I had no idea that the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Justin Welby, did a New Year’s Message, but I happened across it yesterday. I encourage you to listen to it, if, like me, you haven’t ever previously done so (or even if you have!). It’s only 4 minutes long, well worth a listen, and can be found at (https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0bwfrnk/archbishop-of-canterburys-new-year-message-2019).
It was an excellent message, and in a very timely manner addressed issues which have been troubling me lately, and which are so relevant to a few of the situations I’m aware of here in MK (and I’ve no doubt in many other Deaneries also), ie the need to work at relationships, and in some cases the need for reconciliation.
The main thrust of the message is about how the Church is like a family, and like a family, not everyone gets on well together. In diverse communities such as those we live in today, “we are struggling with how to disagree well”. There’s the rub! It’s very easy to disagree, and disagreement itself is not the problem. It would be a very boring world if we all thought the same way! The challenge (and what Jesus calls us to do) is to disagree well – and still maintain a relationship.
Though members of the community Archbishop Justin has established at Lambeth Palace come from very diverse backgrounds and cultures, they are ‘united by their faith in Jesus Christ’. However, it’s not their own faith which holds them together. Like the disciples (who, I suspect, often drove Jesus up the wall), they are united by something bigger than their own differences – Jesus’s friendship.
“I have called you friends. I chose you.”
It turns everything upside down, just like when we studied the Lord’s Prayer recently and talked about ‘Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’. It’s not WE who are bringing this about: it’s God.
For most of my life, I’ve observed how many people want to be seen to ‘be friends’ with everyone. (Notice I said ‘seen’ to be!) I guess this is part of the human need to belong. It’s not just Christians: I’ve seen it amongst non-believers and in the workplace too. The result of this is that they end up sitting on the fence and not dealing with things because of trying to stay friends with those on both sides, and in the end often end up pleasing no-one anyway. Meanwhile, this tends to lead to gossip and back-biting because effectively they are being two-faced, and not living out truth in their own lives. If not sitting on the fence, they dissolve into the background, burying their heads in the sand and hoping any problems just go away without their intervention, because they don’t want to stick their necks out and stand up for what’s right. The sad thing is that people who don’t rock the boat are often the ones who get on in life and rise up the ranks. (I’m particularly thinking of people I’ve known in other organisations here.)
This need to superficially appear to be friends with everyone seems more pronounced in a Christian setting than other organisations though, because Christians know they are commanded to ‘love one another’. It’s no good just pretending to love people though, or acting as if we’re friends with everyone. We might convince others, but God knows what’s in our hearts, so who are we trying to kid? God will be the judge in the end.
Matthew’s Gospel (Matt: 5:24) addresses anger and reconciliation, and says “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there….first go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” Yet I’ve not witnessed many Christians taking this seriously. If they did, things would be very, very different.
God wants us to grow more Christ-like. This is also the message from Archbishop Justin and Bishop Steven. Neither waging personal wars against one another, nor pretending to love one another, nor refusing to get involved, is constructive or results in becoming more Christ-like. Dealing with the situation and learning ‘how to disagree well’ brings growth and allows spirituality to flourish.
The other thing I’ve noticed through the years, not just in England but other countries too, is that people who make themselves indispensable build their power to the point that no-one can risk losing them or their support in the community, so they are basically allowed to take control and do as they please. I’ve seen it across the board, from organists, to those with financial power. One thing we learnt on the Reconciliation workshop was that the imbalance of power is what causes the warfare. I’ve seen this abuse of power so many times, and it changes everything. Whenever there’s a challenge, there are people who won’t take the risk of dealing with it for fear of upsetting the person wielding the power, particularly in Christian settings. Moreover, those who stand up to this kind of unfairness and injustice can be the very ones who end up being persecuted, told to worship elsewhere, or end up moving to another church to escape the politics – or even leaving the Church altogether. In my own circle of family, friends and acquaintances as I’ve moved from one country to another, by far the biggest obstacle keeping them away from Church has been the vitriolic nature of some Christian relationships they have witnessed.
It’s taken me more than 20 years to learn that there are horrible people to be found in all walks of life, and the Church is no exception. (Romans 3:23, “All have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God.”) The difference is the expectation that in the Church we will find Christ-like people. It will never be so until we learn to forgive one another and love one another, and if we can’t do that, then at least learn to ‘disagree well’.