Moving the frontiersThursday, 7 March 2013
I am still reeling from the recent Faith in Conflict (FiC) conference at Coventry Cathedral. The event had been a dream of mine for years, ever since the Church of Scotland hosted a gathering on the same theme, which a friend attended. The reality was far greater than the anticipation.
The conference aimed to look at what causes conflict in the church, and whether it is necessarily destructive. More than 200 delegates from Christian churches across England discussed fresh ways to view conflict, and different options for intervention.
By nature I am a conflict avoider; I like to keep my head down and get on with the job. So I have always felt that church disagreement was at best a distraction, and often worse.
That is true up to a point, but mainly because we disagree so unhealthily. In a series of brilliant talks over the three-day conference, Sam Wells and Jo Bailey-Wells set conflict in a completely new light. Conflict, they argued, is something that springs from our being created different. The problem is that we then respond to difference with aggression and fear. When that happens in the church, it is utterly repellent to people who are not Christians. Sam and Jo showed how, in the grace of God, conflict can be transformed. (You can listen to and read their talks here.)
So that was really good; thoughtful talks, brilliantly delivered. But the cream on the cake was seeing it all in action. For example, the Reverend Tory Baucum and Bishop Shannon Johnston – the Episcopal Church Bishop of Virginia – were interviewed together about their experience of being in the most profound dispute over enormously important issues. The disputes led to years of legal action, yet they found a way to meet and talk together – and pray together. There was no compromise: Tory was forthright in his disagreement with Bishop Shannon and gave no ground, nor vice versa. But there was a clear love for each other which spoke powerfully. It was transformed conflict.
The second example was from Jo herself, and her experience of the Anglican House of Studies at Duke. It’s in her talk, and to me it was as powerful as the dialogue. It said that our differences are both great and important: but the greater call is to a world that does not know Christ. And while we strive and struggle, rightly, for holiness and correct conduct in the church, we must do so in a way which shows that His love, spread through us, is a reality.
The journey of transforming conflict is a long and hard one (by the way that is how I understand reconciliation in the church: not agreement, but conflict transformed from being destructive). It is also always a necessary one – and essential if our preaching of the good news of Jesus is to have any credibility. It does not mean compromise – that was clear in what we heard at Coventry – but it does mean allowing the Spirit of God to warm our hearts towards those whom we too easily classify as to be hated.
© Justin Welby 2013