September 29, 2009

This forum long has been used as a way to disseminate information, but also to prod conversation. I'm going to do the latter this month.

When I make diocesan visitations, I often remind people that the word "conversation" has its origins first in Latin and then in Middle English, where it means "to spend time with." It's much more about being with, rather than using words. It has the connotation of being in community, coming to know others in the intimate way that only is possible in proximity, sharing food, business dealings, likes and dislikes, even prayer and Eucharist. It is an art and style of being that often is wanting in the culture around us.

The health-care debates that have roiled the nation in the last month or so are a good example: highly uncivilized interactions with people yelling at each other; using unkind and derogative epithets for those who appear to disagree; imputing misleading, erroneous and even evil motivations; instilling fear; and generally stirring people up just to evoke a reaction. We have a better way -- in the deeper kind of conversation that comes of seeing the image of God in our neighbors, even and especially when we disagree with them.

This past General Convention actually saw some of that kind of conversation. It is an art and manner that the church can model and offer to the larger culture.

I read a fascinating book recently that touches on several of these themes: The Friend by Alan Bray, University of Chicago Press, 2003 (there is a paperback edition from 2006). Bray explores the history of friendship in Europe and the British Isles from the 11th century into the 19th and points to the ways in which public and private concepts of friendship historically have varied from our own.

In earlier centuries, friendship had public expectation and meaning that often was rooted in a shared baptismal bond. Members of the body of Christ had a duty to each other, and such duty might be more strongly recognized through vows said at the door of the church and then sealed in the Eucharist.

The peace we share in church today is often a pale imitation of such a deeply meant promise to uphold the other, even in the face of potentially competing claims. It is that willingness to stand together in difficulty that we are continually challenged to relearn.

Bray's explication is academic and carefully dispassionate, but it has a number of surprises. He documents vowed friendships, sealed in church, between men and a few between women. The vows they made to each other usually were made at the church door, as was similarly the custom for those entering marriage, and then followed by Eucharist in the church. The process of making those vows was in the English vernacular called "wedding," and the result in the context of vowed friends was sometimes termed "wedded brothers."

Perhaps the biggest surprise for 21st-century Western Christians is the difference in assumptions we bring to relationships like the ones Bray documents.

Our culture -- and it is a cultural bias, not a theological one -- almost automatically assumes that two persons of the same sex who are close friends must be involved in a sexual relationship (you may recall my reflections on similar matters in Egyptian culture following the Primates Meeting last winter).

Those assumptions were far less pervasive in earlier centuries, though tension may have remained about the possibility of a sexual relationship.

What I would like to leave with you is this: How often do our assumptions lead the argument? The kind of patient, time-consuming conversation that our forebears and spiritual guides knew and still know can bring unexpected discoveries about our neighbors, ourselves and our purported enemies.

God is to be found in that patient work -- which is more often called prayer. It is the kind of conversation that Jesus had with his disciples, albeit often to his frustration!

I commend the book, and I commend the practice of more patient and intimate conversation. It is the way in which we discover the friend we have in Jesus, as well as the friends around us who thus far have been only dimly seen.