I had a bit of an epiphany today. I’ve been at a conference for the clergy of the diocese of Melbourne (and some others) this week, on the topic of “Ministry and Mission in the Asian Century.” This meant that much of the discussion over the last couple of days has been about cross-cultural, and multicultural, ministry.
And as I stood in worship with my brothers and sisters in Christ, and looked around the room, I felt my own joy at the diverse group of people we are. Here we were, standing shoulder to shoulder; people from every continent (well, except Antarctica); people of an amazing variety of languages, cultures, and nationalities; people who are heirs to diverse riches of churchmanship, theological viewpoint, spirituality; people who are gay and straight, men and women, old and young; and if, below the polite exteriors, there were tensions and disagreements (who am I kidding – of course there were!), we were still here, engaging in this endeavour together, exasperated at times but not having given up on one another, or on the God who calls us to common purpose.
I do not agree with every theological position held by people in that room. I do not like the liturgical choices many of them make in worship; I do not have much in common in personality and spirituality with others. And yet from all of them – the most liberal to the most conservative, the most over-the-top Anglo-Catholic to the most over-the-top charismatic, all of them – I have something to learn.
And thinking about this, I had a moment of insight into something I have long recognised but struggled to understand; and that is my own instinctive sense of being at home, and belonging, in the Anglican church in Melbourne.
You see, I am a child of many cultures. I am a citizen of Australia, born in apartheid-era South Africa, whose mother is a French Mauritian and whose father has mixed Afrikaans and English heritage. I have lived on two continents; in my childhood home we spoke four languages. (And at school and as an adult I have formally studied two more). My family’s religious heritage includes Roman Catholicism and Dutch Reformed membership, and I have chosen Anglicanism (or, perhaps, it has chosen me) as my household of faith. My initial experience of church was evangelical-charismatic, and now I find myself serving in a community which consciously identifies as liberal Anglo-Catholic. Inside my head I have an eclectic grab bag of opinions, viewpoints, ideas, experiences, and passions jostling for my attention, and which I strive to somehow offer to God with integrity. Sometimes the cognitive dissonance is almost distressing.
It struck me that I am very much like my diocese; heir to many traditions and cultures, in which none predominates absolutely. I am sometimes conflicted, confused, surprising myself at what comes out of my own mouth. Sometimes hurting, sometimes hurtful, sometimes flat out wrong. And yet, by the grace of God, the diversity in me provides me with the raw material for growth; in comparison and contrast I can see highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the different strands of my life, and in experience and reflection I can learn to find the best way for each to bear fruit. It is a process of constant internal dialogue, and it is hard work; but as I persevere in it I see glimpses of encouraging growth. Sometimes I truly express a servant heart in just the right way to connect with someone else’s need. Sometimes I have the right words of wisdom or knowledge at just the right time. Sometimes I see indications that I am on the way to becoming someone who is truly worthy of her calling.
And really, I think this is why I find myself so at home in such a diverse diocese. I instinctively understand the process – and the value – of dialogue across difference. I would feel out of place in a monochrome church in which dialogue was closed and diversity absent, because I would not know how to challenge myself and grow in that environment. To celebrate and honour the diversity of my diocese – even when I struggle with aspects of it – is to celebrate and honour something of my own nature. To look for and anticipate the growth of the church in holiness and fruitfulness is to hold out hope for God’s graciousness to all who are open to challenge.
We are not perfect. We squabble (sometimes nastily), we fail to uphold and support one another, we struggle with what it means to be faithful in community when it sometimes seems that we are pulling in opposite directions. But I see in the struggle the commitment of very different men and women to the one God, and the heartfelt desire to offer our best to God, with integrity. I see in our common life glimpses that we are a church on the way to becoming truly worthy of our calling. And I am moved to tears with gratitude and joy.