This month's front page letter from the parish magazine:
“Why can’t we all just get along?”
Those who have chosen to join my Lent group this year, which is called “Poles Apart?”, are thinking about the tensions which divide us from each other. As I look at the wider church at the moment it seems to me that it’s a subject which is very timely (though perhaps, sadly, it is always timely!) There are a number of issues in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, which are coming to a head at this time; debates about gay clergy and the ordination of women bishops, for example. National issues divide us too; sex education in schools, the right to wear symbols of faith to work, assisted dying, whether state-funded faith schools should select pupils on the basis of religious belief. Arguments rage on these issues not only between Christians and non-Christians, but between Christians themselves as well. The media often misses the fact that Christian views on these issues are sometimes deeply divided.
Here in Sevenoaks, of course, we’ve had our own, home-grown furore recently, following the widely reported views of clergy at St Nicholas Church that wives should submit to their husbands. It won’t surprise anyone who knows me to hear that I don’t think this is a healthy pattern for 21st Century marriage, and many people have expressed similar misgivings to me. As I listened to the sermon which sparked the debate on St Nicholas’ website I was especially concerned about the effect this message might have on women (and their children) who are in abusive marriages. One in four women experiences domestic abuse in the course of her lifetime, and a recent Church of England report highlighted the way in which theology which told them to submit to their husbands could contribute to this abuse1.
As you may know I wrote a leaflet outlining my position on these issues for the congregation at Seal, in response to the widespread disquiet I had picked up. (There are still some copies in church, and it can also be downloaded from our church website.) I didn’t take the decision to enter this particular fray lightly, however. I am not a naturally disputatious person and, like many others, often find myself wondering, “Why can’t we all just get along?” Disagreement, though, is an inevitable part of being human. We are all different, with different experiences which inform and shape us, and this will inevitably lead to tension from time to time. The choice which faces us is whether we see our differences solely as problems or whether they can also be gifts, bringing us a wider perspective as we engage with those who hold opposing views. What matters, in the end isn’t whether we disagree – we are bound to sometimes - but how we disagree.
Lent, of course, is a period of preparation for Holy Week and Easter, when we hear again the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. He gives us the supreme example of someone who stood up for – and died for - what he believed in, the infinite worth and dignity of the women, men and children who he encountered struggling and suffering around him. Again and again we see him in the Gospels responding to human need, even if it meant breaking the rules of his faith. He healed on the Sabbath, touched the untouchables of his society, acted in ways which sometimes profoundly shocked others. When he spoke out, it wasn’t to score points or assert his own cleverness or power, however, but because these vulnerable people needed him to. I can’t tell you what you should think or do about the contentious issues which divide us – that is for each of us to work out for ourselves - but it does seem to me that our starting point should be that same concern for the real, flesh and blood people around us, both those with whom we are arguing and those whose lives are made or marred by our decisions.
(Responding To Domestic Abuse - www.cofe.anglican.org/info/papers/domesticabuse.pdf)
Anne Le Bas