A difficult experience yesterday has given me cause to think about an issue that I had never really identified before. Now that I have, it is a consistent factor in the life of all churches with which I am familiar (no small number, at that).
There seems to be a behaviour in church community life which can occur unchecked very often. The concerns, agendas, hobbyhorses, hot-potatoes, bees-in-bonnets of individual parishioners, when expressed in the warm-love-petri-dish environment of a church can grow like so many cultivated bacteria. They may be issues that are important and pressing, or else they may just be the personal crusades that Christians, like all human beings, instigate from time to time.
In the petri-dish, the environment for the growth of conflict is perfect. It is a place full of people who are called to love, often ill-equipped to challenge the more extrovert members or those with their own time-developed audiences. They are places that hold love as the greatest of virtues, so when an issue rises to the surface, it rises fast and spreads rapidly like a fire in dry hay.
In my own experience, it seems that there is no firefighting mechanism. Church communities are often gathered for a single occasion during the week. They gather to undertake an activity that demands (rightly or wrongly) that they are less interactive one with the other. They gather often as strangers in a room, strangers who for years will never ever know the names of other strangers in the same room. They come; they worship; they go home. Over coffee, the petri-dish environment does its work and agendas gain their momentum while the rest of the gathered assembly agonise about the conflicts - in private.
Church life very often lacks that thing that families have, gathering of friends have, businesses have, working teams have - a way of clearing the air, of addressing a conflict issue to resolve or debate the issues. We come together once a week to worship, then mutual-friend networks meet in the intervening periods and rally round the crusader of the day. How do church communities get together, as they do on a Sunday, to sit down not to worship, but to argue healthily?
My church, like all churches (even those who believe that this does not apply to them) has a couple of hot-potato issues on the coal burner. They are expressed between individuals behind pillars or in a corner. I think the traditional view is that the benevolent Vicar waves a Jedi-Knight hand and all issues vanish or minds changed, but that is clearly not the case. Yesterday, I felt I had no choice to stand at the front and address one issue head on - an issue that is misinformed and has the potential to do much harm. Is that all we have to clear our air?
The resultant beheviour is familiar to many long-term Christian churchy types: the 'twenty-year blow out'. Because churches have no way of clearing the air or arguing healthily, the pressure builds and after about twenty years, an atypical response is normally seen. The agitators of old (themselves good and loving people) become bricked up behind the walls of their former skirmishes and the need arises to pull those walls down. People get hurt, people leave, damage is done and rubble is left. Good people get hurt. Why? Because there is no way (that I have identified) for a healthy church to have an healthy argument and to clear the air.
Answers on a post-card, please.