Heart to heart

The Centre for Theology & Community l

Angus Ritchie (Director of CTC and Priest in Charge at St George-in-the-East) blogs on the role of storytelling in community organising – and the way his church is harnessing it this Advent.

There has been renewed interest over the last month or so in Heart to Heart Caitlin Burbridge’s excellent report for CTC on the way churches can harness the potential of storytelling to build relationships, share faith, and act for justice.

Advent has been a month of storytelling here at St George-in-the-East. Jess Scott, a member of our lay community, has been bringing the stories of members of our congregation into dialogue with the stories of key characters in our Advent readings .

In an age of individualism, it is easy to forget the intimate relationship between Scripture and community. Each book was written to a particular community. The canon of Scripture was discerned by the Church community. We read the Bible, not as isolated individuals, but as members of one Body. We learn something new as we hear the Spirit at work in minds and lives very different from our own.

As Gerald Manley Hopkins puts it

“Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

I want to share one example from St George’s Advent storytelling. Last week, we heard from Phil Hogan. Phil is at the heart of both our community organising and of the work we are doing to support homeless people in the parish. He was reflecting on this work in the light of the witness of John the Baptist, and has given me permission to share his story:

“On the morning before I come to church, as I walk through the gardens, I have a comb through of all the places where the homeless might stay. A while ago, I came across one particular man. I introduced myself, and found out who he was. When I’m chatting to homeless people, I am often aware of not wanting them to think that I’ve got an agenda. I don’t want them thinking that if they don’t want the Bible then we don’t want to know them. That’s the basis I was working on when I said to this particular man, ‘you’re welcome in church, if you want a place to be; don’t worry, we wont try and evangelise you’.

“Then he said something that I did not expect. nHe asked, ‘Why not? What does “evangelise” mean?’

“I was stumped. I had to stop and think about his questions.  After a while, it struck me. Evangelising is about sharing the good news of the word of God. That good news is what leads me to do what I do for homeless people. It’s not “evangelising over here” and “helping the homeless over there”. It’s continuous. So, yes, let’s share our good news. Let’s give out the message and the gospel.

“It does involve risk, and it might feel hard. But we can’t get round the fact we are Christians. We have to go through that fact. John the Baptist wore strange clothes and ate locusts. He was odd. Sometimes we might have to stand out. We’re not called to be safe and protected.

“When I worry that people will think I’m pompous or a hypocrite when I share the good news – I remember to have faith. God is with me and my words. It’s not about me – it’s about God. For John the Baptist, it wasn’t about him, it was about what he was pointing to. The Spirit of God will be with you.”

This is a powerful example of “both/and” Christianity. We should not help those in need in order to convert them, but nor should we help them in a way that suggests the Gospel and the Church is “not for you”. What Phil is putting his finger on here is a temptation for Christians – to behave towards those in material poverty in a way that subtly excludes them from the heart of the Church. His story challenges us as a congregation to think more deeply about the relationship between practical compassion and sharing the good news of Jesus. As we continue to share our stories, and bring them into dialogue with the stories of Scripture, we learn from one another and from Christ.

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