March 6, 2006

Listening, Acceptance, and Approval

In a recent interview with David Frost, Archbishop Rowan Williams observed:

I think, to find ways, as long as possible, of getting these two sides to make sense of themselves to each. The biggest problem is people don’t listen very much. That’s, you know, that’s human nature, and the Church is no exception. And so long as people are still trying to - so long as people are aware that they’ve enough in common to disagree, rather than just to tear it all up, so long as that’s true, it’s worth working at. Now the point may come where people say well we no longer have enough in common and we may reach that point - I don’t know. Meanwhile, my first priority is to try and keep the conversation going, to say do you understand why this matters.
It seems to me that the Archbishop says two things here: one false, and one true — and they are related. The false part is the accusation that “people don’t listen.” I think people have in fact listened very carefully; and that after listening we still disagree. +Rowan is betraying his liberal optimism here: if only you will understand me, you will agree with me. But arguments are not always persuasive, and a failure to agree need not indicate a failure to understand. An old priest friend of mine once told me of a conversation with his senior warden, who finally said to him, in exasperation, “Father, you aren’t listening to what I’m saying!” The priest responded, “George, I hear you perfectly. But I disagree.”

Where the Archbishop is “spot on” is in the question of how we deal with the disagreement. This is where we can choose to act in a gospel fashion, or not. Do we have enough in common to hold the church together in spite of strong disagreement about the rightness of same-sex relationships, and, whether right or wrong, how important is this particular aspect of a person’s life in terms of ordained ministry? Can those who disapprove accept the full participation of those of whom they disapprove in the church — in all orders of ministry? — that is the question for the “reasserters.” The question for the “reappraisers” is not (or ought not to be) Will you stop doing this? but Can you live with this lack of full approval — is acceptance enough? In short, can we maintain our unity in spite of a difference of opinion: even if it means various impairments in the communion, and juggling of episcopal oversight to accomplish it?

Ultimately, we have no control over others accepting us, only over who we accept. The Gospel way, for me, is the way of acceptance, not of “being accepted” — in fact, Jesus promises rejection in the short run for those who follow him. And it seems this is precisely what we are seeing: churches that are welcoming and accepting are getting a tongue lashing for not being restrictive enough. And if we criticize those calling for restriction for being restrictive — they say we don't “accept” them!

What can we do in response? I say, keep preaching the Gospel! And remain open and welcoming even to those who disagree — that is crucial, I think. I can say, “I hear what you are saying, but I disagree with you; but you are welcome to worship with me — if you want to.”

Acceptance in this sense need not mean approval — on either side. Rather we should acknowledge that we are all to some extent in error, but “accept one another as Christ accepted us” — with all our imperfections, and not as a sign of approval, but as an act of salvation.

—Tobias S Haller BSG


D. C. said...

TSG, it'd be great if we could agree to disagree, praise God — together — and get back to work, as you suggest. Unfortunately, too many traditionalists (and some modernists) are adamantly refusing to do so.

Tobias said...

Thanks DC. This is the sad reality, but it is also why I favor a laissez-faire approach. Ultimately the church is a "free society" and you can't coerce people to stay together who don't want to. I think Rowan is seeing coming what I predicted over a year ago: a split in the communion between those who are willing to stay together (US, Canada, Mexico, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Southern Africa, Sudan, Brazil, Latin America and Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, etc) and those who want to be "the true church" --- all the others. I may have mis-called some of these, but I think if anything I've erred in undercounting those that would stay in dialogue. When you consider that to remove a province from the ACC requires a 2/3 vote of all present provinces, I don't see any way to "excise" just the US and Canada -- even the acceptance of voluntary non-voting status was only marginally acceptable to the ACC -- and wouldn't have been adopted had the US and Canada voted!

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Like Democracy "agreeing to disagree" requires good loosers, but the spirit of the Age says:

The winner takes it all!

Anonymous said...

In the way you speak here Tobias, I wish I could have said the same thing as well.

Greg Jones

obadiahslope said...

I think many (but not all) conservatives could live with a laissez faire approach. after all that is waht evangelicals have done in the CofE for some time. left to themselves they have stayed in a church where they have been in the minority (but a growing one).
The difficulty is that many of us wonder if a laissez faire approach is in fact what is on offer.
Some within the TEC majority can see why we think tghis.
+Nevada, one of the PB candidates put it this way:
"The division in the Episcopal Church owes a great deal to the ways in which previous unpopular actions have been handled.  The 1979 Book of Common Prayer was imposed in many places despite loud protest.  There could have been more effective pastoral approaches that would have lessened the reactivity.  The ordination of women generated a similar level of discontent, often in the same parts of the church.  When General Convention in 1997 mandated access of women to the ordination process in all American dioceses, it only served to raise the level of fear about enforced uniformity.  Both actions generated profound hurt and feelings of marginalization and exclusion in some parts of the church, as well as very current fears that acceptance of same-sex blessings may eventually be imposed or required.  That is a piece of our history we cannot change, but being aware of it may inform our future decisions.
            Our relationships with other parts of the Anglican Communion suffer in some ways from similar distress over actions that have been perceived as unilateral and lacking in compassion or consideration for those who disagree."

Tobias said...

Dear Obadiahslope,
Thanks for the insight. I agree that some conservatives could clearly live with a real laissez-faire approach, and it is most definitely on offer. I also understand the concern, given the less than smooth transition to the 1979 BCP, and the concern over the mandatory nature of the canon on women in ministry -- although it is still in a bishop's control to choose not to ordain any given candidate.

I would certainly be willing to incorporate in any further action on same-sex relationships a clause similar to the one we have at present in our marriage canon: i.e., "It shall be within the discretion of any Member of the Clergy of this church to decline to solemnize any marriage." (Canon I.18.4) This permits clergy with conscientious qualms about marrying divorcees, or participating in marriages in which one of the parties is not baptized (both of which options are permitted) the right to refuse to perform the ceremony.

I'd be perfectly happy to see some similar provision in the canons concerning same-sex blessings (if we ever actually get to the point of authorizing them) and for ordination and licensing as well if that would make people easier in their minds.

As I said in a note on another post, I would rather we continue a "marriage of convenience" and stay in the same household for the sake of the children than have to go through a divorce. Who knows, an eventual reconciliation might take place if we agree to stay together "for better for worse" instead of talking about separation?

J-Tron said...

Brother Tobias,

I think you make some good points here, but I would give +Cantuar more credit. I think that when he talks about listening to each other, he does not simply mean understanding on the level of basic comprehension, the way that one might understand a person giving directions for a road trip. "Go left at the tree and then right at the end of the block." I think that we have done a great deal to at least reach that level of comprehension (though I'm always surprised by how quickly our discussions turn into "their side blah blah blah," of which I'm as guilty as anyone). But I think what the archbishop refers to is that deeper level of listening, where we hear not only the words but the entire longing of being of the other. It is the kind of listening that we might do when someone tells us that they want to kill somebody. "Why do you want to kill somebody?" The answer is probably more complicated than a surface response will levy. For the majority in the Communion (and we should make no mistake that it is the majority), this means hearing what the fullness of the experience of our church has been in its discernment on issues of sexuality. It means specifically learning to hear the ways in which gay and lesbian Christians experience God, experience love, experience prejudice, experience everything. It means hearing and really understanding that if left as is the Church is incapable of ministering to gay and lesbian people in any sort of realistic way. For those of us in ECUSA and other places who welcome a more inclusive Church, it means hearing the depth of the fear and despair that our actions have caused and understanding that even in the act of bringing about liberation of one group we may very well be creating the conditions for making others suffer. I'm not comparing the difficulties of traditionalists to the indignities visited upon gay and lesbian people by the Church, but I do think that we have the potential (and sometimes the reality) here for making others our victims, even if it's in a way that seems small or a way that seems fair. I think +Cantuar understands that, particularly given his own thoughts on oppression versus victim (see, for example, the opening chapters of his book Resurrection).

Just my long-winded thoughts.

Tobias said...

Thank you, J-Tron, for these thoughts. I do indeed think that +Rowan is looking for more than appears on the surface; my real concern is that he doesn't articulate this very well -- or at least in a way that will get through to the "hurt and fearful" -- some of whom have yet to begin listening, a few of whom have openly declared that they have no interest in listening ever! As I observed in another post, we cannot make people listen to us; we can only open our own ears, and hearts.

At the same time, however, I have found that the level of "understanding" you refer to is sometimes at the level of comprehension rather than empathy. For instance, I've just had a "go-round" with Kendall Harmon on the HoBD list, in which he accused me of "misunderstanding, misrepresenting, &c." the whole "reasserter" point of view. He then refused to provide some clarification, instead arguing that it is symptomatic of the problem that I don't understand his position. Now, first of all, I'm not entirely dim (as Ralph Richardson observed as God in "Time Bandits"). I have a fairly high reading comprehension level. But if it is true that I truly don't understand, it would be more helpful to have further explanation rather than a demand not unlike that of Nebuchadnezzar to the Chaldeans, "Tell me the dream and the interpretation!" Even a "you're getting hotter; you're getting colder" would be more helpful than the kind of responses I've received.

What I'm getting at is that "my" ability to listen is to a very large extent limited by "their" willingness to continue to speak. Communication is a two-way street. Refusal to listen and refusal to articulate are faults on both sides: but from where I sit it seems that most of the fault lies on the "reasserters" in this regard. Perhaps because they feel their "case" is so self-evident? Perhaps because of fear and hurt? Definitely in some cases from a declared unwillingness to be in the same room with those with whom they disagree. There could be any number of factors at work here. But there can be no progress towards understanding without a willingness to communicate.

Louis Cypher said...

The sad thing is, no one writes much comment on any of your other publishings here on this site. People only want to write about other's being gay or not. People choose what they want to care and what they want to believe. They want a Lord that will secure their own future after death, and also a Lord that will condemn those people that they don't like. People that are not like themselves are probably after all - evil. The World is far from being educated and enlightened, we're all raised with judgement and bias, and it'll stay till the end.