Wednesday, 18 May 2011


There is a good argument to class the word community within the jargon of the media. The journalist John Humphreys divides much media jargon into 'boo words' (e.g. traditional, conservative, elite, etc.) and 'cheer words' (or something like that: e.g. liberal, progressive, egalitarian, etc.). Now, community is definitely a media cheer word. It is then, to paraphrase a certain American general, the sort of word that makes me want to reach for my gun.

The interesting thing about the word community in our age is that it has tended to be mobilised as a leftist word, on the basis that solidarity and cohesion are thought to be socialist concepts. This is a gross anachronism. Community is a fine natural concept, not to say a fine Christian concept. My closest friends who used to groan when they heard me say Gemeinschaft (German for community) were, I think, horrified to hear it used every five minutes in the film Into Great Silence.

But it is true that community is often used as a evocation of authenticity which is rarely attested in the fractured archipelago of modern life. Just watch any news report about one of these awful gun massacres and at some point, someone - journalist or interviewee - will say: 'Well, Nether Wallop is in fact a close-knit community, so we never expected this.' And that, in spite of the fact that most of the inhabitants of Nether Wallop spend most of their time hiding behind their front doors playing on their Wii gadgets and hoping never to meet the neighbours.

I suppose what I want to drive at this morning, in my tangential manner, is that community is one of those things that just is. You cannot really invent it. It only grows and matures in its own time and it cannot be fabricated. Indeed, when community is self-conscious it is always in danger of becoming its opposite, Gesellschaft, which is a chosen association. Of course there are other dimensions to be taken into account here, but I'm merely stating what I think is the most important thing.

You cannnot build a community; a community can only grow. You cannot assert priorities within a community; they are inscribed in its organic tendencies. All mobilisation of community is in danger of looking like a party, or a clique. And the thought that we can steer community self-consciously is exactly the kind of error which modernity induces in us.

I say all this because there is some loose talk around and about these days about the Traditional Latin Mass community. I'm all for it of course. But I'm also slightly suspicious of the underlying search for an authenticity which only the fumbling passage of time and the accumulation of organic connections can really create.

And that's another thing. There is a time element here which we simply cannot get around. Some things take a lot of time to mature. Community is one of those things that takes the most time. We have to await the second or third generation to see the system cleansed of any arbitrariness / narrowness that was inherent in the original options that formed the community.

In Catholicism, when counsels begin to assume the character of precepts, they must either declare themselves as vows, or simply wind their necks in. It is not for anybody to interfere with the freedom which God confers on his children. And labelling a self-elective group as a community seems like an attempt to apply the leverage of authenticity and precept to what is a laudable but non-obligatory counsel.

I hope that's clear.

Now, I'm off to the chiro!


Toby said...

I think community used to be a group of people you were stuck with and with, in the main, limited disposable income and mobility, community would arise out of a sense of we're better pulling together than against one another. Plus there would be fewer diversions to enable you to turn your home into a ghetto. Even in this scenario (e.g. a terraced street in a city pre-60s) some shared values are necessary for the community to actually function as something other than a group of individuals only connected by their geography.

Now community for most people seems to be those people who you choose to associate with and whom we will travel relatively large distances to be with. People travel to a certain part of London where the nightlife suits their style; they head to the Church across town for the worship that suits them; if financially able they move house to live an area with "people like us".

In the latter more modern sense of community I feel something is lost in that people get forgotten about and also people lose the ability to have to get on and function with people they don't necessarily like.

Anagnostis said...

"Indeed, when community is self-conscious it is always in danger of becoming its opposite"

Precisely; and in exactly the same way, "traditionalism" is something Tradition never is.

Ches said...

Quite right, Toby. That's a very Chestertonian line of thought, if I may say so.

Big A, couldn't have put it better myself!

Toby said...


As somebody who has just started reading Chesterton (The Dumb Ox was suggested further reading on my part-time degree in Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition and am now part way through The Everlasting Man); I am absolutely over the moon to be described by somebody such as yourself as having a Chestertonian line of thought. Thank you!

Ches said...

I'm speaking at the Chesterton conference at Saint Benet's in Oxford on 1 July in the evening if you're in the area.

Toby said...


I'd be fascinated to hear you speak and meet the man in person! I'm London-based so Oxford is pretty easy to get to. Can you post details or email me please, , I can only seem to find details of a conference on the 2nd at the Chaplaincy.


Ches said...

I will post details when I have them. The conference is part of the Seton Hall University Summer School, but I'm sure it is open to the public.