Saturday, 23 November 2013

On being a recovering hypocrite

I've been feeling a bit of a fraud recently.

On one side of this particularly uncomfortable coin are some real causes for celebration. (I would say 'pride', but that would be to give the game away too quickly, and probably - hopefully - to judge myself a little too harshly, which is at least sometimes a temptation I find myself falling into. So let's stick with 'celebration' for the moment...) The fact that the values, principles and practices of asset-based approaches to community-building (ABCD for short) have found their way to the agenda of the Church Urban Fund (a 'toolkit' for churches, in development) and, via a barn-storming speech from the Archbishop of York this week, the Church of England's General Synod, is something that I'm delighted about. That some of the stories of our accidental adoption of an ABCD approach here in Hodge Hill have made their way into these 'official' public domains - such as the story of our fabulous 'Unsung Heroes' event of March 2012 - is really encouraging for us here (and, yes, if I am proud of anything, then I'm certainly proud of the visionary, energetic, passionate, committed people that I live among and work alongside in these neighbourhoods, and within Hodge Hill Church's 'extended family'). And to lead a couple of workshops on ABCD at the CUF annual conference a couple of weeks ago, both fully booked, both full of energised, enthusiastic people saying 'yes, this makes sense', 'yes, we're doing this', 'yes, let's start connecting', and the like... well, that's given me real hope that we might just be onto something, and that there's energy for a real movement within church communities for this kind of approach - just as there obviously is in all kinds of other institutions, networks, and neighbourhoods, where our friends at Nurture Development, Barnwood Trust and others have already for some time been working hard and seeing all kinds of encouraging fruit.

But still I feel a bit of a fraud. And I think it's for a couple of reasons.

One reason is that (in the words of a wonderful story that I have both heard told and told myself a number of times now) when I've talked to people about the ABCD stuff, I've been really aware that "I'm not going to tell you anything you don't already know." On a very important level, it's not rocket science. Starting with what people and neighbourhoods and communities have, instead of with what they lack, is not a complex idea. It's actually very easy to explain, and to get hold of. And to many, many people, it is simply common sense.

Another reason for my fraudulent feelings is slightly more complex and subtle. And that's the reality that, at least here in Hodge Hill, our 'putting into practice' of an ABCD approach has had its ups and downs, its stumbles and falterings; we've got it wrong as much as we've got it 'right'; it has taken large amounts of time and patience; and the 'big idea' has often been evidenced in very small-scale practical 'successes'. The various exciting things that we're able to say that we're doing here and now are, without exception I think, all quite fragile. There has, as yet, been no dramatic, widespread 'revolution' here. At best, there are some people - a very slowly growing number of people - who are able to tell a different story about their neighbourhood, about their church, and at least sometimes about themselves.

There is a bigger, deeper reason underneath both of these, though...

I recently bought a book which quite grandly entitles itself as 'The Intentional Christian Community Handbook'. I tend to be rather wary of anything that proclaims to be 'The... Handbook'. The thing that redeemed this book, at least as far as its cover went, was the subtitle: 'For Idealists, Hypocrites, and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus'. That works a lot better for me. I can recognise in myself an Idealist, a Hypocrite, and a Wannabe: a Wannabe disciple of Jesus; and a Wannabe asset-based community builder.

The thing about the asset-based stuff is that, while on the one hand it is 'common sense', our 'common sense' as a society, as institutions, as neighbourhoods, as individuals, has all too often been co-opted, distorted, marginalised, in the interests of what I've begun to call (with shades of Old Testament prophet frustration) the 'idolatries' of money and of 'service-provision systems'. We have bought into the 'big lies' that money is the thing that, more than anything else, determines what is of value and what isn't, and that, more than anything else, enables us to achieve what we most desire - when, in fact, the things that are of most value, and that we desire most of all - love, friendship, community, for example - can't be achieved with money at all. We have bought into the 'big lie' that the things that we most need are best provided by comprehensive systems - and that the way we should relate to those systems is as 'clients', 'customers', or 'consumers'. We have allowed ourselves to be convinced that what we most need for our safety and security is police; that what we most need for our health and wellbeing is doctors; that what we most need for our children to learn and grow and flourish is schools; that what we most need in our ageing and dying is care homes...

Now I realise I'm treading on dangerous territory - that I risk being misunderstood as, or coopted into, advocating the 'austerity agenda' of our present coalition government: that we can't afford to sustain these creakingly ineffective public service machines and we'd be much better off just letting the market provide us with what we want, and letting the 'Big Society' get on with doing its job without the interfering State getting in the way. Please don't misunderstand me. I don't believe the current regime has the best interests of people in neighbourhoods like mine at its heart at all, but the best interests of the companies that will make vast profits from taking over what were once 'public services' and offering those services to those who can afford them, and can afford the luxury - or at least the imagined luxury - of 'choice'. I don't believe that the 'Big Society' will suddenly spring up in neighbourhoods like mine, while the ever-shrinking, asset-stripping State disinvests in them, and allows our once 'common wealth' constantly to 'trickle up' towards the '1%' of the country's super-rich and super-powerful.

But I do think we need weaning off our addictions. We need to rediscover our vast 'common wealth' as truly common, but we need weaning off our addiction to believing money on its own is 'the answer' to any question, when the answer is almost always love, care, friendship and community. And likewise, we - 'professionals' and 'clients' alike - need weaning off our addiction to the kind of 'service provision' that defines people in terms of their lacks, deficiencies, needs and pathologies; that isolates them from each other and from their networks and communities; that creates and sustains dependencies on 'experts' and 'systems' that, in turn, need a steady stream of the 'needy' to justify and sustain their own existence - that have to position themselves as 'the answer' to questions they themselves have defined, when, again, the answer is almost always love, care, friendship and community.

So my own feeling of being a fraud goes deeper, I think. I am not only a fraud and a hypocrite, but also a recovering addict. If I'm keen to be part of growing a movement around asset-based values, principles and practices, then I think what I'm discovering is that we're a movement of recovering addicts, who have got as far as acknowledging that we've got an addiction and are wanting to change.

Two recent books are helping me begin to get a handle on what I'm trying to say here. One is by Christian community worker Dave Andrews, Out And Out: Way-Out Community Work; the other is by the Franciscan priest and founder of the 'Center for Action and Contemplation', Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. Dave Andrews draws heavily on Rohr's book, and both, as you might have guessed, draw heavily on the insights from the 12 Steps movement which began in the 1930s as Alcoholics Anonymous, and now has millions of individuals across the world attending meetings every week.

I don't have much first hand experience of the 12 Steps movement, and I'm only beginning to digest the insights from Andrews and Rohr. But I have a hunch that they're on to something really important, for all of us - and particularly for those of us who are people of faith, and those of us who are committed to building community starting with what we have, and not what we lack. I'll try and share what I'm learning, as this journey continues, but I think what I'm wanting to do here is throw open the invitation to others - to you, whoever you are - to join in the conversation. I think we need, need perhaps quite urgently, to start addressing our addictions. And to do that, we need each other.

So, anyone for therapy? Shall we do it together?

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