Conflict and Controversy
Bringing Wounds and Blessings
Conflict can be difficult, especially in the church. The Episcopal Church is presently experiencing a period of disagreement, principally over issues of human sexuality.
While I, as a diocesan bishop, did not favor some of the decisions taken at the last General Convention on these matters, I am steadfastly loyal to the Episcopal Church and believe that with good will and grace we will be able to find our way through present disagreements. The conciliar processes of Anglicanism are often untidy and discerning the mind of Christ together is always an unfolding reality.
What do leaders do in such times? How do we help our churches manage the stresses of conflict? What helps congregations deal with disagreement in ways that build up rather than weaken our mission?
Wise leadership makes the difference between parishes that have remained unified and focused and those that have become anxious and polarized. I have observed many parishes engaging our present challenges. Let me attempt to distill the wisdom I have seen.
“Do not be anxious,” Jesus wisely said in Matthew 6. Centuries later Edwin Friedman observed that unchecked anxiety is one of the most destructive forces in family systems such as the church. Our faith has much to say about managing anxiety through trust in the loving purposes of God. It is well to remember that “Fear not!” is the favorite greeting of the angels in Scripture.
Managing anxiety, so to minimize its impact on the life of the faith community, is a key task of leaders in the church. What Friedman called the “non-anxious presence” of leaders is a crucial gift to the church’s life. It is what is needed to help lead the church into “all truth, and in all truth with all peace.”
Tolerance and patience
This is especially important in times of conflict. Conflict is endemic to the life of faith, not something to be afraid of. Anglicanism has always recognized that faithful people will have differing points of view on certain theological and social issues. While we share the “faith once delivered to the saints,” new issues inevitably arise in the church’s experience and the struggle to discern truth is not easy. Anglican comprehensiveness requires both tolerance and patience. A genius of this church has been our capacity to disagree and still worship side by side, steadfast in mission together.
In times of conflict it is essential for leaders to do four things: keep the church focused on its essential mission, communicate well about the issues at hand, respect differing points of view, and trust the Spirit.
First, staying focused on mission prevents a parish from becoming centered in anything other than Christ and his work. In parishes where leaders become fixated on issues — whether disagreements over chancel furniture, new hymnody, or human sexuality — the parish suffers. As Casey Stengel once said, “The main thing is to make the main thing the main thing.” As issues come and go, healthy people expect the church to keep its focus on worship, teaching and pastoral care, and reaching out to love and serve others. The vestry is called to be a focus of unity, where mission is central and issues are addressed but not allowed to dominate.
Secondly, good communication minimizes anxiety that people feel when they do not know what is going on. Healthy churches deal with issues openly rather than hide from them. In our current conflict it helps to explain the church’s teaching on sexual ethics and the questions being raised regarding pastoral and moral guidance for persons in the church who are homosexually oriented, as we are coming to understand this reality.
As a bishop I care deeply about the church’s inclusion and pastoral care for all persons and for justice. Yet I do not believe that we have found an adequate new consensus fidelium about same-sex relationships. It has been helpful for me to explain my conscientious decision not to consent to the election of Bishop Robinson and my steadfast conviction about being loyal to the church as we struggle through these matters. Reasonable people can disagree, but we all need to understand what the issues are and how the church is facing them.
Thirdly, leaders must listen to the range of opinions always present in a congregation. Otherwise polarization quickly results. When persons feel that they are being heard and different views respected, anxiety is diminished and trust is enhanced. When the leaders of a church listen to only one point of view, the community becomes divided. Our tradition is always best at “both/and” thinking rather than “either/or” thinking.
Finally, in times of conflict, leaders say their prayers and help congregations trust Jesus’ promise that the Spirit will guide us into all truth. Our faith holds that God is at work in all things. Even disagreement can be a channel for God to shape and form us in his service. Leaders keep their attention on God and trust that, as George Herbert wrote, “God moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.” This is our spiritual foundation.
It is painful when faithful people disagree and at times hurt each other. Through it, nonetheless, we can grow in faith and commitment. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, through conflict we are both wounded and blessed. Leaders are called to love the church through such difficult times and trust God for the rest.
The Right Reverend Henry Nutt Parsley, Jr. is Bishop of Alabama and chairs the Theology Committee for the House of Bishops.