Indaba Tools From Community Life
Following the Cuddesdon Resource hub Sr. Anita Cook, CSC, reflected on encouraging genuine conversation across difference out of her experience in community. The Community of Sisters of the Church is an Anglican religious international community with four provinces: Australia, Canada, Solomon Islands and the UK. The sisters live in community 24/7. Out of this experience in community Sr. Anita draws out practical tools for the ongoing discussions by people coming from different places and view points across the Communion.
Life in Community
In community, one experiences all the joys and tensions of living together and needing to make decisions which effect not only how we live, but how we aim to carry out our mission of spreading the good news of God’s love. The process of decision making moves up another notch when we, as an international organization, come to discussions and decision making. We want to hear, to have greater understanding of our different cultures, and to respect different viewpoints. This is not always easy.
Being a diverse body of women, who usually are found to hold strong views on any number of topics, we have found it helpful to be reminded that holding together the tension caused by different viewpoints is creative and of God. We know the early Church had it’s strong different view points, but there is also a strong drive which implies that as Christians, all must be in agreement. It is in holding the tension between opposite and different views that the transcendent God’s way may emerge and break through.
It is so easy for all of us to get caught up in being strong and holding definite positions that we need to remember what St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians verse 4:
We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
We need to be prepared to see the way forward that God may be showing us. As we have worked together as a Community over the years we have had various workshops to enable us to open our ears and our hearts to hear each other. We have been given different tools which I and other Sisters have found helpful, particularly when there are areas of disagreement.
The first tool that comes to mind is “having the most respectful interpretation” of the other party’s intention. It is so easy for us all, when we find ourselves in heated debates, to demonize the other party. When we stop and ask ourselves questions such as: Do we truly believe that the other party is not sincere and genuine? Do we truly believe that they are not working to bear witness to the truth? We find ourselves saying “no”. Then we find ourselves being more able to appreciate their genuineness just as we want them to respect ours. We still will find ourselves disagreeing with their views, but if we can respect their integrity then we have a basis to enter into dialogue and to listen more fully to each other. It is in the tension in the differences that we might be able to hear what God is saying in it all.
Another tool is the need to get clarification. The words that we hear, the meaning and interpretation that we give them, are not always what the speaker meant or intended. To take the time in dialogue to ask and to check out that what you understood by those words are what the speaker intended can be helpful and lead to greater understanding. It can help prevent unintentional misunderstandings. When working across cultures it can be really helpful if the cultural significance, understanding and interpretation of that particular item, gesture or word can be explained. We often fail to remember that others don’t know the nuances from our culture. The insight that can come from others as they hear “our story” first hand can be very helpful for those sharing the history. There was a good illustration of this in the recent dialogue held between the bishops of four dioceses from Canada and four from Africa. After hearing the account of the difficulties, including major lawsuits which could have completely bankrupted the Canadian Church, one of the African bishops said and the others agreed, how he could see now how the Canadian Church was understandably highly aware of the human rights issue around “the blessing of same sex unions”.
A tool that can provide a way forward when there appears to be deadlock on a particular subject is being able to say what you can affirm about this idea or proposal and what concerns you about it. This tool provides a positive way of working and as the affirmations and concerns are listed it opens up the area for dialogue. A proposal or idea might first strike you as the total opposite of anything to which you could agree, but by working on what about it you might be able to affirm and agree with enables people to engage with it. Also, using the language of affirmation and concerns changes the dialogue away from being so confrontational and makes it more invitational.