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CW88 – Reconciliation: Occasions come together

From rift to reconciliation: occasions to come together

Dr Anne Richards


National Adviser: Mission and Public Affairs, Church of England

What’s the difference between God and a wedding planner? Well, I was recently at a meeting with a wedding planner who was talking to two young people about the arrangements for their wedding reception. As they pored over a possible seating plan, she enquired, quite discreetly, whether there were any guests who should be kept apart.

I was interested in this, because I have been at funerals where social workers and even police have been on hand in the expectation of trouble, but when I talked to the wedding planner, she said there had been not a few, but many occasions, where, fuelled by alcohol and emotion, tempers fray and family rifts flare out, spoiling the event and causing tears for everyone. Now, the planners ask beforehand to try and iron out potential confrontations and difficulties by seating people who are known to be unhappy with each other out of their direct eyelines and putting distance between difficult relationships.

We think about the occasional offices as events which celebrate and mourn the big moments in people’s lives. We rejoice when a person, child or adult, is received into the Christian church through baptism. We are filled with the feeling of new beginning and hopeful future when two people are joined before God in holy matrimony and we weep and give thanks at the closure of a person’s life as we commend them to God at a funeral.

In rural places, these events are often the bedrock of a village or town’s engagement of the church in relation to the community. I have been at events where every person in the village has turned out to celebrate a marriage or stood outside in the rain to mourn a long-known person at their funeral. Such events can draw churchgoers and non-churchgoers together and cement a feeling of social solidarity radiating outwards from the church. But the other side of it is also there. Occasional offices can be places where family history and rifts going back generations can flare up. Some of those things can be family breakdowns and separations, and friends who land on one side or the other of the division. Sometimes it’s jealousies and competitiveness or lost loves that burst outwards in the face of others’ happiness. Sometimes it’s just an inability to hold back emotion or resentment, or a life of poverty or pain that makes someone start something that escalates.

Talking to a rural vicar just recently, he mused that the worst fight that ever broke out in church was over a disputed decision in a cricket match on the village green two years previously. All kinds of things from huge trauma to the completely trivial can become rivers of resentment carving canyons of bitterness etched into long memories. So ministry which offers the space and time to express joy and wonder before God also has to consider an underbelly of negative emotions which can be simmering away and which themselves need addressing.

How then, can the occasional offices of the rural church be occasions for joy, for mission, but also for healing, for reconciliation?

In Unreconciled? a book I wrote with my friends and colleagues in the Mission Theology Advisory Group, we looked closely at the sort of rifts and unhealed divisions which perpetuate in the Church but which are rarely, if ever, really addressed in Christian reconciliation.

One of the things we noted was that reconciliation is not just about patching things up, papering over the cracks, or even getting relationships on to an even keel. It is about more than mending, but the creation of something new in which everyone concerned can now flourish as God intends us to flourish. That place of mutual flourishing which is such a powerful witness to God working among us, is the place we need to get to.

So suppose we think of every baptism, wedding or funeral, as a place where brokenness and pain can be laid to rest and then transmuted into new peace, freedom and joy. It’s all very well saying it like that, but nothing in that process is automatic; it takes real preparatory work, careful pastoral care, sensitivity to the performative nature of liturgy, its spaces for acknowledging falling short and occasions for forgiveness, and the creation of room for the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts of all who attend.

As we emerge out of the pandemic, we are obliged now to think of the further damage that lockdowns and isolation have inflicted on people. There has been trauma, increased family tensions where people have had to spend time struggling with work and school at home, occasions of fragile mental health, bereavements, separations, guilts and fears.

People have fallen out about whether churches have been open or shut, whether the vicar phoned enough, whether their Christian neighbours helped enough or not. All kinds of issues now lie behind attendance at Church and these need a place and time to be addressed. And so we are now faced with a complex task, but also an opportunity. What skills in reconciliation, restoration, forgiveness and assurance in the faithfulness and steadfastness of God, do we now need in order to create something new? How do we make the things the rural church is often so best at, in creating and sustaining community, the basis of real reconciliation for people which leads us all from pain to peace and joy?

What is the difference between God and the wedding planner? Psalm 23 says that God restores our failing lives and that God comforts even when we walk in the darkest valley, the valley of the shadow of death. But more to the point, the psalm ends with a table being set in the presence of the psalmist’s enemies. And there, the cup overflows in safety and security where all can flourish. It is enmity that the wedding planner hopes to mitigate; with God, enmity means nothing in the face of God’s overwhelming, forgiving love. Let’s choose God’s way.

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