A time for talking and a time for not talking—or do we all just need more time?

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In February of my final year of university, the faculty went on strike. The dispute had been brewing for the entire academic year and provoked plenty of fodder for debate. I have always remembered how discussions seemed to continually circle back to one question: when do you decided that dialogue has failed and opt for other strategies? In other words, when do you walk away from the negotiating table?

I can remember rehearsing the various answers. On the one hand, how can anyone be opposed to something as reasonable as dialogue and negotiation? On the other hand, it is clear that there are ways in which dialogue can be used to perpetuate an unjust status quo and in which at some point one party is justified in declaring that it no longer makes sense to continue in the conversation.

In one way or another, I have had these debates in my head ever since that strike. These issues about the importance of dialogue, conversation, and negotiation have deeply influenced me. Indeed, my reflection on them is a critical part of my new book, Backpacking through the Anglican Communion.

I thought of all these issues again recently when I read two competing essays on the topic. On the one hand, there is Phil Groves, of the Anglican Communion Office, who reflects on the case of Euodia and Syntyche to conclude that

We also need to remember that when disunity appears facilitated conversations are the Biblical way forwards.

For someone who leads the Continuing Indaba project, this is perhaps, not a surprising conclusion.

In response, comes a much lengthier article from Phil Ashey of the American Anglican Council who—never one to shy away from hyperbole—says Ashey “misses the mark by a longshot.” He then proceeds to call reconciliation—a central Biblical concept—some kind of “new religion.” You can read these articles and make up your own mind.

But what neither of these articles addresses is the question of time. “Time all heals all wounds,” it is often (wrongly) said. How does the question of time influence our understanding of conflict transformation?

We might first note that Jesus was not afraid of taking time—it took him thirty years on earth before he began his ministry. So when people start making claims about how much time has elapsed as a reason for determining that dialogue no longer is an option, we can all stop, take a deep breath, and remember that God’s time is not our time.

The other thing is that Jesus invested a lot of his time in people that others thought were hopeless or lost causes. My favourite example of this is Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Jesus takes a break at a well in the middle of the day, meets a woman who has been pretty comprehensively cast out of her society (that’s why she was getting her water in the heat of the day when no one else would be there), and engages her in conversation, even though, as John tells us, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” (4:9)

I’m not sure if this qualifies as a “facilitated conversation”—there doesn’t seem to be a facilitator at the well—but it does seem to me to be a pretty dramatic example of the fruits of patient engagement with difference. The woman’s life in transformed and she becomes one of the first evangelists, running into town to tell everyone about what she has learned.

When I think about conflicts in the world, whether in the Anglican Communion or beyond, I often think about this story about Jesus and the Samaritan woman. I find myself asking a question. What would happen if we did what Jesus did? Show up where no one expects us to be and taking the time to talk to people who are different than us?

UPDATE: Corrected mistaken reference to Phil Ashey which came out as Phil Groves. A case of too many Phils!

What’s Next?

For the last generation (or more), Episcopalians have been fighting with one another over how to respond to the presence of gay and lesbian Christians in the church. This debate has mirrored one that is going on in the larger society. The growing acceptance of same-sex marriage in the church and society has led some people to pronounce that the fight is over.

Whether this is true or not is a conversation for another time. (Some Protestant denominations in the United States remain resolutely opposed to moves to accomodate gay and lesbian Christians. In the Church of England, the conversation has barely begun.) The question I want to ask is this: what’s next?

What will be the next issue that the church rips itself apart over? Because if there is one lesson from history, it is that church members will always find something to fight about, from the nature of Christ to “higher criticism” of the Bible. The Baby Boom generation in the Episcopal Church has been through three major fights over a new prayer book, ordaining women, and the role of gay and lesbian Christians. Fighting and disagreement is is part and parcel of the church, because both diversity and sin are part and parcel of what it means to be human.

Given the way the world is going, it’s easy to imagine some sort of bioethical issue being the next hot-button subject. I’m not competent to judge what it might be. But I think one issue that may be quickly approaching us is assisted suicide. The issue has recently come before some state legislatures and the general public in referendums, with some success and some failures. It has all the hallmarks of a contentious issue: one in which compromise seems impossible (you either permit it or you don’t) and one which brings up questions about the “sanctity of life.”

But I’m interested in what others might think is next on the horizon. I hate to seem fatalistic about this, but the debate about so-called “open communion” at last summer’s General Convention indicates that even a group of people that largely agrees on one contentious issue can be divided on another.

Parenthetically, we might note that the fact of conflict in the church should give Christians pause and make us question whether “victory” in a church fight is really what we should be aiming for. It should also make us think about the resources in our own tradition for dealing with broken relationships and conflict. But those are all ideas that have been addressed elsewhere.