures. Because of this, despite a general feeling that leadership was an issue, we just decided to defer it.
- So we entered a period in which leadership was mitigated according to specific tasks or events. We met regularly to decide business collectively, and different people either took or were asked to take leadership for specific things. For example, Michaela is a natural organiser, so tends to circulate dates, and keep us on track. I am a dreamer, so always have my eyes on the next thing, the coming horizon. Andy is practical and technical and so will always want to roll his sleeves up etc etc. And for the most part, it works with very little conflict, and only a little confusion.
- There are of course different levels of comfort with this process however. It can be messy and frustrating, particularly for those more structurally-minded. The best we can say now is that leadership is still a work in progress.
Along the way I have found some ideas useful to inform our debate;
Jonny described a similar process as ours that Grace went through. They too decided to ‘defer’ the leadership question- and did so for years it seems. Eventually however, a structure did emerge in the form of a leadership group that rotated annually, and had the task of ensuring that the principles of the Grace were upheld and protected.
The common table
I read an article by Mark Stavlund, who is part of a community called ‘The common table‘, describing a kind of process that he called ‘negative space’. I wrote about this here. Mark describes a process of leadership in small groups that very much fits our current model.
There is an old idea about leaderlessness based around the idea of a starfish. If you cut off any limb of a starfish, it can operate independently. It has a separate nervous system. Translated to a small group of idividuals this might suggest that a group of people can connect together without formal leadership, and indeed, like the starfish, flourish without a head because all of its limbs are independent from the control of a central nervous system. Cut off a limb and it survives.
And it is quite a big however.
Back in 1970, American feminist activist Jo Freeman wrote a paper called The Tyranny of Structureless Groups. It seems that each new generation of activism makes similar mistakes around leadership. A couple of quotes might illustrate the point;
…The term ‘structureless’ group is as useful and as deceptive, as to aim at an ‘objective’ news story, ‘value-free’ social science or a ‘free’ economy. A ‘laissez-faire’ group is about as realistic as a ‘laissez faire’ soc iety; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can easily be established because the idea of ‘structurelessness’ does not prevent the formation of informal structures, but only formal ones…
…Thus ‘structurelessness’ becomes a way of masking power, and within the women’s movement it is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). The rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is curtailed by those who know the rules, as long as the structure of the group is informal. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware…
A group without a leader can easily become a group in which leadership takes place in dishonest, even underhand ways. Just to say that decisions are taken in common does not mean that actually happens. It does not mean that everyone is encouraged to participate, or facilitated to use their own skills talents and abilities.
There is a difference then between not having a leader, and not having a structure through which leadership functions are mitigated.
For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit. The rules of decision-making must be openand available to everyone, and this can only happen if they are formalised. This is not to say that normalisation of a group structure will destroy the informal structure. It usually doesn’t. But it does hinder the informal structure from having predominant control and makes available some means ofattacking it.
Which brings us back to leadership.
Small groups like ours should really be measured by the degree to which we hold, serve, love, encourage, facilitate. The kind of leadership that might achieve this will be of a very different nature to that of a factory or a political party (even if we might need to use some of theses skills too at times.) I think that the best fit for small missional groups is a kind of leadership that seeks to make creative nurturing space, and to keep it safe.
This will include making a space to make inclusive and safe decisions. Deciding how to do this well is an essential developmental step, and (if you are anything like us) will need to be constantly revisited.
It is possible to achieve this without a ‘leader’, but not without ‘leadership’.
The Christian group that I am part of, Aoradh, is now about 7 years old.
We are due to speak at Greenbelt Festival this year about our experience in a session entitled ‘Don’t do it like us; making community in uncool places’. Despite the faux-humble tone of our title, it still feels very bombastic to be speaking about Aoradh in such declarative fashion.
Planning what we will say does start to focus the mind on what we hold precious however, and also brings to light those rather tender areas of our small group where there are wounds and vulnerabilities. We have had a little reminder of this recently- issues that flare and fester for a while, which can be very painful. They can also be the end of small groups based essentially on friendship and shared passion; there have been several points over the years at which Aoradh could have ended.
Despite the pain of this, I have come to see these tensions as above all- normal, inevitable.
The deep friendships that we value so highly within our community will always mean a suspension of defences, and perhaps a tendency to reveal some of our less attractive personality traits which pop out under pressure.
Then there are all the group processes that you have to work out; leadership, facilitation, communication, agreeing principles, organising your business, looking after those who are on the edge. I confess to avoiding some of the theory of how all of this works- there is of course a whole industry looking at group dynamics. The idiosyncrat in me wants to flee from the regimented check list nature of this kind of thing.
But we can always learn from the experience of others- that is why we are doing the Greenbelt talk/discussion session after all.
A few years ago I read a couple of M Scott Peck’s books, including the surprisingly wonderful ‘A different Drum; community making and peace’. Surprisingly because I read it reluctantly- I had pegged it as new-age-psychobabble-pop psychology-nonsense. What Peck does though is to give a passionate analysis of the group as the highest form of what we humans are. He describes community building like this;
- Pseudocommunity: In the first stage, well-intentioned people try to demonstrate their ability to be friendly and sociable, but they do not really delve beneath the surface of each other’s ideas or emotions. They use obvious generalities and mutually-established stereotypes in speech. Instead of conflict resolution, pseudocommunity involves conflict avoidance, which maintains the appearance or facade of true community. It also serves only to maintain positive emotions, instead of creating safe space for honesty and love through bad emotions as well. While they still remain in this phase, members will never really obtain evolution or change, as individuals or as a bunch.
- Chaos: The first step towards real positivity is, paradoxically, a period of negativity. Once the mutually-sustained facade is shed, negative emotions flood through: Members start to vent their mutual frustrations, annoyances, and differences. It is a chaotic stage but Peck describes it as a “beautiful chaos” because it is a sign of healthy growth. I would add that many groups do not survive this stage, and at least, many people will leave.
- Emptiness: In order to transcend the stage of “Chaos”, people are forced to communicate. Things that get in the way of communication are forced aside, or at least forced out into the open- need for power and control, self-superiority, and other similar motives which are only mechanisms of self-validation and/or ego-protection, must yield to empathy, openness to vulnerability, attention, and trust. Hence this stage does not mean people should be “empty” of thoughts, desires, ideas or opinions. Rather, it refers to emptiness of all mental and emotional distortions which reduce one’s ability to really share, listen to, and build on those thoughts, ideas, etc. It is often the hardest step in the four-level process, as it necessitates the release of patterns which people develop over time in a subconscious attempt to maintain self-worth and positive emotion. For Peck, it should be viewed not merely as a “death” but as a rebirth — of one’s true self at the individual level, and at the social level of the genuine and true Community.
- True community: Having worked through emptiness, the people in the community enter a place of complete empathy with one another. There is a great level of tacit understanding. People are able to relate to each other’s feelings. Discussions, even when heated, never get sour, and motives are not questioned. A deeper and more sustainable level of happiness obtains between the members, which does not have to be forced. Even and perhaps especially when conflicts arise, it is understood that they are part of positive change.
Any of you who are frustrated in organised church (as I have been) will recognise immediately the fact that most churches are pseudocommunities. All that politeness and veneer of respectability. Any conflict is immediately suppressed by the paid leaders, and it is possible to be entirely anonymous and disengaged in these places. To be fair there are many that like it this way, but to me it was a kind of death.
Has Aoradh achieved Pecks kind of true community? Sometimes I would say yes, other times emphatically no. Because I am not sure that the formation of community is actually a LINEAR process like this. Circumstances change, different people join the group then leave. Rather community is something that ebbs and flows, sometimes becoming constrictive and even boring, at other times full of creative energy and passion.
Peck also wrote of list of what he saw as characteristics of true community. These I like more, as they are less mechanistic and more inspirational;
- Inclusivity, commitment and consensus: Members accept and embrace each other, celebrating their individuality and transcending their differences. They commit themselves to the effort and the people involved. They make decisions and reconcile their differences through consensus.
- Realism: Members bring together multiple perspectives to better understand the whole context of the situation. Decisions are more well-rounded and humble, rather than one-sided and arrogant.
- Contemplation: Members examine themselves. They are individually and collectively self-aware of the world outside themselves, the world inside themselves, and the relationship between the two.
- A safe place: Members allow others to share their vulnerability, heal themselves, and express who they truly are.
- A laboratory for personal disarmament: Members experientially discover the rules for peacemaking and embrace its virtues. They feel and express compassion and respect for each other as fellow human beings.
- A group that can fight gracefully: Members resolve conflicts with wisdom and grace. They listen and understand, respect each others’ gifts, accept each others’ limitations, celebrate their differences, bind each others’ wounds, and commit to a struggle together rather than against each other.
- A group of all leaders: Members harness the “flow of leadership” to make decisions and set a course of action. It is the spirit of community itself that leads and not any single individual.
- A spirit: The true spirit of community is the spirit of peace, love, wisdom and power. Members may view the source of this spirit as an outgrowth of the collective self or as the manifestation of a Higher Will.
Is this Aoradh? My heart says YES.
My experience says it is the best of what we are, but it is not all that we are.
However, this too is normal. If we are moving towards the light through many dappled shades of darkness, then why would we not expect the same from ourselves in the collective? What Peck remind me of however, is that our groups have the capacity not to be just the sum of the parts within them– they are far more than just a gathering of individuals in one place. Rather they are the place of becoming.
They are not places where conflict is tolerated and excused as somehow ‘developmental’, rather places where conflict is understood and wounds are healed. It is a major distinction.
The writer of the Psalm 133 understood this.
1 How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!
We have just been here;
Along with some friends, we spent the long weekend camping on the Ross of Mull, overlooking Iona- which is the most beautiful place I have ever been to.
And here is the evidence;
We walked a lot, swam, ate, cooked bread and baked spuds in makeshift ovens made of sand and driftwood fires.
Whilst there we heard of the mother of one of us having become seriously ill in hospital. The distance and ferries stopped any rush to her bedside- all that was possible was to stay and pray. To sit in such beauty with such a burden must have been an incredible rush of emotions- but it felt as though the place, and our community, was holding us.
We are delayed only by our hearts beating.
And each one beats with all the treasure of the universe.
We are back after a wonderful few days out in the wild.
This year the Aoradh wilderness trip did not venture out to one of the islands- a few people dropped out and so the boat charter would have just been too expensive. We decided that we would stay more local, so I scouted out a location half way up one of our lovely lochs- Loch Striven. Five of us walked/canoed in from the road end and spent two days and nights in silence, in community and preparing lavish outdoor meals.
This time we managed to bake bread in a biscuit tin oven, bake potatoes and apples, cook mussels harvested from the shore in front of the tent, and spend hours sitting round the campfire talking and laughing.
Even though the weather was mostly lovely it was unusually cold, which was a shame as I took advantage of the trees to use my camping hammock/tarp set up- which turned out to be rather chilly.
This trip was very different to our other wilderness retreats but still really great- it made us appreciate again the wild places right on our doorstep here in Argyll. We also wondered whether it might be a chance to offer people short taster sessions of what wilderness and spirituality together can offer.
I also got to do some canoeing too, for the first time for a while. Andy and I clocked up around 18 miles of paddling. In the process of which we saw seals, porpoise and countless sea birds. Today we canoed to the head of the Loch and Michaela came to collect us. Lovely!