Communities, Contracts and Covenants

Rev. Aaron Kennedy, from St Mary’s Church Battersea, writes about the value of transformative relationships  in local communities. 

Many of you will know that Battersea Communities – which is a partnership between citizens and residents of Battersea from many different walks of life, including St Mary’s, Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, and Katherine Low Settlement – has been campaigning for a new community hub on the Surrey Lane Estate. This is an area of relative deprivation, where many people struggle with poverty – of food and of opportunity, and where a culture of fear and violence often dominates among young people. You may also be aware that our proposal that the Council create a new community hub, as part of its redevelopment of Randall Close, was recently rejected.

Disappointing though this was, it is not the end! We will continue to campaign for a community hub, albeit in a different location. We haven’t given up on the residents, or on the campaign. The Council have a difficult job to do and must balance various concerns in their decision making process, and Lord knows I don’t envy them. I am concerned, however, that this decision (and others like it) is short-sighted, and leaves residents open to reach their own conclusions about the Council’s attitude, often the same ones: they don’t care, nothing ever changes, it’s a dog eat dog world.

A recent article by Together for the Common Good diagnoses a problem in Western society that affects us all, and which I think is partly to blame for the Council’s decision. They identify an unhealthy reliance on a culture of contract over and against the alternative, which they describe as a culture of covenant.

Contracts are legally binding agreements by one party to fulfil an obligation to another in return for some consideration – payment, etc. They are transactional; there is no need for the parties to know anything about each other, or to trust each other. Once the service has been delivered and payment made, the relationship is over. The contract is all the security each party needs to ensure they get their dues. Obviously, this is a hugely important aspect of modern life, and we cannot dispense with it; but is a culture of contract enough to live by?

A covenant, by contrast, is an agreement that brings about a relationship of commitment. The Church of England is the fruit of a covenant with the people of this country: we are not engaged in discharging our legal obligation in a transactional way where money is paid for the delivery of a service; we are engaged in a committed relationship, of service, to the people of this country. We are bound together by relationship.

There are many other examples of this in everyday life. Today I met a governor of Westbridge Primary School who serves voluntarily despite not living in the area. She has a relationship of commitment that means she stays faithful and present to the school and serves in whatever way she can. Outside St Mary’s the other day I bought a few little cakes from a stall raising funds for The Thomas’s Foundation: our local private school has committed itself, in a covenantal relationship, to the people of Battersea, through the Foundation, to serve those who would otherwise be unable to afford to send their children there. An even more basic and more common example of covenant are our relationships with family and friends. We are mot contractually obliged to look after our children; we love them in a covenantal relationship of commitment.

We saw a wonderful outpouring of love and care in Battersea throughout the lockdown period through the Coronavirus Angels’ project. Much of that has now slowed down as the project has been put on hold, but the institutions behind it (St Mary’s, Sacred Heart and KLS) remain committed to service through a relationship of covenant.

For some of us, life after lockdown has returned very much to the way it was before. That may be the case particularly if we are in stable jobs with secure incomes. This is certainly not the case for everyone. Negative interest rates are now being seriously discussed, the economy is on life support, and many jobs are under threat. How will we as a church respond if the unemployment rate shoots up and poverty and hunger become more pronounced? The culture of contract is just not enough to see us through such times.

It is at such times that we remember that we are bound to each other, that we cannot simply sit by and let people suffer safe in the knowledge that we are not legally obliged to help. We are called by God into a covenant of committed service to the people of Battersea.

Finally, a word about broccoli. Yes, the green vegetable. A head of broccoli is the same shape as a small floret of broccoli; and that floret is also the same shape as the smallest little branch of broccoli. The name for this phenomenon that scientists often use is fractal. It is when the individual parts of a thing have the same shape as the whole.

The whole, the big picture, for our community work in Battersea is the need for a culture of covenant; the tiny individual bits that make that up, the fractals, are one-to-one meetings, and committed relationships. A culture of covenant – of commitment and service, is our goal; how we get there is by the intentional practice of deeper relationships.

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