Faith in Conflict 1 May 2013

Andy Trenier reviews the Archbishop of Canterbury’s conference on dialogue and conflict.

JustinWelbyIn his book ‘Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland’, Tony Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell, narrates wonderful anecdotes that paint the quixotic mundaneness of real-life conflict resolution. There is the famous tale of Gerry Adams trying to shake David Trimble’s hand whilst they are both ‘using’ the gents only to be rebuffed with a stern “grow up”. Then there is the tale of Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley discovering quite by accident a mutual love of country dancing – two old enemies caught unawares and unguarded, talking as if they were old friends.

What these inside stories tell us about is the prosaic at the heart of the miraculous – the long road that needs to be walked to address conflict in any arena. And these stories of people talking to strangers are typical stories.

Every now and then on the conference circuit there is a coming together of things; a confluence that seems almost providential. The ‘Faith in Conflict 2013’ conference was the brainchild of the then Canon for Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral, The Rev’d Canon Justin Welby. Since then, Rev’d Welby has, in quick succession, been to Liverpool Cathedral as Dean, and to Durham as Bishop. Recently installed as the Archbishop of Canterbury, this conference was the occasion of his first public address; it was where he appointed his two chaplains; it was where he set out his stall.

The Faith in Conflict conference gathered several hundred religious leaders, mediators and commentators to explore how conflict and Faith in Conflictfaith intersect; to examine how, by always seeking to reach beyond it, we ignore the possibility that conflict offers us –  possibilities of discovering what is really going on, possibilities for the reconciliation that is central to the Christian faith at least, and possibilities of personal and social transformation. There were the usual headline addresses and workshops, but the thing that really ignited the conference room was the face to face meetings of former ‘enemies’.

One such meeting was between two Americans whose parts of the Church were ‘at war’ with one another. Those are their own words. Week after week I look disapprovingly at the international news section of the religious press. What catches my eye and ignites my anger is the drip-drip of argument, litigation, and general apparent anarchy that seems to characterise parts of the Episcopal Church in the USA. True – the same kind of thing occasionally bubbles up in cases involving individuals in the UK, and yes of course, our public battles are hardly unbridled. And yet- it is the cases where conversation has so deformed that fellow Christians end up in court with one another, which are so terrible. I always think there is an irony in such conflicts since they are so clearly advised against in Scripture- especially when what is at stake is, at its heart, a question of scriptural observance and interpretation.

So it was with a great rush of interest that I took up my front-row seat to see two former protagonists sit down together, as they are obviously now very used to doing, to talk. Not to agree necessarily but simply to talk. Talk however – that most excellent of bulwarks against disaster, that most effective enemy of enmity – turns out to be quite a difficult religious activity.  But The Rev’d Baucum, and Bishop Shannon were really rather good at it. I suppose practice makes perfect.

They first approached one another in secret after inheriting the conflict from former holders of the posts they now occupy. The conflict was over the control of property and monies claimed by a large, wealthy evangelical parish church that was ceding from the wider body and the dispute had become seemingly intractable. Their secret meetings were tentative and lacked direction. It seemed that both simply wanted to stop fighting and talk, to rediscover the humanity at the heart of the other and themselves and to try and live in the faith they claimed to preach.

The Rev’d Baucum suggested that the law-suit, in which they both found themselves embroiled, was the occasion but not the reason for them meeting as they did. Discovered first in secret and then in public, their tentative personal but then later improbably prophetic dialogue, really is a good thing in itself. It is reason enough.

And this is the point. It is the same point that Paisley and McGuiness make. And the same one that many others brave enough to walk this road make. Keeping apart and associating only with people like ourselves, separate and pure, does not lead to transformation. Transformation requires taking the risk of crossing a boundary, meeting the difference head on, and being willing to surrender to the possibility that there is something beyond being right. That beyond notional orthodoxy may lie relational orthodoxy.

Online, in the blogs and websites of the partisans, people of great passion will moan and groan that they have given up on this principle or that: ‘How could you talk to him?’ they will ask or ‘Don’t you know what he is?’. Anonymous posters will harp and crow and shout blue murder that talking is not enough. It is agreement that counts; it is truth that counts; it is winning that counts…

However beyond the nuance-less world of the blogosphere, up close and personal with these two men, it was clear to our ears that the talking was enough; that reconciliation was an end in itself; for it had converted them both. It had converted them not to another, more truthful point of view, but to the Christ who they both claim to follow. If talking to others who are different represents the ‘best charism of Anglicanism since the Elizabethan settlement’, as The Rev’d Baucum suggested, then it is so precisely because friendship with difference is a converting experience. Of course this is not a truth found just in one faith tradition, it is a human fact- we meet conversion there in the face of the stranger. What religious tradition can do, when it is at its best, is resource such humanity and bring people to conversion of life.

For these two witnesses before us at the Coventry conference one thing was crystal clear – agreement is overrated. Talking, conversation, and reconciliation are not means to an end, they are ends in themselves.

About Andy Trenier

Andy Trenier is Curate and Minor Canon at Derby Cathedral, one of the UK’s modern Cathedrals. He holds a degree in Theology from Oxford, as well as degrees in Theology and Contemporary Politics, International Development, and an MSc in Management. Andy is interested in the role of faith in public life, as well as in the promotion chances of Woking FC.

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