"YOU are training people for a Church that doesn't exist." This
was the conclusion of a bishop checking up on his ordinands at Duke
Divinity School in the United States. At first, I heard it as
criticism. But then he clarified: "You are training people for a
Church that doesn't exist . . . yet."
He was responding to the mix of Episcopal and other Anglican
students who studied happily side by side, within a much larger
interdenominational student body, working constructively, despite
their differences, when elsewhere in the Church these differences
seemed only destructive.
The Anglican Episcopal House of Studies at Duke was born in the
midst of conflict, in the wake of the consecration of Bishop Gene
Robinson. It welcomes students across the growing fissures of North
Real as these divides are - currently the Episcopal Church in
the United States and the Anglican Church of North America are not
in communion with each other - it determined that they need not be
definitive when it came to preparation for ministry, except for
learning some habits of conflict-resilience. This can mean the
resilience to attend to conflict: to take the risk of engaging in
it, not so much to resolve it, but in the conviction that God might
be found in its midst.
CONFLICT always seems to catch us by surprise, but scripture and
tradition tell another story. It is normal in a world that is
diverse, but fallen. Difference produces tension: thus conflict is
normal, even though it is not ultimately definitive. Yet we fear
it, deny it, and quash it. Perhaps especially where differences are
valid, even good and well- principled, we are tempted to beat them
into submission, or to run away. They are just too threatening.
For the work of spiritual formation with ordinands, I came to
discover conflict not merely as the norm, but as a gift.
Uncomfortable as it may be, conflict serves as a prompt along the
path to that mysterious quality of character which is the essential
complement to the accumulation of knowledge and skill.
Conflict urges deep confrontation: with ourselves, with one
another, and with God. It (usually) refuses easy resolution. We are
bonded together by a common baptism; so it calls us on a journey
together of ever-greater honesty, commitment, and vision. Parting
is not an option: therefore, the task of listening and lingering
together becomes crucial.
As with the system of indaba - the listening process being
adopted in a variety of corners of the Anglican Communion, using a
traditional African tribal model - we learned that an agreed
At Duke, we developed some community rules. The first was
respecting the fellowship of others: "Don't say about X what you
haven't said directly to X." The second was about participating:
"Don't sit on it; find the words to express your concerns."
IF HONESTY, commitment, and vision are three hallmarks for
healthy engagement in conflict, then the habits for growing
conflict-resilience could be described by the practices of lament,
sacrifice, and hope. Such habits turn indaba from a process into a
Lament is about fierce conversation - first and foremost with
God. If the complaint has been poured out to God, then we have
begun. We have begun to recognise God as the only true umpire, and
to acknowledge ourselves as antagonists, with (at best) only
Trust and transparency with God - even in anger, fragility, or
despair - paves the pathway to the risk of trust and transparency
with one another. The reverse can also be true: I remember two
students at opposite poles of opinion, personality, and experience.
They tentat- ively agreed to meet weekly to talk through their
differences. One day, it had not gone well: each wondered how the
other could dare to claim to be following Christ.
That evening, they met face-to-face at the communion rail,
equally fearful: one to administer the cup of salvation, and the
other to receive it. They never came closer to agreement; yet they
became mutually indebted, each binding the other closer to God, as
they united in lament for their brokenness.
SACRIFICE follows from lament: the willingness to step into the
gap between the way things are, and the way they should be. God did
not spare his own Son: conflict calls forth a self-giving that
takes us to the very limit of what we think we can bear - perhaps
beyond. We long for resolution, and yet we cannot create it
unilaterally: thus, any constructive outcome relies on ever-greater
measures of patience, as well as prayer.
We long for the other to change, and yet, in the process of that
very longing, we find ourselves changed - perhaps more aware of the
self-denying demands of the cross, and the need for the fruits of
the Spirit (Galatians 5.22-3).
I recall one student screaming aloud in my office that he
couldn't take any more "conversation that seemed to go nowhere",
who, a year later, looked back on "a journey of self-offering",
whereby he was called to relinquish control of outcomes, for the
sake of praying more deeply the words of Jesus "that they may all
be one" (John 17.21).
The commitment is not to "be right": it is to what you will
give, and give up, for the common cause of Christ. It is a
commitment to shalom, to flourishing, for our opponents as
for ourselves, knowing our future is bound up with theirs.
Between differing stripes of Anglican and Episcopal students -
amid a wider climate of fear - an expression of shalom to
the other might involve sacrifice. One bishop suggested that this
made his ordinands "unreliable". Another student was nearly dropped
from the ordination process for writing an eirenic article
expressing respect for the other side, as well as some critique of
her own. We cannot be a Church without risk and
Nor can we function without hope. We are called to live into an
alternate reality - that which God promised long ago; that for
which Jesus died. The demand for sacrifice could warp us, were it
not for the larger frame on which our canvas is stretched.
We may not get to witness resolution, but we affirm that the
future is beyond our imagining. So, with the practice of hope, we
may begin to find our tendency to cynicism supplanted by
It is then that our conflicts take their place among the changes
and chances of this fleeting world, and we rest upon God's eternal
changelessness. It is then that we pause with thankfulness for some
of the side-effects of conflict - by which we are deepened in some
of the core practices of faith: in lament, sacrifice, and hope.
It is then that we may find ourselves living into a different
kind of Church: one that does not exist, yet.
The Revd Dr Jo Bailey Wells has recently been appointed as
Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Until last year, she was
Director of the Anglican Episcopal House of Studies at Duke
Divinity School in North Carolina. She has also served as a
consultant for Continuing Indaba at the Anglican Communion