Sunday, 1 July 2012

When A Church Argues

It does seem, as we approach the General Synod at York, next week, that this particular Synod is surrounded by a more-than-normal degree of argument. And there are clearly further arguments pending.... What happens when a church argues? There are those who shrink in horror from such open conflict fearing the pain and the impact it has on those who look on from outside. There are others who think that robust debate which gets to the bottom of differences is not to be feared as it slowly (albeit painfully) reveals truth and provides an honest way forward.

My starting point is to quote Ruth Etchells (a theologian and writer who was Principal of the theological college I attended.) 'I wish we could dispel the notion that the church is anything other than a gathering of sinners.' We none of us have the whole truth about a matter; we none of us are completely right. We all make mistakes and act from mixed motives that are sometimes a great deal less pure than we would like to admit. Most of us find it very difficult to walk a balanced line between justice and compassion, loyalty to tradition and response to new developments. The art of being church is to live repentantly and graciously with those with whom we disagree.

Lavinia Byrne (Roman Catholic religious, broadcaster and writer) says this, 'Discerning is not about arguing one's corner. It is about trying to listen to one another in order to listen to the voice of God.' Messy as things can get, it is by listening to the most outlandish voice, the angry voice, the quiet voice, the voices of the majority and the voice of the wise individual that Christians believe it is possible to move forward. The Holy Spirit is able to work through the church's honest debate and interaction, through its members' pain and frustration and to bring to resonance the voice of the voiceless. Listening requires full attention and the ability to put aside our own ideas while we listen. People sometimes forget that the end stage of listening is to reflect, at a deep level, on whether what you have heard ought to change how you think and live.  The Mennonites, who are well known and respected as bridgebuilders and for their conflict transformation work, talk about 'centred listening' and 'centred speaking' as the basis for finding a way forward in a dispute. Put together, centred listening and centred speaking mean that every party has a responsibility at each stage of the debate to work out what they think and feel, to be able to express it in non-threatening ways, to listen to others without immediately judging what they express and then to meditate long and hard on what they have heard and how it might change what they think and feel. It's always important to ask, 'Is part of the impasse due to the fact that one or other party feels they have not been heard?' They may have talked alot, but they may still feel unheard; this could be their own responsibility or it could be the responsibility of those who might have listened. It is also possible that there are no processes in place to enable proper centred listening and speaking - and I think this may be one of our current problems in the Church of England over some issues.

Centred listening and speaking can be a time-consuming and exhausting process. People outside the church are incredulous that the Church of England cannot seem to find a way forward even in cases where a large majority has expressed a clear view. I'm quite surprised, at this point, to find myself quoting Margaret Thatcher, but she puts it so cogently. 'When Christians take counsel together, their purpose should not be to ascertain what is the mind of the majority but what is the mind of the Holy Spirit - something which may be quite different.' Majorities do tell us important things. But so does the plight of those who find themselves caught up in places where they have little or no voice and little or no power. So another vital aspect of listening is to ask questions about how power is being used to include or exclude, to build up and subvert, to deny people their place with their insight born of their experience of life and of God. And who is doing most of the talking?

Leonardo Boff (South American theologian) says,'Jesus will continue to be condemned to death so long as we do not establish the human conditions that allow justice to flower and right to flourish. Without justice and right, the kingdom of God cannot be established.' In establishing what is just, the church has before it parables such as the one about the owner of a vineyard who pays those who come to work very late as generously as those who have worked all day (Matthew 20.1-16). Justice here mingles with a compassionate acceptance of the needs of those who 'come late', who have been and are disadvantaged.  The parable also shows that it is not for those who receive less to resent the generosity that gives more than might be expected to others.

Our diocese has a link with the two dioceses of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan theologian, Tissa Balasuriya writes, 'Prudence will decide on the issues that are worth fighting for as well as the means to be used in the struggle. Prudence tells us when it is necessary to bypass an issue or pursue it to the extent of polarization.' The Church of England and the Anglican Communion, partly because of their sheer breadth, do have a tendency to pursue issues to the extent of polarization and this is not necessarily an imprudent thing, as Balasuriya suggests. However, we also have a tendency to lose our nerve when things get difficult and to look for fudging, delaying or opt-out tactics. If we love our Lord and believe that He has called us into our church and placed us in it according to our gifts, we should stand firm, remain engaged, be open to change and respond in charity as the Holy Spirit does the work of bringing out into the open differences that need more work..or more honesty..or more justice..or more compassion..or more risk-taking before they can be resolved.

So what does all this say to the Church of England, its bishops, synods and members? It suggests that we must constantly try to act from a personal place of deep-down integrity; we must acknowledge to ourselves and to God when our motives are dislike (or worse) of one group or another, personal popularity, personal advancement or a personal, unexamined idee fixe, be it drawn from a particular view of tradition or mission, or where we simply assume we know best where 'God' and 'right' happen to sit. We must pray and meditate deeply over all that we hear. We must act according to our conscience within the possibilities provided by the processes of our church and its relationship to wider society through parliament and other institutions.  We must believe that the Holy Spirit will act among us to bring the church to a better place. We must then commit ourselves to live out whatever arises - continuing to listen and to speak in centred ways - perhaps especially if we do not like whatever emerges - and remaining ready to challenge where our conscience tells us it is necessary.  I offer this to you as my personal understanding of the way the Church of England works.

1 comment:

  1. Well said and well prayed. Thank you for your thoughts and words on this subject.