On Unity and Communion

Over the past few days a flurry of social media posts from Episcopal bishops, clergy, and lay people have flooded my inbox concerning the meeting of Anglican Communion bishops taking place in Canterbury this week and next.  Many bishops, including our own, are upset because it now seems that a statement under consideration at the Lambeth Conference (the official name of the meeting) concerning human dignity includes  a section stating that it is the mind of whole Communion that Christian marriage is between one man and one woman; therefore, same-sex marriage is not permissible.  Of course, part of the problem with that statement is that the whole Anglican Communion is of one mind on this subject.  It is not of one mind.  Several parts of the Communion have authorized same-sex marriage rites, including our own Church. Untangling this unfortunate (and incorrect) wording and its assumptions is something the bishops will discuss and debate.  Once again, cultural wedge issues like this continue to sidetrack the Church from its mission of declaring the Gospel–that all people and all things have been reconciled to God in Jesus Christ.  Pray for the bishops.

The debates and divisions in our Anglican Communion reflect the deep divisions that exist in what seems like every aspect of our common life.  We live in a deeply divided country, with all sides digging in and suggesting they will not budge an inch.  I often find myself in that place of ideological entrenchment.   How can I be in any level of relationship with someone who believes my sexual orientation is perverted and disordered?  How could I possibly have a respectful conversation with someone who will vote for politicians dead set on denying me the same rights accorded to other citizens?  Why would I want to subject myself to listening to another Christian who believes I am condemned by God to eternal damnation?

The plot thickens.  Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, prayed for the unity of the Church.  One could say that if Jesus left a last will and testament it is found in chapters 13-17 of John’s Gospel.  Jesus told his followers to love one another as he loved them.  He was deeply concerned for the unity of those who followed in The Way.  How do we sacrificially love with whom we not only disagree but wish us harm?  How is unity in the Church possible when we are so deeply divided?

I confess it seems that doing the work required for unity and reconciliation of any kind is almost too much to bear at times.  It is far easier to retreat into the safety of our own tribes or, perhaps worse, settle for a surface-level declaration of unity when we know deep down that no such thing actually exists.  Folks of all theological and political persuasions have ignored or abandoned what Fr. Richard Rohr calls “binary thinking”–everything is black and white, you (or “they”) are wrong and I (“we”) are right.  Distrust and disdain for the “other side” settles in and the divisions grow deeper.  Some decide to abandon any dialogue whatsoever, but at the old adage goes: “If you are not in the room, they will talk about you; if you are in the room they might talk with you.”

This week Richard Rohr published this insight from the work of Valarie Kaur, a Sikh activist for peace.  She writes:

It turns out it is extremely difficult to draw close to someone you find absolutely abhorrent. How do we listen to someone when their beliefs are disgusting? Or enraging? Or terrifying? . . . An invisible wall forms between us and them, a chasm that seems impossible to cross. We don’t even know why we should try to cross it. . . . In these moments, we can choose to remember that the goal of listening is not to feel empathy for our opponents, or validate their ideas, or even change their mind in the moment. Our goal is to understand them. . . . 

She goes on to suggest,

When listening gets hard, I focus on taking the next breath. I pay attention to sensations in my body: heat, clenching, and constriction. I feel the ground beneath my feet. Am I safe? If so, I stay and slow my breath again, quiet my mind, and release the pressure that pushes me to defend my position. I try to wonder about this person’s story and the possible wound in them. I think of an earnest question and try to stay curious long enough to be changed by what I hear. Maybe, just maybe, my opponent will begin to wonder about me in return, ask me questions, and listen to my story. Maybe their views will start to break apart and new horizons will open in the process. . . . Then again, maybe not. It doesn’t matter as long as the primary goal of listening is to deepen my own understanding. Listening does not grant the other side legitimacy. It grants them humanity—and preserves our own.

A couple of years ago a couple with whom I served at a Baptist church back in the 90’s contacted me to say they would be visiting Seattle and asked if I’d like to meet them for lunch.  Over the years we had stayed in touch but our relationship was strained.  They made it very clear that they did not approve of my relationship and marriage to David.  After one exchange, I decided to keep contact with them at a minimum, only sending a note on birthdays.  I agreed to have lunch, after all they had been very close friends at one time.  But I steeled myself for another declaration of disapproval and a lecture about where I had gone wrong.

After we greeted one another and exchanged small talk, we ordered food and began to catch up.  Without warning, one of my friends asked, “So, how is David doing?”  I was caught off guard.  She had never mentioned him by name.  The next question totally threw me off.  “What about David attracted you so that you decided to marry him?”  I couldn’t believe it.  Something had shifted.  I know for a fact that they have not changed their theological understanding of marriage and probably never will.  But I do believe they showed the mind of Christ by seeking to understand.  We will never be as close as we once were and still disagree on many points of theology, but our relationship now is one of mutual respect and understanding.

I pray that our bishops will seek to listen and truly understand one another in the coming days.  While I am grateful that our bishops will not change their course when it comes to the full inclusion of every person in our Church, I hope that they will find a way forward to somehow fulfill Jesus’ prayer that we all become One.

As you enter more intensely into a time of transition, many decisions will need to be made by the leadership and the congregation.  You will not agree with one another 100% of the time.  In fact, if you do, something might be wrong!  Take the advice of Kaur, listen deeply and then seek to understand.  The prayer attributed to St. Francis asks that we seek not so much to be understood, as to understood.  Above all, remember Jesus’ vision of a Church razor focused on their witness to a broken world.  The world desperately needs us to set the example of how though we are many, we can be One in purpose and mission.

Fr. Steve+