Hello everyone and welcome to the first video of 2023.
I hope you have all had a restful Christmas break and are looking forward to the New Year with hope. It will bring it new challenges, some of which will be anticipated and others hitting us out of left field. Our capacity to deal with these things fruitfully will depend on our resilience, dependence on God, and if they are challenges to community cohesion, our prior commitment to live together in God-honouring ways. Within a community, there will always be conflicts. I wonder what the Lord does when he receives prayers across his desk asking for things that are fundamentally opposed to the prayers offered with equal passion by other Christians, especially when the desired outcomes seem mutually incompatible? If my postbag is anything to go by, this must be happening all the time.
Well managed conflict can lead to unexpected solutions that actually build relationships, rather than drive people apart. But if it is to do so, these three principles must undergird our interaction.
The first is a commitment to unity. Jesus prayed for it. It is the high point of the great high-priestly prayer in John. Jesus’ greatest desire is that all people should come to a saving knowledge of himself. The primary plan he has to commend that is through a broken and dysfunctional community called the church. The best way the church can fulfil that purpose is through the way we rub along together. Despite the fact the Christians have fragmented into new denominations in the face of nearly all disagreements since the reformation, that remains Jesus’ priority. Anglicans have perhaps been better than most about living with difference. I sense that is tested more than ever in the age of social media, where respectful exchange of opinion is replaced with supercilious soundbite and cliché. Far from building connection, it drives people further apart into polarised camps, each convinced of their own righteousness. It trivialises complex issues and makes things not simpler, but more simplistic.
The second principle is around the prioritising of our own needs and ideas. In Philippians 2, Paul says that if your Christian faith means anything at all, it should manifest itself in this way. Verse 3 – 4, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.” These are lofty words, but how will they work if you find your brother or sister in Christ advocating something with great passion that you would spend your life opposing? To maintain an openness to the other, particularly if their passions are expressed with hurtful, pastoral insensitivity, is challenging indeed.
Finally, there is the imperative of recognising Christ in one another, even if we disagree. Relationships between different Christian denominations today are unrecognisably better than they were even 50 years ago. There is mutual recognition of Christ’s work in each other. Local Bishops have positive meetings with our Roman Catholic friends as well as many other denominations. I sometimes wonder whether there is an equal work to be done internally in the church of England. The parish system and the powers vested in incumbents mean that each vicar can to an extent be a Pope in their own parish. Once a vicar is installed I have much less influence on the course of the life of a parish than people realise. We have different traditions in the Church of England. We can miss out on the richness of mutual conversation and learning and settle for an easy tribalism. It is much better here than in other dioceses, but not wholly absent.
There will be plenty more to say about the outworking of the LLF process over the next few weeks. If that is not going to blow us apart, then we must embrace these principles first. We must have a commitment to unity, because it is Jesus priority, we commit to the good of the other, and we determine to recognise Christ, even in those with whom we profoundly disagree.
I pray that in the challenges of 2023, whether our internal conversations, or parishes moving forward to explore new ways of being church, or the challenges of necessary cultural changes to be more fruitful as Christ’s Church in this diocese, we will know the indwelling power of the spirit to show both his gifts and his fruits of mutual love. Conflict is hard but it can by God’s grace make us more like Christ. Our year of prayer, starting this weekend expresses perfectly our utter dependence on Christ for the strength and grace we need to be that sort of community.