Posts Tagged ‘Episcopal Church’

A Vietnamese Hero on Politics and Dialogue

Do we have to run our politics with daggers drawn? Is confrontation simply part of the game?

Based on the past few years, it’s hard to think otherwise. In the U.S., the climate of hostility, polarization, and refusal to compromise has dominated Washington. Powerful forces conspire to reinforce this climate: the demands of party loyalty, the gerrymandering of congressional districts, the loud fringe groups from left and right, the fear among elected officials of losing their jobs to someone ideologically “purer.” Even those who want to work with the other side find frustrations at every turn—while those who equate dialogue with “selling out” rise to power.

It is tempting to dismiss the whole political arena as hopelessly confrontational—and the notion of dialogue in the halls of power as a pipe dream.

But then there is Nguyen Ngoc Huy, and others like him.

Professor Huy has been called “the Gandhi of Vietnam.” From the waning of French colonial rule through the tumultuous war in the 1960s and well beyond, he devoted his life to promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law with a distinctly Vietnamese character. With his law degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the Sorbonne, he taught, conducted research, wrote numerous treatises, spoke frequently, and campaigned tirelessly for his ideas and the welfare of his country. Far from giving up after the Communist takeover of 1975, he spent the last 15 years of his life traveling the globe to draw attention to Vietnam and continue the struggle for his homeland’s freedom.

He also had a penetrating insight into how not to conduct politics.

“He had to deal with all sorts of attacks for his policy,” noted Tran Minh Xuan of the Nguyen Ngoc Huy Foundation in the documentary Nguyen Ngoc Huy: A Fighter for Democracy in Vietnam. “Some people, who could not take it any longer, once encouraged me to attack back. But then Professor Huy said to me, ‘Do not do it. There is no benefit in it.… In the future, there will be times when we will need them, or they will need us. But if we have attacked one another, how then will we be able to sit down together to discuss matters? In this huge struggle, one cannot do it alone. We need many people working together.’”

The professor’s words call to mind another arena that involves both power and confrontation: the Anglican Communion and its U.S. version, The Episcopal Church. Over the past few decades, the Communion has seen more than its share of angry words over such issues as human sexuality and the historic truths of the faith. At one point, it threatened to break the Communion apart.

During that time, as I wrote in my book, “Dialogue does not always resolve differences; some are simply irreconcilable. Yet even when they are, authentic dialogue can help us develop respect for one another while still (amicably) disagreeing. In the process, the connections we foster enable us to continue our work together as our institutions fracture.” To paraphrase Professor Huy, if we keep the dialogue going—if we refrain from attacking one another—we might still be able to work together.

If Professor Huy—who sat across the table from his enemies at the Paris Peace Talks, who promoted bold ideas and continually engaged in the rough and tumble of Vietnam’s political arena—could uphold the value of reaching across divides, why can’t our elected officials, and our church leaders, do the same?

Upcoming Dialogue: LGBT Issues and the Christian Church

When a pillar of our quasi-evangelical church came out in 1989, I had just started rethinking the whole issue of gender, sexuality, and the Bible. So I was not prepared for how torturous the resulting church discussion would be.

Partly because of this event, LGBT people and issues have been dear to my heart ever since.  Perhaps this was God’s way of preparing me to become an Episcopalian—a Christian denomination riven by hostility over LGBT issues. Perhaps it was God’s sense of humor that placed me in my specific corner of The Episcopal Church: a liberal (i.e., welcoming-to-LGBT-people) church in a conservative diocese in a liberal national church in a conservative worldwide church.

But wait, there’s more. Once a year, I serve as a representative from our church to the diocese’s convention—which makes me a quasi-liberal surrounded by ardent conservatives.

This is a tense and painful place to live. To be sure, I am one of many comrades in this place: a sort of no-man’s-land in the culture wars. But we are outnumbered—and surely outshouted—by those on either side.

So why would anyone in his right mind continue to live there?

Here’s why I do: Because I will not abandon my LGBT sisters and brothers to a theology I find deeply flawed. Because I believe that my conservative sisters and brothers have great gifts to contribute to the world at large. Because I believe that dialogue has power. Because God calls me to peace and compassion, not to anger and the severing of relationships.

This is why I am deeply honored to have been invited to a most exceptional dialogue. Evangelicals for Social Action has asked a dozen pastors, therapists, scholars, students, writers, and “other struggling saints”—gay, straight, liberal, conservative, what have you—to a two-day conversation about LGBT issues. We will convene in November to get to know one another, share our stories, explore our perspectives, and generally live side by side for a short while.

The dialogue will not be easy. But the very fact of it thrills me. And if the emails we’ve exchanged so far are any indication, this could be something special. No one has brought up the “clobber passages” in the Bible. No one has debated genetics or biblical literalism. Instead, we’ve explored deeper issues of sexuality and gender and personal stories. Some of the participants, at least, are well versed in bridging divides. They bring rich and eye-opening experiences to the table.

If you are the sort to pray, please pray for this gathering. If not, please think of us in November. We may not change the world. But perhaps God will make us a tipping point for reconciliation—or at least one tiny example of living in peace and compassion despite our differences.

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.


Dialogue by Being There

Can you start a dialogue just by showing up?

Miki Kashtan’s friend did. At a conference on reconciliation, this friend realized with despair that there was no exploration of gay issues on the agenda. On the third day of the conference, after praying and wrestling with the omission, she stepped to the microphone, announced to a conservative audience that she was gay, and simply made herself available. And people started coming. She didn’t try to change their mind; she just listened. (Miki puts this much more eloquently than I ever could; you’ve got to read the post.)

In short, Miki’s friend was present, in her attendance and her few words.

This past weekend, I attended the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Albany. Before us was a contentious resolution that touched tangentially on GLBT issues: the endorsement of a formal covenant for the worldwide Anglican Communion. For several weeks I had studied the issue, solicited opinions, reflected, and prayed; from that work emerged a position that could respect the covenant’s supporters while saying no to the covenant itself. On Saturday, I articulated these thoughts in 90 seconds from the floor of the convention.

In short, I was present, in my attendance and my few words.

And people started coming. One first-time delegate, who had no idea how conservative the diocesan leadership was, expressed relief at finding a kindred spirit. The head of a progressive organization in the diocese thanked me for speaking up. Yet so did the diocese’s conservative firebrand, who generally brooks no nonsense from “liberals.”

Experiences like these leave me with so much hope…and a few lessons. One involves the timeframe of dialogue. I have no illusions that one 90-second speech—or a boatload of 90-second speeches—will change the basic mindset of 400 convention delegates. Neither will they inspire all of us to listen respectfully and dialogue civilly all the time.

But each time we do something like this, we give people a glimpse of the flesh-and-blood on the “other side.” We reveal that we’re human, use logic, and come to our positions in good faith. Then, the next time we do it, our listeners might be a bit more accepting of us, a bit more willing to listen, whether they agree or not.

The other lesson is like unto it. It’s easy to think of dialogue as this intense, formal, sustained effort, with facilitators and flip charts and study circles and such. Those efforts are worthy of applause. But right in the midst of our daily lives, we can move dialogue in seemingly tiny ways, like presenting oneself at a convention.

When we do, people will come.

Have you ever started a dialogue just by showing up? Did simply expressing who you are draw people to you? What happened?  Please share your experiences by clicking on the Comments line below.

Two Kinds of Words, One Need for Silence

Two weeks ago, our church held a Quiet Day—a day of silence, reflection, and mini-sermons in preparation for Holy Week. On the schedule was a silent Mass, which replaces the verbose (and beautiful) Episcopal liturgy with simple movements and gestures. In keeping with that, the facilitator’s first talk dealt with words: how they feed us, how they get in the way.

His ideas opened some new insights during our first period of silence. Two basic categories of words emerged in my mind: words that clutter and words that penetrate.

We’re all familiar with the first kind. These words fill our world: they entertain us, they convey our culture, they help us get by, but—like the mediocre actor whose presence remains onstage as we sit passively in the audience—they do nothing to connect with us or feed our souls. They inhabit our TV programs and our ads, our celebrity gossip magazines, the sound bites of our pundits and the posturing of our elected officials. They just keep coming at us.

The second kind leaps off the stage and approaches us face to face. They are well-chosen words, uttered with thought and reflection. They include the maxims and truths that cut right to our hearts and reveal a slice of truth. When I think of this category, my favorite words from St. Thérèse of Lisieux come to mind: “Jesus does not demand great things of us, but only surrender and gratitude.” They are the words we live by. They transform us.

This second kind is what we need in dialogue. The words that shed new light on old wounds and culture wars. The words that help us connect with people we may have considered our enemies.

But the more I reflected on all these words, the more it dawned on me that they’re not enough. Silence has a role to play, and it is indispensable. To understand why, realize that the cluttering words have done their work: they form a web of chatter that—together with the kids’ schedules and the work deadlines and whatever else—fills our mind. The sheer volume of words seems like wallpaper: adding texture to the background, but undifferentiated one from another. The truly important gets lost in the shuffle.

By enshrouding our dialogues with silence, we clear out all that mental clutter. As a result, each word from our dialogue partner comes through more clearly. We’re better able to consider it undisturbed by our automatic responses and preconceived biases. And when we let silence intersperse itself throughout our dialogue, it gives us time and space to more fully weigh each word, whether it might have merit, and how it might affect our own thinking.

Silence and penetrating words don’t come naturally in our culture. It requires deliberate effort to foster them, bring them to fruition in our lives, and let them transform our dialogues. But they are like any practice: the more you practice it, the better you get—and, even better, the more you come to cherish it. It’s a big step toward becoming a person of dialogue.

P.S.: One place to see this dynamic in action is the Clearness Committee. We’ll look at this in a future post.