The Revd Canon Dr Sam Wells told a great story in the opening address of this three day conference in Coventry Cathedral last week. He talked about a minister who had become completely exasperated as a result of an increasingly bitter dispute within his congregation. The conflict had become bigger and bigger until it was now very much in the way of the rest of his work. Eventually, losing patience and nearing the end of his tether, he sought help from his Bishop, saying he really needed to get this sorted so he could get on with more his pressing responsibilities. When the Bishop asked what the dispute was about, he explained it was about people with different tastes not being able to agree on replacement stained glass windows. The Bishop nodded, and then asked, 'But what is it really about?' The minister considered it from different angles and realised on a deeper level it was about perceptions of beauty, about hope for the future, about community, about communicating the gospel, about discipleship, and about discerning the will of God. The Bishop's response was to ask which of his pressing responsibilities could be more vital and important than working with these things.
The story illustrated a theme which ran throughout this inspiring three day inquiry - that we need to change our perception of differences and disagreements. Instead of experiencing them as annoying distractions, which stand between us and the real business of our religious and spiritual life (and life in general), we need to approach them with the understanding that, in fact, how we grapple with conflict is fundamental to spiritual life. Or put in different language, reconciliation is not what leads Christians to the gospel, but reconciliation is the gospel.
Some of these ideas were undoubtedly influenced by Jean-Paul Lederach's philosophy that conflict offers tremendous opportunity for growth - ideas which Bridge Builders in particular, have been helping to gradually bring into Anglican thinking. If we really take that attitude on board and develop willingness to engage with sensitivity and patience, listen deeply and respectfully, be open to inner and outer guidance, and give up our ego's mechanisms of control, every conflict we encounter can be an opportunity to allow the wider field (the community, family, organisation, institution, nation, or planet) to evolve in new ways, in harmony with the good of the Whole (or in alternative language, in alignment with the will of God).
Archbishop Justin Welby described this as 'the redemption of the concept of conflict'. It was inspiring to see how so many people present were committed to bringing this attitude into their communities, and were making considerable efforts to explore and support greater conflict resilience within the Church. It was also wonderful to see prayer and worship woven so beautifully into the work we did together, and used to deepen and support the whole process.
These three days left me excited and full of hope for the future. I hope St Ethelburga's can find a way to make a useful contribution to this thinking, by supporting those working in this area, making space for conversation, working with others to co-create and test new tools and processes, and also bringing different faith and spiritual groups together to learn from each other.
If you'd like to be actively involved in this conversation, please email us.
Worth listening to are the podcasts of the key speakers.
The Faith in Conflict Conference was a partnership between Coventry Cathedral, Bridge Builders, St Michael's House, and Peaceworks. For more info see http://faithinconflict.com/