By John Backman
You might not expect a deputy from a liberal parish to look forward to the Diocese of Albany’s annual convention. The weekend gathering is, after all, a center of conservatism, reflected in everything from the prevailing theology to the proposed resolutions. Why would anyone from a non-conservative church even set foot there?
Yet I do, and not just to represent my parish. I go in order to talk with those on the “other side” and, I hope, to build bridges. So far my conversation partners and I have not solved the world’s problems; rather, we have swapped stories about our families and sought out common ground. But what I see at this grassroots level surprises me: a pleasure in dialogue, and a longing for the mutual respect it engenders.
Is it a fool’s errand to foster that longing? ls the Episcopal Church, or Anglican Communion, too irretrievably broken for this to matter? If not, what would it take to make dialogue and mutual respect happen, person by person, notwithstanding our disagreements?
Reams have been written about conflict resolution techniques. While they are valuable, I believe we must first prepare our inner selves by engaging in what the Church has traditionally called the “work of the soul.” By actively cultivating the fruit of the Spirit within us, this work expands our capacity to reach across differences with kindness rather than hostility.
The work of the soul is nothing new; monastics have used it for centuries to open themselves to the work of the Spirit. Consider the following transformative practices:
- Sitting in silence and focusing our attention on God, we provide space for him, to move freely in our souls.
- Praying the Daily Office, we often find ourselves giving voice to psalms we don’t like, or passages that don’t express our feelings at the moment.
- Lectio divina, the slow, contemplative reading of Scripture to hear God’s voice, nudges us to grapple with whatever the text has to offer.
- Living in Christian community confronts us with ideas about God and the Scriptures that we never could have imagined on our own.
By their very nature these practices encourage the growth of godly virtues within us, virtues that can open us to dialogue. As we regularly pray texts of the lectionary’s choosing, wrestle with difficult portions of Scripture, and encounter diverse perspectives in community, we grow in humility. Our hunger for truth, for a deeper knowledge of this God whom we love and worship, motivates us to listen for the divine voice in these other perspectives, and the desire for dialogue grows.
What brings this desire to fruition is another virtue that the work of the soul fosters within us: a commitment to love. When experienced deeply, especially in silent prayer, God’s presence cannot help but remold us in the image of love. As part of that love, we are better able to see others as God sees them: not so much “liberal” or “conservative” as essentially human. Committing ourselves to loving one another, come what may, helps create a safe place where we can express our views and listen deeply to each other.
Ultimately, these practices empower us to approach the other person, no matter how strident, with curiosity and compassion. And that approach can yield powerful results.
In a bitter diocesan convention debate over a resolution on sexuality, I stepped to the microphone and proposed the need for a dialogue. In response, I was touched by the kind words of some of the convention’s most vocal conservatives — offering to engage me in discussion, pointing out Scriptures to ponder, expressing an appreciation for the “soft answer that turns away anger.”
This has little to do with me and everything to do with the work of the Spirit. Millions of people pursue these spiritual practices, often displaying humility, clarity of thought, gentleness, and passion for the Church as a result. What would happen if more of us pursued this path and directed it toward dialogue?
What if, “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” we engaged the Church’s conflict with the soft word that turns away anger? ls it too much to hope that, even if the Episcopal Church as an institution continues to fracture, people on all sides might reach across various and sundry divides and pursue healing individually?
We are, each and every one of us, called to take up the most powerful Christian witness of all — a demonstration to the world of how we love one another. We must not neglect any chance to do so.
John Backman is working on a book about dialogue with the working title Why Can’t We Talk? He engages in dialogue on both politics and theology at www.dialogueventure.com.