Beginning a conversation

Yesterday, I entered the 20th century. I’ve long since embraced 21st century geekery with the blog, facebook, flickr, pvr etc. However, one piece of last-century technology which I have quite firmly, and uncharacteristically eschewed has been the mobile phone. Although I have carried a mobile for a long time, it has been on a very limited and very old contract and I basically used it only as a diary and not for calls or messages. In my head, I’d rather deal with someone in person, by which I mean online, than on the ‘phone.

However, the time has come. I can’t do my job without being better connected than I am, so several happy hours have been spent this week visiting the mobile ‘phone shops and trying to talk about what I need.

The deal has been done. I now have a ‘phone that I can skype from, use msn messenger from (why?) and more crucially port my landline number to. This means I can choose to answer my phone at home, at the office, on the mobile, or divert it to voicemail. (I remember the days when it was said that every problem in computing was basically a database problem. Now you could say that every problem, computing or otherwise is a protocol issue).

Anyway, the point is this, the phone company that I signed up with was the only one who had a representative who asked me what I really needed. Furthermore, when I told him I wanted to be able to port my landline number, he said, “I don’t understand that. Hmm, tell me about it.” Everyone else wanted to sell me something off the shelf that did lots of flashy things but not what I needed.

The person who eventually got the sale did so by beginning a conversation.

Sometimes a conversation seems important but almost impossible. Take the sermon that was preached at my neighbouring Episcopal church on Sunday morning. Wonderful melancholy rhetoric drawn out of some outrageously ignorant theology. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I? You know what I think of that kind of stuff already. But does that get any of us anywhere?

I’ve a lot of presumptions about why this particular preacher was preaching that kind of thing, and apparently being taken seriously by a congregation of lots of intelligent young Scots professionals as he elegantly bashed the Enlightenment firmly on the nose. But do I really understand it? More to the point, does the preacher in question, the bishop of a Nigerian diocese understand me? Can he know what experience I have of a God who is utterly life changing? I wish that were the start of a conversation. However, given than people like me seemed to be being characterised by the preacher as being inspired by Satan, it seems unlikely that the necessary conversation can even start.

I’m starting to realised that the real ecumenical conversations that matter most at the moment are those within denominations not between them.

All kinds of conversations that are needed, are yet to begin.


  1. GadgetVicar says

    The bishop’s visit certainly revealed the gulf between much of African Christianity and that of the West/North.

    I confess to being somewhat surprised by the content of the sermon. It was not received uncritically! We’d asked him to preach on a different text (from 1 Samuel – part of a series) and to baptise the first child of my Nigerian colleague (he ordained him in 2005).

    I’ve since learned that this sermon was the same one he preached at his Diocesan Synod in June. Some bishops have only one sermon in their armoury…..

    Many Africans believe we in the West/North have compromised the Gospel, by not believing in judgement and hell, our confusion about what is acceptable practice for Christians, and our abandoning of what they understand as the historic Faith. How do we cope when the symbols and language used appear to be the same, but have very different meanings to the people using them? Can it really be said to be the same Faith?

    The bishop came to our home group on Friday night, and said much the same things to a group of young and not-quite-so-young professionals as we studied Romans. We were not very comfortable and I felt I had to challenge him to understand some of where we were coming from. Never an easy thing to do to a bishop!

    He was also amazed that clergy here don’t get deployed by the bishops, but are called by congregations and stay for as long as they like. Bishops in Africa hold far more power in their dioceses than they do in Scotland. They and their people expect the bishop to function in a much more autocratic way. This is again cultural, though it possibly reflects how bishops used to function here too? This cultural difference might explain why the bishops being ordained by the Africans for US conservatives are all America-based. Otherwise, the cultural mismatch would be too great, and would not be acceptable?

    One conversation I’ve had with many Nigerians (including this bishop) is about why, when a country is as religious as Nigeria
    (there are churches everywhere), and the Faith seems to be so strong, is there so much corruption? It’ds something of an embarrassing question. Christians don’t seem to be having much of a transforming effect. The answer always seems to be corrupt leadership is at fault. Christianity in Africa often seems to be ‘a mile wide, but only an inch deep’. In other words, the Christian view from Africa is far from a perfect vision. But many African Christians feel badly let down by our failure to hold on to the truths of the Faith that they first received (from us).

    We spoke about next year’s Lambeth Conference, which the Nigerians and others are threatening to boycott. They’ll make a final decision in October. I strongly suggested to him that they ought to attend (as if my suggestion is worth very much in the grand scheme of things), to at least keep the possibility of conversation open, even across the huge divide that currently exists.

    I’ve found this very recent piece quite useful in thinking about dialogue in the present difficulties:

    We need to be very careful at this point of not writing anyone’s views off, no matter how much we disapprove of them. At this critical moment, we ought to find ways to dialogue, and I don’t mean by setting up another commission, having a conference or passing resolutions at a Synod. It’s face-to-face, heart-to-heart contact that’s needed. Recognition that we are all made in the image of God and therefore of worth. If nothing else, that way we at least appreciate know one another, who we are and how and why we came to the place we find ourselves in. It won’t necessarily lead to agreement, but it might foster some filios (or maybe even agape!).

    One last thought – In Glasgow, there are increasing numbers of church leaders from Africa and other nations starting new churches. As the Church in Scotland continues to decline, we can expect to see more of this happening, and whether we approve of it or not, there’s likely to be a lot of ‘outrageously ignorant theology’ about. We’ll all need to get used to it and find ways of conversing with them too.

    Coffee or another beverage soon, Kelvin?

  2. Thanks, David. You’ve reminded me of something I had begun to forget.

    I have always thought that what characterized the SEC was that those of us with radically different views could still meet and talk to and even like each other.

    So, I wonder…
    In reflecting on the Draft Anglican Covenant, our Province asked us to consider if the covenant could help re-establish trust. I tend to think a covenant needs to be based on trust, and if it is not there at the start, it will not emerge because of a document.
    So then, the question from the Province is ‘if not this, then what?’

    Do you — Kelvin, David, others– think it is possible for us in this little church to meet and talk across differences, about how and if we can live together effectively.

    Is it still possible for us to recognize the people we disagree with as Christians of good faith, or have we already mentally excommunicated each other?

    Because if we could find a way of doing it — if we could find a way to show that we trust each other (even in disagreement) and are committed to each other in the body of Christ — we might have something to offer the wider communion that goes beyond Conform or Leave.

  3. Kimberley asks: `Is it still possible for us to recognize the people we disagree with as Christians of good faith, or have we already mentally excommunicated each other?’

    Hmm. As some random `other’, I have this to ponder: what does inclusivism include? Of course I can “include” (tolerate, accept, welcome, worship with…) someone of different gender, race, sex, income or orientation, and on none of these grounds do I even think different parameters/behaviour are “sinful”. But I have two unresolved areas: am I supposed to “include” someone of traditional veering on bigoted, attitudes? Secondly, what if they act divisively? I’m inclined to think maintaining diversity is good, and on reading these related comments I see where Kelvin’s coming from with the underlying phenomenon being conversation, but sometimes it’s very hard to act according to thought when the temptation is really strong to tell some people to go away.

  4. Andrew says

    I listened to the African bishop’s sermon. Interesting, but what he didn’t say is that the Anglican Communion is in danger of splitting over a matter that is utterly trivial when compared with some of the real concerns Christians ought perhaps to be thinking about

    Continued persecution of Christians in many places
    The West’s refusal to share its wealth with poorer countries
    And so on.

    The sermon reminded me of one of the posts you had after the broadcast service – the one which objected so strongly to the idea that God might be present at a gay parade. It seems the writer of that letter has much in common with people who murder prostitutes in the belief that they are doing God’s will.


  5. kelvin says

    Thank you for these responses. I may add more later.

    It is responses like these that make the SEC blog scene so much more interesting than what seems to happen in other parts of the Anglican world.

    David – I’ll be in touch off blog to fix up a time for a blether.

  6. Harry Monroe says

    As someone born an Irish Methodist, and having had involvement with C of S and Congregationalism, but with the Episcopal Church over 40 years, I can only add one little saying which has been with me all my married life. ‘True love consists not in looking at each other, but in looking outward in the same direction’

    Maybe Churches could take that as a lesson of life and action.

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