I have just found this article which I publised in the Independent‘s Faith and Reason column in 1994. Strangely timely.
Faith and Reason: The call to mind God’s business: On this historic day, when women are priested for the first time in England, The Rev Stephen Cherry considers the nature of reconciliation. Mr Cherry is the chaplain of King’s College, Cambridge.
WHEN IN 1988 Barbara Harris became the first woman Bishop in the Anglican Communion there was a great deal of interest in her human qualities. What struck me at the time was that she was described as ‘a great reconciler’. It is quite clear that both Church and world are short of good reconcilers. But what are good reconcilers made of?
Reconcilers are people who themselves know something about the inwardness of conflict. Conflict is a fact of life. But bloody as many conflicts become it is not conflict itself which is the problem. Of course you can get by, but you can’t live a Christian life without getting involved in conflict. To try to live as a follower of Christ without conflict is like trying to play football without kicking the ball.
But if conflict is unavoidable, so too is the need to attempt to resolve conflict. If you live you have conflict. But what happens next? When the answer is termination of relationship that is sad. When the answer is violence it is tragic. When the answer is reconciliation that is a triumph – it is a fundamental part of Christian living to engage with our own and other people’s conflicts in such a way as to bring them to reconciliation.
The word for the process of reconciliation between an injured person and the person who hurt them is, of course, forgiveness. Writing about reconciliation in Northern Ireland, Alan Falconer referred to ‘the reconciling power of forgiveness’. By using that phrase he meant to draw attention to the fact that forgiveness is the positive exercise of power in what looks like a hopeless situation. Forgiveness is the power, the personal power, to overthrow the heavy burdens of – anger and guilt which are the result of injury and offence.
Forgiveness is the way by which we put our own experiences of being hurt in the context of the wider needs of the community. According to St Luke, Jesus and the first martyr Stephen died with words of forgiveness on their lips. The gospel, the good news, the message, in this was that people should not be slaves to their own or anyone else’s previous actions. Forgiveness is not only a way of breaking out of the despair of cyclic and repetitive pattern of hatred, injury, revenge. Forgiveness is a way of breaking into a new future where the past is laid to rest and where hope and peace and fellowship are possible.
Just as a reconciler must be a person who has known conflict, so too must a reconciler be a forgiver. It is impossible to think of reconciling conflicting people to each other if you do not have that sense of proportion, that generosity of spirit, that sensibility that you too are a sinner in need of forgiveness, which allows you to forgive other people for the way in which they hurt you.
But there is more to being a reconciler than being a forgiver. For it is one thing to deal with the way in which you have been hurt, but it is a deeper thing to help others to come to terms with the way in which they have been hurt. You cannot make other people forgive. However much you want to be a reconciler, and however much you know what you would do in the circumstances, you cannot make anyone put away their anger or throw out their resentment. In order to be a reconciler you actually have to stand with the two parties in their mutual hatred and antagonism.
Two people are at odds, they are in conflict, you are known to both, but you side with neither. You speak with both and see everything except the need for the continued antagonism. Both parties confide in you. Both parties both trust and mistrust you. Both parties curse and swear at you because you are not as angry as they are with their adversary.
This is the characteristic experience of the reconciler. Wanting to be everybody’s friend, you feel like everyone’s enemy. Wanting peace, you seem to make trouble. Wanting forgiveness you seem to be a catalyst for a new round of hatred and abuse. That all sounds pretty bad, but that’s the way it is. Reconciling is what they call in the theological trade sacrificial work.
St Paul’s summary of the Christian gospel is that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Was it easy? It was not. Was it without pain? It was not. Was it popular? It was not.
The cross of Christ is an icon of reconciliation. It depicts a dying Jesus, a messiah abandoned by God. The dying Christ, the lonely Christ, the Christ who has gone beyond his own resources to cope and to hope and to love, the Christ who feels utterly desolate: that crucified Christ is the reconciling Christ.
The first Anglican woman bishop was elected in part on her qualities as a reconciler. But reconciliation is not only an admirable facet of religious leadership, it is inherent in the vocation of Christian living.
No one loves the person who is reconciling them to someone they hate. People who reconcile others live sacrificially. That sounds a bit pious but the reality is not pious at all. It is at the least very annoying. You’re only trying to help, after all. You could be watching the telly – it’s not your problem.
But the reconciler knows that there are no boundaries between problems. Your problems are my problems – and mine are yours. If it were not so being a reconciler would be a glorification of minding other people’s business. But it is not that. It is minding God’s business – and that is of the essence of the Christian vocation.