If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.
Bad relationship advice, of course. But what if it applied to place?
If you can’t live in the place you love, love the place you’re in.
The place we are in matters. We may love it, we may hate it. We may romanticise it, we may not even notice it. But it is. And a Christian theology of place says that where we are, we must love. Or try to love. Or to be love in. Because God is in that place. And God is love.
We anglicans have a systematic understanding of place, called parish. We are intentionally territorial, neighbourhood-focused. It means we cannot just focus on the town centre, the streets near our building, or the people we happen to know. We voluntarily take on a responsibility to pray for, be there for, support and protect those within our parish. Which is most definitely not just those who come to church.
Roads. Trees. Parks. Shops. Bus stops. Woods. Canals. Fields. Industrial estates. Schools. Houses. People. Businesses. Networks.
There are so many things that shape our place. I cam across the term ‘ecclesiastical geography’ this week that explains how we understand our – the church’s – place in our place. Understanding the historic factors that have shaped our area and the people in it, from hills and rivers to mining and industry and immigration and town planning. And understanding the contemporary issues that build on or challenge or supplement those.
A theology of place goes hand in hand with a theology of the kingdom of God. If we believe this world is to be escaped from, then we have no responsibility to love and care for the place, only the embodied souls that happen to briefly dwell within it. We become ‘evaporated Christians’, with no roots on earth just vapour in the sky.
But if we believe that the incarnation of God in Jesus roots the work of God in a place, this place; if his resurrection and ascension means he is Lord over place, this place; if we believe he will return to a place, this place; and if we believe that in the meantime he dwells in a place, this place, no longer in a particular specific Temple or nation but through the Holy Spirit in all who turn to Jesus… then this place, our place, is where the Kingdom of God is coming.
This is why as Christians we love our place, whether naturally or as a choice; whether it’s ‘our place’ or an adopted place, or a place that has adopted us. In that love we want to bring and to be hope, to live lives of hopefulness and to spread hope in our place. Not an unrooted hope, which is just optimism, but hope rooted in Christ.
Over the last few years the local churches on our estate have established a presence at the local St Helier Festival, organised by residents associations. As well the hospitality of refreshments, amazing cakes, games and children’s activities, we also asked people their hopes for their lives, for the area we live in, and invited them to write them on these 1-metre high letters. Their responses were many and varied, and are a great insight into how people in this place are, and think, and aspire to.
Here is a sample of what was written on them, and our prayer is that they will speak to us about the people in our place. And maybe in your place too.
The idea of ecclesiastical geography and the reflection on space was inspired by a talk from Revd. Andrew Rumsey, though obviously I’ve reinterpreted it through my own eyes.