People of peace: the Gospel challenge
Anyone who has met Ernie Whalley will have an encountered a down to earth and humble person. But not only does he hold one of the most senior roles in our Union, he has spearheaded a growing commitment to reconciliation and unity within our own Baptist community and beyond.
His experiences as a child growing up amidst the deeply divided communities of Northern Ireland have no doubt fuelled his unstinting commitment to the cause of peace and peacemaking . . . so we asked the current president of our Baptist Union of Great Britain to share his insights for churches in conflict situations
Can you describe your background in peacemaking/reconciliation?
Although born in England, I spent some of my formative years in Northern Ireland, my mother’s homeland. I was soon aware of ‘living with difference’. Indeed, I have a strong memory of my 7-year old self being asked: ‘Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?’ and not knowing the answer! I still recall the look that passed between my parents when I related this to them that tea time. I look back and feel blessed to have been brought up in a tolerant home.
I think my early life experience has meant I was interested from a young age in how we promote peace and reconciliation globally, in our communities and in the church. Some years ago, I benefited greatly from training with BridgeBuilders who offer courses based on Mennonite insights. Shortly afterwards, Vivienne O’Brien and myself were asked to lead a seminar at the Baptist Assembly on ‘Hurting Churches’. We expected 50 people and 500 turned up – a quarter of those attending the Assembly! We wrote up our notes as the BUGB publication ‘Journeying Through Conflict’ (which is still available)
From my own experience as Regional Minister in the Yorkshire Baptist Association and as I now travel round the different Associations this year, I continue to hear stories of ‘conflict’ in our churches and am pleased that our Baptist Colleges now include this theme in the curriculum for ministerial training. There ARE encouraging signs of building healthy relationships in our churches but we must always be vigilant and ready to seek help. Unresolved conflict situations sap energy for mission and weaken our witness to a hurting world.
What's the toughest conflict situation you've been involved in? How did this resolve?
That’s a tough question! Not perhaps the hardest but I do recall a church situation where the pastor was being challenged by a couple of people in the church and it was beginning to affect wider relationships. As a Regional Minister, I was invited in. After a preliminary meeting, I was able to draft in a couple of Baptists who had done mediation training and who, alongside myself, gave a great deal of time to the church – listening, reflecting and writing up a report for the church members’ meeting. This was received well by the church. Sadly, a couple of people did leave the church but the pastor is still there and the church is flourishing.
I believe there was ‘deep learning’ through this, often, painful situation for the whole church, leadership and minister. My hope is that each Associations can establish a pool of folks who have done some training in this area and who will be available to work with Regional Ministers. Ecumenical teams can be really helpful in such situations as they can bring greater objectivity. The giftings of lay people are vital.
A church is in a conflict situation. What five things should it do?
1. Gain perspective on the issue
We need to understand what’s really going on. Imagine climbing a hill and rising above the fog. What are the causes of the conflict? Get beyond the immediate emotion. Have I contributed to this?
2. Have the will to resolve it
If our reaction is to ‘blame the other’, we will not get anywhere.
3. Take initiative to resolve informally as soon as possible
Sensitive application of Matthew 18, vv 15-17 is relevant here. Act quickly before things get stuck. Email is dangerous here as hasty words can be sent without due consideration and too many email trails can cause further confusion. Telephone conversations are better but face-to-face is best.
4. Invite in companions
This can help in stages 1, 2 and 3. A good listener and/or a trained mediator can challenge and it is important to be mature enough to receive it.
As we are open, God can widen our vision to gain perspective. We can be given strength to confess and take initiatives towards healing. We need that Christlike blend of truth and grace, honesty and compassion. ‘The closer we come to the Cross, the closer we come to each other’ (Jurgen Moltmann).
Remind myself: All I can do is stretch out my hand, I can’t force the other to do the same. They, too, have to will reconciliation but my positive attitude can sometime help.
Like Stars in the Universe – your invitation to the Baptist family to discover fresh truth from Paul's letter to the Philippians - has been the top seller in our online shop. One of the studies explores the Church's calling to be peacemakers – can you explain a little more about this calling?
Paul writes about the ‘God of peace’ (Philippians 4) and notes the sadness of the situation where two women in the church at Philippi, Euodia and Syntyche, have fallen out. He pleads with ‘companions’ to help bring peace into this fractured relationship. So the call to peace and peace-making is at the core of the Gospel. It is not an optional ‘add-on’. Biblical peace is rooted in a relationship of peace with God.
In Scripture, it is also includes ‘welfare’ – both personal and community – and integrity in wholesome human relationships. There is the temptation in church life to narrow this down to a personal relationship with God. This is, of course, fundamental, but not exclusively so according to Scripture. So, the teaching in the Beatitudes: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ is a calling to all disciples of Jesus Christ. We are called to pray for peace and peacemakers in the international sphere and sadly I don’t always experience intercessory prayer in our churches.
I long for our churches to be seen as stars for peacemaking in our local communities and have seen some great examples of this already this year. And we are called to model ‘peace’ in healthy ways with our own church communities. This is an ongoing challenge for ALL of us!
The Revd Ernie Whalley is president of our Baptist Union of Great Britain until May 2014.
To accompany his year as president he created a Bible study on Philippians, Like Stars in the Universe.
This article appears in the Spring 2014 edition of Together Magazine