Thursday, 11 April 2013


Much has been written recently about 'communities,' but very few seem to have a clear idea of what it really means. I had to give it some thought when someone wrote to me that their 'community' seemed to be 'reduced' to the small congregation they belong to at their local church. That is the thing about 'communities' - they are actually quite small and they take a number of forms. 

We 'live' in a community of family, close friends and even colleagues. They're the people we know at least by sight and see on a regular basis, the one's who, if you fall in the street will hurry over to help you up and check you're OK. Church congregations are 'communities' in that they share something in their faith and they know one another. We lost the 'community' sense when things started to get too big. My favourite example is the Fire Brigade. I served in two 'Brigades' and then, later, in a uniformed role at a major training establishment. In the smaller of the two 'brigades,' everyone knew everyone. The Chief Fire Officer would sometimes appear at Roll Call and knew each and every fireman and ambulanceman personally. We all knew each others strengths and weaknesses and there was a strong sense of belonging.

In the larger 'brigade', we had more people, but we still knew everyone by sight and there was still that sense of all being a part of the team. Once again, the Senior Staff regularly met or spoke to just about everyone in the service. As a Divisional Officer, I made a point of visiting every station when I was on weekend stand-by and meeting as many of the staff as possible. I certainly wasn't unique, all the DOs did it, and so did the ACFOs and the Deputy. We were all simply following the example of our Chief who'd set the standard. We knew our people and they knew us, and what is more, knew they could talk to us. 

The other good example is in the Church congregations. I found this in all the church 'communities' I belonged to, and it wasn't just that I was a part of the 'ministry team' as a server or Reader. It was the sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself, yet still being an important part of it. No, I never had a 'one on one' with the Archbishop of Canterbury (I did, but he was then the Archbishop of Wales and I was his 'chaplain' for an occasion), but I regularly met my Diocesan Bishop or the Suffragan and both would have been quick to tell you that the real 'authority' in the Church is God - and anyone can talk to Him at any time. 

That is where it all breaks down once organisations, towns or cities get too big. The Port Elizabeth Fire and Emergency Service employed just over 300 people. We certainly didn't know each other by name, but we knew each other by sight, and everyone knew the CFO and his Senior Staff. By contrast, the London Fire Brigade employs 6,000 and it is almost impossible even the Divisional Commander to know all the people working under his command. What the 'Chief' says is so filtered by the time it reaches the troops it bears no relationship to what he meant. You even find men employed in it who have never, in 30 years, seen the Chief, much less talked to him. 

So they don't feel part of the larger organisation, they boil it down to 'The Watch' or 'The Station' or 'The Division.' The Chief and his Staff are remote, isolated by more than just distance, and the Union is very quick to exploit that and foster a 'them and us' approach which is seriously damaging to the sense of 'community' or 'team.' In this instance, 'Big' is very far from 'Beautiful' and equally distant from efficient. 

This is what the politicians don't understand about a 'community.' They think everyone sees them as 'part of the community' when most of us wouldn't consider them even as a 'visitor' unless we had to. They've become too remote and thus, disassociated from our lives in a positive way. This is why the LFB and other mega organisations have enormous problems among their personnel - they are simply too big to be able to identify the components as being 'in the same community.'

For me the 'community' is the people I work with, play with, pray with and live with. It is close family and my very close friends. I have very few close friends, and none of them are anywhere near me, most are a long way away, but they are still part of my 'community.' It is the same with 'close family.' My brother lives in Cape Town, my offspring in the UK, and I live in Germany. So it boils down to my wife when I need a hug or to talk. Communities are, in a way, flexible and constantly changing. Nor is it always bounded by physical boundaries. Any attempt to define it as a particular unit is likely to run into problems. What the miners in the North East meant by 'community' was the guys they went to school with, worked with down the pit, drank and play darts with in the pub, and their families living in the same street. It wasn't flexible and it even went on to include supporting a particular football team, taking part in particular activities and drinking only in a certain pub. 

The likes of me would never be considered a part of that 'community' even if I supported the same team and drank in the same pub. 

That is, I think, the problem. When some speak of a 'community' they associate it only with a particular set of criteria and don't see anything else as 'community.' When a politician speaks of a 'community' they often have a rather fluffy idea of people holding street parties, carnivals and living together in a street, suburb or village, they fail utterly to see that it has much wider and more complex format. How many think of the people they work with as a 'community'? It is, perhaps, the most enduring 'community' of all, something you quickly appreciate when you leave it for any reason.

Being part of a 'community' does not require agreeing with everything and everyone. It doesn't mean living in each other's pockets or homes and it doesn't mean we all have the same, do the same things or have the same tastes. What it does mean is being able to support one another in difficulty at a personal and local level, because we know each other and understand each other. Government can't 'make' a community, and neither can they 'break' one, though they may, by some action change it or give it a new direction.

When you look at it carefully, a 'community' is a group of individuals who share interests, faith or employment. Perhaps they live in a particular area or see each other regularly in a social setting. The individuals may change from time to time, and an individual may move and join a new 'community' somewhere else, but may also still retain links to the old one. In that sense they are still a part of the first community as well until such time as those links are, for whatever reason, severed.

Some communities may change so completely that they can no longer be said to be the same, yet a new community will have superceded it, so it is different, not gone. None of us likes change, and we like radical change least of all, yet the one thing that is constant in life is change. We can accept and embrace it, or isolate ourselves and be left behind as everyone else moves on. The choice is always a delicate one, and sometimes it is one made by a 'community' which leaves the individual behind.

As I said at the outset, the concept of a 'community' is a very complex one.

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