Hymn writer Adam Tice is Associate Pastor of Hyattsville Mennonite Church in Hyattsville, Maryland. His MA in Christian Formation with an emphasis on worship is from the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. He serves on the Executive Committee of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada.
During pre-marital counseling, our pastor impressed my wife and me with the dictum “don’t air your dirty laundry.” Anyone who has been the third party to a spousal spat can appreciate the value of that guideline—it is never attractive to witness that type of interaction. And yet, in the arena of church politics, I keep finding myself eavesdropping on the internal squabbles of the Catholic world.
This ecclesial voyeurism began innocently enough. My hymn texts are published through GIA, and so I began to take notice of their preparations for new hymnals. The underlying reason for the new editions—a new missal translation—was foreign to my Mennonite sensibilities. While readers here could with fair accuracy understand my tradition as being “non-liturgical” I prefer to think of us as “congregationally liturgical”–that is, each local church develops its own customs and habits over time that make up a localized (often implicit) liturgy. The idea of words and orders for worship being prescribed from thousands of miles away doesn’t fit with our view of authority—one that attempts to take very seriously the “priesthood of all believers” and rejects strong, centralized hierarchies. This initial fascination led me to follow this new blog moderated by my friend, Fr. Ruff.
I had seen glimpses of the worst of the Catholic internet before—in particular, vitriolic attacks on certain musical styles and individuals associated with those styles. The congregation that I serve as associate pastor can happily sing “Gather us in” and Gregorian chant in the same service, so the rancorous attacks were baffling to me. Having tasted some of that bitterness, I was grateful for the more generous tone of PrayTell. And yet, even here the debates and discussions around the impending arrival of the new translation raise ire and frustration.
I have come to realize that part of my fascination with following these squabbles is because of the internal conflicts within my own denomination. Without revealing too much of my own ecclesiological dirty laundry, I can say that I am entrenched on one side of a long-running debate. We’ve had churches placed under “discipline” or kicked out of the denomination; pastors have lost their ordinations; resolutions have been passed and teaching positions have been drafted. Power has become increasingly centralized. The blogosphere burns. Loud voices trumpet doctrines, and real people are hurt.
None of this is new for us—Mennonites are historically quite good at starting internal conflicts, but habitually bad at ending them. There are dozens of separate denominations that have grown from our divisions. (Before any reader points out that this is the curse of Protestantism, might I gently point out how many denominations were born of splits from Catholicism?) Rather than deal with conflict constructively, our non-resistant ideology reveals its worst tendency—that of non-engagement and avoidance. And so over the years we have argued about such things as what type of clothes to wear, what type of transportation to use, whether women should keep their heads covered, whether to allow divorce and remarriage, and whether to allow women in leadership. Eventually the heat of these questions dissipates, but the lasting impact of church splits and individuals excommunicated continues to damage the body of Christ.
Having confessed to my tradition’s inadequacy in dealing with conflict, what could I possibly have to offer regarding Catholic infighting over the Missal translation process? Perhaps it is worth a reminder that nearly 500 years ago Catholics were systematically hunting, arresting, torturing and killing my spiritual ancestors. Anabaptism was considered a serious threat to Church structure and teaching. Remarkably, Anabaptism survived and thrived through the persecution; Catholicism survived and thrived despite the perceived threat of Anabaptism. But of course it has taken half a millennium for genuine discourse to resume between the two traditions.
What I observe in church conflicts (my own and yours) is the gradual erosion in ability to perceive the “other side” as brothers and sisters in Christ—members of Christ’s body, and bearers of the divine image. In short, our conflicts lead us to dehumanize the “other.” In the 16th century, that dehumanization led to mass martyrdoms and irrevocable rifts in the Church. While no inquisitions seem imminent in the missal debates, I do observe that both sides treat the other as though it is unreasonable, unintelligent, disingenuous, and perhaps worst of all, unfaithful. I recognize the tendency to ascribe those characteristics. I have had them applied to me, and I have applied them to others.
I have found blogs to be a difficult medium for dialog. It is all to easy to view a pseudonym attached to a terse rant as a set of pixels on a screen rather than a person. I usually have no relationship, obligation, or interest in the person hidden behind the comment. I have entirely given up in participation on Mennonite blogs. They bring out the worst side of me. The internet allows us to all-too-easily disembody the Body of Christ. It turns human relationships into something of ether rather than substance.
What if, instead of the dehumanization that follows mistrust, we engaged those with whom we disagree as though they are as reasonable, intelligent, honest, and faithful as us? At the very least, that would prompt us towards greater grace towards shortcomings. At the best, we could approach disagreements and debates as learning opportunities rather than a chance to seek out and destroy opposition to our cherished ideals. I’ve seen such generosity at work on PrayTell, but I worry that it is gradually eroding. As the new missal translation arrives, I hope that this can continue to be a forum of genuine discussion and debate rather than an arena of battle.
It is central to Mennonite belief that God is working through the body of Christ (the church) by the power of the Holy Spirit to restore peace to the universe. Who will serve as as peacemakers for the internet? Surely God is at work even here.
Adam M. L. Tice