‘There is a common – and mistaken – belief that conflict and competition are somehow un-Christian.’
New vestry members who had been directed to read Christopher Webber’s The Vestry Handbook (pages 14-15) may be a little surprised to read these words and may not be convinced of their applicability today even after reading scriptural references to support the view (for example see Acts 15 or Gal 1:9). Upon reflection, many people may come to the conclusion that Webber was not favoring conflict and competition but merely pointing out the reality of life, even Christian life. I don’t believe that this is what he was trying to say and I have to agree with Webber, at least on half of the argument – conflict, that conflict is both natural and can be a very useful tool.
Later in the section Webber goes on to say
‘A polite church in which each member always defers to the others is not one that would be likely to challenge its members to grow.’
When we reflect on this we begin to see how conflict can be useful in helping others to think about their position, to go beyond the traditional and normal standards. To act as a reality check to new ideas, to engage in a bit of intellectual testing. There is a British TV comedy (also shown on PBS) called the Vicar of Dibley. The premise of the show is the arrival of a new (and first) female vicar in a traditional English country parish. Not everyone is pleased with a female vicar and the tension between traditional and modern is often portrayed through conflict at meetings of the parish council. As the series develops the viewer can observe how people’s attitudes are changed and that it is the very act of conflict that is the vehicle of the change. It is important to take a step back and observe that conflict itself is most successful when it is respectful and lacking in deep emotion or anger (a touch of humor also goes a long way.)
So then, can we learn from a British TV comedy that challenges stereotypes? I think we can. Conflict does not have to be confrontational. I think that a rector who is skilled in encouraging questioning and is able to maintain positive and respectful conversations is a good rector. Conflicts turn sour when they get personal and become interspersed with accusations. As part of my secular professional career I was trained (along with literally the whole company I worked for) in a technique called Crucial Confrontations. Maybe this is a skill that all vestries should train on.
This is not new or radical thinking. Our book of common prayer contains a prayer for use in times of conflict. It may have been a new addition to the 1979 prayer book but the source of the prayer is The Grey Book (Oxford University Press), dating back to 1923 (see Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, 1995, Pg 561).
In Times of Conflict
O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus
Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, 824)
I’m not to convinced about competition but I’m happy with conflict!