By W. Nicholas Knisely
A few years ago, not long after the events of General Convention in 2003, the sexton in the parish I served came to tell me that he was being yelled at as he worked in the front yard on the parish. Apparently there were kids driving by regularly, who when they saw him or anyone else out front, would roll down the window of the car and yell “Gay Church!” or “You’re going to Hell!”. The sexton didn’t like being yelled at, but his real concern was that these folks would start vandalizing the building. I suggested we let the local police know. He rolled his eyes.
I didn’t understand what was with the eye-rolling until a few months later when our secretary buzzed me in my office to tell me there were some police officers here. I’d better come out to her office, *now* was what she said as I recall.
We were well known in the community for a Soup Kitchen that served food daily to whoever showed up at the parish at lunchtime. That ministry had been going on for a long time due to the work of a number of committed laypeople and the extraordinary Deacon Liz. The rule in the kitchen was that if you were hungry, we would feed you, no questions asked. Sometimes we had some unsavory types coming in to eat, but as long as they were hungry and didn’t cause trouble, they were welcome to eat with the rest. The police knew this and would occasionally stop by looking for someone for whom they had an arrest warrant. We generally asked them to keep a distance, and talk to the staff first before they went in. I thought this was one of those situations when I was called to the office that particular morning.
Turns out it was something totally different. A police officer was there. But instead of a warrant, he was there with a bag of sandwiches. Someone had apparently made them for the officers on duty that day and they couldn’t use them all. So he decided to bring them by the church to give them to the soup kitchen to see if we could hand them out for them. It was a lovely gesture.
But what brought me up short was what the officer said when he gave me the bag. “I don’t agree with you folks. I’m not even sure you’re a real church. But you’re doing good work feeding these people. I figured this might help.”
Somewhat taken aback, I thanked him, we shook hands and he left and I took the sandwiches inside.
It was later on that I remembered the conversation I’d had with our sexton about letting the police know about the verbal taunting. I think I understood the look the sexton gave me.
But more importantly, I recognized that something was now different too. An important bridge had been built in passing over the food from the officer to the people who needed it. The person who brought the food to us didn’t agree with us – but he was willing to cooperate with us on acts of mercy. Our relationship changed, a bit anyway, in that simple act of giving. There was no great climatic moment of reconciliation. There wasn’t any sudden dropping of scales from his or my eyes. But there was a mutual recognition that something good was happening and that we were going to try to find a way to work together – to fan a small ember at least – to see what might happen as a result.
I’ve been thinking lately about that moment and how it changed a relationship. It seems to me that there are some pretty obvious parallels between it and what is going on in the Anglican Communion at the moment. We have people who disagree. We have people who are not sure that they can recognize Jesus in each other. We have people who are in broken relationships with each other because of actions that one group or the other have taken.
What I’m pretty certain about is that explaining patiently and in great detail why the other side is wrong isn’t going to get us anywhere. It hasn’t as yet, and I’m pretty confident that we can project the present success rate well into the future.
So what should we do?
When I was the President of Diocesan Council in Pittsburgh, and Alden Hathaway and Bob Duncan were our bishops, we had the same sorts of conflicts in the diocese that we now have writ large in the Anglican Communion. And it was pretty clear then and there as it is now and here that talking wasn’t going to get us out of our bind. So we didn’t try that.
What we did try was to find the sorts of mission things that we could agree on, And then we did them. We made sandwiches and delivered them to people sleeping under the bridges in the city. We worked together with partnership dioceses in Africa, and in Uganda particularly. We reached out to the developing countries in Central and South America. The point was to find something we could agree upon and then to do it with each other as best we could. It helped a bit.
It didn’t fix everything. In fact looking at the division in that diocese now I can say that it could be argued that it didn’t fix anything. But it was worth trying then. I think it’s worth trying now. Jesus calls us to be reconciled with each other. Even when groups are unwilling to reconcile, Jesus doesn’t seem to give the option of not trying. According to the prayerbook, reconciliation between God and creation is the central mission of Christ’s church in the world.
I guess that this same impulse of trying to find a way to be reconciled to each other is at the heart of what I saw happening in Canterbury at the Lambeth Conference this weekend. The bishops of the Anglican Communion are not of one mind. They are trying to find ways to be reconciled with each other. They are trying to do that by starting with the simple steps of building relationships marching in the streets with each other and in conversations formally and informally with each other.
Will this solve the problems in the Communion? Probably not. Our disagreements are multi-layered things and our bishops are not the only parties involved.
But it’s a start. It’s like those sandwiches the police officer handed me. It’s a recognition that even if I don’t agree with you, I respect you – at least in part. And perhaps out of that small flame, we can grow a deeper respect that can, someday, be the driving force behind a deep and real reconciliation of voices striving for justice and holiness in the Church.
And for that small start I’m grateful.
The Very Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely is Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix Ariz. He serves as Chair of the Standing Commission on Episcopal Church Communication and was originally trained as an astronomer. His blog is Entangled States.