The American writer and humourist Garrison Keillor was born in Minnesota into a family who were Plymouth Brethren – rather austere Protestants. In his book Lake Wobegon Days, he gives a brilliantly witty account, parodying his religious upbringing – which like all good satire, is as painful as it is funny because I suspect we can all recognise the truth that it encapsulates. He wrote this:
We were ‘exclusive’ Brethren, a branch that believed in keeping itself pure of false doctrine by avoiding association with the impure. Some brethren assemblies, mostly in larger cities, were not so strict and broke bread with strangers – we referred to them as ‘the so-called Open Brethren,’ the ‘so-called’ implying the shakiness of their position – whereas we made sure that any who fellowshipped with us were straight on all the details of the Faith as set forth by the first Brethren who left the Anglican Church in 1865 to worship on the basis of correct principles ….
… Unfortunately, once free of the worldly Anglicans, these firebrands were not content to worship in peace but turned their guns on each other. Scholarly to the core and perfect literalists every one, they set to arguing over points that, to any outsider, would have seemed very minor indeed, but which to them were crucial to the Faith …
Once having tasted the pleasure of being Correct and defending True Doctrine, they kept right on and broke up at every opportunity, until by the time I came along, there were dozens of tiny Brethren groups, none of which were speaking to any of the others.
Ouch – I am sure we can all recognise the uncomfortable truth there, amidst the parody.
Some years ago when the Anglican Church and the Methodist Church were involved in dialogue to see if they could come together in formal union, I was involved in one of the working groups discussing the proposal. At our first meeting we were invited to introduce ourselves, and then say something about why we thought this endeavour was important to us. The response of one of the Methodists – an elderly lay woman, who held no formal office within the church, but whose wisdom and insight were self-evident – has been scored in my heart ever since. remains scored in my heart. She said, quite simply: ‘Because our lack of unity is sinful.’
And surely, she must be right. Because if the God we proclaim is a God of love, then anything that divides us from any of our brothers and sisters must have at its source something that is not of God. Because love – genuine love – always draws people together, it never drives them apart. Love brings unity and healing, and hope; it transcends difference. Now because we are frail and limited human beings, division and disunity is a reality of life – but when I look at some of the things that separate me from other people, invariably somewhere in the mix is something that is not good. It may be our pride; our prejudice; our conviction that we are right; our woundedness; our sense of outrage and injustice; our need to categorise people and put them into boxes marked ‘us’ and ‘them’. But it is always there somewhere.
And the shocking thing is, that such divisions always seem deeper, more bitter, more pronounced and less liable to reconciliation when religion is part of the mix. That is one of the reasons why I began with that passage from Garrison Keillor.
But why on earth should that the case? Particularly if it is indeed true that disunity is by its very nature sinful, contrary to the will of God? Well, partly because the stakes can seem so much higher: our perceptions of what is good and right and acceptable can seem utterly non-negotiable if undergirded by a claim to religious truth. And yet, if that leads us down the path of disunity there must be something wrong somewhere.
But of course, that does not mean that we have to agree about everything – we don’t and we never will. What it does mean is that whenever we are divided from our brothers and sisters, it is imperative that we address the reality of that disagreement and find ways of living with that in ways that are consistent with the love of God – not contrary to it.
I have just finished reading a really thought-provoking book by a an extremely wise Benedictine religious, called Joan Chittister. She observes that in the Rule originally written by St Benedict back in the sixth century (around the time this church was founded) he distinguished between two very different kinds of religious zeal, good and bad. She summarises them as follows:
The truly holy person knows that religion is a double-edged sword. When it enriches the soul and demonstrates the two fundamental religious principles – love God and love your neighbour – the world is better for its influence. When it is a force meant to satisfy the needs of religious leaders to control their adherents, religion becomes cultic and a danger to society.1
She goes on to say this:
‘Good zeal leads us to love more, to hurt less, to defend the defenseless, to bring justice to populations that are being oppressed, to love the God who created and loves us all. All of us. No exceptions…. Fanaticism is self-aggrandisement posing as holiness by living the incidentals of religious devotion to the ultimate […] [by those who] set out to shame those whose morals they disapprove of […]The fact is that fanaticism, excessive passion even for the good, has done as much harm in the world as it has done good.‘
Last Sunday, at the end of our Choral Eucharist, I had to sprint to catch a train to Birmingham, where I was taking part in a memorial service for my dear friend and former clergy colleague, Priscilla. And one of the tributes to her spoke about some work she had been involved in of which I, too, had been a part.
Because Priscilla and I, together with another clergywoman in that diocese, had been part of a group that was jokingly referred to at the time as the ‘Birmingham Six’. We were three ordained women, who met regularly with three ordained Anglo-Catholic men who were members of an organisation called ‘Forward in Faith’ – which, as some of you will know, is implacably opposed to the ordination of women.
The six of us: three women priests, and three male priests who refused to acknowledge our ordination contracted to meet together every six weeks in one another’s homes. We would say a service of midday prayer together; we would have lunch, which we took it in turns to host, and we would then talk. We continued to meet regularly for nearly six years. And contrary to all our expectations, it ended up being one of the most extraordinary, grace-filled, transformative, Gospel-experiences of my entire Christian life. And how could that be so?
Bizarrely enough, the one thing that we didn’t really do was to argue about the ordination of women – not because we were avoiding the issue, but because we ended up having conversations that were far more important than that. We shared the stories of our own Christian journeys; vocations; and experiences of ministry. We talked about God, and prayer, and what it meant to live the priestly life. And, astonishingly we soon discovered that there were far, far more things that we shared than that divided us. There were profound similarities in our experiences, and the things that mattered to us.
And even more unexpectedly, we grew incredibly close over those six years. In the end, the reason why we didn’t spend much time arguing over the ordination of women was because that argument ceased to feel very important – we were engaging over stuff that was far more significant – and we grew in love and respect for each other. None of us changed our views over women’s ordination, nor did we attempt to change anyone else’s. In a way that I simply would not have believe possible, we were doing something far more important – living out what it means to disagree well. It was very moving to have been reminded of that at Priscilla’s service last Sunday.
The Welsh writer and poet Waldo Williams wrote a poem called ‘What is Man?’ – which, towards its end, includes the following lines:
What is believing? Watching at home
till the time comes for welcome.
What is forgiving? Pushing your way through thorns
to stand alongside your old enemy.
What is forgiving? Pushing your way through thorns
to stand alongside your old enemy.
What makes that kind of forgiveness possible? Commenting on this poem, Rowan Williams speaks of a kind of ‘security that allows us to seek mutual recognition between people, not opposition and rivalry, to fight our way through thorns because we are confident of finding a human face on the far side of the struggle with the thorns of our pride and fear.’
A kind of security that surely can only have at its heart the gracious, healing, life-bringing, transforming love of God.
1 The Monastic Heart, p. 249.