A Church Community of Disciples Learning to Love

Reflections on the work of
John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, Donald Winnicott

Paul Davies

John Bowlby (1907-1990), in his work and writings, speaks of three principal ways of attachment which describe the relationship of a care giver with a child. He then goes on to suggest that these early relationships influence the nature and characterization of adult relationships, which he calls the internal working models. Bowlby’s work has led to a rationale for facing difficulties over the nature of relationships between friends and lifelong partners. In the development of Bowlby’s thinking there are three essential relationships of attachment. Attachment can be described as long term emotional and external contact with another person. Its features were later defined by his colleague Mary Ainsworth (1913- 1999) as being:

1. Secure Attachments, which at their best can be described as a way of having healthy relationships of trust, and often of intimacy. In secure attachments there is a good level of self-esteem, self-confidence and self-disclosure, whereby a person feels comfortable sharing their feelings and thoughts and seeks out and affirms social and meaningful relationships. Here there is a good level of social skills and a grounded ability to connect with people and ideas through a positive world view.

2. Ambivalent Attachments are relationships in which there is reluctance, and a struggle to be close to others. This ambivalent view of self and of others leads people to demand of themselves and others a relationship of depth at one moment, then in the next moment to move away from intimacy, creating relational distance and social indifference. There is constant inner anxiety about the dynamic of relationships which often leaves a person feeling unsafe and insecure, lacking the self-confidence to form substantial relationships. This often expresses itself in anger and criticism of others. It reveals itself, under stress, in the need to be noticed and to have constant emotional attention. It is sustained by ‘clinginess’, fearing that s/he might be let down and even abandoned. A person with an ambivalent attachment is constantly looking for proof of affection, and often no amount of reassurance is good enough for them to feel secure. With this kind of attachment comes a negative self-image: one in which a person sees him or herself as to blame, or as just not being good enough.

3. Avoidant Attachments are those characterized by anxiety and difficulties in forming and maintaining intimate relationships in terms of life partners and social friendships. Such a form of attachment is again experienced as being unhealthy and insecure. There is often very little desire to invest in social relationships, along with an unwillingness to share thoughts and feelings with others. Hence the person involved has few close relationships.

People with avoidant attachment will often come across as superficial and socially distant, self-reliant, independent, even dismissive of the need of relationships with others. They will avoid sharing deep feelings and thoughts and they will avoid vulnerability through deflection, for example, through humor or criticism of others.

There is often a fear of being overwhelmed by their own feelings and the feelings of others, which might result in a sense of being lost and abandoned. Hence there is an unhealthy mistrust in themselves and in others. In a self-preservation mode of avoidance of deep feelings of vulnerability, a person will focus on (and even be lost in) business and occupation and will develop a projected thick skin of protection. It is as though the heart and the head are disconnected. And yet the paradox underlining all this is the need for relationships of depth and interdependence rather than the independence of isolation.

Bowlby understood that adults’ and children’s self-confidence, and their attachments to others, could be influenced for the good through enhanced understanding of the self and of others. He believed that through encouragement and renewed focus of intention, people’s secure attachments could be deepened towards an ever-greater sense of self-confidence and human flourishing. In the context of the two insecure types of attachment, Bowlby believed they could be moved therapeutically towards an experience of secure relationships. What I would suggest here is that Bowlby’s theory of attachment in terms of characterization can be applied to relationships of family and community – and also to a large organization, particularly to those who are seeking to maintain a relational culture for the sake of personal and communal health as well as profit.

Applying the theory to church health (that is, for the life and mission of the Church in its pursuit of the kingdom of God) it is necessary for the Church at every level to build and sustain “secure relationships of attachment”. A local church’s interpersonal and community relations can often be described through Bowlby’s theory as relationships that are characterized by avoidance and ambivalence. Avoidance attachment is often reflected in the lack of social interaction and in the resistance to most group experiences, for instance, fellowship meetings. It will also be reflected in the way in which a local church struggles with the concept of corporate responsibility and accountability, particularly in the context of personal and communal repentance. There will often be anxiety in maintaining any relationships that go beyond superficiality and function.  In some churches which are characterized by avoidance in their relationships, people will find commitment, self-sacrifice and intimacy difficult. Such a church might not even see the desire and necessity for the church to be engaged with the local community and to evangelize. Its attitude might be one that ‘people know where we are, so they can come if they want to’.

A church whose relationships are characterized by ambivalent attachments will often be inward looking and will feel uncertainty and hesitancy about inviting others, and the wider world, into its community. This is because it will be perceived as a threat to relationships that are already well established and have created the norms making up the status quo in community life. The energy that is required to maintain relationship will make it difficult to find the will and capacity to make new relationships of depth and inclusivity. In other words, people will say they want their community to change and grow, yet through their behaviour rooted in their ambivalent anxiety, they will see others as being outsiders because of their thinking and lifestyle.

The anxiety about maintaining some kind of community life will sometimes lead to anger and unreasonable expectations and demands, both among themselves and in the perceptions of others in the wider community. This is often the case where the local church is characterized by ambivalent and avoidant attachments. Its corporate worship, particularly where it is formalized, is able to accommodate and hide ambivalent and avoidant behaviour.

In the context of a local church, what is needed is a new language and communal relationships characterized by accountability, trust, open vulnerability, deep care and concern, inner confidence in words and deeds towards others, and depth in the cultivation of discipleship.  A community of secure relationships will have the energy and will to be outward-facing, and to seek to refresh and renew the local society in which it is placed. For each local community of disciples today there needs to be a focus on the development of interpersonal and communal relationships based on deep, secure attachments. Healthy church relationships need to be relationships rooted in secure attachments characterized by deep friendships reflective of faith, hope and love… “and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13).

Jesus said, “I no longer call you a servant, because a servant does not know what his master is doing. Instead, I call you friends.” (John 15:15)

Jesus said, you have love for one another then everyone will know that you are my disciples.” (John 13:35).

Donald Winnicott (1913-1999) suggests that in a secure relationship between child and parent, the parent simply needs to be “good enough”. Winnicott argues that a “good enough” parent is better for a child’s development than a perfect parent. A perfect parent, in the eyes of Winnicott, would be one who gives a child everything he or she needs, and results in the child becoming totally dependent on the parent for their wellbeing. In turn, the perfect parent would discourage the child (for the best of motives) in struggling with the difficulties of life and with inner frustrations, seeking instead to provide for the child’s every need and want. Winnicott suggests that, in the long term, adult relationships like this will reduce a person’s resilience and capacity to work creatively with the challenges of life and the difficulties in human relationships. For Winnicott, what is required is therefore a good enough parent and not a perfect parent. A good enough parent would supply all the security needed in attachment, but at the same time allow and encourage a child’s self-development in terms of discovery, resilience and self-confidence. A child would know they are loved and would feel genuinely secure, rather than smothered and disempowered by the love of those who misguidedly seek to be “the perfect parent”.

Regarding church leadership, a leadership which is concerned for the wellbeing and growth in healthy relationships of the local church community simply needs to be good enough, not perfect. In Winnicott’s understanding it can be argued that a priest who seeks to be perfect in serving the faith community and wider society will in fact do a disservice to the local church and its mission. This disservice lies in creating and sustaining an unintentional dependence culture based on institutionalism and clericalism; and what John Tiller calls “cultic religion’, which in turn diminishes people’s personal and communal self-confidence and autonomy.

In the context of what has been said about the importance of secure attachment, it also needs to be said that secure attachment in relationships needs only to be good enough, and not perfect; perfection does not need to be sought or achieved.

Bowlby, Ainsworth and Winnicott affirm in different ways that, for children to be able to love, they need to have the experience of being loved so as to learn how to love others and themselves. Where this does not happen, forming adult relationships of depth can be problematic, in ways that have been described above.

In the context of the local church, it is Christian love (or even simply Christian kindness) that needs to be experienced and learnt communally and interpersonally. This does not just happen, and neither does the experience of family love and friendship outside church life provide, in itself, the necessary experience of – and learning about – Christian communal love and kindness. Jesus did not simply say, “love one another”. Jesus said, “love one another as I have loved you”. We are to love each other not with our own love, but with the love of Jesus; something which we learn from him (John 15:12).

Hence one of the greatest challenges for the local church today is the question as how it can encourage movement towards relationships which are secure. That is, relationships which are not characterized by avoidance and ambivalence. It is my belief that such development and growth need to be learned and taught experientially. It cannot simply be assumed to exist with any depth already. The very fact that, for centuries, there have been religious communities is surely evidence for this truth. Simply put, the Rule of St Benedict, adopted by the Benedictine order, is an illustration of the way in which people in community need to learn and experience how to love, and how to and share that love with others, so as to be able to love the world by offering compassionate service and hospitality, hence exposing the heart of God to the world and to bring down the walls of injustice.

Without doubt, the age in which we are living is one in which we need once more to unearth, like a hidden well in the desert, this truth, so that the Church can once again be healthy and flourish. For the Church to be healthy we must find and rediscover ways to learn kindness once more, and to love together for the sake of the Church’s life and mission. This fundamental Christian truth can also be expressed in terms of the urgent need for the Church to build and renew a relational culture of deep fellowship (koinonia) in communion with God and with each other through community. The purpose of this is to be the Church, the Body of Christ, and so to be a sacrificial offering of a healing communion for reconciliation in, and friendship towards, the world. 

This journey of recovery in Christian kindness, and in love through fellowship and communion in a renewed relational culture, will be a difficult one for most of us to travel on in the local church. It will require time, energy and sacrifice. Most of all it will require God’s good grace in abundance and in receiving the breath of the Holy Spirit. It will require both humility and boldness. The journey of recovering Christian kindness and friendship can be the driving force for a new Reformation or Revival within the Church of England; one which has not been seen for generations. This journey of unearthing, rediscovery (in fact discovery), is inevitably the beginning of a new paradigm shift for the Church of our time, the likes of which we can only begin to imagine and dream.

In the early 20th Century, the Church had already embraced a paradigm shift in the renewal of worship in its life, and then another shift in terms of local and global mission. The Church now needs to embrace this new paradigm shift of Fellowship, building a strong relational culture as a family of friends called to be the body of Christ in loving kindness and in the community of discipleship.

In the time we are living in there is also an urgency about healing our home, God’s earth.  Unless we embrace this imperative for a renewed relational culture of discipleship, significantly reducing the Church’s relational deficit through the hands and heart of Christ on earth, we will not have the energy or health to be an instrument of grace for the healing and renewing of the earth and its people: the earth that God has entrusted to us from the very beginning in the hands of Eve and Adam.

The healthy and life-giving future of the Anglican Church in this country will be largely determined by how far the Church, particularly the local parish church, is willing to be a community which is intentionally learning how to love as the one great priority of our time. To become a learning community, a family of friends learning to love, in other words.

William Temple would ask of each of us today,

“Will you stay as you are, to flick it out,
a lamp that gives no light,
and mourn and unnoticed”?