Many churches have risen to the challenge of welcoming Ukrainian refugees. By the time you read this I hope we will have a family of five staying with us – visas permitting! We have been greatly helped by a support hub organised by the team at St. Peters in Hereford. We won’t have the time to help our guests with the labyrinthine procedures of registration, school places and the like. Fortunately, being part of the group means we can provide what we can and others will help them settle in.
A few weeks ago, some of the recently arrived guests reflected on the cultural differences they had encountered as they settled in. Notable was their bemusement about how English people say sorry all the time. Its true, we do! American friends find it odd as well. Ukrainians tend to be much more direct. Identifying these cultural differences reveals a lot about our different expectations. They can misinterpret our behaviour as insincere; we can interpret theirs as impolite. Both are misinterpretations, but clarifying these expectations is important.
This plays out in every sphere of life: school, home, community and Church. So much conflict could be avoided if we had the courage to have honest conversations about the effect the behaviour of others has on us, particularly in an environment where we decide we aren’t going to take offence. Jesus' disciples’ expectations of what a messiah would look like were completely wrong. Much of his ministry was about putting them right. The expectations of our clergy have often been formed in a completely different environment to now. One deanery in our diocese has 7 stipendiary clergy. In 1961 there were 17! Clearly, the current generation can’t do the things their predecessors did. Similarly, some clergy’s expectations of the people in the parishes may have been formed in a very different context to the multi-parish setting in which they now serve.
Many of the relational problems that naturally emerge in any community, and especially in churches, trace back to this expectation mismatch.
As we move forward as a diocese post-COVID these sorts of honest conversations will be vital to the health and well-being of the church. Listening to one another in order to understand rather than to respond will be a key element. Healthy communities are ones that identify conflict and move towards it to resolve it rather than avoid it and pretend it isn’t there. I believe a church community that models handling disagreements well could be a very attractive one in a fragmented world like ours.