Thursday, August 28, 2014

Adventures In Time And Space

‘If we are to plan sustainable communities, then, we have to have a good nose for what depletes human capital. And I want to suggest that one major threat to human capital is the sense of living without landmarks in time or space…Human beings from their earliest days work out their identity by learning to cope with a specific set of triggers and stimuli, the geography of a room, the rhythms of feeding and sleeping, a face that becomes familiar. As their awareness expands, they still work out and define who they are in relation to patterns of activity in time and to a differentiated space; their mental world is in pat a set of routes between familiar points. We inhabit a map. It is most dramatically expressed in the Australian aboriginal idea of the ‘song lines’ that give structure to the world: the aborigine knows the landscape as a series of songs to be sung as you move from this point to that. Geography is a set of instructions for responding with this or that song to the visual triggers you encounter.

‘Now of course any landscape, any physical environment, has such triggers. But it seems fairly clear that a physical environment that is repetitive, undifferentiated, can fail to give adequate material for a person to develop. A varied environment with marked features, that perhaps have narratives and memories attached to them, offers multiple stimuli to respond to. There is a local geography that is more than just an abstract plan of the ground: it invests places with shared significance. A landscape which proclaims its sameness with countless others, in its layout, building materials, retail outlets and so on, is a seedbed for problems. If it’s true that I can’t answer the question ‘Who am I?’ without at some level being able to answer the question ‘Where am I?’, the character of built space becomes hugely important. There will always be small scale domestic answers to ‘Where am I?’ because we all imprint distinctiveness on our homes and are ‘imprinted’ by them; but when this is restricted to the domestic, we should not be surprised if there is little sense of investment in the local environment outside the home.’

‘And last, planning should, then, look seriously at how the reality of faith becomes part of the landscape – how religious buildings figure among the landmarks of a community. But this is not only a question of attending to the pragmatic needs of religious groups. Like it or not, there are unsought experiences that communities share, trauma and celebration which call out for the kind of space that carries no political or sectional agenda, that is not for anything but the expression of certain serious and complex emotions…And whether we are thinking about personal trauma or collective…it is emphatically true that a very large number of people, far larger than the statistics of regular worshippers, urgently need a place for certain things to be voiced. What is offered by a space dedicated to worship is essential – somewhere where events may occur that belong to a whole locality, where solidarities of a mysterious but very important kind can be reinforced.’

Rowan Williams, essay on ‘Sustainable communities’ in Faith in the Public Square.

Last weekend saw the second ‘Sanctuary’ event – a three-day festival showcasing local bands, ale, and street food, organised by local business-men and -women and held at Sunderland Minster - and I am struck afresh by the thoughts offered by Rowan Williams above. I’m struck by the response, over and over again, of people coming into this space for the first time, and finding somewhere to which they are drawn back. I’m struck by the requests to host conversations between different groups – the recognition that this is a safe space in which difficult but greatly-needed communication can take place. I’m struck by the gift that we have been given, by those who have gone before us and by God, for the people of Sunderland; and by the great honour it is to be here.

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