On January 10, the Church remembered Archbishop William Laud, who was beheaded on that day in 1645. I preached on the morning of January 10, 2017 at the midweek liturgy at All Saints Church in Worcester. This month’s remarks for this issue of 21st Century Congregations have been revised and expanded a bit for this context.
Archbishop Laud was a controversial and widely disliked figure. My homily was not meant to defend this saint whom some consider a martyr even as others condemn him as “an intolerant bigot.” Rather, especially paired with the challenging gospel assigned for this commemoration (
) I felt it was an opportunity to share some reflections on conflict in the Church which I hope may be helpful for ordained and lay leaders in our diocese during these challenging times. What can we learn from this seventeenth century Anglican that is relevant to our life together in 2017 in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts?
Do you know the story about the synagogue that was in a real mess? They were divided right down the middle over a bitter liturgical conflict.
is at the heart of the Jewish liturgy and indeed of Jewish faith:
Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one, you shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might
One faction in the congregation felt that you should stand when the
was being read as a sign of respect and reverence. The other faction felt certain you should be seated, the posture of a student. So they tried to resolve the conflict by appointing three standers and three sitters to go see Mr. Finkelstein, the oldest living member of the congregation.
The sitters pleaded with him: “tell us about the days when this congregation was founded…surely everyone then sat when the
was read, right?” But Finkelstein told them he just couldn’t remember for sure. “Think hard,” the standers implored. “Surely when this congregation was founded, everyone stood for the
!” “I’m sorry, I cannot remember,” said Finkelstein.
Both sides started yelling at once. “This is tearing our congregation apart,” they shouted. “Everyone has picked sides and no one is speaking with anyone on the other side, and it’s a huge mess!”
“Ah,” said Finkelstein. “Now that I remember.”
It’s easier to laugh at synagogue politics than church politics, isn’t it? But I imagine that in many of our congregations we may be able to see ourselves into that story. Conflict is a part of the fabric of congregational life because it is a part of human life – in our families and in our workplaces and we can’t escape lock it out of our congregations.
I have always enjoyed mid-week Eucharistic liturgies because the holy women and holy men who we remember are usually amiable enough characters, even when we know that saint is not a synonym for “perfection.” Who doesn’t like Francis of Assisi or Julian of Norwich or Nicholas of Myra?
William Laud of Canterbury is a very different matter. He was Archbishop in a very difficult time. Although truth be told I’m beginning to realize the older I get that all times are difficult times! Laud may well have been an intolerant bigot. He could not stand the Puritans, those same folks who fled to this country in search of religious freedom. I mean he couldn’t stand them and he pushed all their buttons. Ultimately he paid for it with his head.
Laud was a polarizing figure. To this day, you either love him or you hate him, but you don’t tend to feel lukewarm. If you were convinced that the reformers had gone too far and you wanted to revive medieval piety and worship and push the altar back against the wall and put a rail around it to keep out the riff-raff, well then you say this guy had it right. If, on the other hand, you felt the Reformation hadn’t really taken hold in England like it did on the continent (or in Scotland) and there was more work to be done, then it was clear that Laud was a reactionary turning the clock back. You may well have been one of those who wanted his head, and eventually that’s just what happens on that January day in 1645.
I have a confession to make. When I was first attracted to the Episcopal Church back in the 1980s, I think I had a false and idealized version dancing in my own head (like a kind of sugarplum) of what the
was all about. I had this sense that at the time of the Reformation when all those Catholics and Protestants were killing each other in England that good old Queen Elizabeth saved the day and we ended up with the Elizabethan
That sounds so English, doesn’t it? Everything was
It sounds as if they all got together and sat in a circle and worked it all out and then held hands and sang
Kum Ba Yah
together. And that this “middle way” held tight, at least until General Convention 2003.
Of course once you say it out loud like that you realize how silly it all sounds. The fact is that nothing was ever
settled. Faith matters are always contested
. A new
may have held things together for a while, but it may also have covered over some of the tensions that were still there. From time to time they bubble up into crisis. Laud lived in such a time. Lines got drawn and some were accused of not really being Anglicans. That’s always a serious claim when you think you are on the right side of history: to say your opponent isn’t really an American, or isn’t really a Christian, or isn’t really an Episcopalian…
I wonder if the Jungian shadow of the Anglican tradition (across the centuries to our own day) is that we are prone to the sin of Laodicea: in our premature desire for things to be
we can become
, neither hot nor cold. (See Revelation 3:14-22) We can turn every matter into adiaphora. Whatever. Live and let live.
Yet the collect appointed for the commemoration of William Laud asks God to make us not only constant in faith, but
in witness. This is probably not a natural charism for most of us as Anglicans, to be
in witness. And surely it is a recipe for a community of faith where conflicts will bubble up from time to time – like that synagogue. If standing or sitting or kneeling matter to us and we get zealous about it, conflicts will emerge.
So what is it about our Anglican heritage we most need to remember? The parts where all is settled? I think that can lead us to a false narrative. Perhaps we need to remember and honor and share the parts of our own heritage that will help us (like the story of that synagogue) to be honest about the bitter conflicts. When you write a parish history do you talk about how happy and settled things were or is there room to remember the anguish and zealous conflicts? Who even writes that history? Those who stayed? Or does the tradition allow for minority reports? Perhaps we would be well served to remember and even highlight the rougher edges and the struggles and the zealousness of our witnesses, on all sides. Because every congregation in this diocese has or has had a William Laud – even if they didn’t literally lose their head.
Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that we are called to a ministry of reconciliation. That takes us to the heart of the gospel and our vocation as followers of Jesus. But I wonder if we don’t also need something more than that in this time and place
: a theology of conflict
. Or perhaps a theological chaos theory. I wonder if we don’t need to, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once put it, let go of our “wish dreams” for Christian community so that we can recognize that Christ is present in the mess of it all.
Yet even when it’s a mess, it can be a holy mess
precisely because Christ is in it all.
Maybe we need a theology of conflict (or chaos) to remind us that conflict is simply part of the deal, especially in a community that values and treasures each and every voice and perspective. Might this make more room for zealous witnesses among us? At the outset, there need to be certain ground rules. Church conflicts should be more like boxing than the WWF: no scratching or biting or hitting below the belt. No making it personal.
But beyond some basic rules of engagement, what might happen if we really were to make space for each other’s truths? For Laud, he used his authority to silence the Puritans. When they got into power they used their authority to silence him. What would happen if we learned to be not a lukewarm community that doesn’t care about anything at all but a passionate, zealous community of fighters? Are there not gifts of the Spirit that are more likely to emerge in communities (and families) that learn how to engage in fair fights? One might even go further and suggest that there is no intimacy where there is no passion. Just as with couples, the making up can be the best part of fighting. Two don’t become one without some fights along the way. What if it is the same for the unity we seek in Christ? What if, in order to find authentic community, the invitation to come to the table to share a meal together really means something, that our unity is not found by agreeing (or squelching differences) but in Christ, in whom there is neither east nor west?
Do we dare to imagine such communities as a gift from God? The words on the lips of Jesus from the tenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel insist that we at least consider this possibility. We are so used to hearing Jesus say that he comes that there might be peace on earth and goodwill to all and consensus and reconciliation. Yet we are prone to dismiss these hard words about conflict as counter to what Jesus is all about. Yet by all standards of New Testament scholarship and precisely because they are so grating, even the Jesus Seminar types would have to admit these words probably deserve to be in red letters.
Jesus comes to bring division and conflict and strife
. Wow! What do we do with that?
If we are never willing to risk zealousness and passion and the conflicts that will inevitably emerge from those things they we are destined to be Laodicean Christians: neither not nor cold. Just lukewarm. Such people and such congregations are not likely to excite people.
Perhaps we should celebrate more those moments when the elders can remind us, like Mr. Finkelstein, that the tradition is not that one side is right and the other wrong, but that we are passionate about our points of view. And yet we continue to find the grace to make room for each other. Rather than avoiding conflict, we learn how to celebrate it. If we can learn to fight with passion, yet fairly, and yet still come back to the same table to be fed, we may be on to something like good news. And we may learn to adore one another even when we are certain the other is dead wrong. Or maybe, just maybe, partly right. In such moments we may re-discover what the work of reconciliation looks like.