In our wider community-building work locally, we've begun talking about a 'neighbourhood ecology' or 'ecosystem' - with different people and groups, spaces and buildings, growing and flourishing not as separate entities, but as interconnected, interdependent organisms within the ecology. But even within this picture, some people and groups have more enthusiasm than others for being part of an 'ecosystem' than others. Some would much rather stick to tending their own, carefully demarcated 'allotment'. And are those of us (the 'we', above) who are advocating the 'ecosystem' narrative in some sense attempting to 'out-narrate' other ways of describing (and sometimes, attempting to 'manage') our area - in our own way seeking a bit of (discursive) territorial control?
In the wider church, territorial ambition may not be explicitly acknowledged in 'church growth' strategies, and neither may anxieties about 'shrinking'. But it's hard to listen to much that is spoken about evangelism and 'impact' - Liverpool diocese's strapline, 'bigger church, bigger difference', for example - without hearing at least echoes of a territorial imagination at work.
I have been living and wrestling, for some years now, with a phrase of Rowan Williams' (picked up by political theorist Romand Coles): that Jesus did not come to be "a competitor for space in this world". The kingdom of God that we so often talk about, wait and watch and pray for, seek to get involved in 'building' or 'growing' - this kingdom is not one that can be mapped onto any idea of 'territory'. And so, by extension, the church of Jesus, if it is to be faithful to him and faithful in seeking God's kingdom, should also be resistant to territorial language, and a territorial imagination.
So when thinking about church, and neighbourhood, and God, and politics (and a whole host of other things that are so often caught up in territoriality), I've found it increasingly helpful to think not about territory, but about edges.
One kind of 'edge' is the experience of marginalisation. We're pushed to the edges of the group, the community, the society, because of who we are - or rather, because of how others see us, talk about us, label us, treat us. We're rendered invisible, inaudible. We're overlooked, patronised, stigmatised, devalued, demonised. Our contribution is treated as worthless - we're seen as lacking, a 'problem' to be fixed, 'waste' to be thrown away.
And the dynamics of marginalisation can sometimes push us to a different (but related) kind of edge: 'cliff-edges' where, with one more little push, or a stumble, or a gust of wind, we're falling over the edge. The cliff-edges are very real, and they destroy lives. The unpaid bill that leads to eviction and homelessness. The letter in the post that is the last straw for someone's already-brittle mental health. The final argument before the family splits in two. The accident that means you can't do your desperately-needed job any more...
A third kind of 'edge' can be just as destructive: the border fence that says 'keep out', defended with barbed wire and guards with guns, or polite but firmly unwelcoming immigration officials (backed up by guards with guns), or a 'hostile environment' on the 'inside' of the border fence, sustained by hostile policies, hostile political rhetoric, hostile media messages, hostile attitudes, hostile gestures, hostile stares...
There is a fourth, more positive kind of 'edge', however. It's related to the 'ecosystem' metaphor I mentioned earlier, that some of us have found us using to describe our neighbourhood. But where the 'ecosystem' suggests a bounded space, a territory with edges, the 'ecotone' (from oikos + tonos = habitation + tension) is precisely about the edges themselves. It's the environmental 'contact zone' between two different kinds of habitat, where intermingling and interaction happen - and which is almost always remarkably fertile, generative of diversity and even new species of life.
I want to suggest it as a potentially fertile metaphor for our society, and our neighbourhoods. Especially (but certainly not only) our urban neighbourhoods: where the 'contact zones' between people - people of different ethnic and class backgrounds, people with wildly different life journeys and politics, people of different faiths and cultures and passions and habits - are everywhere.
My teacher here is again the political theorist Rom Coles, himself quoting cultural theorist Mikhail Bakhtin:
"One must not … imagine the realm of culture as some sort of spatial whole, having boundaries but also having internal territory. The realm of culture has no internal territory; it is entirely distributed along the boundaries, boundaries pass everywhere, through its every aspect... Every cultural act lives essentially on the boundaries..."
The edges, the ecotones, the fertile contact zones are everywhere: cutting through our neighbourhoods in every direction, running through our lives and our relationships, our daily movements and interactions. They are not 'territory' in their own right - they are, by definition, not spaces that can expand (make an edge 'thicker' and very soon it is no longer an edge), or compete for space, or be fenced off (if there is no longer intermingling, then it's not a 'contact zone').
What you can do to an ecotone is tend it. This can only ever be quite a humble task, because the real action is in the interactions and intermingling that go on between those who co-habit in this borderland, who bump into each other in this contact zone. Such interactions can't be forced, or engineered. But they can be enabled and encouraged by those who gently tend to such edge-places, who hold them open and refuse the encroachment of the fences and the exploitations of the territorial.
And although they can't be 'expanded' ('thickened', 'enlarged' so that they fill more of the space than before) they can be extended, lengthened, into areas where they have not yet run through. Welcoming new forms of diversity into a space, new contact zones can 'pop up', new interactions and interminglings can be nurtured into life. This is the work, in our neighbourhood, that we call 'street connecting', and which my friend, neighbour and colleague Paul Wright has described so vividly and reflectively in his recent blog post.
And here's an interesting suggestion for Christian missiologists (and others with a similar concern for the 'mission' of their organisation): rather than thinking about 'growth' as 'expanding (our) territory', what if we were to shift our focus to 'extending the edges'? Rather than concentrating on trying to 'get more people in', what if we were to invest our energy (and other resources too, perhaps) in 'getting more people encountering each other', across our many differences? (There is more to be said theologically, from this suggestion, about the difference that might be made by thinking less about the 'internal volume' of 'the body of Christ' and more about the tending and extending of its 'edges' - what we might call 'the flesh of Jesus' - but that's for another time.)
Beyond tending and extending there is then the vital work of attending. Attending to one another, in our encounters in these ecotones / contact zones. Attending to the encounters happening there. Attending to the new life that is springing up in those places and through those encounters. Attending deeply, in a way that looks and listens expectantly for something more than what is obvious or readily accessible. Attending with the kind of quality that Otto Scharmer describes of deep, "generative listening" - offering a space within which something new, something as yet unsaid or unseen or un-done or unacknowledged can begin to emerge. "Hearing to speech", as feminist theologian Nelle Morton famously put it.
This attending is what we mean, locally, when we talk about trying to help people discover their passions and gifts, knowledge and skills. But it is embodied most vividly in 'wow moments' like our first community talent show, 'Firs & Bromford's Got Talent', that happened earlier this year (that I've written about previously in this blog):
talent and creativity (children and adults alike) on show was impressive by any standards. What left me an emotional wreck by the end of the night, though, was much more than the stunning talent. Knowing
even a little of the journeys and battles that many of the contestants (both adults and children) had been on to get onto that stage on that Friday night, I was in awe and wonder at their courage and determination, their raw vulnerability and yet the sheer dignity and pride of standing up there, showing us something of their spirit, their soul, their God-given essence. Some of those who got up and performed had fought more than just nerves to do what they did. And in the end, the 'competition' wasn't really a competition at all: each and every one of them was cheered on - willed on, hoped and prayed on - by each and every one of us in the audience, and we were heart-burstingly proud of all of them - we'd have made them all joint winners if we could have done. Our role, collectively, was encourager, cheerleader, celebrant of the wonderful gifts of our neighbours - the wonderful gifts that are our neighbours.
And this is where I get properly theological. Because there is something about this practice of attending, this quality of attention, that becomes, I want to suggest, inescapably theological. No one I have read has expressed this better than the theologian of St Francis and St Clare, Gillian Ahlgren, in her radiant book The Tenderness of God.
“Some would call this process “incarnation” – a way of life constantly sensitized to the presence of God within the human community, a recognition and affirmation of the presence of God in our midst that helps us deliberately orient ourselves to becoming the kind of human community that God wants.”
In conversation with Francis and Clare, Ahlgren develops a theology of encounter that begins with simple human interaction but, with tenderness and patient attention, plumbs its divine depths:
“For Francis and Clare, encounter became an arresting way of life, open to all. In their experience, there was no one whose life would not be deeply enriched by deeper dedication to the way of encounter. Engaging the other with the intention to listen, to learn, and to connect is a mutually transformative practice that slowly changes everything. Encounter teaches us to honour the fragility and sacredness of our own humanity, especially as we come to know our common humanity together. When done in the conscious presence of the love of God, encounter creates sacred space in the human community. Encounter moves us from observers of life to collaborators, with God, in the building up of the human community, the creation of a common home.”
There is, of course, a more uncomfortable side of interaction and encounter in the 'contact zones' - especially when those interactions and encounters are extended and deepened over time. We fall out with each other, we let each other down, we mess up, we hurt each other, we slip back into territorial thinking and battle with each other over control, we retreat back into our well-defended comfort zones.
So alongside tending, extending and attending I have to add the hard labour of mending. The work of forgiveness and penitence, mediation and reconciliation - and the equally hard work of patiently living with the unresolved and the unhealed - this too is an ongoing task in the ecotones of community.
There is one more 'activity' in the ecotone to mention. It offends my desire for neatness by refusing to rhyme with the others. But that is perhaps appropriate, because unlike the others it is not in any sense 'work' or 'labour'. It came to the foreground for me thanks to the invitation (which Paul describes in the blog that I've referenced already) for three of us from Firs & Bromford to go and share our stories with the Church of Scotland 'Priority Areas' gathering just outside Glasgow last month. One of the two Scriptural texts the organisers had chosen for the gathering was a section of Isaiah chapter 65 (quoted above). The passage does some vital that I'm not sure had ever completely sunk in for me before: it ties labour and enjoyment together. And this, perhaps never entirely explicitly, has been one of the intentions of our community-building work in the Firs & Bromford: rather than looking to external 'service providers' to build community for us to then enjoy, we realised as neighbours that we had the power to build community for ourselves, together; but equally, rather than spending all our time in the labour of the building of community, Isaiah's prophecy invites us to also enjoy the fruits of our labours. Planting and eating are two things that we're managing, more and more, to tie together here. Who knows whether we'll be able to build our own houses here in years to come - I truly hope so - but it's a profound reminder, especially to some of us with activist tendencies, that we're called not just to the work of 'building a common home' - but to enjoy living in it together, too.