How avoiding conflict harms the church

Giles Fraser has written an excellent column about how fear of conflict distorts church politics. He is focusing on the Church of England, but the lessons are transferable.

The difference between the politics of the church and the real world of party politics is that in the church people are nice to each other in public and nasty to each other in private, whereas in real politics it’s often the other way round. But the church is so dysfunctional that it prefers the rhetoric of unity to its reality. Thus those debating female bishops in General Synod fell over backwards to couch their speeches in terms of generosity. But outside observers saw something very different – a snake pit of seething animosities. And outside observers were basically right.

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For the failure of the C of E’s big tent experiment is parallel to the failure of New Labour’s big tent experiment with which it had so much in common. Chantal Mouffe rightly argues that the third way was a mistaken attempt to bypass the inherently conflictual nature of the political. Bland, suffocating unanimity cannot replace the reality of political differences. In theology as in politics, conflict is real. The important thing is not that we mustn’t fight. That is inevitable. It’s rather that we mustn’t draw blood when doing so.

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One Comment
  1. Rod Gillis

    The Giles Fraser piece confronts us with an inconvenient truth. Early in his article Giles observes,”Thus those debating female bishops in General Synod fell over backwards to couch their speeches in terms of generosity. But outside observers saw something very different – a snake pit of seething animosities. And outside observers were basically right.” The observation fits a profile for the institutional church. What Fraser is talking about is the very ancient phenomena of the “odium theologicum”.

    Despite all the theological and pastoral argot that is banded about, conflict tends to be handled very poorly by churches. The policies enacted as a response to controversy and conflict, both formal and informal, often simply result in on going polarization and grid-lock.

    I spent most of my parochial ministry, ten of it as an archdeacon, serving in a diocese with a significant level of conflict in the areas of liturgical renewal, gender issues, and polity. Out of that experience I have come to believe that: (1) The “true believers” who dress their views in various theologies are never held to account for their negative impact on community dynamics–never required to actually carry their burden of their own conscience. (2) Dictatorial and doctrinaire consciences are more often than not greeted by appeasement, frequently on a structural level. (3) Piety is often used as passive aggressive weapon in church conflict. (4) A lot of moderate thoughtful faithful people, who don’t pretend to know it all, get badly damaged by conflict in the church.

    Giles has it right. The church thinks it is an instrument of peace? Fine, test that self perception by asking people outside the church how they see us. Asking others how they see us can be an enlightening exercise. It can be a very helpful first step in ending identity incongruence.

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