The previous article on this site, was a response to a newsgroup encounter. I decided to add my own piece to the newsgroup and I have edited that post for this page. The editing is to preserve some privacy for the group, and to allow for the fact that readers here will not have read the newsgroup. I’ve also tried to clarify my own thoughts.
To set the scene, "Sean" and "Alex" have been having a discussion about the nature of belief and faith. Sean has made a very negative comment about the nature of Alex's Christian faith and been challenged about it by other group members. He has left the group, and "Sarah" has called some of her ordained colleagues to account for their treatment of him. Some aspects of this event are covered here.
I was a bit surprised by Sarah's comments to the list about the way those of us who are ordained responded to Sean. I had posted a very pointed quote from Tillich in response to Sean, so I decided I should cool off before replying to Sarah. Others did, but since no one seems to have mentioned the issue I had with Sarah's response, so I will respond now.
In some respects this is a very personal response, and so will have some blind spots, for which I apologise. But it also deals with an area of church life that we remain very silent and inactive about. Although I am talking about what is done to ordained people here, I emphasise that I am well aware that ordained people are very often serious perpetrators, and members who are not ordained are the victims.
When ordained people are inducted into a congregation of the Uniting Church in Australia, we are presented with the Bible with the request that we bring the Word to the congregation.
This charge is laid upon us in the service of induction: "It is your duty to proclaim God's word to God's people."
Some parishes, when ‘God's word’ is not to their liking, respond to their unfortunate minister with slander and libel not dissimilar in the tone and content to that used by Sean. Sometimes it is considerably worse. The same treatment is sometimes dished out to parishioners brave or foolish enough to support that minister... Sometimes elements in the parish wait until that minister leaves, and then (sometimes with the help of a more conservative successor) crucify those who supported or protected the previous minister... again with lies sometimes meekly accepted by presbyteries. I think many of us have seen such scenarios. I know that young and ignorant, I said the most atrocious things about and to the two minister of my congregation, which they endured with a grace I did not deserve. I've been on the other end of it now, and was almost destroyed by it, and have seen the people who tried to protect me at the time treated terribly, and without justice.
Sean's response to Alex is all too common from people in the churches when they meet something theologically and existentially challenging. In our constant failure to deal with it in my life time and before, we bear much responsibility for the current theological ignorance of the church, and for its current fear of the future and lack of preparedness for the future. So it was good in this group, when an all too familiar fundamentalist condemnation surfaced, to see people act with commendable restraint, and gently but firmly refuse to accept it. Ordained and lay people were able to say, "Not here. We will not accept this un-Christian condemnation."
It is a refusal that is all too often lacking in parish and wider church life. We allow ourselves to be intimidated, and also emotionally blackmailed, by people who say we should be nice, or Christian, to our parishioners, and who paint responsible, reasonable, and quite caring debate and correction as un-Christian.
In the newsgroup discussion there was a standard of pastoral care and responsibility that was impressive, instead of the gaping silence that has so often enveloped parish and congregational meetings, and even worship, when someone has stood up and "done a Sean" (I'm not sure how else to describe it, I'm sorry) with all its righteous condemnation and patronising superiority, and begun the lonely crucifixion of a minister.
Sarah said "Sean, I understand, is not ordained. He is entitled to his expression of faith." Indeed, but no one is entitled to rip someone to shreds or judge them to hell as so many UCA members have done over the years... including many clergy. One of my college lecturers once remarked to me that some conservatives have a habit of expecting to be able to say whatever they like about the rest of the church, but when someone calls them on it, or rejoins with "rigorous debate" (even of the most polite kind) then they get upset and talk about love and pastoral care. Frankly, I think that Sarah's response about Sean has supported that habit. It is very easy to be swayed by someone's pain at getting called on their pronouncements, and not see that their pain is also an emotional blackmail.
Sarah said "There are a whole stack of ways of describing salvation and we should be wary of assuming that earlier definitions are entirely wrong compared to those emerging from current scholarship. It seems to me that we ministers need to be very wary of directly attacking the faith of a member of the church. What does it profit a man if he has read every credible commentary, and then uses them as weapons in arguments about the love of God?"
I wondered how much my reading of the debate had been coloured by my own sympathy for Alex's position and disagreement with Sean. I went back and re-read the posts. I've included my 'commentary' on them below to further illustrate the issue.
It seems to me that neither the ministers on this list, nor others, directly attacked the faith of a member of the church. They pointed out current theological understandings that do not support Sean's position. By contrast, it seems that Sean was only too willing to jump in and attack Alex.
It all began when Alex commented to T. about a post he made with a comment about the inconsistency of some theological positions.
Immediately we saw Sean saying,
"What can I say Alex. I give an inch, you take a mile, as always!.... You move on to promote an alternative religion which pays lip service to Christianity but denies the existence of God, discards the act of salvation of Jesus as primitive and archaic, and embraces the principles of Buddhism. Alex, by all means enjoy your new religion (lets call it the Microbee operating system in this analogy) and explore the broad spaces you have created for yourself, feel free to invite others on your journey into a new religion, but those matters are not relevant to our discussion on this Uniting Church site on matters of Christian disagreements within the Christian faith."
In his reply Alex did not attack back at Sean. He rejected the attack on himself i.e. that he was not Christian, and asked some fairly obvious and reasonable questions of Sean's comments. But Sean's response continued with its patronising tone about Alex's " new religion."
Alex's next reply remained factual and remarkably free of any personal content or attack... a model of pastoral care, I would suggest. I would be very happy to have remained this calm if it were me!
But Sean continued with patronising replies that were downright rude in their attitude to Alex.
Sarah felt that at the end of all this there was a "ganging up on Sean (in the form of several ministers calling for him to apologise)." It seemed more to me that Sean got called to account, and like many good Christians, he couldn't handle it, and " picked up his marbles and went somewhere else to play." He was actually shown love and care in the response of the group, I think, both before and after he left, but rejected it.
What G., the minister who first intervened in the exchange between Alex and Sean, said was appropriate.
[Sean's] email is not appropriate for this list. We have wandered from the discussion of ideas to the judgment of people and their spiritual status and stance. If I were in a pastoral relationship with someone who had made those comments in a public conversation, I would stop the conversation immediately and state that an apology for those comments would be appropriate. Maybe even required. I am not in a pastoral relationship in this setting, so I can just suggest and hope. and that we can do better than this in separating our views on issues of faith from our judgments of people individually ".
Other members also called Sean to account. I felt their posts were conspicuously missing the tone that he had been adopting for the whole conversation.
Sarah had commented that our responsibility of care as ordained people goes with us wherever we are. I agree with that. But Sarah also said pastoral care had been lacking in people's response to Sean. I do not think so. Pastoral care and ethics do not stretch to allowing condemnation go unchallenged because one is ordained and theoretically better educated than a lay person.
We cannot afford to remain silent in the face of the abusiveness of some church members. This is especially the case where it is slanderous and designed to drive out any difference in opinion or theology. It is not only against the whole ethos of the Uniting Church, and of the Faith, it is a sign of deep anxiety which will stop at very little to protect itself. It has the potential to destroy the church.
Sarah is someone for whom I have much respect after reading her many considered posts to the newsgroup. She has been a voice of good sense and moderation on many occasions. Perhaps my reaction has something to do with her perception that the ministers in the group had directly attacked the faith of a member of the church. It did not seem so to me; rather the reverse was true. He was doing the attacking. The fact that Sarah, of all of us, perceived the exchange in the way she did, illustrates just how confused we can become about the nature of respect and responsible debate.
Posted July 2003
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