An address by Rev. Michael Thompson, Principal Secretary to the Primate delivered to the Information Resources Committee, Oct. 19, 2001
All around us, every day, people pick up the threads of conversation and talk with one another about the things that matter most to them. What matters to them differs from person to person, and any one person, it can vary from day to day. From time to time, listening to those conversations, you might discover a connection. The things that matter to them are things that we talk about all the time. There is an intramural conversation in the church that sometimes bears striking resemblance to the conversation around us. You can no doubt think of examples – death, birth, finding, losing, breaking, mending, grief, delight, joy, vocation, family, justice, love, money… In fact, when you think about it for a minute, there’s not very much that matters to people that doesn’t get some attention somewhere in the life of the church.
No doubt you have been present in one of those wonderful moments when the conversations connect. They connect, in my experience, through a sense of kinship and common cause. Someone discovers that the church’s conversation can illuminate theirs, and their conversation can illuminate the church’s. They begin to feel “at home”, safe and welcome in the conversation, because they recognize themselves somehow in it. And they recognize that it brings something new and welcome to them, something they have perhaps been looking for, quite possibly without knowing it. Clergy, I know, live for such moments, and I suspect that others do as well. When there is evidence that the specialized intramural language actually connects up with the conversation outside and around through kinship and common cause, something called communication emerges.
It should come as no surprise, of course, that communication is much more than information and the vehicles that deliver it. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a copy of which I keep for just such promising occasions as this, the word “communicate” comes from the Latin verb communicare: “to make common to many, to share”. Among its English meanings are these: “To share in, partake of, to use or enjoy in common.” Though other definitions are more instrumental, this one captures the sense of mutuality and connection that is essential to a full understanding of communication.
The challenge, then, for a group called the “Information Resources Committee” is to go beyond the title to the task, to move past the lifeless stuff of “information” to the vitality of communication, to kinship, conversation and common cause both within the church and beyond it. Step one is a broad and relational understanding of communication.
Step two is locating your work within that broad understanding. If you are charged with responsibility for communication within the Anglican Church of Canada and beyond the church to the society around it, you need to recruit some more members! It will be important, as a strategy for communication emerges, to know where you are to act directly, where you are to equip and support others in acting, where you are to coordinate actions that are already underway, and where you are simply to stand back and not mess with something fine that doesn’t need you in order to go on being fine.
Let me return to the first task. By defining communication in terms of kinship, common cause, and conversation, I can identify three dynamics that need our attention. The first, “kinship” suggests that effective communication depends on people’s experience of belonging or not belonging, of seeing themselves in what is being communicated, or not. I have been reflecting on this lately in terms of my family of origin. I think it would be fair to say that we’re not a placid, easygoing bunch. There is, when we gather, almost always some tension in the air. There have been “sabbaticals” from family gatherings – people stepping aside from involvement for a variety of reasons. I took one myself a few years back. But there have been no excommunications. Even when I chose not to be present, I knew I would be welcome when I chose to resume participation. I can’t say that the escalation of conflict that led to my sabbatical was anyone’s fault. At the time, I was pretty clear, but now I’m not so sure. I think I mean to say that kinship isn’t about warm feelings and equanimity. It is, however, about some sense of belonging. In this sense, both Warren and Mary are right in Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man”. Warren says, “Home is the place that, when you go there, they have to take you in.” Mary responds, “I should have said, rather, that home is the place you somehow hadn’t to deserve.” Kinship is about obligation, and kinship is about grace. A communication strategy that doesn’t strengthen a sense of mutual obligation and foster a sense of grace among persons will probably fall somewhere short of communication, somewhere in the vicinity of propaganda, preaching to the choir or good advice, easily ignored.
The second element of a “vision of communication” is conversation. Conversation, it seems to me, is heuristic – it is about discovering something together, not about being told or telling. The best and richest conversations are explorations of something more sizable that what any of the participants already knows. Conversation at its best is constructive, searches new territory and builds new understanding among all its participants. At its very best, it matches our earlier definition of communication, and is “enjoyed in common.”
You can see why kinship is necessary, perhaps. Heuristic conversation can and often does include conflicting points of view. And can take a long time. It is uncommon for strongly-held beliefs to be yielded easily in conversation. Sometimes they are never resolved. We all have friends who disagree strongly with us in one area, but who are more than happy to explore another dimension of conversation with us. Over time, the conflict may fade, be resolved, or simply be agreement to disagree, but because of a sense of grace and obligation – kinship – conflict doesn’t overwhelm conversation.
This is not just musing about theory. Some parts of the Anglican Communion are at odds with other members over the issue of human sexuality. Feelings are strong. But for most provinces of the communion, however disappointed, confused, or even angry they might be about this issue, they know that it need not dominate or overrule the conversation. For a small number, such conflict is seen as the basis for interrupting the conversation, or even more dangerously, attempting to end it by excluding from it those with whom they disagree. The primates, at their 1999 meeting in Portugal, addressed this by saying that only a formal, public repudiation of the Lambeth Quadrilateral could be a possible basis for breaking communion with a province. They know that communication in search of truth cannot be sustained if anyone has the power to say, “If you don’t agree with everything that some (or even most) of us are saying, then you can no longer be part of all of us.” Communication makes room for diverse and even divergent voices, so that truth can manifest itself and become the basis for shared action. In the Anglican Communion, there is consensus, for example, on third world debt; disagreement on issues of human sexuality and authority do not hinder action that is more effective because it is universally supported by the leaders of the Communion. In the Anglican Church of Canada, a wide but not universal consensus concerning healing and reconciliation emerged at our General Synod, in spite of great divergence on any number of other issues. It should not escape any of us that that consensus is founded on what was once a position that diverged enormously from the Anglican mainstream.
Finally, communication in the church is grounded in common cause. That is, communication is missional. It has to do with what David Bosch calls missio dei, “the mission of God”, which he defines as “God’s turning to the world in love.” Bosch argues, and I would support him in this, that the mission intention of God is creation and its wellbeing, not religion and its institutions. All too often, religious institutions have seen the world as an instrument in their hand to serve their institution’s needs, rather than seeing their institutions as instruments in God’s hand to serve the world. I would argue that some part of the response to the financial crisis surrounding residential schools liability is a backlash against the perception, sometimes all too accurate, that churches are self-serving institutions who are careless, contemptuous, or exploitive of the world.
To that end, communication needs to offer a continuous stream of possibilities through which persons, groups, and communities can find common cause with the church in its care for the world. Pastoral care, advocacy, healing, reconciliation, relief and development, food banks, soup kitchens, Habitat for Humanity, peacemaking, justice, attention to the well-being of neighbourhoods, and families, communal responses like the Food Grains Bank, hospitality to twelve-step and other community groups – these are all current activities within the Anglican Church of Canada. They are the ways we serve. Some of them are institutionally conceived and maintained, while others are the result of providing support and encouragement to church members and the wider community in their service to the world. Common cause helps our members and their neighbours discover the crossover between what matters most to them and what we proclaim, celebrate and nurture in our common life.
- Kinship – a sense that I am somehow reflected in and included in the life of the church.
- Conversation – a shared quest for truth that can be the basis for shared action.
- Common Cause – an institution that serves, rather than serving the institution.
It is clear, I hope, that I am not asking that every element of a communication strategy for the Anglican Church of Canada should include all three of these elements. I am only saying that a complete vision of communication will include all three.
I am also not saying that you are on your own in this. Good luck to you and to those with whom you share the ministry of conversation, kinship, and common cause.
First, every community of any size in this country has at least one full-time paid communicator who shares this responsibility with you. How can a communications strategy mobilize the considerable resources of the clergy towards a vision of communication as kinship, conversation, and common cause?
Second, there is a national staff, particularly focused on International Partnerships, and a newly-independent but still important staff in the Primate’s Fund, where resources flow generously for God’s mission of turning to the world in love. A national “community newspaper”, The Anglican Journal, a national resource for ministry leadership, Ministry Matters, a continuing education resource received by every member of the Continuing Education Plan, PMC: The Practice of Ministry in Canada. A first-rate website, probably a thousand phone calls each day, and several hundred pieces of mail sent to our members and others in Canada and around the world.
Third, there are diocesan resources. Bishops, responsible, among other things, for extending the mission conversation beyond their diocesan boundaries, and broadening our sense of kinship to include partners in the Anglican Communion around the world. A diocesan newspaper, and a variety of diocesan staff in various functions, all of them with some responsibility for kinship, conversation, or common cause.
Finally, there is your committee. Good luck.