Amongst the many fascinating things which are said about St Francis of Assisi is that he deliberately located the Franciscan Order “at the edge of the inside.”
I love that description, picked up from reading Richard Rohr. It recognises that a Church at the Margins nonetheless remains part of the wider Church. It also recognises that the change (and transformation) which happens at the edge is different from that which occurs at the centre. I would suggest also that is is deeper and more insightful.
As I have thought about Signs @ the Margins, I have struggled to write anything down. There are several possible reasons for this.
In an environment where everything is changing, nothing stands still for long enough to turn from fleeting thoughts to recordable words. This is a task which is provisional by its very nature.
In addition, I am missing the people who shape my thinking and my living. Yes, I am keeping in touch with a number, but it isn’t the same as physical presence. I tend to be a gatherer of stories rather than a thinker of deep thoughts.
With those things in mind I am, nonetheless, going to give it a bit of a go, offering a few thoughts about what we are learning from the margins. In even the language of marginality it should be clear, that I believe that the margins are never marginal but foundational.
I want to locate these thoughts which have largely been a framework for my understanding of the calling of the Church for 20 years, but which have been adapted (and are adapting rapidly) of late.
In Celtic spirituality, the Trinity is depicted in an interwoven knot of ongoing inter-relatedness and, in the same way, I think we can see three essential characteristics of the Church anywhere but particularly of the Church “at the edge of the inside.”
The first part of this triptych is about models of Christian community. We are about models of worshipping, faith-growing, faith-inspiring, faith-encouraging community. And right now, community is incredibly hard. Digital exclusion is like a knife cutting through our attempts to be together. Even where worship is possible in a virtual community, it seems to favour those who prefer performance to community and one-man (and it is normally a man) in broadcast mode.
Yet I am also hearing some interesting models which are also emerging: WhatsApp groups are much more democratic. Prayer is more easily talked about as the people’s work. The seperation between inside and outside is disappearing as worship is being recorded more often in the open air.
I’ve heard of churches which, during Lent thought deeply about hand washing, on Easter Sunday reflected on Jesus coming in to a locked room where frightened people were hiding, of Slow Easter, and of plans for Stations of the Resurrection to be celebrated at Pentecost.
The second part is about models of community life and making our neighbourhoods look a bit more like heaven. Right now, that is tough going. If you are on your own, you may not have had a hug from anyone for months. Nearly all of us will know someone who has died or a family whose life has not been rent asunder. Yes, we can pretend that its wonderful to see nature taking back control – and it is – but most of the people that we spend our time with weren’t the people polluting the air or over-heating our climate.
I don’t want, however, to be overwhelmingly negative for here too are signs of a life. I hear stories of people who have been cared for liked never before, who feel more fully a part of their community than they have for a very long time. Of people speaking more to their neighbours than they did in the past. As a family we live in a tenement building on the southside of Glasgow. We’ve spoken more to some of our neighbours over the last few months than we have for years, partly because we’re all here.
Nonetheless, one of my anxieties is that we are operating in emergency mode and that unless we are careful, such a model quickly becomes embedded. I’m involved with Christian Aid who remind me that even at a time of humanitarian catastrophe unless you are deliberately involving those who are struggling, you create a dependency of which, quickly, you become the primary benefactor. I am on the lookout for those bits of work that are emerging where those who are struggling are the primary actors, or whose wisdom is central.
Thirdly, and finally, these days have exposed the failings of the prevailing order and of institutions operating within it. We see, for example, what chronic underfunding has done to our social care sector and “just in time” food supply chains have meant in terms of our supermarket shelves. We have also seen the abject failure of global leaders to come together to tackle a global crisis as nationalism, political populism and neoliberalism create and reinforce division.
I suspect, in large measure, these days have also highlighted the failings of institutional religion. I was listening to something recently that suggested that the Black Death in the 14th century in many ways demonstrated the irrelevance of the Church and paved the way for the Reformation.
However, that is not my primary concern. My concern is rather that even amongst those speaking out loudly that we need to “build back better” and that somewhat crassly, every crisis is also an opportunity, the experiences of people who know the struggles from the inside seem to be largely absent. I am not minimising the immense challenge here, more acute than ever, but I really don’t believe that we will make the difference that many of us yearn for if the calls for a better way are largely spoken by those whose voices we have heard before.
These three elements – new models of church, new models of community and new models of society – are not separate or distinct. They interconnect with one another and for me embody the call of the Church at the Margins in any age but very specifically in this one.
A version of this ‘reflection’ was first offered in an event hosted by Church Action on Poverty on 8th May 2020 looking at what it means to be a ‘church at the margins’ during the COVID19 pandemic. (www.church-poverty.org.uk)