A Theology of Compassionate Communities
Graham Tomlin, the Bishop of Kensington, explores the theology behind one of our diocesan ambitions: to be compassionate communities.
One of the clearest descriptions of the nature of the Church comes in 1 Peter 2.9:
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
The Church is a gathering of people whom God has called out of the rest of the human race for a particular purpose. That purpose is described as “declaring the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” That of course leaves open the question to whom those praises are declared. The answer is twofold. On the one hand, the Church declares the praises of God back to God himself, on behalf of the rest of creation, as it was originally intended to do. As a result, the first calling of the Church is Worship. On the other hand, the Church declares the praises of God to a world that has often forgotten its call to reflect God’s glory back to him, not recognising that it is indeed God’s creation and is dependent upon him for its life and very existence. Therefore, the second calling of the Church is Witness.
Everything the Church does is a fulfilment of one or the other of these callings, Worship or Witness. This also corresponds to Jesus’ answer to the question of the most important commandment: to love God and to love our neighbour. We love God by offering him worship. We love our neighbour by bearing witness to this God in relation to whom our neighbours alone find their true identity and purpose. The Church is a priestly people re-presenting God to the world and the world to God, and the primary way in which we love our neighbour is by directing or even connecting them to the God who is the real answer to their hunger and the source of life itself.
When we engage in worship we gaze into the face of God in Jesus Christ and in that face we see compassion, mercy and grace. This is the God to whom the Church is called to bear faithful witness – the God of Compassion. The Church’s focus is to point towards the God who summoned creation out of nothingness, who in Christ offered the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world, and who called the Church itself into being.
One way the Church carries out this witness is through our words of welcome, invitation, evangelism and explanation, enabling people to hear and understand the good news of the gospel. It also enables them to receive the invitation to be brought back into ‘holy communion’ with God our Creator through Christ by the work of the Spirit. Yet words on their own can never be enough – they risk just being empty signs pointing to a reality which doesn’t exist. Instead, the Church’s words have to bear relationship to something real, something tangible, something that enables people not just to hear about the love and compassion of God, but to touch and feel it for themselves. The Church bears witness to this compassionate God through seeking to give people, and indeed the whole of creation, a taste of his love in reality, through acts of compassion, healing and restoration done in the name of Christ. We see this in the ministry of Jesus where the blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear and the poor have good news preached to them. In the acts of compassion that Jesus performed, people were enabled to taste and see the goodness of God, or in his own words, the Kingdom of God – life under the reign of God, life as it was always meant to be.
This is why it is vital that the Church is in itself a compassionate community, a place where people can find com-passion, in the fullest sense of that word. A compassionate community is one that ‘feels with’ them, shares their burdens and holds them in time of trouble as well as rejoicing in times of joy, just as the God of compassion does. At the same time the Church bears witness by seeking to enable the wider communities which it serves become more compassionate and just in the civic and social relationships in which they exist. People can experience compassion not just through the Church but in other ways as well, through the Spirit active in the world. Every time someone experiences compassion, they touch the hem of the garment of Christ.
The Church’s civic engagement is therefore not a simple extension of the social services. The role of the Church is not to fill the gaps left by the welfare state. This is why the identification of the Church’s social and political engagement as primarily an act of witness is so important. We set up food banks, offer debt advice, give homes to the homeless, care for creation and combat childhood poverty not simply because our society needs a bit of help or because government can’t do it on their own. We do these things in the name of Christ as acts of witness to the God of compassion, mercy and justice. These are, in the language of the gospel of John, ‘signs’ that point to another reality. Their significance is not found in themselves or in their political meaning but in their capacity to point to the Kingdom of God that is one day coming, and to the God whose Kingdom it is.
Seen this way, the relationships between Confident Disciples, Creative Growth, and Compassionate Communities becomes apparent. As we seek to become closer disciples or followers of Jesus, imitating him in acting out the compassion of God in our communities through our words and our lives, we point people to the God in whom they can find true meaning and purpose. As people both hear the invitation of the good news of the gospel and are able to taste and see the goodness of God in acts of compassion, they are drawn both to belong to the Church and then also to participate in the Church’s mission to bear witness to the God who has called us out of darkness into his marvellous light.
Bishop of Kensington
For a range of resources and support on being compassionate in our communities, please visit this website.