Polarization in Ecclesial Conversations: We Know Where We Stand, We Know Who We Belong To

In recent weeks I’ve been reading lots of articles, blog posts, official and unofficial statements, and even status updates that describe (and exhibit) how at odds various perspectives and voices are within the Church.  I find some of the polarizing arguments and the enmity expressed disturbing.  Understand that it is never surprising to me that there are differences, conflict, tension, various points on differing continuums.  What saddens me in ecclesial conversations is the occasional tone and/or attack  encountered.  Even in the printed word, one can read a raised voice! – and disrespect or sarcasm are even easier to spot.  There is a toxicity too when misrepresentations or smooth – almost poisonously polite – dismissals and challenges to others’ integrity, commitment or faith journey are the delivery system.

In the last week alone I withdrew from two LinkedIn groups that exhibited some of these ways of communicating.  At first, I tried to stay particularly with one group, so that I could really understand better where folks were coming from.  Eventually I found it too destructive to do so.  I did not want to be counted a ‘member’ of such a discussion, as if I agreed with the mode of communication.  I’m honest enough to tell you though that I was tempted to enter the fray a few times, in response to content in one or another discussion thread.  NO!  Though I managed to hold back, I very much understand the temptation and the danger.

The draw to enter the fight is almost seductive, and most of us know how to fight this way pretty well.  For my part, I certainly hold a perspective and a position… but there’s a primary one I wish we all would spend more energy on.  More on that in a bit.

Again, it’s not that the polarization in communicating is particularly surprising.  It seems when we humans dig in to a position we have a tendency to exhibit little patience, not enough listening.  When the position taking is heightened, we may exhibit an unwillingness to believe the best of the other, a too simplistic negative characterization of others’ takes on items of significance, and a poverty of appreciation for the gifts and the struggles of the other (individual or group).  We also may look for others who are “on our side” and “awful-ize” about the other/s.

In ministerial and ecclesial dialogues, such behavior flies in the face of what we would teach…  planks in our own eyes, not throwing stones, cases in point!  As I look at things from a human and spiritual formation perspective, I wonder at what the learning is that we have not focused on, not appropriated as our own, or that we deliberately shirk that leads us as Church to such (from my perspective) lows.  What does the other threaten in us?  If our reaction says more of us than it says of the other, what can we learn about ourselves from these reactions?  And we each need to determine these answers as “I statements” – though it’s more fun to name what others are threatened by!

If this was viewed as a “temptation in the desert” type of experience for the Church, what would Jesus’ own responses in the desert teach us about what misperceptions we are counting as truth when we behave in this manner?  We need his help, I believe, to contradict the untruths we are acting from, to help us release what we are clinging to.  And when dialogue is more like public dueling, it seems we can approach this desert-taught Jesus with an entreaty that all sides’ distortions be revealed, righted and healed – by God, not us.

It’s the Easter season, and I’ve been reading today a 2006 Easter homily from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.*  His words and images have spoken to me as I reflect on the above, and it has reminded me of what is most important that we stand in and proclaim this season TOGETHER in our holy communion as one body:  He is Risen!  And so I am taking the liberty here to offer whole segments of Archbishop William’s homily for your consideration.   Focus on his message and the example he uses, and see if you find insight.

For the Church does not exist just to transmit a message across the centuries through a duly constituted hierarchy that arbitrarily lays down what people must believe; it exists so that people in this and every century may encounter Jesus of Nazareth as a living contemporary.  This sacrament of Holy Communion that we gather to perform here is not the memorial of a dead leader, conducted by one of his duly authorized successors who controls access to his legacy; it is an event where we are invited to meet the living Jesus as surely as did his disciples on the first Easter Day….  Everything the Church does — is meant to be in the service of this contemporary encounter.  It all ought to be transparent to Jesus, not holding back or veiling his presence.

All we do is to be about encounter with Jesus, and bringing one another into communion with him today.  For those with document interests, this mirrors the Catechism of the Catholic Church #426 which quotes On Catechesis in Our Time #5, and the General Directory for Catechesis #80.

But stay tuned.  There’s more!

The Archbishop goes on to tell the story of an Anglican religious order known as the Melanesian Brotherhood who lost seven of their members to murder by a rebel group during the bloody civil war in the Solomon Islands in 2003.  This community…

…of local men [are] committed to a common discipline of praying and teaching and spreading the gospel as they travel around the villages, by drama and song and preaching…. The shock of that act of gratuitous butchery [the bloody murder of the brothers] jolted amost everyone involved into beginning a peace process; the brothers continued to be involved in every level in that work.  Last summer, a number of the brothers visited England, taking their songs and dramas into churches and schools.  One of the things they did was to perform a Passion play, and this is what one of them wrote about it:

“This Passion was our own testimony to our seven brothers who were murdered in 2003.  For Christlike they became the innocent victims of the violence they had worked so hard to stop.  They were beaten and mocked and tortured…  put to death.  And they live on.  Our story of the Passion of Christ took place 2000 years ago, but it is still taking place throughout our world today.  But we have been changed.  We did not travel from the other side of the world to preach a death but to preach a resurrection.  For we know where we stand and we know who we belong to.  And we believe there is a choice in all this, a choice to belong to the life giver.”

We know where we stand and we know who we belong to.  Beyond all the history of confusion and betrayal that surrounds a lot of the Church’s history, beyond the power games that we still play in the churches, this one rocklike conviction remains, the conviction that drove the writing of every word of the New Testament.  Nothing to do with conspiracies, with the agenda of the powerful; everything to do with how the powerless, praying, risking their lives for the sake of Christ and his peace, are the ones who understand the word of God.  And to accept that is not to sign up to the agenda of a troubled, fussy human society of worried prelates and squabbling factions.  It is to choose life, to choose to belong to the life giver.

I long for our dialogues and our passions as disciples and ministers to focus with all of our diverse gifts and significant energy on the rocklike conviction on which we stand, the one to whom we all belong, and our mission to empty ourselves in service to one another as we go about making visible the same kind of love the Trinity loves us with.

As we evangelize – inviting others into this contemporary encounter with Jesus – perhaps we need to approach him humbly too with all our intrachurch arguments embarrassingly in our outstretched palms.  Take them, Risen Lord, and send us back effectively to the vineyard!

As Church we must center – in all our members from every continent, age, position, authority, vocation, education, culture, lifestyle – back on this mission as primary.  Our world is in need of witness, and our public choosing for the life giver, as one body in Christ.

What can it mean to act from that choice, and that urgent need for witness?  And how can we deal with the present tensions and conflicts in the way the God who loves us all would invite?  I do not know that I know the answers to these questions, but I believe in the urgency of the questions.  Our ability to engage our mission faithfully and with great impact in a world, a creation, and in lives with great needs depends on it.

  • As you send me into the world, so I send them into the world.  (John 17:18)
  • The Church on earth is by its very nature missionary  (Ad Gentes Divinitus, #2)
  • To say Church is to say mission (To the Ends of the Earth, #16)
  • Church –  Having been born out of being sent… It is his (Christ’s) mission she is called upon to continue.  For the Christian community is never closed in upon itself.   (Evangelization in the Modern World, #15)

———–

*  Archbishop Rowan Williams is the primate of the Anglican church.  He is bishop, poet, theologian.  The text of this homily can be found in Best of Catholic Writing 2007, published by Loyola Press.

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4 thoughts on “Polarization in Ecclesial Conversations: We Know Where We Stand, We Know Who We Belong To

  1. Anne Comeaux

    Joanne, thank you for these thoughts. I, too, have been dismayed and disappointed at the chasm which seems to be getting deeper and broader in this Church. I, too, “know who I belong to” and the thing that saddens me the most is that people are so quick to say, “get out!” Daily I sturuggle with issues and events in Holy Mother Church. I have grappled with my conscience as to why I stay, I have had conversations with family who challenge my work within the institutional church, it has not been an easy journey especially these last 10-12 years. But those who have no respect for what I hold dear about the church, what I have learned from scholars in theological schools, those from the inside, urge me to leave if I don’t like it. I really don’t understand how that can be an attitude of the New Evangelization. I try to listen to the Lord. Peace

    • Thanks so much, Anne, for sharing some of your story here. The toxicity of the us-them arguments is more than difficult. I hope other readers hear the tension that you pray and listen through… and that is partially present because of others’ actions and words. Painful, but also presumptuous in the extreme – imho, are conversations that disinvite a fellow disciple from a Church she has been life-long committed to, been formed and educated in, and served so well. Happily – Jesus calls us to come, see, remain, go. It is good to call you colleague, Anne, as it has been over years. Yes, you know where you stand and who you belong to.

  2. don henderson

    I am a newbie to this site, so I don’t know its context. However, I have read the scripture quite a bit, and I do not accept the somewhat hyperbolic and romanticized view of scripture expressed in the paragraph that contained this sentence: “Beyond all the history of confusion and betrayal that surrounds a lot of the Church’s history, beyond the power games that we still play in the churches, this one rocklike conviction remains, the conviction that drove the writing of every word of the New Testament.” There is confusion and betrayal recounted in the scripture; there are power games as well. All of this is wrapped up in the paschal mystery story. We are challenged to seek and find the truth and give our lives for it. We have to find our ground and stand upon it. And sometimes we have to take sides.

  3. Welcome, Don! Happy to have your reflections and input here. Come often! If you like, take a look at the ‘about the blog’ link at the top of the page for a context on the blog, or just page through some other posts. I would submit – (without asking him, always dangerous!) – that Archbishop Rowan Williams would agree to your insight about confusion, betrayal and power games appearing/being described throughout scripture. His point, I believe, is that where we stand (on what central conviction) and who we belong to is more important than these… and I think you say that too in the challenge to seek/find truth and give our lives for it. The truth he’d name is in the paschal mystery you mention and celebrate. I love the way you say that. The Archbishop’s entire homily was too long to include, so the excerpts don’t do his perspective a total contextual reading… you might enjoy reading him directly further. Reference info on the Easter 2006 homily was at the close of the post. For my part, I recognize the call to discern and speak truth — I just worry that the truth we most want to witness to, and which is our core mission, is sometimes overshadowed. I would wish we could support each others’ best efforts and gifts in witness and gospel, and am saddened as we do not, and challenged myself.

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