an introductory reflection offered to a recent NSW Ecumenical Council discussion by Josephine Inkpin
Firstly let me acknowledge country – in particular the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation on which I live: their elders past, present and emerging. I also acknowledge all First Nations people here. I do so as right and proper. I also do so as this immediately focuses our discussions. For I live in a suburb (Forest Lodge) named after the house of Ambrose Foss, one of Pitt Street Uniting Church’s distinguished early founders. Next door is the suburb of Glebe: a name also witnessing to Christianity’s role in the dispossession of First Nations peoples. Such naming highlights how so many of our conventional expectations and faith stories are tied up with power. This lies at the heart of many divisions, embedded in our ways of thinking and being. Thanks be for God’s grace, these things are not intractable. Yet, without at least naming them, we will not go far in addressing the polarisation they help cause...
inevitability of conflict – refreshing our ecumenical grammar
For, let us be honest, conflict is inevitable in our world, and in the Church. It always has been: just read the New Testament. It always will be, this side of the eschaton. Some of the great moments in history have also been when people of faith have stood up, whatever the cost, for truth and justice as they saw it – sometimes in the teeth of opposition from other people of faith. The ecumenical movement itself has also sometimes been polarising – for example, in relation to apartheid, refugees, or Palestine-Israel. So, where there is polarisation, we may be called to choose. Not standing actively in solidarity with the oppressed is indeed to collude with oppression. The real question is how we handle conflict and what part we play in it. Ecumenically speaking, this means refreshing our ecumenical grammar.
offering and joyfully receiving each other’s gifts
One of the great speeches in Australia was that, in Alice Springs in 1986, by Pope John Paul II – and it stands helpfully alongside Ut Unum Sint (the subject of our earlier discussion). Speaking to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, he said:
the Church herself in Australia will not be fully the Church that Jesus wants her to be until you have made your contribution to her life and until that contribution has been joyfully received by others.
The bottom line is that until First Nations’ gifts have been offered and joyfully received – note the adjective! – the Church will not be what Jesus wants it to be. The greatest priority is addressing ‘the original sin’ of modern Australia and receiving the ‘amazing grace’ which God is giving. That approach however is surely applicable more widely. Indeed the preparatory papers for the Plenary Council of the Australian Catholic Church specifically emphasise this, although, sadly, applying it only to all Catholics. Wouldn’t it make a huge difference if we grasped this as ecumenical gift, saying – to all kinds of Christian - that the Church will not be fully what Jesus wants her to be until all of us have made our contribution to her life and this has been joyfully received by others.
Pope John Paul II prefigured here what we now know as ‘receptive ecumenism’. This remains vital. Note however two linked requirements in the Alice Springs address. On the one hand, the gift has to be offered. On the other, it also has to be joyfully received. Can we say that that is true of all our religious and political encounters? Are we really open to others’ gifts – and joyfully? It is, as marginalised people know, so hard to offer your gifts when you are hardly let into the hermeneutical, or even the literal, circle, never mind joyfully received. Again, issues of power and language subsist. How, for instance, can queer people really feel free to offer our contributions when we are told, by official Catholic declarations, that we are ‘intrinsically disordered’, or, by some supposed ‘authoritative’ Protestants, that we are ‘symptoms of the Fall’? Yet, without queer people’s ever richer faith, the Australian Church can never be the Church Jesus wants her to be.
What can the ecumenical movement then do in the face of polarisation? Above all, it can renew its charism, finding new ways, with others, to enable more life-giving encounters. The old forms of institutional debate have long since become tired. This has not been helped by deliberately conflictual partisan media, concentrated in the hands of, and reflecting the interests, of those who grow ever more mega-wealthy and powerful. Ecumenists should take heart however. Addressing polarisation is in the ecumenical DNA and has worked, sometimes impressively, with other features, in the past. It has done so, particularly, when it has attended to people, processes, and power.
Briefly then, on those three things…
attending to all people as diverse and complex images of divinity
Firstly. people – we are not simple binaries: good and bad, left and right; heretic or orthodox; queer or straight. There certainly is not, for example, a ‘transgender ideology’, as a current Bill in NSW Parliament asserts! Indeed, like many groups of clergy, trans people are somewhat like a bunch of cats: good luck trying to work out an ideology, and any shared ‘agenda’ beyond staying alive and growing in human dignity! Instead, all of us here today are full of nuance and complexity, ambiguity and the paradoxes of grace. We need to acknowledge this, our shared humanity, and the divinity in each us, even as we disagree.
Secondly, processes – ecumenists consequently need to ‘complicate the narrative’, as the Difficult Conversations Laboratory of Columbia University puts it. This offers us pointers central to ecumenism. To move beyond logjams, they say, ask different questions:
for example –
• what makes you feel this way?
• how do you feel the ‘other side’ receives what you say? and, what do they want, do you think?
• what would you like others to know about you?
• what does your group need to learn about the ‘other side’ to understand them better?
• what is the question no one is asking?
Researchers also find that it can help to share an article on a difficult subject and then ask combatants to draft a common word about its issues – something Commission has just done with Ut Unum Sint. Similarly, processes such as Open Space Technology and talking circles can be helpful. Amplify contradictions, they say; widen the lens; listen more, and check that you have actually heard what you thought you heard; expose people – appropriately! – to the other side, for example through good stories and events.
Renewing ‘middle axioms’ and intersectionality
This also draws us back to nurturing something like the ‘middle axioms’ which great ecumenical pioneers like J. H. Oldham and William Temple developed in their own times. Interestingly, there are helpful contributions offered by queer theologians. Patrick Cheng, Episcopal priest and professor, explores, for example, how we may move forward together intersectionally – intersectionality being crucial for renewing the common good through human unity in diversity. Like many queer Christians, he affirms ‘rainbow theologies’ which seek to encompass our immense pentecostal diversity of race, culture, and different ability, as well as sex and gender. Cheng thus outlines how what he calls ‘multiplicity’, ‘middle spaces’ and ‘mediation’ are queer gifts to the wider church and world as well as queer communities.
sharing co-active power
Finally, let’s come back to power. In his recent book The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarisation, Peter Coleman, a leading American researcher, points us to Mary Follett, a predecessor who addressed worker-management enmity over a hundred years ago. Mary articulated ‘power-with’ as one pathway to working through conflict. For ‘power-with’ is ‘a jointly developed power, a co-active, not a coercive power.’ Marginalised groups, beginning with disability advocates, put it this way – ‘nothing about us without us’. Perhaps this is part of the witness of the marginalised to context and participation. For, as African-American Churches have for instance long been saying, racism is just as much an ecumenical issue as classic ecclesiological issues such as baptism and ministry (see further: Jeffrey Gros ‘Eradicating Racism: A Central Agenda for the Faith and Order Movement’, Ecumenical Review)
which wolf will we feed? – the importance of kindness
Coleman also highlights the parable of the two wolves: one of which represents fear, anger, envy, greed, arrogance and ego; the other standing for joy, peace, love, hope, kindness, generosity and faith. Which wolf will win in a fight? The one that we feed. As the great Welsh writer, and transgender pioneer, Jan Morris put it and lived it, kindness in particular is such an overlooked virtue. Kindness so easily disappears in the heat of conflict but is so vital and really helps with good language, good processes and the possibilities of joyful reception. May we tread that pathway.
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.