The central role of conflict in the life of the Episcopal Church

By George Clifford

Recently, a dental hygienist whom I had not previously met cleaned my teeth. She worked in silence, a welcome change from hygienists who expect their patient to converse in spite of having a mouthful of fingers and dental instruments. When she had finished the cleaning, she asked me what I did. I said that I was an Episcopal priest.

She replied that she had been Episcopalian, but that she had tired of the endless controversy and conflict. The massive, continuing exodus of people and congregations from The Episcopal Church left her feeling dismayed. She rebuffed my attempt to describe the size of the exodus factually with anecdotal evidence from her own experience. To her, the exodus had and continued to feel distressingly huge, though I gathered she disagreed with those exiting.

After she moved to Raleigh several years ago, her teenage daughter had made friends at school with kids who attended a nearby Lutheran church. Consequently, this woman was now a Lutheran, believing it good for her daughter to attend church with her friends. Becoming Lutheran conveniently allowed her to avoid the conflicts in The Episcopal Church (TEC). Nevertheless, the hygienist, who subtly indicated that she was not open to returning to TEC, expressed a preference for our liturgy.

My encounter with this woman started me thinking about conflict. Conflict is essential for growth, whether physical, intellectual, emotional, or spiritual. Confronting limits, crossing barriers, and moving into new territory each represent a form of conflict as a person moves beyond the known into the unknown.

Approaches to conflict vary along a spectrum that ranges from avoidance to seeking. Those who seek conflict seem unable to thrive without it. Psychologists sometimes refer to these individuals as “drama queens/kings.” In the absence of sufficient conflict, a drama queen/king will create conflict. Apart from the emotional intensity of conflict, such individuals often seem flat or lost. Living with a drama queen/king frequently exhausts family and friends.

Sometimes, I think TEC has more than its fair share of drama queens/kings. These individuals appear to rely upon conflict-generated emotion to provide momentum for their worthwhile endeavors. This has happened in TEC conflicts over civil rights, prayer book revision, the ordination of women, and full inclusion of GLBT persons. Unfortunately, the conflicts left numerous casualties, like my dental hygienist, in their wake.

At the other extreme are persons who wish to avoid conflict at all costs. Conflict avoidance, like living with a drama queen/king, is emotionally exhausting. Like the proverbial ostrich with its head buried in the sand, conflict avoiders pretend that everyone agrees, that everything is good, and demand the complicity of everyone else in supporting those false claims.

Small congregations that pride themselves on being a harmonious loving family – and there are a large number of these – embody this type of dysfunction. Not only is sustaining the pretense of loving harmony draining, it also prevents the difficult work of identifying and removing the barriers the congregation has erected, usually without conscious intent, that now prevent growth. If the congregation were truly as wonderful as imagined, then people would travel many miles to join. The congregation’s self-image conflicts with reality, pointing to the need for change.

Between those two extremes, a multiplicity of points exist in which, to some degree, conflict functions as an opportunity and potential catalyst for change and growth. One sine qua non for positive conflict management that leads to growth is mutual respect on all sides, something too often lacking in TEC conflicts. Mutual respect requires not only listening (of which we have sought to do much), but also mutual learning (of which we have done too little, convinced that those with whom we have fundamental disagreements have nothing to teach us).

Jesus reminds his hearers to remove the log in their own eye before carping on the mote in another’s eye. I feel strongly about practicing radical hospitality and welcoming all of God’s people. However, before I speak about the mote in another’s eye, I would do well to listen to them, to see if they can help me to identify the log in my eye, (presumptuously) presuming that if I knew what the log was, that I would be at work removing it.

A second important element of capitalizing on the potential benefits of ecclesial conflict is to preserve a broad vision of the Church’s identity and mission. Single-issue politics has greatly contributed to the polarization of politics in the United States. Sadly, a similar focus on single-issues has greatly contributed to polarizing TEC.

No person or organization can focus equally on the plethora of needs, concerns, and issues crying out for the Church’s attention and response. Thankfully, that is not the biblical vision of a Christian or of an individual Christian community. Each person and community receives gifts for ministry and a call as to the context for exercising those gifts at a particular time. Together we have the capacity and resources to do what we cannot do individually: address the plethora of needs, concerns, and issues that cry out for the Church’s attention and response.

Functioning as a mosaic necessarily introduces different emphases, even conflicting aspirations and competing claims on limited resources. Promoting particular agendas has too often found expression in myopic vision that excludes those with whom we disagree rather than preserving a breadth of vision that enables us to perceive a beautiful mosaic of God’s design.

Do those with whom I disagree incarnate their part in God’s mosaic more faithfully, equally faithfully, or less faithfully than I do mine? Asking that question moves beyond mutual respect and holding a broad perspective to begin identifying common goals and values, a third critical element in enabling conflict to become a catalyst for transformation. The Book of Common Prayer provides one such commonality, although some few will disagree about the preferred version. Commitment to loving God and others in Jesus’ name constitutes another commonality. Additional, more particular commonalities almost certainly exist in every conflict.

Finally, people and groups must sometimes live with their disagreements. Unity does not necessitate unanimity. Discerning the movement of God’s Spirit often takes time. Being Church is messy. I am disappointed that my new dental hygienist seems permanently disenchanted with TEC. However, I am thankful that she did not leave the Church entirely but moved to another branch in which to live out her spiritual journey. Additionally, perhaps her story is a gift to those who remain in TEC, encouraging us to reflect upon – and change – how we deal with conflict.

George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, is now a visiting professor of ethics and public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

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