Friday, 2 September 2011

Life Together

This summer’s riots in England acted as a catalyst for intense public and private debate about difficult, state of the nation questions. Much of the discussion revolved around the ubiquitous notion of “Broken Britain”, an umbrella term for the sense that this once “green and pleasant land” is experiencing widespread moral, spiritual, economic and social degeneration. “Broken Britain” conjures up images of menacing, dead-eyed youths in hoodies, lawless council estates through which huddles of pale-faced girls push baby buggies. Broken Britain is shorthand for the erosion of anything that might be described as “community”.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s 2010 book, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone summarises this position: by 2009, they claim, Britons had become “anxiety-ridden, prone to depression, worried about how others see us, unsure of our friendships, driven to consume and with little or no community life.” This is a summary of Britain as a more individualistic society, one where the civil cement that holds people together is crumbling and the idea of “community” is under threat.

However, there exist dissident voices that challenge this terminal diagnosis. They claim that such views simply play to our prejudices, romanticise the past and over simplify the present situation. One such voice is Henry Hemming. In his provocative book, Together: How Small Groups Achieve Big Things, Hemming argues that the current proliferation of small groups and associations – everything from the local book club to the knitting club to the five-a-side kick about to the prayer group – is evidence of a trend moving in the opposite direction to the grim predictions of communitarian demise. This surge of small associations has been largely missed or ignored by commentators who prefer to peddle a pessimistic agenda.

These associations (and there are estimated to be some 1.5 million of them in Britain) are evidence that the ideal of “community” is very much alive and that Britain may not be as “broken” as we imagine. Hemming writes:

…a growing number of Britons now experience community not just in their neighbourhoods, or the ethnic and religious groups into which they are born, but the associations they belong to. In these small groups we forge meaningful and lasting connections to one another: we communicate, make decisions as one, we work together towards shared ends.

Hemming contends that these new associations are gradually replacing static understandings of community (e.g. those based on geography or religious affiliation) with communities that have a more fluid and flexible character. He argues that this has come about, in part, because of the declining influence of Christianity:

A Mori poll conducted in 2003 found that 45 per cent of Britons could not name a single Christian gospel. Only 18 per cent knew the name of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Although our morality and cultural references retain elements of this shared Christian heritage, you will find far fewer Christian narratives, idioms or references in twenty-first century novels, plays, films and obituaries than you would have done half a century earlier.

This loss of Faith, Hemming believes, inevitably involves the loss of a social sense of belonging. Large numbers of people are no longer bound together in community by the life of the sacraments, liturgy or religious festivals. The parish church can no longer claim to be the hub of community life. “And who or what shall fill his place?” asked Thomas Hardy in his poem, God’s Funeral, “Whither will wanderers turn distracted eyes/ for some fixed star to stimulate their pace?”

But this new breed of wanderers are not just trying to fill the “God-shaped hole” in their hearts, they are also aware of a gaping church-shaped hole in their social lives that requires attention. And this has led many people to exchange the parish-based community for new, secular models of community that can respond to their social needs. These communities are “creative minorities”, small groups, less fixed and more mobile, communities that people voluntarily join instead of being born into.

What weakens Hemming’s argument is his uncritical regard for the small group, seeing it as the answer to the increased spatial mobility and technological advances (particularly, the advent of the internet) which have undermined conventional expressions of community. For example, he presents all “new” associations in a positive light without giving any consideration to the value of the “things” that have brought the people together. But is there a difference between joining my local BNP group and joining the local Pilates group? What part does the object around which we associate play or is every act of coming together in a small group socially valuable?

On the other hand, Hemming has a low opinion of “traditional” ways of being community, considering them to be calcified. The parish church or the local community can no longer “inspire the same level of commitment, fellowship or identity that you might find within, say, a thriving book group, a five-a-side football team, a residents’ association or a band of historical re-enactors.” This contentious claim is open to question. One might ask, for example, how Hemming measures levels of commitment, fellowship or identity in order to make such a damning comparison.

In his enthusiasm for the idea of community, has Hemming not proposed too rigid a model? Must our understanding of “community” fall within one or other of Hemming’s binary descriptions? Can people not move between different expressions of togetherness – large or small, ancient or modern? Is it the case that new ways of relating necessarily involves the rejection of historically proven ways of relating? Can they not co-exist? Must we polarise our understanding of reality?

Where Hemming is more persuasive is in his evangelical advocacy of the importance of communion for human beings. “What life have you if you have not life together?” wonders the chorus in T.S.Eliot’s The Rock.

Hemming is convinced that community is as important and valuable today as it was fifty, a hundred or a thousand years ago. The heart of the good life is where the personal and communal are held in proper relationship. Associations have the potential to foster fellowship, stability and offer a shared sense of identity that is often expressed (even in its secular form) through traditions, rituals and objects. They make for human well being and can provide respite from the “weariness, fever and fret” of everyday life. They are the places where we explore and learn and play. Choosing to be part of a group can be a positive, radical choice that stops us being swept along by the tide of consumerist options presented to us. In this sense, community has the potential to earth us and gives us what we were made for - a more complete life together.

Together: How Small Groups Achieve Big Things, Henry Hemming, John Murray Publishers, 2011

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