If you can’t say anything nice, we’ll listen anyway

Published January 1, 2007

Maybe Thumper’s mother was wrong.

The commonplace phrase that is traced back to the little bunny’s mother in Bambi goes thusly: “‘If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Sometimes the not-so-nice things need to be said. Sometimes the less-than-kind things need to be heard. And often that is unpleasant.

When the Anglican Journal asked in a November editorial where readers saw signs of hope, of resurrection, in the church, we expected an enthusiastic response. Certainly we hear often that the media (including the Journal) report only the bad news of the church. Where, people ask, are the good news stories? Whenever we hear these complaints, they are usually accompanied by reports of all of the good things that the church is doing in various parts of the land.

But when we turned the pages of the newspaper over to the readers, the response was fairly muted. To be sure, some lovely stories and testimonials did come our way. For one writer, the sign of hope was simply the presence of active young people in the congregation who exceeded all expectations when given the chance to conduct their own worship. For another correspondent, seeing growth in his congregation in a small Alberta town is news good enough to share with other Canadian Anglicans.

The evidence of hope for yet another was the keen involvement in issues of social justice and political advocacy by Anglicans in his diocese.

What surprised me, though, (but perhaps should not have) was the number of letters indicating no hope whatsoever for the future of the Canadian church.

One individual said he could only find hope for the church in groups such as Essentials and the Prayer Book Society or in geographical places like Africa, South-East Asia and Latin America – those areas of the church which, in his words, “are not striving relentlessly to wall off the churches of Canada and the United States from our brothers in the Anglican Communion.” Another writer stated bluntly that there is no hope or future for a liberal church. “Basically it strips more and more of the fundamental beliefs of the faith away until there is nothing left,” wrote the correspondent. “No one is interested and its flock will eventually decline and completely disappear.”

Then there was the writer who said he sees the future of the church, paradoxically, in its decline. Writing as a member of “a significant Anglican diaspora,” this writer suggested that he and other Anglicans who have left their churches “enrich the communities where we find ourselves with what we learned and experienced in our former denomination.” What leaves him hopeful is that “many of those who are leaving are blessing the broader church.”

One of my colleagues had a similar experience recently when she put out a call for stories about the 30th anniversary of the ordination of women priests. The idea was to post the memories and reflections on a Web site that would commemorate the anniversary. Not only was the response modest, many of those who did respond did so to voice their displeasure with that 30-year-old event: “Thank you for asking. Women’s ordination was the reason I left the church 30 years ago, and here is why …”

What is it about these kinds of responses that makes us sad and uncomfortable? Is it possible that we do not have room for the negative, for the pessimists among us? Once we get over the initial surprise of such downbeat (if not hostile) reactions, can we not listen to these honest expressions – if that is what they truly are – and allow them to sink into our own consciousness?

It is human nature to seek out the similar, the familiar. We join committees, guilds, clubs and teams of like-minded individuals. We often work with people like us, bowl with people like us, sing in choirs with people like us, play hockey with people like us and, perhaps at least one day each week or more, we worship with people like us.

But when placed in a situation where we might hear from those who hold different views, we can often reach an enlightenment, see a world view different from our own. Certainly I often learn more about my own work and my craft when I receive (preferably constructive) criticism than when I hear praise. Those negative comments (and by these, I do not mean the gratuitous, mean-spirited commentary that is common even in the church) can be difficult to hear, but they can certainly help me to see through another’s eyes and to grow as an individual.

I, for one, will side with those who see hope in the church’s future – I could not contemplate any other reality. But I will also try harder to listen to the other voices that – despite our differences – recite the same prayers and creeds that I do each week. Thumper’s mom meant well, but we also need to make room for those expressions that are not so nice.


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