Church must be ‘a place of reconciliation’

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has a strong background in conflict resolution. Photo: Arnaud Stephenson
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has a strong background in conflict resolution. Photo: Arnaud Stephenson
Published March 1, 2013

The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has urged Anglicans and other Christians not to view conflict in purely negative terms, but rather as something that “arises from the diversity in which we have been created.”

“When we seek to find a way of life that avoids it [conflict], we deny the three realities of our fallenness, our present diversity and the tension between the realized present and anticipated salvation of our futures,” said Welby.

Welby, who has a strong background in conflict resolution, addressed the theme of reconciliation at the final eucharist of the ecumenical conference, Faith in Conflict, held Feb. 26 to 28 at Coventry Cathedral.

More often than not, churches turn away from conflict and “instead seek those with whom we agree” because facing it is often seen as “time-consuming and destructive,” said Welby.

Churches have adopted the spirit of settlers who “make a new frontier when things don’t work out with everyone” and “move on with those who agree- and again and again.”

But “…our fear of it, our sense of it being wasted time and effort, is wrong,” said Welby in his address, which drew inspiration from noted theologians, including the newly retired Pope Benedict XVI.

Welby said churches are called to be, in the words of Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth, “heralds of reconciliation.”

The story of the Good Samaritan is a powerful example of being a herald of reconciliation, for he recognized the other and it led to “action, not mere existence,” noted Welby.

A church that is not a place of reconciliation not only hinders its mission and evangelism, but it is “a failing or failed church,” said Welby. It is one that “has ceased to be the miracle of diversity in unity, of the grace of God breaking down walls.”

Being reconcilers involves hard work because it is easier to succumb to the temptation of one’s passions, said Welby.
“Circling the wagons and self-defining those who are of one mind against the rest of the world has a noble feeling,” he noted. “Hollywood-inspired, it gives us the feeling that this is a good day to die hard -hard of heart and hard in action. By contrast, the process of reconciliation seems weak and unprincipled, alienating us from everyone involved in quarrel.”

Reconciliation involves a “recognition of diversity and a transformation of destructive conflict to creativity,” added Welby. ” It holds the tensions and challenges of difference and confronts us with them, forcing us to a new way of life that accepts the power and depth and radicality of the work of the Holy Spirit in our conversions.”

Reconciliation is also “a real work of grace,” and it begins with hospitality, added Welby. “I find myself often doubting myself deeply: have I become totally woolly, taken in by the niceness of bad people, trapped in an endless quest for illusory peace rather than tough answers. That is a question that all involved in reconciliation should be asked, and held accountable to, but it is also part of the process.”

Grace allows healing to happen because the path to reconciliation is “painful,” said Welby. He cited his experience with a church that nearly divided. “The challenge was to find a means of speaking truth safely to each other,” he said. “The vicar and those who opposed him were in many cases truly heroic in being willing to listen and willing to change. They saw the distress of the other, recognized the call of God and the demands of grace, and responded. But it was neither quick nor universal.”

The church must express reconciliation “on the road together, in common journeying,” said Welby. South African Islamic scholar Farid Esack in his work, Qur’an Liberation & Pluralism, spoke of how “People’s lives are
not shaped by a text as much as shaped by the context,” said Welby.

This has been illustrated in the Anglican Communion’s Bible in the Life of the Church project, which showed how “context deeply affects how we understand” the texts, said Welby. But in the Bible, said Welby, Ruth “does not speak of understanding but of journey, ‘where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God, my God.’ ”

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s address will be available as a podcast on the Coventry cathedral website, along with the other keynote addresses.

Click here for a complete text of his speech





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