I’ve been reading about the idea of ‘plausibility structures’, first developed by Peter Burger (Berger & Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality, Penguin 1979) and discussed by Sam Richards in Mass Culture (BRF, 1999 Ed Pete Ward, pp116-130) The idea is that people needs spaces, relationships and experiences that enable us to understand, process, internalise and begin to believe and live the Gospel, in a surrounding culture that no longer has this belief and action inherent in its daily culture and story. So in order for the narrative to make sense, people need to be able to experience it, participate in it and chew it around, taste it, see what it feels like and fits like, try it out before committing.
Although the early church begun its life in the years after Jesus died in this way, some churches don’t make space for this to occur, either because they don’t allow ‘outsiders’ into their innermost rituals such as communion, so people can’t try it out and see – or because this period of tasting, experimenting and choosing is looked on with suspicion as newcomers are expected to toe the line and accept someone else’s experience or version of their faith. Others have learnt to support people well through the initial phase of questioning and testing.
It strikes me that this need to try out and have a go is a very human characteristic and a facet of our ability to learn and grow. We need communities where this can happen together and we learn from each others questions and reactions. A community where it is assumed we all agree and believe the same things is often a place where authority and the pressure to conform is pushing down and subliminating the process of questioning that is a part of learning. It will be a thin and stagnant place theologically as no new life flows through it from the experience and testing of new people who come. I have belonged to churches like this and was suffocated there by the weight of the certainty and authority; my faith and humanity did not grow there.
Richards posits acceptance into the ritual of communion as access to practice, tasting, experiencing the action and theology that surrounds the death and resurrection of Christ. In the joining, sharing the peace and the bread and wine, people are drawn into what this means at the heart of the faith community. It communicates more than can be described and is a stage on the journey of understanding and opening up the grace we are offered undeservedly.
Rowan Williams writes in Lost Icons that our development as a person and as a self occurs over time, in the midst of communities of others, and our self awareness grows and is shaped by shared understandings.(p140-143) This means we need to be aware that each person brings themselves into dialogue with the understandings of tradition and culture. Where that has broken down in terms of shared understanding of the Christian faith, as it has largely in the UK in poor white communities, new spaces need to be made for this dialogue to occur. Williams believes we need to have a sense of ourselves as being held within a narrative, even as this narrative is constantly being revised and re-edited over time. (p144) Every event that happens to us is not a one-off of its own, but is connected to others in our past and present. What happens re-orders who we are and who we will be, so that “every telling is a retelling, and the act of telling changes what can be…” (p144)
For me, this is what life in the Upper Room community is about, offering itself as a plausible structure to others who have lost their thread of connection to the gospel, a space where people can try it on for size and begin to find where they belong in the story, to taste it and see it and participate in it. Offering a community of fellow humans to journey alongside, retelling and reshaping our stories in the light of Christ’s redemptive story.
Williams suggests that this community can never be without friction, because if we are really journeying we are becoming ever more aware of the paradoxes in us and the gap between what we want to be and who we are. He suggests frustration at our own shortcomings as they begin to appear to us in community, and love for others and ourselves, can heighten our self consciousness and make us more able to recognise that there is “no fixed place where I am innocently and timelessly alone and incorrupt…and the recognition of how I negotiate myself is what gives me the material for a re-telling of myself.” p146
Our inward self questioning needs discipline to encourage deepening and development through meditation and attentiveness, combined with truth telling and the willingness to own the pain and shock when we see ourselves as we truly are and not to hide from this. We all lack, and must take responsibility, not expecting someone else always to make up for what is or is not in us. p149-150. This is the complex life of a developing faith community!