Support the Café

Search our Site

How shall we talk together?

How shall we talk together?

by Ben Varnum

Recently, I’ve been seeing a number of comments on Episcopal Café posts that express frustration with how people are writing or commenting. On the one hand, this was no surprise; I’ve been a part of enough online communities to be fully familiar with terms like “trolling” (reading posts looking for a place to pick a fight), “flame-baiting” (writing something designed to provoke a strong reaction), and “sock-puppeting” (creating a one-use profile to comment on something without putting your name to it). (My personal favorite is “Rick-rolling” – putting up a link ostensibly supporting a pertinent topic, but actually linking to Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Here’s an important example of its social impact)

On the other hand, internet communities form around an idea, and as internet futurist Clay Shirky explains fantastically in Here Comes Everybody, the strength of an internet community depends on what that idea is. So when I heard about “Episcopal Café,” I was awfully excited – here, surely, was a natural part of the evolution of our life as a church! An explicit spot to gather (online) and talk (electronically) about the life of a church so many people are passionate about!

But not even our online life is lived in Eden, and passion can come in many shapes and many voices. The way a high-church Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian who’s attended worship in the same rural parish with the same rector for 40 years will talk about the church she loves is going to be different from a 38-year-old who attends the praise band’s service and serves as the diocesan treasurer. Or the college student who joined because the [insert other denomination] church of his parents didn’t offer him the chance they longed for to live the gospel. Afro-American Episcopalians, First People Episcopalians, Latino Episcopalians, Korean Episcopalians, African Episcopalians, Euro-American Episcopalians – we’re all going to have different experiences of the church.

And yet . . . a café abides. And rather than cacophony, we really do sometimes find our way near harmony, near new ideas, near sharing our lives with one another . . . near being Christ’s Body the Church.

I think it’s worth using all are voices to claim ourselves and our conversation. I think it’s worth asking the question, “How shall we talk to one another?” I think it’s worth praying that God enter and enliven our conversations online as in person; that God meet us when we gather our thoughts and experiences electronically as in the flesh; that God forgive us our trespasses against those online.

My own voice happens to be, as a critique labeled a conversation I was part of recently, “long-winded and methodological.” I spent 8 years pursuing education at the University of Chicago, where the model for conversation is that everyone argues for their perspective as well as they can, in the hope that you find your way to the best answers and solutions. This serves very well in an academic setting, and it taught me to really think through why I believe what I believe, and be willing to say it. It certainly had its stumbling blocks, and it certainly had the consequence that some students seemed to confuse “find the best answers together” with “be respected for having the best answer” or “contributing the most to the best answer.” And when arguing about something important to me with someone who doesn’t talk that way, I know that there are other steps that are important: demonstrating to them that I care about their opinion. Paying attention when someone vents frustration, as a sign that something has become anxious for them. Re-stating what they’ve said to make sure they know that I heard it, even if I still don’t feel like it’s the whole story, and I’m pushing on some part of it or other.

Contemporary Catholic theologian David Tracy has some fantastic rules for conversation in a book that takes on (among other things) modern pluralistic conversation, Plurality and Ambiguity. It’s one of the only page numbers I still have memorized from my divinity school days (page 19), because I cited these rules so often.

– Say only what you mean

– Say it as accurately as you can

– listen to and respect what the other says, however different or other

– be willing to correct or defend your opinions if challenged by the conversation partner

– be willing to argue if necessary, to confront if demanded, to endure necessary conflict, to change your mind if the evidence suggests it

(Tracy notes that “In a sense they are merely variations of the transcendental imperatives elegantly articulated by Bernard Lonergan: ‘Be attentive, be intelligent, be responsible, be loving, and, if necessary, change.'”)

To me, we might also say, “In a sense they are merely variations on the baptismal promise to respect the dignity of every human being.

I have about two close friends that I keep in touch with from high school. One of them is a pretty convicted atheist. The other holds a spirituality that you might describe as Gaiaism. And I’ve recently become an Episcopal priest who loves the historical Christian theological tradition. Some of our best conversations have happened in cafés (all three of us bring up a certain conversation several years ago under a brown line stop on Chicago’s north side when one of us visited the city). But we got mad, we disagreed, we misunderstood one another profoundly. But we also laughed, and loved, and learned about each other. We stayed in the conversation and did one another the service of caring enough to try to listen even when we felt surprised or hurt by what had been said. And that conversation (and others like it) have deepened that friendship.

I hope this essay can push for us to claim our desire to be in conversation with one another, and remind us that to be the Church anywhere – even on the internet – is to seek to be guided by the life and example of Christ. If the cross to take up and carry here is to listen to the pains or the wonderings of others who care about the church, and to bring into the conversation both my strongest voice and my greatest compassion, then truly that will be an easy yoke and a light burden.

The Reverend Ben Varnum serves as Assistant Rector for a parish in the Diocese of Kansas. His training includes a Master’s of Divinity from The Divinity School at the University of Chicago and a Clinical Pastoral Education residency at Rush University Medical Center. He keeps a very-occasional blog at Root Weaving


Café Comments?

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Donald Schell


You raise important questions of speaking the truth and of money and power.

I’ll take your ‘devil’s advocate’ offer and run with it – you invite us to hear a diabolical offer and then image it as idolatry, I’m inevitably reminded of Matthew 4:8-10 (and Dostoyevsky’s commentary on it in The Grand Inquisitor) –

“…the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’

Dostoyevsky uncivilly reminds us that the passage is as much about church power as secular power, and maybe sometimes more so.

What bowing must we make to get access to power and money in our hierarchical church?

What silences our voice and betrays our work?

Ben isn’t writing about acquiescence but about sustaining a conversation. So you’ve added a valuable set of questions.

I do read holy pragmatism in what Ben offers us, especially in the wise counsel he quotes from David Tracy:

“- Say only what you mean

– Say it as accurately as you can

– listen to and respect what the other says, however different or other

– be willing to correct or defend your opinions if challenged by the conversation partner

– be willing to argue if necessary, to confront if demanded, to endure necessary conflict, to change your mind if the evidence suggests it.”

In a spirit of holy pragmatism, let’s consider the heart of your question with Matthew in mind. Jesus temptation isn’t idolatry but power and what it costs to get it.

And is the temptation toward power to get something done or is the temptation to the power of place?

With the Episcopal Café, you continue to invite us to consider what it takes to give everyone a voice. It’s an imperfectly realized dream, but it’s gorgeous even in the trying.

Ben is offering invaluable words asking what we’re trying for.

David Tracy’s words remind me of another cluster of communication wisdom I recently heard from Lisa Kimball, Christian Formation Prof. at Virginia Seminary, her framing of this simple spiritual practice:

“Show up


Tell the truth.”

What hear Ben asking is how we practice listening to one another.

Civility, the term you introduced, may be stultifying to listening. But when we jump to asking when we speak up before we’ve considered how we listen we miss that both David Tracy and Lisa Kimball are offering us powerful spiritual practice. What keeps our courage humble, loving and free?

How we express our listening is a hinge in both David Tracy’s and in Lisa’s proposed wisdom practices.

Your devil’s advocacy has a core of truth. One way it gets complicated in a church setting to speak truth is that our culture of niceness doesn’t train us to argue like Christians. We need to become more rabbinic and alive in conflict – like Jesus and like Paul, Niceness (especially in church) can cloak viciously co-dependency. Point taken.

But publishing Ben’s piece shows you know there’s a lot more to the story than that.

Thanks for making the Café a place where public response and conversation is possible, and thanks for being an early voice for making us sign our names.

Anonymity can offer cover for abuse of power. It seems to invite a kind of unconsciousness of the other we’re speaking to.

But there are other ways we exercise power and the choices we have to make around civility are very complex in any church setting where legitimate hierarchy and unconsciousness about privilege live in unholy alliance. Again, that dilemma seems inevitable. The mix is always there.

Both inside and outside the church privileged hierarchs believe they’re owed respect and civility. Shakespeare wrote King Lear about someone who thought that. (Which king or queen, which archbishop, which Lord Chancellor might he have had in mind?)

Shakespeare’s Cordelia avoids flattery and her words of daughterly devotion enrage her father, and then the fearless Duke of Kent speaks truth to power and speeds his beloved king and Cordelia both to a tragic end. Power demands that love speak honeyed words and so is seduced by lies and simply speaking the truth fails undo the damage, maybe even makes everything worse.

You’ve raised the right question, when about when the stakes are high?

But there are many answers to that one question.

On Satan’s side (as you’ve framed it), I offer you Damien the Leper, the patron saint of uncivility. Damien was dreaded and at least partially successful advocating for the exiled leper community he served on Molokai. His enemies, (civil and ecclesial) in Honolulu called him “a course, dirty man” but Power, in this instance the Hawaiian Legislature and King Kamehameha V gave him their reluctant ear and did send life-saving support to the leper colony to get rid of Damien the nuisance and be done his explosive temper. He’d go home to Molokai, but then return to Honolulu with more demands. Sounds something like the importunate widow in Jesus’ parable of the unjust judge. Robert Louis Stevenson did the good journalists’ work of interviewing witnesses, marginalized, exiled lepers and others who had who had experienced Damien firsthand and concluded, the leper’s priest was “…with all his weakness, essentially heroic, and alive with rugged honesty, generosity, and mirth.” I’m guessing that fearless, outspoken advocacy in such a mix of genuinely Christian behavior is what your note wants to add to the mix. Amen to it.

But from my experience as a college chaplain, a mission vicar and as a church planter – thirty-three of my forty years as a priest – I’ll also insist that if you want to have more than one an advocacy conversation inside a diocesan house, damn straight you’d better maintain a respectful tone and even make well-calculated choices about when to keep your mouth shut.

Experience working on the institution’s ministry margin, tells me that well-bred Episcopal civility can be a brutal tool of arrogance and dismissal when it’s exercised by those who hold gate-keeping power. Ask ordinands “in the process” where they’ve found courage to speak truth to power. Ask people in ethnic ministries and mission churches.

When I say “Episcopal” I’m not just talking about bishops but about our system and culture. In fact, in decisive moments serving under six different bishops in significantly different contexts, I give joyful thanks for crucial moments when Episcopal (here bishops’) voices expedited broken vocations processes, or prevented a missions committee chair or a comptroller from crippling or even closing down work that eventually proved fruitful. Meanwhile, we all have stories of bishops and other firmly seated church authorities happily exercising the power that Satan offered Jesus in Matthew. Dostoyevsky’s got that right in the Grand Inquisitor – church authorities, at least some of the time, welcome Satan’s bargain. And to be clear about this, as we look for what’s on the pedestal demanding homage, Jesus temptation in Matthew isn’t to idolize Satan himself but power. Whether you believe there’s a devil or not, it’s power worship, not devil worship that quenches the Spirit.

Bowing? I’m reminded of the story of Bonhoeffer from one of his Confessing Church seminarians at a big church meeting where the presiding, Nazi-complicit pastor ended with a rousing “Heil Hitler!” The seminarian thought, “this is it!” but his teacher and mentor was among the first on his feet, arm outstretched, joining the full voiced “Heil Hitler.” Afterwards the seminarian asked Bonhoeffer, “what happened? Why did you do that?” And Bonhoeffer replied, “It wasn’t the time. We have to make choices.”

Occasionally I do look to Father Damien’s model when uncivility seems all that can possibly work.

In the larger picture, though, I hope, in our small way, we might follow leads like Gandhi’s, Martin Luther King’s, and from our own church – Charles Wesley, John Mason Neale, Li Tim Oi, and Desmond Tutu.

These saints’ stories are marked by resourcefulness and steady courage to speak the truth, even when, for some of them, the stakes were life and death. But they mostly walked a tightrope of staying ‘civil.’ Certainly they certainly chose when to speak and when to keep silent. And the words we remember from them were carefully chosen, spoken after listening, and spoken with their best hope of actually being heard. To that extent I don’t find your word ‘civil’ too far off.

Each of them knew choosing words was the cost they had to pay for staying in conversation, a cost they were willing to pay first from a commitment not to characterize their opposition (civil or ecclesial) as ‘enemy’ and second because their commitment wasn’t to ‘making a statement’ of claiming the righteous ground of pure witness (literally making oneself a martyr).

So, your concern for the possible danger of civility and the occasional blessing and holiness of uncivility pushes us to distinguish between the quiescent passivity of politeness or minding our courtesies and something else which isn’t mere civility though may sometimes look like it.

I think we have to grant that much perilous ambiguity to the word “civil” that you offered in Devil’s advocacy.

Are there single words that describe more accurately what Ben was asking of us?

I think of “gentleness” and “kindness,” and offer those words with our experience of Desmond Tutu in mind. They are, I believe, holy virtues we desperately need to reclaim and clothe in their rightful garment of courage.

Consider this from admonition from Philippians – “let your gentleness be known to all. The Lord is near.” And the passage from Micah that I think we both love, “…what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Does our conversation at the Café consistently live into that that gentleness or kindness? Of course not. None of us are consistently kind or gentle any more than any of us are consistently courageous. So, we have no reason to we expect we’ll always reach that kindness, gentleness (and yes respect) in our conversation together.

But is it worth noticing our tone and asking ourselves whether we’re actually working to communicate with our sisters and brothers or taking satisfaction at their expense in the power move of claiming righteous territory and taking a stand?

Back to the examples I’ve offered – Damien’s witness is in his offering everything (including his rage) a flawed but nonetheless holy faithfulness to the people he was called to serve. There are moments when we can be grateful for their witness. God can use words spoken in anger and frustration, bad words and hostile tone, even exasperated words attacking someone who looks like an adversary.

But Ben’s article asks us to look further than easy embrace of provocative rhetoric. With courage equal to Damien’s, Martin Luther King’s carefully chosen words still resound with his courageous, dangerous practice of the reconciling work of God. His words were and remain reconciling, peace-making.

So replying to the devils’ advocate I offer this

– bowing doesn’t always mean acquiescence

– the idolatry we must fear isn’t of Satan but of power,

and yes, point taken,

– sometimes we find no voice but an angry one, but

– more of the time, mere ‘civility’ is far short of kindness and gentleness we’re called to.

Jim Naughton

I liked this piece, and was glad to publish it. But just to play the devil’s advocate, I think the church is prone to making an idol of civility. A respectful conversation about the causes of global hunger doesn’t feed anybody. Getting those who have money and power to willingly part with it seldom proceeds in a civil fashion, even when the stakes are small. When the stakes are high, it is almost impossible. One often has to risk being uncivil, and being scorned by people who view any disruption f their equanimity as ungodly, to get anything done.

Ann Fontaine

This one seems to be working. Clear your cache if it isn’t. Also check “remember me”

Support the Café
Past Posts

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

All Content  © 2017 Episcopal Café