So I’ve been thinking about the goal of the Shared Conversations process, ‘good disagreement’. This has meant some reflecting around the theme of conflict management, and I’ve been following up some references to ‘integrative complexity’.
If you have a low IC score, that indicates that you’re thinking in very polarized terms – ‘I’m right, they’re wrong’ or ‘I’m good, she’s bad’. Indicators of low IC scores are found when you analyse speeches made shortly before conflict breaks out; shades of grey disappear at that point (a discovery that feels very close to home, with the Syria vote in Parliament tomorrow). Higher IC scores indicate that the speaker is doing better at finding some common ground, not giving up their core beliefs but instead understanding that there may be something that they and the Other share. This sounds a lot like the goal of ‘good disagreement’.
An example. Some hours before I preached at Evensong the Sunday before last, I met a friend who is a regular at that service who wanted to know what I’d be preaching about. It being the feast of Christ the King, I said ‘Christ the King’. That wasn’t what she needed to know. The question, as she rephrased it, was something like ‘Will Jesus be glorified in your sermon?’ I found this very difficult to answer. Part of that is the problem of ‘Christianese’. We all use different language to talk about God-stuff. The phrasing she used isn’t in my vocabulary, which is why I’m not even sure I have it right here (the only witness says he thinks I have) and there are plenty of things I say that probably sound alien or indeed risky to her. So, I answered in a generally affirmative way (because, of course, I’d be exploring Jesus’ kingship and what sort of king he is) and tried to add in something about how what the preacher says isn’t necessarily what the congregation hears; I’m sure everyone who preaches can come up with occasions on which a listener has said ‘thank you for that, I found what you said about Topic A really helpful’ and you think, er, that wasn’t what I was talking about… But that’s all fine because a sermon isn’t a lecture.
However, this was only the beginning. It turned out she had been very disturbed by a sermon I’d preached in August, in which I’d started from the Archbishop of York telling the lay reader Jeremy Timm to choose between marrying his male partner or continuing in his role as a reader. I was shocked by what had happened there – the extension of the existing ‘one rule for clergy, another for laity’ to the laity; the disparity between what different dioceses do; and don’t get me started on either of those! And, as a lay preacher, who happens to be a woman married to a man, I feel for other lay ministers who find a life partner who is of the same sex, are now legally allowed to marry that partner, but then can’t serve the church (if they happen to be in York, at least).
One of the readings that Sunday was from Hebrews 13. On immersing myself in the readings, what stood out for me as the overall message was the primacy of love, so I found I was reading the Bible through the lens of what had just happened in York diocese. I drew on my knowledge of New Testament Greek to explore some of the terms for sexual relationships in the Hebrews passage. I tried to contextualize the Bible and point out something of the way that any translation is also an interpretation – so, for example, the term for marriage, gamos, meant something very different in a culture where only a man could actively ‘marry’ and marriage was something ‘done to’ a woman. I made it very clear that I wasn’t saying Hebrews 13:4 endorses same-sex marriage, but rather that we can’t use a verse from the very different New Testament understanding of marriage to argue that same-sex marriage is wrong.
One of the comments my friend from church made was that the preacher is in a privileged position – we speak, and there’s no right of reply. I completely agree, and there was heated discussion about this when I did the ‘Preaching’ element of my training course. It’s very odd not being questioned about what you say from the pulpit. On this particular occasion, several members of the small congregation – and not the usual ones who stop and talk – had made a point of thanking me for the sermon and sharing stories with me about friends and families. But I could see others didn’t agree with a word of what I said. There was one member of the congregation vigorously shaking his head as I preached. It throws me to see this as I look out at the congregation. But none of the ‘disagree-ers’ stayed behind to say anything. I hadn’t even realized, until this meeting in our town, that this friend felt so strongly about what I’d said. She insisted that if she hadn’t met me in the street, she would have boycotted the service because I was the preacher, and added that other people felt the same.
So by now you may be wondering – did anyone turn up for Evensong two Sundays ago? Well, numbers were down, but whether that was me or the cold weather I wouldn’t know.
But back to integrative complexity. As I sat in church before the service, my friend passed me a letter. In it she’d copied from her journal the positive comments on my earlier sermons, and also her comments on the Hebrews one. I was amazed and humbled that anyone should make notes on my sermons. For the Hebrews one, she’d written ‘Why in 2000 years has no one translated it differently if her interpretation and translation is correct?’ But of course there’s a lot of theology around, and a lot of translations; there are many interpretations, some more recent than others, and I don’t see anything I said as being so radical. From my friend’s church background – clearly, yes. From mine – well, no.
From the letter, it wasn’t so much the views on human sexuality which were the point of disagreement – it is something far more fundamental, our engagement with the Bible. The pre-reading for the Shared Conversations was focused on this point; that, ‘For many, the matter of sexuality may be the presenting question, but what is at stake is the church’s understanding of the God of the Old and New Testaments – the God of the church and of Jesus himself.’ Our disagreements around human sexuality have deep ‘scriptural and theological roots’. It’s not that liberals ‘reject’ the Bible – it’s that we put more weight on context. In IC terms, what my friend and I share beneath our disagreement is a deep respect for the Bible. And in the Shared Conversations, ‘interpretation and application of scripture’ lie at the heart of the process.
Digitalnun’s post for 1 December 2015 puts it far better than I could:
Often, when we pray for peace, we pray for the wolf to change, as though he could cease to be a meat-eater and somehow become a grass-nibbler; or, we’ll pray for the lamb to change, as though she could become a predator and instil fear in other animals. I wonder whether that isn’t missing the point. Isaiah’s messianic vision sees the wolf and the lamb living together, achieving a mutual respect and harmony that the traditional roles of predator and prey do not allow.
Two opposed views: but the hope of harmony.