The Spirituality of Relocalisation and Democratisation

Two weeks ago I was asked by a small group of staff from Whittlesea council to engage in a conversation about local authorities, deep democracy, civic engagement, strength based development, strategic social investment and social enterprise. The group included a recreation strategic planner, health planner and young persons’ strategic planner. One of their number had heard me talk about the connection between deep democracy, social innovation and spirituality, particularly referencing some of the ideas we were exploring with Antony McMullen’s work. She was interested to have me talk to a wider group. I wasn't sure how much I could assist their conversations (because I am always worried that people wanting to have these conversations might be looking for clear answers whereas I tend to generate more questions).

However what transpired was a highly generative conversation, which they seemed to appreciate but which I also appreciated deeply for the insights it gave me into “growth corridor life.” I was able to get a better understanding of some of the fragile situations that exist in these areas, with council staff and other social planners and actors having valid concerns about some form of unexpected social eruption. I was also able to hear how council staff operating at the grass-roots are undertaking planning and action with a  highly participatory bent. My input about how those plans and actions might be enhanced (with strategic philanthropic grants and appropriately encouraging a social enterprise ethos from other areas into local conversations) did seem to energise the conversation and generate ideas for navigating around current sticking points.

I believe conversations like this (involving the Church in general and the Culture and Context Unit specifically) with groups like this are important to have from time to time. Writing recently about how I understand faith I reflected on how the actions of Jesus influenced my understanding of Christian practice. I noted:

I am aware of evidence that Jesus was a committed practitioner of his Jewish faith. But I don’t interpret his derek as a set of rote , prescribed practices that everyone must follow regardless of context. Indeed, historical Jesus research has given me a stronger insight into how he resisted legalistic religious and political impulses, built relationships across demographic boundaries to understand other ways, and spoke about connection to source as being in the Basileia of God (a term often translated simplistically as kingdom of God, but which is actually in feminine form and hence suggests an exploration of connection to source rather than a slavish connection to Old Father God). 

The twenty-first century methods of social innovation and investment (with engagement and empowerment of local skills and capacities) are instruments of relocalisation and democratisation. I believe most avidly that these methods can contribute significantly to the Basileia world which is an aspiration of Christianity and the Church. They are by no means the only ways towards that aim but the Church has a legitimate place in exploring them. In addition, in the case of Whittlesea, the Uniting Church has its own Kildonan UnitingCare engaged in that community. In the midst of KUC’s busy role in traditional community services, I have found that particular agency one of the most interested in social enterprise innovation and strengths based empowerment. So it was good, without playing favourites, to be able to remind the local council staff of the role KUC could play in helping to bring about a process of deeper grass-roots engagement.

Conversations like these are not a major part of my work and I choose which ones I do carefully (having recently turned down requests for two other conversations because it was much more uncertain as to whether I could add anything particularly useful).  But from time to time I think they are important parts of expanding the connections and involvement – and the trust – through which the Church might be involved in making all places better places to be in.

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