The “conversation” dodge

I have been turning the phrase “convening the conversation” over in my head lately. Like online banking, the phrase has been around for a while, but I have just begun to take it seriously.

It is hard to be against convening conversation, especially given the contentious nature of relationships within the Anglican Communion. The bishops of the Communion had luck with the Indaba process at the Lambeth Conference. The talky public narrative project got good reviews from most deputies at General Convention. Canon Phil Groves of the Anglican Communion office has convened some excellent conversations among Anglican bishops as part of the much-delayed “listening process.” So sure, let’s talk.

But I’ve begun to worry that conversation, in many conflict averse-quarters, has become an end in itself. There is an entire school of commentary on matters Anglican that begins by belittling people in our current debate who have had the bad taste to express firm beliefs in strong language, especially if they have done so online. I distrust such commentary, not least because I suspect that those who write it are attempting to move our debate from the noisy public square to a quiet private dining room where a select group of experts will resolve the issue in a way that wins the participants plaudits for their diplomatic acumen, but does little to move our Church toward justice. These are folks who believe that the primary division within the Communion is not between those who believe same-sex relationships are blessed by God, and those who do not, but between those who feel an urgent need to resolve this issue and those who do not. They are entitled to that opinion, but it is not a grant of moral superiority.

I respect people who convene conversations, especially if the conversation is between parties or individuals who otherwise would not be speaking. The Washington National Cathedral (full disclosure, they are a client) recently convened such a conversation between Christian and Muslim leaders, including Sunnis and Shiites who seldom exchange theological views with one another. That was a conversation with the possibility of clarifying issues, forging relationships and building trust. But too often what passes for conversation is an exchange of set-piece opinions by talking heads who are both well known and well compensated, that adds nothing to the public’s understanding of an issue, but allows the convening institution to feel good about itself.

I’ve come to understand recently that a number of influential people in the Church say that they want to tackle complex social problems, but don’t want to get their hands dirty by doing anything as dishonorable as advocacy. This may be naiveté on their part, but it may be something more troubling. Better to “convene a conversation” than to actually make an unpopular choice. Better to build a reputation as one who can “speak to both sides” than to take a stand that might alienate friends, benefactors and folks who might advance one’s career.

I am as averse to people who wrap fuzzy thinking in the mantle of prophecy as the next person. I don’t care to be instructed on issues of public policy by church leaders whose grasp of an issue is no firmer than my own. But on Easter Monday, it is worth remembering that Jesus was not put to death because he ran a robust salon.

Past Posts