Since moving here one of the challenges that has sometimes been addressed to us is to question whether our firm convictions, and the centrality of importance we have given the prayer life of the community has limited our potential to be open to those of different or no faith. It is a question, interestingly enough, which I have most often heard from others who profess the same Christian faith I am aspiring to live through this experience.
At the most simple and practical level, we were invited to move here to establish an intentional, residential, Christian community, so the grounding of the community in Christian faith and values was never something which was up for debate. For me, to be grounded in faith is much less about following a set of rules or doctrines, and much more about finding space to open ourselves to the love and guidance of God: so to be a Christian community, the centrality of prayer had to be an unquestionable reality.
Equally, with a vocation to live in and serve the city it was clear that our ministry would bring us into contexts with people of all faiths and none and every spectrum of belief in between: it is part of the joy, excitement and challenge of city centre life and was also never in question. We have shared our table with people of different faiths and none, and our voluntary work has brought us into contact with those of many beliefs and cultures. In prayer too, we have been joined by those with theological positions vastly different to one another, with those of other faiths, and with those unsure about the very existence of God.
To explore this challenge a little further, though, it is, I think, a question which draws on a deeper societal context: one which holds both great promise and great danger for the church as well as for wider society, and on which it is well worth pausing to reflect.
I wonder whether, as the pendulum swings away from past intolerance and strict narrowly defined codes, we have strayed into a place where we have assumed that tolerance and understanding means standing for nothing; or perhaps more accurately not daring to admit to those things which are part of our fundamental beliefs and identity. Our very positive desire to be welcoming and inclusive has left us in danger of succumbing to the myth that “anything goes”. Our belief in universal freedom has left us so desperate to keep our options open that we have shied away from experiencing the true freedom of making a commitment. The most dangerous heresies are always those which are the closest to the truth.
It is true that as a community we hold strongly to our Christian identity. It is not something for which I feel the need to apologise. I don’t think holding tightly to a vocation to pray and be inspired by the love of God and being open and welcoming of those who do not believe in that same God have ever been mutually exclusive.
On the contrary, it is the experience of God’s unconditional love through prayer together which has given us the courage and confidence to turn outwards. Finding our hope in prayer doesn’t make us better than others, nor does it mean we do not have our own questions, struggles, doubts and difficulties; but it has inspired the vision and vocation to always look outwards beyond our core community, and be open and welcoming to others. Of course there is always room for improvement, but I think, both through our volunteering and our hospitality, it is something we have done reasonably well so far. Perhaps it is the security of knowing ourselves to be loved just as we are, found in the experience of God’s unconditional love, which has also allowed us to deepen relationships with others in all their diversity.
I know that this challenge, offered undoubtedly in love, grows out of a desire to embrace diversity, and welcome people as they are. It is a legitimate aspiration, and is, I think, one of the things Jesus did best. But Jesus found the strength for the ministry which took him out towards others in the firm foundation of a life of prayer and relationship with the Father. For us too then, like the Jesus we dare to try and follow, welcoming one another in mutual love never means forgetting, denying or hiding who we truly are.