I've never had aspirations for this blog being a comment magnet, so it is worthy of some note that my post from three days ago has attracted what looks to be a record number of comments. Many (most?--I'm too lazy to count) of them engage the substance of the post in some way. But some four commenters--two from the "left" and two from the "right"--have gotten involved in a pointed and passionate exchange over the character of the polemical ambiance here in Anglicanland these days.
I certainly don't have pollyannish views on the the possibility of any near-term rapprochement between the contending factions. But I do remain interested in lowering the emotional temperature whenever that might be possible. Maybe it's my INTJ wiring, but conflict--like revenge--strikes me as a dish best served cold. To the extent that we can get past our feelings (which those who know me will tell you I'm not overly-fond of anyway), we can more clearly see the substance of what actually divides us. We may not actually be able to do anything about it when we see it, but not seeing it will guarantee what we will not be able to do anything about it.
If two decades of pastoral experience have taught me anything, it's that the expression "perception is reality" is ... well ... true. Frustratingly, maddeningly, and invariably true. I don't like it that it's true, but so far getting in touch with those feelings has not made it any less true. Before I can deal with the substance of anyone's problem--particularly when it's a problem with me!--I have to make every possible effort to understand and empathize with their perceived reality. I may not believe what they perceive to be accurate, but their perception nonetheless forms the starting point of the conversation. Sometimes--with some careful listening, patience, good luck, and occasional divine intervention--I can be with them as they open themselves to the possibility of perceiving the same set of objective facts in another way, even, perhaps, beginning to empathize with my perception.
It seems to me that what most gets in the way of the ability to empathize is the tendency on all sides to paint the opposition with a very broad brush. The way conservatives do this is to hang the institutional label of the Episcopal Church on every misdeed that any liberal has committed. All the detestable enormities of "revisionism" thereby become monolithic. It's an impressive list. Who can work up very much empathy for an institution that subverts the sacrament of marriage, rejects the authority of Holy Scripture, denies the divinity of Christ and his atoning work, allows Druids and Muslims to serve as priests, believes there are already enough Christians in the world, welcomes unbelievers and pagans to Holy Communion, and confuses the gospel with the Millennium Development Goals?
The problem is, "the Episcopal Church" doesn't do any of those things. Some--many, perhaps; including people in positions of high leadership--do some of them, and that is a serious problem. But nobody, to my knowledge, does all of them. And none of them represent the official teaching or practice of the Episcopal Church.
Liberals, of course, have their own version of the broad brush. They have, at various times, portrayed their opponents as misogynists, homophobes, mindless fundamentalists, neo-Puritans, Anglo-Baptist interlopers, and--my personal favorite--Nazis, all of whom get together at night while the good-hearted politically naive liberals are sound asleep to swear allegiance to the Chapman Memo and plot to steal the Episcopal Church from itself. What decent person in his or her right mind would want to hang out with that crowd?
Once again, the problem is that we're dealing sweeping generalizations. That any or all of the labels (except "Nazi," no doubt) has at one time or another been true of an Episcopalian/Anglican conservative is invoked by many as license to spray paint the whole list of labels on to anyone who dares to resist what is widely perceived as the majority view in TEC.
Of course, merely by describing these phenomena, I have to an extent indulged in them! So I will plead with anyone who will listen: Let's put the broad brushes away. Conservatives would do well to quit automatically unchurching anyone who holds "reappraiser" views, not just because it really pisses them off, but because it's just wrong to do. Somebody can hold a mistaken view on the sexuality questions without being lumped together with John Spong and Markus Borg--or Katharine Jefferts Schori, for that matter. Liberals would do well to quit assuming anyone who holds "reasserter" views does so out of either ignorance, selfishness, or mere power-hungry churlishness. A person can hold a traditional view of sexual morality without being lumped together with Pat Robertson and Fred Phelps.
Both sides in this mess clearly feel beaten up and misunderstood by the other. There is abundant opportunity for empathy. But lest it be thought that I'm just turning into a ball of cotton candy, I will observe that empathizing is not just a charitable thing to do, it's a strategically smart thing to do. I am regularly astonished at how few on either side of the divide seem to understand this. Somehow it's more appealing--no doubt because it's more gratifying in the short term--to hang on to our broad brushes, responding to our opponents with sweeping generalizations and rhetorical flourishes, scoring easy PR points with our homeys by lobbing polemical hand grenades across enemy lines. That's a surefire formula for a World War I-style stalemate. Whichever side is the first to successfully get inside their opponents' collective head, to learn to think what they think and feel what they feel, to learn what motivates them from the inside, will be the first to emerge from the foulness of the trench.
Such a move may lead to final victory. Then again, in God's mercy, it may lead to reconciliation--reconciliation of a sort that none of us can presently envision or imagine.