The Unfolding Missionary Apologetic – Sobornost

Co-producing New Forms of Christian Community in contemporary culture
Alan Richardson suggests “All Christian doctrine arises from Christian experience”, in many ways this statement validates the praxis approach to mission and ecclesiology (church). It also gives space for developing doctrine and possibly theology in and out of the current context or experience. As people follow the Missio-Dei in today’s context, their mindset and theological paradigms are challenged. As people go deeper into the post modern, post christendom context they recognise the need to find fresh approaches, but often lack a theological framework to develop this. When presented with alternative frameworks that are both theologically rooted and practice (story) driven, new ways of interpreting their already dawning experiences can be developed. A conceptual framework emerging from the practice of StreetSpace and Church on the Edge and subsequent theological reflection, is the notion of seeing Church as both the being and doing, recognising that church and mission are synonymous, and as you engage in mission you are being church with the people around you (whether they believe or not).

As a cultural backdrop to this we will explore the philosopher Bourdieu who builds on earlier ideas of Habitus – cultures way of behaving and norms making society possible, which we are socialised into. Bourdieu suggests that habitus was more than this and that through our participation we contribute to the unfolding “habitus” i.e. it is a two way dialogical or iterative process. Taking Bourdieu’s concept with the findings from Reconnected we can draw two tentative points. Firstly, due to the power of the established paradigm of church, even in the light of the unfolding experiences of practitioners, little has changed in the dominance of established church paradigms. Secondly, that even though much has been said to people that church and mission should be more closely linked, the language and practices used in the mainstream reinforce a divide. What COTE managed to do by coupling the challenge to the established orthodoxy of what is church to it’s own unfolding story, was create a space for a participative habitus in the sense of Bourdieu. So whilst it is argued that “the task of rebuilding Christian theology in a more authentic fashion requires a critique of the points at which tradition has misrepresented the spirit of the gospel; and then a reconstruction of theology according to emancipatory principles”. It can equally be argued that when these emancipatory principles are told, or the traditions misrepresentation critiqued, that it must be accompanied by a liberatory story that enables people to imagine and root a new approach.

Emerging church practitioners rarely have difficulties in relating to people, but the overarching paradigm of church remains problematic. It is steeped in notions of power and will struggle to liberate itself from within, at the same time presenting a barrier to outsiders. However when we collapse the idea of mission as a way into church, realigning alongside the intentional idea of being and growing church, and approach church with the powerlessness of Christ where everyone can belong and the curtain has been torn, something genuinely new begins to emerge. As this missionary apologetic unfolds and is shaped by all present, something is co-produced to which everyone belongs and is not held by boundaries but by relationship and values. There is a christian tradition that encompasses this and it is the concept of ??????????: translated as Sobornost, meaning a spiritual community of many jointly living people. Originally a philosophical term, it was used by Nikolai Lossky and other 20th century Russian thinkers to refer to a middle way of co-operation between several opposing ideas.6 This was based on Hegel’s “dialetic triad”—thesis, antithesis, synthesis—and Lossky defined sobornost as “the combination of freedom and unity of many persons on the basis of their common love for the same absolute values.” Rowan Williams discusses the term a number of times in his study of Eastern Orthodox theologians. In relation to the the emerging church Sobornost offers a third way and a helpful theological backdrop to the notion of an unfolding habitus or a co-producing approach to ecclesiology and community.

A central part of the emerging church following the mission dei is that the journey at times be with non-believers (who may have opposing ideas, antithesis), but whose voice, culture and context help us emancipate the church from what is has become and unfold a new of being as we journey together towards a life in all its fullness, that sobornost affirms. As Williams expounds building on Bulgakov “the church is essentially the fellowship of the Spirit, held together by the ontological bond of God’s love,……. the rest is a matter of conditioned historical decisions and polices.” Whilst it is often the antitheistic/genuine reciprocal nature of having unbelievers influencing the dialogue about what church is that people often struggle with, Sobornost hints at a Christian tradition where genuine reciprocal mission is located and the emancipation can begin.

One thought on “The Unfolding Missionary Apologetic – Sobornost

  1. Richard, this is so useful as it provides language that expresses/ defines the work of street space brilliantly.

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