The term ‘communitas’ refers to a group of people who find themselves outside of their stable community, pulling together and being stretched by a trial. In time they return to a state of stable community – in many instances, the one they set out from – but their experience changes the community they return to. This process prevents communities from stagnating and dying, and so the experience of communitas, which interrupts the life of a community, actually secures its ongoing existence. Communitas – people thrown together by trial/crisis/adversity – revivifies, or gives new life to, stable community.
This week, I have found myself involved in two very different experiences of communitas, in two communities with which I identify. One is the church family in Sheffield that we were sent out from. The other is the primary school in the Liverpool community where we now live, a school all three of our children attend and where I am a community governor.
On Sunday, a member of the church at St Thomas’ Philadelphia died, suddenly and unexpectedly. As a whole community, including the bereaved husband, the response of the church – and many around the world who, like us, have been sent out by that church – was a conviction that the Holy Spirit was calling us to pray that she would be raised from the dead. Four four days, a community prayed 24/7, in a great stirring and stretching of faith. Today, the discernment of the community was that the same Holy Spirit who had called us to pray in that way was now asking us to stop, to let Catherine go.
What are we to make of that? Given that ‘nothing happened’ the pastoral temptation is to believe that all that was achieved was an amplification of grief issues, for the whole community, and especially for the immediate family. Grief is real, and I have every confidence that the community will walk that road with great love and sensitivity. But an understanding of communitas helps us to understand that far from nothing happening, the community was brought together like never before, and equipped to face the future. The world is changing. God is calling us to learn things that have been forgotten. Obedience, not particular results, is what matters. Faith, hope and love have worked together this week, to enlarge the capacity of this community to partner with the King in ushering-in the good news of the kingdom of heaven. Make no mistake: because of what has happened this week, the world has changed not only for one congregation, but in time we shall see for the wider church in this country, and beyond.
Also this week, our local school has been thrown into communitas, as the community came under threat from a group of people who are militantly opposed to changes that need to happen – and are taking place – in order to secure a great future for the children of this neighbourhood. The greater the threat, the closer the community has rallied together. The pavement outside the school has been a place of discovering ourselves and our potential this week.
Liminal spaces – thresholds between two states, whether earth and heaven, or the past and the future, or the road and the school – are uncomfortable places to find ourselves. They lack the comfort-zone of stable community. But these are the spaces where communitas takes place. These are the delivery-rooms of community, where the future is born.