‘CALM DOWN, DEAR’

A blog was written recently by the Bishop of Liverpool called, “Calm down, dear”. In this piece Bishop Paul situates the frustration and anger of marginalized people in the church, specifically LGBT friends, in a biblical and theological framework. He calls for LGBT people to be appropriately angry and active about the suppression of their deeply held experiences and feelings. He also pushes back on a system that is inherently designed to subvert these voices. I have been asked by a few people what I think about the piece, so here is an ‘off the cuff’ response.

I read the blog and also read the responses by people at various points on the spectrum in this culture war. Responses ranged from “He’s a heretic” to “He’s a liberationist’, extremely positive to passionately negative; warmly embracing his words, to radical rejection. I suppose this is the way it is regarding conversation around tense issues in the church and society at large. It gets messy, interlocutors push back and forth jockeying for position, arguing for ‘truth’. While extremely uncomfortable, this is no doubt an important process, especially for those who take their faith seriously.

Regardless of what one’s theological position is on LGBT issues, one thing that can be gleaned from this piece is a posture of ‘deep listening’. My experience of friendship with LGBT folks suggests to me that right across the spectrum their voices have not been heard. Bishop Paul is calling us to acknowledge this reality. Not hearing their voices, their experiences, not engaging in deep listening, stunts our theological reflection – conservative, liberal and everything in between.

Theology is an enterprise that seeks to bring the bible and our tradition in conversation with the real, gritty, shitty, and painful experiences of human beings to encourage and undergird faithful discipleship. I do feel, after having listened pastorally to many LGBT friends over 17 years of ministry that we – all theological positionalities – have not practiced enough deep listening.

While this next statement is clumsy, I think much of the conversation from both sides is plagued by fear. We, subconsciously, I think, feel fear about what we may find if we do listen deeply. Whether that is listening to the tradition of the church, the experiences of real people, or the story of scripture – listening disrupts our security and our abstract notions of truth. But we need to do it. For those that have given up on the scriptures because of a particular doctrine they were taught that caused them pain, and for those who have given up on listening to real humans because they fear experience will bring challenge to their interpretations of scripture or tradition, we all need to keep coming to the table to listen. Fear is not conducive to life – it divides and results in isolation from perceived threats. This isn’t a ‘churchly’ posture.

Bishop Paul, it seems to me, is right in his subtle call for repentance away from the predominance of overly rationalist ways of being. This way of being has impeded our ability to listen; it does silence cries from the margins. Primacy is often given to the abstract, and overly confident reason, at the expense of real human lives. But let us make no mistake, it is not just traditionalists who do this, its progressives too. This method of approach tends, generally, toward a kind of dehumanization; it assess people and situations based on their critical rational articulations. It sizes them up based on the cogency of their argument. This isn’t all bad. But surely there is more to knowing or understanding an issue than rational deliberation can supply? Surely the way forward is not going to emerge from an academic ivory tower? Surely rationality, and the acquisition of knowledge through the isolated mind, or even communal mind, must be tempered and filled out by of other means of knowing?

When we split the world up by means of cognitive agreement and/ or disagreement about particular issues, and isolate ourselves from those whose rationality is in conflict with ours, we lose something. We lose understanding; we stop understanding what makes them the way they are – thereby losing the ability to have a meaningful conversation. The suggestion that an overly rational establishment has subverted the voices of a marginalized group is, I think, true. This is not always intentional, its the byproduct of an overly rational, disembodied way of being. We are all worse off, and we deplete ourselves and our subsequent capacity to speak helpfully into a situation, when this our modus operandi.

I have had too many conversations littered with unhelpful generalizations about people on both sides of this conversation to believe that we have all talked enough, been with each other enough, and value one another enough.

Whether I agree or disagree with Bishop Paul on this issue, he is calling for the practice of deep listening. He is opening up space for voices to be heard, voices who I don’t think we have heard enough; voices with whom our theology must engage. We are pastors. Its our job to continue listening from the ground in a way which leads to faithful discipleship. When we shut down the process of deep listening, we truncate our ability to respond, and subsequently do wrong by some people.

Wherever we are at on the theological spectrum, we need to continue to incline our ears to the pain of the world, and address it as faithfully as we can. Without hearing these voices, we cannot respond appropriately. This is what Bishop Paul seems to be doing, and whether I agree with him or not, I am inclining my ear. I’m leaning in to listen.

Friends, those who have something to share, those experiencing pain, please keep speaking. Hopefully, by God’s grace, we will become better at listening.

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