By Kathleen Henderson Staudt
Shortly before Christmas I attended a forum at Virginia Theological Seminary led by Bishop Mark Dyer. His purpose was to lay out some groundwork for truly faithful and Christ-centered conversations in a community where we do not all agree on matters of theology and Biblical interpretation. Bishop Mark speaks with deep spiritual and theological authority, as an author of the Windsor report, a veteran of ecumenical dialogue with the Orthodox churches, dialogue that is bearing new fruit. He also speaks out of his experience of 15 years as a Benedictine monk, living in community with people who, as he says “may not agree with each other but have to live together.”
In his introductory remarks, Bishop Mark spoke of the problem of “issue possession” in the Church: our tendency to let one issue take hold of us and shut everything else out, as if we were possessed by a demon. Do not be driven by “issue possession,” he urged, but be “possessed by Christ.”
There are small groups forming at VTS to engage with one another in an honest and Christ-centered way around difficult issues, and this forum was meant to initiate that program. But it struck me, listening, that much of what Bishop Mark was saying is applicable to all of us who are bound together in Christian community. With his permission, I want to just lay out here some of the wisdom that Bishop Mark offered in this forum. I hope that readers will find here some helpful guidelines for all kinds of Christian gatherings, from small groups to vestries, to discernment groups to “issue centered” discussion groups in times of conflict. Here is a distillation of the “basic assumptions for conversation in Christian community” that Bishop Mark laid out for us:
1. Assume that “My partner takes the Bible as seriously as I do.” That is part of who we are as Christians: we are grounded in Scripture. Do not mistake differences in interpretation for differences in desire to be faithful to Scripture.
2. Listen with a Christlike heart. Be guided by 1 Corinthians1, where Paul urges Christlike conversations between schismatic bodies.
3. Be radically honest on what you believe and why you believe it, and let the other do the same. Bishop Mark pointed out that in Ecumenical conversations the point is not to be “nice” but to be truthful. That is the best way to acknowledge our ultimate common ground in Christ. He quoted Orthodox theologian John Zizoulas, a longtime friend partner in ecumenical conversation, who insists that our unity is grounded in our love for one another, in the church of the Triune God.
4. While you are listening, also pray for the person who is speaking: pray for discernment. Be open to the possibility that maybe they are correct.
5. Practice forgiveness and reconciliation as a habit. Think about and discuss how we forgive and find reconciliation with one another.
6. Should the other attribute to you evil intentions, take a deep breath and pray. Who is setting the agenda? Do not let them be your environment. Reach down, find the Christ within you, and only then, speak.
7. Practice daily intercession, as part of a group that meets regularly for conversation and prayer. Covenant to pray for one another daily.
8. Be guided by the Benedictines, who know that they do not agree with each other AND that they have to live together.
Frame the issue you are discussing as clearly as you can, and let everyone say where their heart is on the question, BEFORE any discussion begins. The Benedictine practice is to begin with the youngest and go to the oldest monk. Every monk must say something, even if it is “I have no opinion.” (It seemed to me, listening to Bishop Mark describe this process, that this is similar to a process some know as “appreciative inquiry” or the practice of “clearness committees” in Quaker discernment practice). The key is that there is no dialogue until everyone has spoken.
This kind of approach to conversation feels threatening to those of us who like to “manage” conflict and keep things under control, but it also reflects what is most deeply counter-cultural about the Gospel: that our ultimate identity is baptismal, rooted and grounded in the love of Christ, and that we’re called to live this out, in a way that will witness to our call to radical reconciliation and wholeness. It is counter-cultural but it is real. I am grateful to Bishop Mark for challenging the seminary community to live in this way, and hope what he said may also be a witness and a challenge for the rest of us in the Church.
Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader, and teaches courses in literature and theology at Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture. Her blog is at poetproph.blogspot.com.