That the recent presidential election turned the existing political and social divide in the United States into a gaping chasm is news to no one. And it should also come as no surprise that this chasm of division has extended to conservative and liberal Christian denominations. Yet what is not as widely known is how badly the election has divided individual congregations. But a growing number of church leaders are realizing that these divisions are deep and dangerous, and are seeking ways to break down the walls of pain, anger, and distrust before it results in schism.
In that regard, several dozens of churches across the country have taken me up on my post-election offer to provide a free 10-pack of my book, Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them, to use as the basis of conflict transformation dialogue. One of those congregations is St. Philip the Apostle Church in Scotts Valley, California, a parish of the Episcopal Diocese of El Camino Real, where a team composed of two priests, Mary Blessing and Lucretia Mann, and a lay leader, Tina Grubbe (pronounced “Groob”), are facilitating a Paradoxy Conflict Transformation group. Members of the team have agreed to keep journals on the sessions, the content of which I will summarize (anonymously) in this and future blog entries.
They have held three (maybe four) meetings to date. The first session, held in May, was an introductory session. Members introduced themselves and shared their reasons for attending. The leaders distributed copies of Paradoxy, discussed dialogue ground, and assigned chapters for readings. All shared their wish to learn skills for engaging others across differences, a desire they continued to express in the meetings that would follow.
In the second meeting, held in mid-June, the group’s 10 participants began to get down to serious dialogue based upon what they had read. Participants started by sharing their responses to the question, “What would you have to give up for the Holy Spirit to do a new thing in our congregation?” As you might imagine, the dialogue this question provoked was not without emotion. To close the meeting, participants were invited to explore their reactions more deeply through journaling or some other appropriate medium. Also, participants began to ask for weekly (rather than monthly) meetings.
By the end of the third meeting, which was held on July 9, all the group’s participants had read and discussed chapter 1 (“The End of the World as We Know It: Collapsing Paradigms”) and chapter 2 (“Constantine’s Ghost: Christendom”), and the group had grown to 12 participants. The group started with a new round of introductions, including sharing about participants’ histories of church affiliation and reason for participating in the book study. The “meat” of the dialogue in this session was a sharing participants’ personal experiences of their relationship with and understanding of God. They closed the meeting with discussion of the value of considering each other’s individual stories of faith and relationship with God, rather in placing each other in binary categories like conservative and liberal, and agreed to meet the following week after reading chapter 3 (“Reality Ain’t What It Used to Be: Foundationalism”) and chapter 4 (“Hanging by a Thread: Christianity As Religion”).
It is worth noting that this group quickly learned that the work of dialogue is not easy. In fact, it is really hard work. The election and its aftermath left some pretty raw feelings and wounds, not only in the congregation at large, but also among the members of the dialogue group, and even among the facilitators, all of whom had responded to the issues raised by the election in different ways, which had created friction even among them, and which is requiring them to do the work of dialogue and healing among themselves, even has the work to guide the congregation through the process. But it is also worth noting that they have individually expressed their belief that the hard work is worth it, if they can help themselves and congregation learn to seek ways of approaching their important disagreements without the understanding that what makes them a Christian community is Christ’s love, not uniformity of agreement, and if they approach the few things upon which the deeply disagree through the love which they all share, that disagreement need not divide them from each other, and need not lead to holding each other in contempt.
More to come next week, so stay tuned…