When It’s Done Well

SSJ PortraitBy the Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston
Bishop of Virginia

For far too many, it’s all a matter of who/what “wins” and who/what “loses.” It’s as if the final tally is the whole story. We can all understand that, and there can be no question that decisive action—sometimes very dramatic—is vitally important in the life and witness of the Church. There are moments, there are votes, which are the milestones by which we track and interpret church history. Anyone can think of some votes that stand out, and the reasons why we would consider an event to be such a milestone will vary greatly. Just a very few from my lifetime in the Episcopal Church include the revision of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the vote to ordain women to the priesthood and episcopate, and marriage equality. I thank God the Holy Spirit for these particular milestones, while others judge them as heresies. Some were inspired to become more active in the Church because of this or that decision while others felt dismay and drifted away. And therein lies my point.

The decisions reached by our General Convention are about much more than the final tallies. So much goes into a document or a resolution before it ever sees the light of day, and that very work forms souls and strengthens personal faith. Often, all of that is glossed over or is simply overshadowed by the results of a vote. Yet, our Church is undeniably made stronger by that unseen, unheralded faithfulness. Likewise, sometimes, entire lives are changed by disappointment following a vote; people are even driven into despair. Yet, the larger community often loses touch with that pain, as if it doesn’t matter. I believe that we would do well to keep the kind of perspective that causes us to remember that there are such stories and engage them. We would all be much the richer if we did because there are faithful members of our Episcopal Church who have endured the hurt, the rawness, of losing a “milestone” vote and have nonetheless stayed their course within our Church, even finding new strength. All of us can learn from such examples.

Now we’ve arrived at my inevitable soapbox. Most of the time, I’m just as interested in the process as in the product. I take no gratification from an agreeable point “winning” when the process is flawed. I will be among the first to cry “foul!” when something I don’t agree with is defeated through a corrupt process. Moreover, there are many times when I can live with one outcome just as well as with the other. It’s not that I don’t care but rather that I’m very invested in how well we disagree. Like-mindedness can make many friends—anyone can embrace people with whom we agree. But, I believe that the Church is more than that, indeed, is better than that.

As Christians in the Anglican Tradition, we should know—probably better than anyone—that we actually need those with whom we disagree inside our tent as much as we need our teammates. They are not merely tolerated, not simply accepted as a fact of life, but are truly needed. This is our unique charism, and we must hold it up to the whole world, which seems to need it now more than ever. I remember when we used to be pretty good at this, and I long for the time when we’re steadied by it again. I suggest that our theological DNA is that creative tension that happens when we’re more about the Body of Christ than we are about “which side.” If Anglicanism were to have a motto, I’d like it to be “Agreement is overrated.” God grant us all the grace that we become a Body which is more about commitment than “agreement.”

We are to be committed to each other as fellow disciples of Jesus, not held together by one another’s similar opinions. Like-mindedness can be a theological opiate, a seductive sedative for the soul. Instead, give me the liveliness and vibrancy of a well-honed disagreement which, when the question is settled, is distinguished and remembered for showing us how, in mutual respect, decisiveness is done well.

Featured banner photo of downtown Austin: Celal Kamran

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