by the Rev Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor of Canterbury
Have you ever had that experience of profoundly disagreeing with someone while at the same time finding yourself drawn to their character and personality in friendship? At the same time, have you ever discovered that, despite a person you know being completely in tune with your values, your politics and your theology, they still drive you up the wall?
The nature of human friendship, attraction and dislike are profoundly mysterious. So often they transcend the divisions that characterise human society and the church. Recently, as a result of the Shared Conversation process in the Church of England, I have found new or renewed friendships through encounters I have had with those I profoundly disagree with. The reason these relationships emerge is of considerable interest to me, not only as a psychological phenomenon of my life to be analysed and explored (why do I particularly enjoy the company of those I disagree with?), but as a spiritual gift to my own Christian discipleship to be received and celebrated (what is it that God is giving to me in this particular relationship?).
Difference is, of course, the everyday reality of Church of England parish life. Unless we live in a very particular sort of ecclesiastical bubble, or only ever engage with people we think are ‘like us’ in a particular way, our congregations generally contain people who have a wide range of theological, political and other values. Being a parish priest is about negotiating that diversity, finding the places of unity and harnessing both for the mission of the local church (being a bishop, I guess, is about doing these things in spades!). You find yourself, or at least I do, allowing growing relationships with people shaping your view of, and your attitude to, the positions they take on a whole set of matters. You don’t lose your own convictions, but you find them tempered, refined or nuanced by friendship, shaped by your own vocation to serve them, to seek their good and sometimes humbled by a kind of generous faith in Christ that you only can aspire to. Relationships like these are wonderful to me: they help me to understand others and give others a much better chance of respecting and valuing your own point of view. What strikes me from 20 years of incumbency is that Church of England parishes are increasingly unique as places where genuine disagreement can be expressed and as such – in the context of mission – they are a powerful witness to Jesus Christ.
In the current charged atmosphere in the Church, and at a time of national uncertainty, the gift of such friendship-across-divisions is becoming less common, and not necessarily for the well-being of either church or society. It is very easy in the world of social media to engage without relationship and to react without any real knowledge of what makes a person tick or to assume that what you understand by a comment is what they mean: theological colleges will soon be offering a course entitled courses in ‘The Hermeneutics of Suspicion: The Exegesis of Facebook Postings’! It is also increasingly common to polarise into sectional interest or to be driven by anger that diminishes the opponent without allowing for the possibility of relationship to shape the encounter and to allow unexpected conclusions and new directions to emerge. The slogan language of “revisionist” and “homophobe” also has the same overtones. It’s lazy dog-whistle stuff when used without relationship. Such loaded and potentially painful words are sometimes legitimate – don’t get me wrong – but they really only ought to be used, and they genuinely only can be heard, in the context of relationship.
Too often we now talk at each other in the Church and we model our communication on the tactics of the pressure group or the online world. We take our view of our brothers and sisters in Christ from the editorial slant of Anglican Mainstream, Thinking Anglicans or whatever particular blog or angry Facebook posting has interrupted, or upset the equilibrium of, our day. It’s profoundly unbiblical, rather depressing and, as I write this, rest assured I see my own faults all too clearly. If we spent as much time working at our relationships as we do finessing our biblical interpretation, theological arguments or composing that brilliant Tweet of riposte, surely the mission of the Church would be better served?
“See how these Christians love one another”. There is really no other game in town.
Photograph of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness