Wednesday, June 11, 2008

an open letter on the unity of the church

Dear Brother,

It's taken me a few years to write this letter. This isn't the first one I wrote. That one was angry, and hurt, and after a half dozen editing jobs, politely angry and hurt. I never sent that one; it sits on my hard drive still. I never could send to the trash bin, because a part of me really wanted to explain, persuade, defend.

But pretty soon I'm going to delete that file, because I've finally realized that that letter, the one where I explain how wrong you were so very politely, isn't the letter I want to send. It isn't on topic. It's not even close.

But it's taken me years to see this. Years which have been filled with replaying that hurtful scene over and over in my head, trying to figure out what I could have done or said other than what I did (that is, go have a cry in the church bathroom). I've wondered if I should have said something, confronted you in some way. Part of me is ashamed that I didn't, and considers it a failure of moral courage. Part of me is relieved that I could pass you a paper plate and eat a sandwich without making a scene.

And I've wondered if, when I am again in the neighborhood, I will dare to walk through your church doors again, or not. And which would be the right choice?

I've wondered if I really should just give up, and go away. I can't count how many people over these intervening years have asked why I don't--students, friends, family, colleagues. My answer used to be that this church is my home; how do you leave your home? But that Sunday I wondered for the first time if maybe my home might leave me, instead. Later, in defiance, my answer was, why should I? This is my home, too. Then I wondered if it was true that my presence was divisive and harmful to the church, an act of self-gratification and arrogance. I began to be afraid that I really was the kind of person described in your sermon.

For a long time, that was my fear: that my sincere wish to remain a part of the body of Christ into which I was baptized and raised in the faith would be divisive and contentious no matter what I did or didn't do, because of what I do (or don't) believe on this (or that, or that other thing).

But now, I know what I will do next time I'm in the neighborhood. I will be walking through those church doors. I will take a seat in a pew and I will sing, and pray, and listen, and contemplate scripture. I will praise God with you. Because I am certain now that it is not divisive for me to remain. It is a conscious act of unity.

See, I realize that we will probably never agree about a lot of things, and some of these things we both think are really important. And we can argue or debate, and maybe we should. Maybe we can even change each other's minds on some of these things. Maybe not. But the unity of the church has never depended on this. Unity is not conformity of doctrine, and Campbell just plain got that wrong. The unity of the church is a mystery not unlike the mysterious unity of the one-in-three, the mysterious unity of Jesus Christ the Son and God the Father--consider Jesus' prayer in John 17: That they may be one, as we are one.

We could agree to disagree, and walk away from each other. Or we could trust that the mysterious unity of the church will hold, despite all. So I'm not walking away. You can look for me to walk in next time I'm in the neighborhood. Because I believe, despite all, that we are brother and sister, children of God, joint-heirs with the Son, members of the same Body, and I believe that nothing we can say or do can, or should, change that. I choose to claim you, and strive to love you.

That we may be one, as our Lord Jesus Christ and the Father are indeed One.


Anonymous said...

You are not there alone my friend. There are a lot of us trying to make that same choice and debating which way to go. To stay in or go next door.

Thanks for your thoughts and your faithful endurance. Hopefully some of us will make a difference for future generations.

Carolyn said...

I really appreciate this post. You have expressed what I know many of us feel in a very eloquent and beautiful way. Thank you.

R-Liz said...

This issue is a tough one for me.

In many ways, I've found that my thoughts on this issue reflect the myriad of feelings I have about friends who stay in difficult marriages. On the one hand I look at a friend in a difficult marriage and think, "Her perseverance is amazing, sometimes hero-like. Even though her understanding (and can I say love to some extent?) of her spouse goes unrequited, she sticks it out. Maybe, over time, her patient and loving endurance will make a difference in her husband's heart and the way he looks at his wife, and perhaps it already has. Wouldn't that be amazing."

But most of the time I'm looking at a marriage such as this and thinking, "Why is she staying? His disregard for her as a person borders on neglect. Sometimes it even appears emotional-abusive. What does she think is gained by staying? And (my biggest concern)-- what does she think her kids are learning through this process? That it's okay to be dismissed and looked down upon (even though it's inferred and not necessarily stated as such)?"

I don't have the long, childhood history with such a movement, so I can't relate from that perspective, but I get what you're saying (our church has moved a notch or two towards gender equality since our coming, but it certainly could stand to move a few more). But I still can't figure out which way is best, especially now that I have children of my own who pick up on everything (sometimes especially if it's inferred since they're often left to draw their own conclusions).

My questions for you-- what does your husband think? And what do you both think as a couple about this now that you have your own daughter? Is your husband okay with you bringing your daughter to church with you year after year if this issue remains unchanged? (I guess I'm assuming within that last question that Brent would prefer your daughter to be exposed to a church that espouses and practices gender equality...)

Thanks for sharing this heart-felt and moving letter. We're kindred-spirits in many ways.

JTB said...

Fortunately Clare's whole life she's only been part of churches who do practice gender equality in public roles and leadership. CCfB has been a real blessing in that way for me and for her too. Brent and I have talked a bit about how it would be different in other places. But for right now, the desire to stay put within my home church tradition is a great deal easier because it does not involve compromising on the matter of gender justice in my daughter's immediate and formative spiritual experience. It's also my hope that in seeing Christianity practiced in the Anglican tradition as well as the CofC that she'll always be aware that there is more than one way to do things, and that this will counter the residual, implicit messages about women's status in the CofC tradition as a whole that might come through.

I'm very aware that I am sheltering in a "cleft of the rock" at the moment, with CCfB. So I figure I better just take advantage of it and count my blessings!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
MollieRMS said...

I've read most of this blog and am randomly commenting on this one because you, as stated by so many, are telling my story, too. I'm so heart-wrung by all of this, and thankful to God that you are so much more eloquent than I. Thank you for being a voice for all of us. I'll tell you what I told the ACU Bible department's graduating women at our Senior Blessing; "Don't be afraid, and don't give up."

JJT said...

Thank you, Mollie!