In chapter 6, Parker Palmer reflects on the role of classrooms and congregations in forming the habits of the heart that are important for a healthy democracy. Not surprisingly, I find myself particularly drawn to his discussion of congregations.
One of the things that most struck me in that discussion was the way in which he talked about whether a congregation has the ability to truly listen to each other, in the sense of being able to really see and talk together about the differences between them. Palmer writes,
My response to the requests I get to help. . . congregations “diversify” is simple: “There is no such thing as a ‘homogenous white congregation.’ There are only groups of white people pretending that they have no critical differences among themselves for fear that their ‘community’ would crumble if they opened their real lives to one another.
It reminded me of what happened in the congregation I served for over a decade in East Tennessee before I came to Trinity. About half-way through my tenure there, the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire elected an openly gay, partnered priest as their bishop. That election was subsequently approved by the larger Episcopal Church, at a meeting of its General Convention. The matter received a great deal of attention in the secular media, and everyone in my congregation was surely aware of what had taken place. Our bishop wrote a pastoral letter to the people of the diocese, which the clergy were required to read to their congregations, explaining why he had voted against confirming the bishop’s election, even as the diocese’s delegation of lay and clergy representatives had voted in favor of it. Clearly, it was a matter about which there were sharply divided opinions, often held with great passion.
It was not long after this that I noticed, as the summer drew to a close, that some very active members of my congregation were no where to be found. I also became aware that certain friendships in the congregation were fracturing, because people suddenly discovered that when it came to the involvement of gay people in the life of the church, they held different opinions. A number of people ended up leaving that congregation because they disagreed with what had happened, and most of them did not even care to have a conversation with me about it. And, for a long time, I delayed having any sort of community conversation about it, because — being rather conflict-averse — I was afraid of what would happen.
Thinking of this in light of what Parker Palmer has to say about congregations and their role in forming people to participate in democracy, I find myself wondering about what sort of community we had in East Tennessee, given that all of us — myself included — had such a hard time finding a way to talk about something that was so emotionally charged, and yet so important. And if that congregation, populated by people who had shared a communal life together for a long time, couldn’t have those difficult conversations, how are we to have them at a larger, societal level?
Trinity, of course, is a very different community in many ways from that congregation in East Tennessee, but also, perhaps, not so different. At various points, we have had small conversations about how we live into that part of our mission statement that declares us to “have a heart for justice.” It is a part of our mission that touches on the political and the societal, since having a heart for justice implies some level of engagement that acknowledges injustice and desires to do something about it. But to a number of people, including myself, figuring out this area of our ministry feels a bit risky because it risks surfacing differences among our community with respect to what is just and unjust, with respect to differing points of view on matters of public policy. And to the degree that these differences surface within our congregation, there is a fear that the integrity of our community will be threatened, that people whose views are “in the minority” might feel unwelcome. In short, there is a fear that our community might fracture — just as my community in East Tennessee did.
And yet, particularly now, when we find ourselves in such a unique political era, it feels like there is an urgency to having these sorts of conversations, to finding the right way to engage as a community of faith with what is happening in our larger society. It feels somehow important that we be able to have conversations that risk exposing differences among us, and it feels equally important to be able to surface these differences without it seeming unsafe, or causing some kind of break within the community.
This, after all, seems to be what Parker Palmer is aiming for: building the capacity to have difficult conversations across differences that, instead of fracturing community at some level, instead lead us to deeper insight, deeper awareness, deeper capacity to come to decisions despite the differences between us. I hear him calling congregations to be a laboratory for these kinds of conversations, recognizing that transforming our current polarized political culture must begin at the local level.
It seems a challenge to undertake — but perhaps it is a risk worth taking.