I hear that when you come together as church there are divisions among you and to some extent I believe it.
1 Corinthians 11: 18
What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Do they not come from the evil desires within you?
James 4: 1
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved,clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with one another and forgive one another if someone has a grievance, forgive as the Lord forgave you . . .. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts since as members of one body you were called to peace.
Colossians 3: 12-15
Most of the New Testament was written to implore people who have divided up over this or that thing to resume relationship. Mutual respect and forbearance is a perennial issue in the Church, but not just the Church. It is a human thing. Kurt Vonnegut coined the term “granfallooons” meaning categories of people who actually have little in common but they identify as a group in opposition to another group of people who also have very little in common. He means to say that beneath the surface, our divisions are not really about what they appear to be about. They are about our propensity to divide for the sake of division.
In the face of the worldly way of division and discord, our central sacrament is communion – com = with + union. We commune with God only by communion with each other. “One bread. One Body. One Lord of All.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpe-B3VSOJ4 We all have the same God, which means we all come from the same Source, are all headed for the same Destiny, and all our lives are guided by the same Meaning. In a society that celebrates the individual misfit whose greatness is evidenced by his alienation from ordinary inferior people -- how many movie heroes fit that model? – a sacrament of relationship is counter-cultural. Religion – re-ligio (connect again) is countercultural.
It is not an easy thing to bring a congregation into sufficient relationship to serve God together. Ask any priest. Ask St. Paul. Ask Jesus. But imagine bringing multiple congregations into sufficient relationship to support and inspire one another. If such a thing were possible, we would call it a diocese.
The old-timers in Nevada tell me that we have a long history of divisions. Not everyone agrees. A minority tell me there was a golden age of harmony. Others say it was not so. Perhaps, there is a division between those who say there was division and those who say there was not. But the consensus is that we have had our conflicts.
In my decade among you, I have noticed that a certain prickliness has existed among different categories of parishes. Interestingly, we are not divided, as many dioceses are, over liturgical style or such issues as women’s ordination and LGBTQ inclusion. We may do things differently from parish to parish, but these differences are not discords. We get along just fine regarding things over which other dioceses spill blood. But that does not mean we are united.
We divide up differently. The most obvious division is regional – North vs. South and East vs. West. (Those focused on North vs. South don’t know about East vs. West; but I assure you it is a real division). There is also urban vs. rural; big parish vs. small parish; parish with stipendiary clergy vs parish with non-stipendiary clergy. We have divisions along lines of race, ethnicity, and language – sometimes that is shamelessly explicit; other times it is more subtle. We have divisions along lines of socio-economic status. That is never stated directly, but those on the receiving end of the disrespect feel it just the same. We also have tensions between congregations where church A has a fight and some people leave church A for church B, but remain angry over the old fight. Wherever we have two or more congregations in driving distance of each other, that happens.
The old timers also tell me some good news. They say that we are more united as a diocese than ever before. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. It feels to me as if we are more united, as if we have more of a sense of ourselves as one team. But the moment I get a little sanguine about the state of our diocesan communion, something will happen in a committee or in an individual conversation, or a congregation will push away from the rest of us, and that reminds me we are still human and humans have a deeply engrained habit of dividing up into us vs. them.
I do think we have experienced some healing these past few years. Healing is a good thing. But the progress we have made is still tentative, delicate, and fragile. It’s too soon to say whether this is a lasting shift in our character or just a blip on the screen. If we want to go back to the old wars, there are multiple and easy ways to get there.
Now, this may surprise you, perhaps disappoint you. I am not going to implore you to remain united. True, loving relationality is the nature of God. True, the Church exists to embody that loving relationality and thereby constitute the living, breathing Body of Christ in the world. But that is an opportunity – granted it is the basic core opportunity of human life – but still an opportunity -- that you may take or not, to whatever extent you choose.
I do not implore you to remain united because St. Paul did a better job of that than I can and it didn’t work for him. 1st and 2nd Corinthians are actually 4 letters begging Corinth to get its act together. But decades after Paul lost his head in Rome, St. Clement was writing epistles, 1st Clement and 2nd Clement, to the Corinthians urging them to get their act together. Paul had not persuaded them. Unity is a matter of the heart. We can’t force it.
All I will do is offer two points to consider as opportunities for division arise:
1. Centrifugal and Centripetal Forces – There is an urge for togetherness and an urge for separation. This is not a case of good vs. evil. Too much togetherness fuses us into a group think blob. Too much separation fragments us into cold and alienated hermits, loveless and bored.
Scientists are not sure whether the universe’s centrifugal force are too strong so that we will break apart and freeze in frigid darkness; or the centripetal forces are too strong and we will collapse into our fiery stars and be incinerated. Robert Frost quipped:
Some say the world will end in fire.
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire
But for destruction ice is nice
And will suffice.
2. There is a third option. It all turns on the possible existence of dark matter, which makes an apt metaphor for Holy Mystery. If there is sufficient dark matter, the centrifugal and centripetal forces of the universe may be in balance. In that case, the universe will neither split apart nor collapse into a cosmic conflagration. It will pulsate like a great heart. What might it be like if a congregation or perhaps a diocese pulsates?
We Are All One In Mission – Wilfred Bion was the father of depth psychology of groups.
He showed that groups exist for a purpose, but for some reason – he did not know why – groups resist their purpose. They sabotage it with several basic simple strategies. One is fight/flight dramas. That much seems true in my experience.
I suggest a reason we sabotage our missions. They call us out of ourselves. A kind of death to self happens when we forget ourselves for the sake of a mission larger than our ego-projects of self-protection and self-advancement. It is no coincidence that the disciples erupted into conflict over who would be greatest as they were on their way to Jerusalem and Jesus was inviting them to “take up your cross and follow me.” A mission scares us, but it is the Cross that leads to new life in Christ.
If Bion is right, our conflicts have historically been our way of avoiding our mission. The only thing that will lead us through future conflicts will be our commitment (to the point of sacrifice) to that mission. But what is it?
What is God calling the Church to be and to do in Nevada in this early 21st Century? I have some opinions about that. I see desperate needs and exciting opportunities screaming for our engagement. I see our capacity to engage those needs and opportunities. But I will not name them. The moment I name them I claim them, and the Diocese will nod, perhaps salute, and carry on as usual. If is for the people, clergy and laity together, to ask what we’ve got to live for, what we’ve got to die for. There is not a final answer we can type up as a slogan (aka “mission statement”) paste on a bulletin and forget. A real mission is a vital organic shifting thing we can never pin down precisely, but we can get the feel of it and know when we’re engaging it and when we are betraying it.
There is always reluctance to look for our mission, precisely because if we find it, it could cost us our lives. So, I will not push that project either. Who am I to goad you toward such spiritual/ existential peril? Jesus said, “He who seeks to save his life will lose it. But he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” That’s what Jesus said, but it’s your life.