Posts Tagged ‘Diocese of Albany’

Singing the Lord’s Song to the “Other Side”

“How shall we sing the Lord’s song on alien soil?”  —Psalm 137:4

This haunting question—asked by the psalmist after the people of Israel had been swept into captivity, hundreds of miles from home—formed the theme of an address by the Bishop of Central New York, Gladstone (Skip) Adams, to the annual meeting of Albany Via Media (AVM) this past Saturday.

But it was a different question, asked immediately after the address, that revealed another potential way into dialogue across divides.

Alas, there are divides aplenty around these parts. AVM describes itself as “Episcopalians striving for a middle way of diversity and tolerance in the Episcopal Diocese of Albany.” I think of AVM as the loyal but progressive opposition in a conservative diocese. This, as you might expect, carries with it a great deal of tension and occasional rancor on every side.

On Saturday, Bishop Skip addressed the psalmist’s quote on several levels in a talk that was remarkable for its depth of thought and spirit. Then, during the Q&A, one priest noted that the “other (conservative) side” uses the exact same verse from the Psalms to mean something entirely different: how to be faithful to God in a rapidly secularizing society—of which many conservatives consider AVM to be a part.

That would seem to be a conversation stopper right there. How can we talk with one another when we can’t even agree on language?

But maybe it can be a conversation opener—if we use the language difference to probe gently for specific meanings.

Let’s say I fall into a dialogue with a conservative in the diocese, and she quotes that verse. What happens if I say something like “I love that verse, and I’m curious: when you refer to ‘alien soil,’ what are you thinking of? What does that phrase mean to you?”

I may not like what I hear in return, but the question opens an opportunity for me to understand my dialogue partner on a deeper level. Moreover, asking the question can prompt a dialogic question in return: “Why, what do you think of when you read ‘alien soil’?” This gives me the encouragement to share my thoughts in a nonthreatening way.

Several good things can happen from there. We might, for instance, discover how much common ground we share. We might also see how our respective viewpoints can inform and even change each other. For instance, I share my conservative colleagues’ concern about the secularizing of society, but I know very well that AVM members are not part of that problem. This kind of mutual questioning enables me to share that. Perhaps it helps my dialogue partner dispense with stereotypes about the “other side.”

And maybe, because we now see each other more clearly, the next conversation becomes easier, we go deeper, and our bond across divides grows stronger.

What about you? Have you noticed a word or phrase that means something different on the “other side”? What happens if you ask someone who uses it to explain its meaning?

The Human Tempest in Episcopal Miniature

This morning, to prepare for the upcoming annual convention of our Episcopal Diocese, I am pondering two resolutions on which we will vote. Because I have to suffer through this, so do you. (N.B.: There’s an important point at the end, and it goes way beyond The Episcopal Church. Still, if you’re short on time, skip to the boldface paragraph below.)

The two resolutions deal with the church’s trial courts, which come into play whenever a complaint is lodged against a priest or bishop. Our national convention has instituted a new structure for the court process; some people think it runs against the Church’s constitution. So, I’ve been doing some research to figure out what’s happening here.

Stop me if the following sounds oddly familiar.

One key issue is whether the power to make this change resides with the national authorities or the local authorities. Much has been written to interpret the (possibly) relevant clauses of the Church’s constitution. Look through the constitution itself, however, and the language is not only vague, but written in a specific time and place. It (perhaps deliberately) left the task of interpretation to later generations when they faced issues not covered by the language therein.

Sound familiar yet? If not, here’s a clue: Think U.S. Constitution. And the Bible.

U.S. Constitution first. One key issue is whether the power to make changes resides with the national authorities or the local authorities (i.e., the states). It is perhaps the fundamental difference between Democrat and Republican. Much has been written to interpret the (possibly) relevant clauses of the U.S. Constitution. Look through the Constitution itself, however, and the language is not only vague, but written in a specific time and place. It (perhaps deliberately) left the task of interpretation to later generations when they faced issues not covered by the language therein.

That’s why we have these fierce debates over the separation of church and state, say, or the right to privacy. You won’t find these words in the Constitution itself. Instead, the Constitution left the interpretation up to us.

The Bible, I would submit, is the same way. We have a text that, mediated by the Spirit of God, guides us in the way we live our lives, individually and collectively. It too was written in specific times and places. The authors could not have foreseen, for instance, the scientific findings of the past half millennium, which provide new data to inform the debate over when life begins or whether being GLBT is genetic.

In a nutshell, then: In critical parts of our common life, we have a guiding text before us. It does not answer everything, so our charge is to interpret the text—as well as the interpretations that have come before us—to arrive as close to the truth as we can.

If we can at least agree on this, it could be huge. Why?

Because this perspective cuts us loose from certainty: in particular, the certainty that drives us to point to one clause and divisively proclaim that “the Constitution clearly says.” Our resulting lack of certainty—as well as its corollary, the fact that we need one another to sort out the truth in light of the text—drives us to work together, to listen to one another, in the humility that no one has a corner on The Truth. Out of such collaboration come better dialogue, better ideas, better decisions, and greater unity.

If this is true, my earnest hope is that we can adopt this perspective more fully: in our diocese, in the United States, and in our faith traditions.