Journeying with the Other

Work today has been very stimulating. Three hours with the Masters students at Coventry University’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies, where I am a visiting Research Fellow. This is my annual lecture / seminar on Northern Ireland, the peace process and the role of religion in the conflict. Around twelve eager students from twelve different countries, including one from Northern Ireland, the majority from Africa or Asia.

It is not a paid gig but it comes with year round access to the University resources and library, engagement with an interesting academic team in CPRS and, what is more important, a university staff card which gets me 10% academic discount on my Apple products!

Then this evening it was a two hour conversation on the local implications of the legislative process within the Church of England on the consecration of women to the episcopate. It provided a real insight into Anglican polity and was a good honest conversation. And in case I become too seduced by life in a Cathedral, a useful reminder of why I remain at heart Anabaptist in theology and church polity!

Both involved considerable reflection and discussion of what is involved in compromise and accommodation. What can we compromise on to reach agreement and when is it a case of finding ways to accommodate deeply held differences? What and where are the limits of accommodation when compromise is not possible?

So would the election in May of Sinn Fein as the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly break the compromise and accommodation embedded in the Belfast Agreement and its subsequent renegotiation? In short would accepting Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness as First Minister (the nomination goes to the largest party) be an accommodation too far for Unionists, even for the sake of political stability and strengthening the peace?

Indeed, this must be the ongoing dilemma for the UK Coalition government. Having compromised to form a government and then found a way to accommodate ongoing fundamental differences, at what point do events and political tensions make the accommodation untenable for the two parties?

For the church it remains a critical question. When all is said and done there is little room for compromise between the various positions. Yet is space for accommodation possible? Holding deep convictions, while remaining in a structured relationship with those who differ is difficult when the convictions we hold, in practice even if not in intention, question the values and even the essential personhood, of the other.

It is tempting to look to St Paul for an answer, especially in his handling of the question that vexed the early church. Can Jews and Gentiles be authentic followers of Jesus together while retaining their essential identity as Jews and Gentiles? At first glance it seems that the relationship between faith and handling such difference set out by Paul should provide a way ahead.

A closer look requires us to think again. When it comes to the question of eating a bacon butty, those matters of cultural practice, ritual, tradition and sometimes belief informed by our cultural values, then there is room for accommodation and even on occasion compromise.

Yet for Paul when it comes to the fundamental question of human personhood, then there is no room for accommodation, and certainly not compromise. Paul is insistent and willing to argue strongly with Peter, that whatever cultural or liturgical limitations he may take on for the sake of others, he will not back down on one fundamental issue. No one will be considered second class in the company of those who seek to faithfully follow Jesus because of who they are as a person.

This was the new thing that God had done. Jesus is good news for Gentiles as well as Jews, and Paul would not accept any practice or ruling from the church leaders that undermined this reality.

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