Archbishop Tutu and dealing with difference
The recent death of one of my heroes, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has made me think about how we handle difference in the church. Tutu was a man of uncommon gifts. He had an infectious sense of humour and an instinctive ability to bring people together. He was able to connect with people with whom he disagreed strongly on all sorts of issues. During apartheid he was an unstinting campaigner against its injustices in South Africa. As the country emerged into democracy, he made his brainchild, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, work. He managed this through his partnership with President Nelson Mandela, but also his insistence that all of us share a common humanity; that we are made in the image of God and can find grace and forgiveness in him and each other, no matter who we are or what we’ve done.
Most of you will know that the Church of England is thinking about issues of identity and sexuality through its project Living in Love and Faith (LLF). I’ve been working as the Guildford Diocese Advocate for the project as it’s been rolled out to parishes. Desmond Tutu and I would have disagreed about some of these issues; he was theologically liberal and wanted to revise the church’s teaching, whereas I take a conservative view theologically. Yet I have no doubt that, if we had ever met and talked about it all, we would have laughed a lot, enjoyed the discussion and departed as friends. Dealing with difference depends on the character and choices of the people involved: you need to choose to love the person and engage with the tension you feel.
At its heart LLF is a project about how we handle difference better as a church. As anyone who has done the LLF course will know, the issues it covers touch each of us very personally. Being British, many of us find it very difficult to talk openly about identity and sexuality. But when we do allow ourselves to be vulnerable, listen to each other without judgement and accept that we won’t be able to change the other person’s mind, we can find a richness in our diversity. It’s been very moving to hear about so many people within the Church of England going miles out of their comfort zone to engage with these issues; it’s also been a costly exercise for many, especially those dealing with past hurts done at the hands of fellow Christians.
No one agrees with anyone else about everything one hundred per cent of the time. What a boring world it would be if we did! We know that we can love and appreciate people who are very different from us. At St Mary of Bethany I have heard a full range of political views expressed on the issues of the day. We can only engage with each other properly if we take the time and trouble to listen to and understand views different from our own. This is why churches stand up for freedom of religion and expression: we may find some people’s views abhorrent, but we recognise that any curb on freedom of speech will impact on our ability to say things which might offend some people. In my role as LLF Advocate, one of the most dispiriting things I've heard from church leaders is, 'I know what my church thinks about this' (said by someone who has had no recent conversations on these issues). Every church contains a wide range of views, life experiences and people who have never shared their stories, because they don't feel safe to do so. Who would be bold enough to claim that we are all of one mind on such personal issues?
The gospel is good news for our world, but it can be hard to take. Jesus was not afraid to challenge and often caused offence, particularly to those in power. He met people just where they were, but encouraged them not to stay there. His parting shot to the woman caught in adultery, whose life he had just saved, was, ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’ (John 8:11) In public he forced her accusers to look at themselves (‘If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her’ John 8:7b); when they were alone, he refused to condemn her, but told her to change her ways.
I spent a few weeks in South Africa after its first democratic election in 1994. What united all the South Africans I met was their deep love for their country and their hope for a better, fairer future. In Desmond Tutu they had a leader who could hold their differences well, without denying the pain of their experiences or the strength of their feelings. Too often Christians have been determined to hold a stance on an issue, ignoring the human beings in the picture. We have valued truth over grace; in our faith, both are necessary, but one cannot survive in isolation from the other. Without truth, we affirm anything and everything, and our faith becomes meaningless. Without grace, we fail to look at our own sins before zeroing in on those of others, and we fail to love our neighbours as ourselves.
As we near the end of the LLF process (as your Advocate I am obliged to tell you that the deadline for feedback via the website is 30 April and then it will be over to General Synod in July), pray with me that we will continue to learn how to handle our differences better.
God of grace and truth,
give us both these gifts in their full measure,
that we may be the hands and feet of Jesus to everyone we meet.
Help us to be more like Desmond Tutu:
people who embrace others and love across the divides.
In the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, Amen.