A number of years ago, my former diocese of Newcastle in New South Wales attempted what it called 'a year of listening' on the vexed subjects of sexuality and authority then, and still, convulsing the Anglican Communion. It turned out, many ruefully reflected, to be more like 'a year of shouting'. For whilst today we are a great deal more civilised in our Christian disagreements than in, say, the Reformation era, we can still be remarkably abusive and psycho-spiritually violent when we come to such contentious subjects. In the last week, for instance, the webpage of the Toowoomba Chronicle was full of heated comments centring on discussion of a video ad initiative by my family doctor and parishioner Dr David Van Gend. Irrespective of the validity of David's claims, I was myself shocked by the venom of the remarks thrown out by various contributors towards one another. Whilst, on this issue, I personally take a different approach to David, I respect his care and integrity and I expect that such respect is extended to all who struggle, on various sides, to move forward on these important and often emotive questions. Can we therefore find better ways?
This morning at St Luke's we certainly took a loving step forward as we held a dialogue on 'family and marriage today'. This was a direct response to our diocesan synod's motion last year to use 'talking circles' to help us engage together. It has proved a welcome success, whenever people have had the courage to join in. Today we were certainly a mixed bunch, including some of our more socially and theologically conservative members as well as those very much on the progressive edge. Led by Jonathan Kemp, our diocesan director of Youth Children and Family ministries, we took time to listen to each other, telling something of our own stories, hopes and dreams. It was quite moving at times, especially when members of the group spoke of personal crises and challenges, and it was full of much wisdom, love and humour. Indeed the word which came to mind for me was kindness. We had not dodged trying and powerful issues, such as our divisions on same-sex marriage. Nor were we deterring each other from positive action, including campaigning on such issues. Yet we had held our passions and convictions together with tenderness and openness to others. We had not solved all the challenges but we had sat, and metaphorically walked together, with genuine love. We can therefore travel on together with deepened mutual understanding.
Kindness is a much undervalued gift. Some of my Chinese Buddhist and humanist friends in Toowoomba have taught me much about this in recent times, especially through their own loving kindness in action. This can be embodied in means such as 'talking circles' (originating as 'council circles' among First Nations peoples), 'open space technology' (see NASA event in photo above) and 'indaba' processes (taken up by other Anglicans and others, such as at the 2008 Lambeth Conference). They may not seem as dramatic and purposeful as traditional Western dialectical processes. Yet they are perhaps essential, complementing, ways in which we may progress together in our multicultural and multifaith world: kinder ways to finding light rather than generating more heat in an often over-wrought existence and public space.
One of the most enjoyable recent new initiatives in the contemporary Western mainstream Church has been the phenomenon known as Messy Church. 'A way of being church for families involving fun', this Christ-centred approach to gathering together works for all ages, bringing together 'creativity, hospitality and celebration'. As such, it has been highly successful across the world in a multiplicity of different contexts and church traditions. In the Anglican parish of St Luke, Toowoomba, it is has certainly proven its worth. Introduced at Pentecost 2014, a wonderful lay team has helped to run it at St Mark's, Rangeville on a bi-monthly one Sunday afternoon basis, contributing substantially to the building up of our Christian community as well as growing new families and individual disciples in our midst. The latest themed Messy Church even included the creating of a parish ark (see left after its transfer to St Luke's church building).
In some ways, the very term 'Messy Church' is very appropriate for being a Christian community at all in our contemporary Christian world, especially for Anglicans. In every age, after all, the Church has always had to work at what it means, in any context, to 'sight, sound, signal and support' the coming of God's loving reign. Perennially the Church has to allow the grace of God to reshape it afresh. Today however the challenge is particularly pressing, not least because of the pace of change and the sheer diversity of the contemporary world. To be true to the Gospel therefore, contemporary Christianity needs to be highly protean, as well as ever more deeply focused in essentials. It is a messy business! For Anglicans, in theory at least, this should really not be such a difficulty. Anglican history, polity and spirituality form a clear, distinctive and coherent embodiment of Christian life and thought. Yet such elements have formed a worldwide communion which is in many ways highly messy. This certainly does not justify some of the more chaotic and problematic aspects of Anglicanism! Perhaps however the example of Messy Church should be encouragement to Anglicans across the world. Being messy may not suit those of more fundamentalist outlook, whether religious or secularist. Yet Anglican gifts of 'creativity, hospitality and celebration', developed through shared commitment, with some clear but flexible structures, are vital ones for human, and environmental, flourishing today.
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian and justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice and sustainable creation.