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Living with the conflict, in hope and sacrifice

15 March 2013

Christians can turn their differences into gifts, says Jo Bailey Wells

"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 American Anglicanism.

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 framework helps.

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 lifestyle.

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 feigned innocence.

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 sacrifice. 

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 idealism.

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 Office.

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