Canterbury Trials #7 The Nettle Half-Grasped

What a day! Nothing quite like spending the day with a Nigerian bishop–Josiah Fearon–to renew one’s love for the mater ecclesiae, Cantuar. He blessed me and I hope the reflections below give a just a little glimpse of his profound wisdom, joy, and enthusiastic love for the Lord.

Bishop Josiah was ostensibly here to talk about Islam and Christianity, since he is an expert on Muslim/Christian relations in Nigeria. His remarks on dialogue, however, were not so subtly directed from their original context in interfaith relations to the context of our own church. And I want in this post to highlight just one of his dialogical principles.

Namely, in authentic dialogue, if each partner is being true to him- or herself, the risk of conversion is real. If the risk is not real, it is not authentic dialogue. This is what Rowan meant when he said concerning the debates about sexuality, when they are over, someone is going to have to say “I was wrong.”

It seems to me that the pride that prevents us from saying “I was wrong” is what is driving at least some of the more extreme parts of our church and preventing them from talking and listening to one another.  Thus, as bishop Josiah himself put it, some African bishops don’t want to listen, they want to dictate while some of the Northern bishops want perpetual “dialogue” (scare quotes on purpose) for the sake of avoiding a conclusion. Because a conclusion means someone is going to have to say at some point, I was wrong.

So it is that the most vocal in our current disagreements (you might think its about sexuality, but it’s not. Sexuality is the symptom. Revelation, Scripture and Interpretation, and finally, holiness are the issues) remain vocal precisely because they are afraid to risk being quiet long enough. For them, the call to listen means, “listen to me.” When Rowan and Josiah (and Jesus?) call us to listen, however, they mean first, listen to the Gospel and then, listen to the other with such a degree of care and humility that the possibility of conversion is real.

This, of course, is not easy. The extremes want to grasp the nettle of our disagreement but only half-way. They will live with the pain that comes from compelling the silence of the other. And the result is that a pseudo dialogue that fosters first mistrust, which eventually gives way to suspicion and finally to hatred.

But the Gospel (and Rowan and Josiah), it seems to me, calls us not to grasp it half way, but all the way. To grasp it, if I may put it this way, until we bleed. To live with the pain that comes from a willingness to risk the three little words, “I was wrong.” And not just that risk–though that is great enough–but also the risk of mistreatment of those with whom we agree who think that we have in taking this risk let the side down.

This happened specifically to Bishop Josiah when two Christian pastors in Nigeria confessed to plotting his assassination for “going soft” on Islam. Imagine!  Neither of them were Anglicans! But the rhetoric has been pretty heavy from within our church, too. And I cannot help but be impressed with the grace and joy and even humour with which he lives with it. Because, as he puts it, there is no alternative. In Nigeria, it is either dialogue with Muslims or bloodshed.

And of course, it has also happened to Archbishop Rowan who has been assailed from both sides in our intra-Commuion debate, but especially from the more  liberal camp from which he hails, for failing if not to compel agreement, then for failing to use his authority in a more coercive way than he has done.

And folks, there is a reason he will lay down his staff on December 29, the feast of St. Thomas a Beckett, in Canterbury Cathedral! (The Archbishop who, you will recall, was murdered in the very building I have been worshipping in these last weeks). Archbishop Rowan’s departure is one that I cannot help but feel, as a theologian of the church, tremendously personally. For it reflects, I think, the refusal of many to take the risks in dialogue that make that dialogue authentic, the refusal of many to dare to think the words, “I was wrong.”

This sounds pretty ranty. I don’t mean it to–though I do feel passionately about it. And I am very well aware that there are readers of this blog who will not be at all pleased with what I have written for they will take it as a judgment on them. Please know that from my end, it simply isn’t.

It is more of a “hie stehe ich” moment for me. Bishop Josiah’s presentation today helped clarify in my mind just why I am where I am, why I believe what I do, and why I am willing to risk friendship and table fellowship with people whose positions are very different–even and perhaps especially in my own parish.

We have, I hope, grasped the nettle of our disagreement together that our suffering may, in Paul’s language, complete the sufferings of Christ (Col. 1:24).

There really is, as far as I can see, no alternative.

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