Why Dialogue Is So Difficult

Some years ago I posted the article “Why Is Dialogue So Difficult?” Below is a quote from the article. The article is listed on the right in two parts. As I have traveled around the church several people have brought the article to my attention. It is still I think an accurate description of the difficulties that any church dialogue faces.

Here is a quote from the second part of the article

We have at best the touching tangents of circles. The historic Christian faith seen from within paradigm of epistemological pessimism is a very different thing from the historic faith seen as the basis for a hope to truly know the really real. It may help to know that the call issued to our opponents, to listen to reason cannot be answered by them without abandoning everything that our opponents have hitherto thought reasonable. The call to listen to reason cannot be answered without a paradigm shift and the reason with which our opponents reason cannot bring them to that shift. We are confused and confounded by applying a model of ecumenical dialogue to the present dispute within the churches. The right model is really inter-faith dialogue. Rather than assuming that we speak with a common language about common points of reference we need to understand that we speak across a logical gap to those with a different worldview and a different rationality.

Here is the link to the first part of the article

Gafcon and the Pastoral Forum

It is clear from the recent communique from GAFCON that the move to establish a North American Province without the express approval of Canterbury is unstoppable. It is a tragically missed opportunity that a robust response to the needs of alienated orthodox Anglicans in North America was not negotiated at Lambeth. I think a unified and unifying response could still be made if the Archbishop of Canterbury immediately announces a chair for the pastoral forum who is a figure credible in Global South and GAFCON quarters. Drexel Gomez and Mouneer Anis are two names that come immediately to mind. The non-negotiable needs to be that any interim arrangement of alternate primatial oversight is acceptable to the parties seeking relief. The window of opportunity for a Canterbury sponsored solution is nearly closed.

Thoughts on the Jerusalem Statement of GAFCON

Thoughts on the Jerusalem Statement of GAFCON

A Change in Tempo?


I have had a first look at the Jerusalem communiqué of GAFCON. I will be rereading it in days ahead but here are some initial reactions. GAFCON establishes itself as a confessing movement within the church based on an ecumenical definition of Christian orthodoxy and the historic Anglican formularies. GAFCON does not formally break with the Archbishop of Canterbury and describes itself as a movement for reformation and renewal. The statement asserts that Anglicanism is to be defined doctrinally. Canterbury is accorded respect but declared not to have the power to say who and who is not Anglican. This is an explicit rejection of the notion that to be an Anglican church all that is required is an invitation to the Lambeth conference. Rather Anglicanism is to be defined in terms of the common confession of creedal orthodoxy and adherence to the doctrinal heritage of the classical Anglican formularies. The language describing the significance of the 1662 BCP, the ordinal and the 39 articles is confessional and authoritative but is carefully worded to allow for some very modest interpretation and local adaptation of worship.

Those dioceses in North and South America that in word or deed have ceased to confess the uniqueness of Christ or promoted extra-biblical sexual morality are declared apostate and called to repentance. The existing instruments of communion are identified as an inadequate “colonial structure” and condemned for not promoting discipline within the communion. The primates who organized GAFCON are asked to create a council of primates and to enlarge this council with other confessing members and to recognize confessing Anglican jurisdictions whether they are in communion with Canterbury or not. The establishment of a new province for confessing Anglicans in North America based on the common cause partnership and to be recognized by the GAFCON movement is encouraged.

I do not read this as the break up of the Anglican Communion. I expect that many of the attendees at GAFCON will be attending Lambeth but I do see this conference and its statement as an important breakthrough in the impasse of the communion crisis. In the game of chess I believe there is a term called tempo. It has to do with which player is the one to which the other must respond. One player has the upper hand and then there is an exchange and the player who was setting the tempo is now the one who must respond. Until this meeting in Jerusalem the tempo was in the hands of the North American churches. They acted and the rest of the communion was in the position of responding to their actions. The existing instruments of communion including the Archbishop of Canterbury have in part by inaction and in part by intention, continually moved the tempo back to TEC and The Anglican Church of Canada. The emergence of GAFCON as a confessing group within the Anglican Communion which is willing to take bold action, though at this point action short of a formal break with Canterbury, changes the tempo. It is now the rest of the communion including its existing instruments of communion which must respond. It is the consensus of the emerging confessing majority in the communion which is now setting the agenda. If the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lambeth conference do not respond to this initiative in a meaningful way they are likely to become irrelevant to the future of global Anglicanism. Irrelevancy for Canterbury, Lambeth and the Anglican Consultative Council seem a greater risk at the moment than the risk of a formal break or repudiation of these instruments by members of GAFCON.

Misreading Family Systems Theory

Over on Standfirm there is a thread about Kevin Martin’s article on Family Systems Theory and the present climate in the Episcopal Church. I have been studying Bowen Family Systems Theory since 1978. I teach it at the school. It can be misread in a superficial way as a technique for handling conflict which is content neutral. Matt Kennedy is critiquing that sort of use. The theory has flaws like any conceptual system and tends to be a bit philosophically naive and like most social science theories blind to the border between description and prescription.

Bowen Theory does say that the quality of thinking in an emotional system is related to the level of chronic anxiety in the system. The theory does not really maintain that content doesn’t matter. It simply says that in highly polarized situations anxiety rather than thinking is running the show. You need to be relatively calm to really think.  The goal of this conceptuality is to help people have the thinking function be a little more independent of emotionality. Bowen Theory is very counter-cultural in that it doesn’t teach that healing comes from emotional catharsis as in Greek Drama or Psychoanalysis but from getting a little perspective and thinking independently of one’s own and of other’s emotionality. Family Systems Theory is not soteriology though there are points of contact. It has its own integrity in its own domain and is an important dialog partner with Pastoral Theology but is of course no substitute for theology. Below is  is piece I wrote some time back on how Family Systems Theory is misread by leaders in TEC among others. 

Family Systems Theory and the Crisis in the Episcopal Church


The Rev. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology

Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry


In a recent video interview on Standfirminfaith.com the bishop elect of Virginia, Shannon Johnston. The bishop elect makes extensive reference to his approach to leadership which is heavily influenced by the Family Systems Theory of the late Rabbi Edwin Friedman. I teach Friedman’s book in the course on Pastoral Leadership at Trinity and have been a student of Family Systems Theory since 1978 when I became aware of the work of Dr. Murray Bowen. My 1989 Ph.D. thesis, Christian Nurture Revisited has a chapter on Family Systems Theory.  


Ed Friedman was one of Dr. Bowen’s students and pioneered the application of Bowen Family Systems Theory to congregational life. Friedman’s book, From Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, has become easily the single most influential text about leadership in religious systems and is taught in seminaries that represent a range of denominational and theological commitments. Dr. Friedman was a regular at the “baby bishop school” and I believe the concepts are still taught there. The bishop-elect of Virginia is convinced that a model of leadership informed by Family Systems Theory can help ameliorate the destructive conflict in the Episcopal Church. I believe he is correct but I also believe that a superficial understanding and application of the theory has added immeasurably to the current conflict.


One of the basic insights of this approach to leadership is that leaders tend to behave in similar ways in their families of origin, in their present family and in the leadership position they occupy in the church system to which they belong. Problems and creativity move across these three systems like ripples on the surface of a pond. Likewise anxiety is contagious between all three systems. Chronically anxious systems are those systems that have poorly defined leaders. There is a kind of Catch 22 effect at work because chronically anxious systems instinctively sabotage the self-definition of their leaders.


 Chronically anxious systems tend to descend into more and more entrenched patterns of dysfunction “from generation to generation.” A “self-defined” and “well differentiated leader” can start a dynamic in the system in the direction of less anxiety, more creativity and better overall functioning.  Friedman was part therapist and part comedian and he was fond of saying that problem solving in a chronically anxious system was like a “brainstem storming session.” In a chronically anxious system, people are stuck in flight, fright or freeze mode and are reactive rather than responsive. There may be a lot of rationalization going on but very little actual thinking, and the dysfunctional leaders in the dysfunctional systems tend to be reactive rather than thoughtfully responsive. Leadership tends to operate on the desire to appease the “togetherness forces” and typically “gives up self” in order to avoid conflict. “Peace-mongering” was one of Friedman’s epithets for dysfunctional leadership.


Friedman’s prescription for effective leadership which leads to healthy, functional and creative emotional systems was to coach leaders to take leadership stands based on well thought out and integrated values and principles while staying in touch with the system. In order to do this one has to develop “more of a self” and become able to be a “non-anxious presence” in the systems in which one is a leader. The absolute high road to being an effective leader for Friedman is working on defining a self in your family of origin. This involves the hard, years long, work of understanding the relationship patterns in your family of origin and re-working relationships with parents, siblings, grandparents and even generations that are only present in the family by legend or reputation. Defining yourself in your family of origin involves defining a self while staying in touch. Friedman echoes Murray Bowen when he says repeatedly that it is easy to define a self and easy to stay in touch with the other members of an emotional system, and it is the hardest thing in the world to define a self while staying in touch. Adult children who have alternated between avoiding visiting their parents and disastrous home visits in which they quickly revert to being truculent adolescents know the kind of challenge involved. 


Friedman warns again and again, as did his mentor Murray Bowen, against using Family Systems Theory as a technique or an ideology. At the heart of the vision of creative leadership of both Bowen and Friedman is an invitation to do hard personal work in the family of origin. Friedman worried about a “too serious” hearing of Family Systems Theory in which people would study the theory and then think they had a set of tools that could be impersonally applied to manage the emotional functioning in a system. The challenge of Family System Theory is to be a change agent by changing yourself and how you respond to conflict. To hear Family Systems Theory as a technique for “handling” conflict or “handling” others is to hear it in the “too serious” way that Friedman warned of and to increase rather than decrease the chronic anxiety and emotional dysfunction in the system. This is I think exactly what has happened in many church circles and especially in the national leadership of the Episcopal Church.  


There is one image in Friedman’s book which has been chronically misread and which is the centerpiece of the “too serious” and counterproductive application of this theory to leadership in the church. Friedman was trying to explain the dynamic in systems when someone takes a stand based on principle and conviction. For instance, an enabling wife of an acting-out alcoholic is coached by Friedman to cease trying to change her husband’s drinking patterns but rather to focus on her own input into the system. Instead of hiding the bottle she is coached to “define self” and say what she is willing and not willing to do based on well thought out principles and values. Under Friedman’s coaching she says, “honey, your drinking is none of my business, it is your life and if you want to proceed on this life-threatening course of behavior that is your business. I am just worried about what will become of me and the kids if you have a wreck or ruin your health with your drinking. If you will double your life insurance I promise never to mention your drinking again.” Friedman coaches the wife that she can expect not only the husband but all the other members of that emotional system from her parents to his boss to work together to get her to resume her “over-functioning” and “over-anxious” responses. She must persist and be steadfast if any change is to come.

 Here comes the significant metaphor that has been so misheard and is so significantly responsible for the making the present crisis in our church much worse. Friedman uses the metaphor of General Chuck Yeager and the sound barrier. When the sound barrier was being approached the aircraft would experience more and more turbulence as the plane closed in on the critical speed. Pilots would drive their aircraft to what they thought was the limit and then, afraid that the airplane would shake apart, back off without breaking the barrier. Yeager believed a physicist friend that it would be smooth on the other side of the barrier and put on speed just when most pilots were backing off and became the first to break the sound barrier.


I believe that a large number of leaders in the Episcopal Church have heard Family Systems Theory in a “too serious” way. They have heard well that all leaders can expect resistance and sabotage, the turbulence of the Yeager metaphor, and will prevail by pouring on the speed on pushing ahead when they meet resistance. They have heard that they should not be distracted by the “content” of criticism but should pay attention to the emotional process and should above all be self-defined and persist. They think that smooth sailing is just around the corner. They have not heard the challenge that leadership involves staying emotionally connected to the members of the system, especially those with whom they are most emotionally uncomfortable. They have not heard the warning that this leadership theory is primarily about controlling one’s own emotionality and not a recipe for handling or manipulating others. The result is a generation of leaders on all sides of the current polarization who think that leadership consists of taking a bold stand and persisting in a damn the torpedoes full steam ahead mode. When resistance arises and the ship threatens to shake apart they are convinced that smooth skies are just ahead and they pour on the speed. They will not be able to perceive that they have not done the personal and relational homework necessary to really make a positive contribution until the wings come off as they now are.


 When I teach Family Systems theory in my classes I warn against what I call the “Yeager heresy.” I caution the students that being rigid, inflexible and unwilling to accommodate reasonable criticism is not the same as taking a principled stand. Giving in always to maintain peace is reactive and anxious, and so is never making any accommodation. The full speed ahead damn the torpedoes rhetoric in the Episcopal Church is a symptom of an anxious and reactive leadership. Good leaders say, “This is what I think and believe, and this is what I am willing to do and not do” in such a way as to leave others the room to do the same thing. Good leaders have to have the strength of their convictions, which is something different from the desire to leave the opposition behind in the wake of their sonic boom. Family Systems Theory can make a contribution to understanding leadership in a conflicted church but not as merely more information or a superficial technique for managing the opposition but as a challenge for leaders to work on their own emotional and spiritual maturity and to respond thoughtfully rather than react emotionally to conflict.


In my assessment the current clearest example of leadership in the Anglican Communion which exhibits the principles of Friedman’s vision is the statement of the Windsor Report which says in so many words to the Episcopal Church, “You have acted in ways which put in question your continued membership in the communion. The communion is now going to work together to make clear what it means to belong to the communion and then you can decide whether you want to belong or not.” Now we are finding out whether the leaders of the dominant party in the Episcopal Church will react or respond to this challenge and whether the leaders of the minority party will react or respond to that action. The emotional and spiritual maturity of a lot of people in the church is on very public view.  



Dog Packs, Kitchen Nightmares and Deep Survival

Dog Packs, Kitchen Nightmares and Deep Survival


I am a fan of raiding other disciplines for thoughts on leadership in the church. There are all sorts of at first sight unlikely places to garner human wisdom which can be applied to church life. I regularly watch the National Geographic television show “The Dog Whisperer.” There is much wisdom there about being a calm, confident and consistent pack leader and about the chaos that comes from projecting the wrong kind of energy into the pack. It is quite food for thought for pastors that out of control dogs become calm in a good pack and that good dogs go crazy in a chaotic pack that is poorly led.

Another show I watch regularly is “Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares.” Gordon Ramsey the famous chef and main character of this reality show is vulgar in the extreme and hardly a sentence goes by that does not contain numerous bleeps. The censors allow the word “ballocks” which is used at least once a paragraph. The show which is on BBC America takes Ramsey to different restaurants which are about to go under and gives him a week to turn them around. The survival rate for restaurants is something like one in five. Often he actually helps them. Ramsey has a bullying style which is part of the appeal of the show I suppose and really more morally problematic than the incessant cursing. There is something to learn here. Most of the restaurants are being killed by the same group of problems: arrogant, self-indulgent but weak leaders who are out of touch with their market, an over-elaborate menu which is really beyond the skill set of the chefs, lack of teamwork and poor communication both in the kitchen and between the kitchen, the management and the wait staff, lack of a coherent and realistic vision and a lack of commitment and passion. One of the things that makes the shows galvanizing is that the audience can see almost immediately how out of touch with reality the chefs and owners are and yet like drowning men going down for the third time they fight off the advice of the man who is their last and best chance. It gives Ramsey a lot opportunity to say bleep and ballocks.

By chance I picked up a book called Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales which is a close look at what might be called the psychology of drowning. The subtitle is “Who lives, Who Dies and Why?” The author has spent a life time analyzing and writing about stories of extreme survival of the “58 days alone in a Raft on the Atlantic” sort. He has combined his knowledge of how people act in extreme conditions with the emerging understanding of how the brain works and the role that emotion plays in reasoning and decision-making. It is a fascinating read, and parish clergy and other church leaders will see obvious parallels to decision making and survival in parish ministry, especially during moments of crisis. Continue reading “Dog Packs, Kitchen Nightmares and Deep Survival”

Some Reflections on the Anglican Covenant Conference at GTS, April 10-12, 2008

Some Reflections on the Anglican Covenant Conference at GTS, April 10-12, 2008


The conference was sponsored by the Tutu Center at General which has a mandate for conferences that address reconciliation and peace. The conference conveners were Titus Pressler, the subdean at General and the venerable J. Robert Wright, canon theologian for the diocese of New York, who teaches Patristics among other things and has had a high profile in ecumenical theology for many years. Canon Wright broke his ankle on Easter day and was not present, though his paper was read.

The format of the conference had a major address each day by one of the keynote speakers, Archbishop Drexel Gomez, head of the covenant design group, Canon Jenny Te Paa from New Zealand and a member of the Windsor Committee, and Canon Gregory Cameron, Deputy Secretary General of the Anglican Communion. After the major address there were each day several panels made up of faculty from each of the Anglican seminaries in North America. All were represented save Nashotah House. Each faculty person gave a ten minute presentation. At the end of the panel of four presentations, four students gave two or three minute reactions to the papers and the faculty responded and the floor was open for questions. You can read my presentation below.


All in all the atmosphere was civil and courteous. Archbishop Gomez was subjected to some discourtesy which he handled with great charity and a sharp intellect. The whole conference can be listened to at The General Theological Seminary website.

General is a very beautiful seminary and it was a treat to worship in the chapel there. The office is sung every evening with great care though I found the feminist canticles that were inserted from time to time a little trying. “Our mother Jesus”  and so forth. The seminary has a massive challenge to keep the premises up and there is much work going on. Still like a lot of places in mainline Christendom in North America there is a poignant sense of faded glory.

Trinity and Wycliffe represented the reasserter point of view and the rest the reappraiser. As I predicted the issue was not what was in the covenant but the very idea of covenant. The majority of the faculty presentations were hostile to the very idea of covenant. A notable exception was Dean Kevern of Bexley. Throughout the conference I was reminded of Mouneer Anis’ comments on his meeting with the Joint Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion that there was little evidence that these leaders were really registering the state of crisis in the communion. There was a common confidence in the presenters, the confidence I suppose of the winners in a dispute. There was denial that the communion would come apart and that the life of the churches represented was in any serious way threatened. It was clear that for most of the people present the justice issues which they perceived in the Gay agenda were of more moment than any desire to maintain communion with the Anglican world. There was even a conviction that the breaking of communion was not really possible, that no one could tell them that they were not members of the communion. It was in a word, unreal.

I thought my presentation about what I called imperial pluralism and intolerance masquerading as tolerance would create some discussion. It didn’t. In passing I mentioned that I thought there was a corollary to pseudo-tolerance which was pseudo-democracy. I said that despite much rhetoric about representation and our democratic polity, the leadership style of TEC was one of finesse and fait accompli. I was challenged strongly on this by several members of the executive committee who pointed out all the studies and reports of the House of Bishops and General Convention. One member of the Executive Committee quoted a report that I have never seen which she claimed showed that a majority of the members of the church were in favor of 2003 et al. Earlier in the program Dr. Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski had given a presentation in which he made a distinction between history from above and history from below. I responded to my questioners that it was true that there had been many official studies and reports at the institutional level, at the history from above level, but that was not the same as the sacrificial work needed to create a true mind of the church. This we have not engaged either at the parish, diocesan, provincial or communion level. The history from above is out of touch with the history from below. I sensed an incredulousness at my answer. This exchange and others gave me a sense of leadership really disconnected from the mass of people in the church, of a head out of touch with its body. I think that compliance and resignation are widely taken as affirmation and support. The cost of this mistake is only beginning to emerge. Continue reading “Some Reflections on the Anglican Covenant Conference at GTS, April 10-12, 2008”

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Advent Letter to the Primates


I have read this very quickly. I am astonished that it is so long and convoluted given the significance of the document. On a first read it gives me renewed hope about the ministry of Rowan Williams. Perhaps he is willing to use such office as he has left for the sake of the unity of the communion.

The Positives: he asserts the primacy of scripture and the significance of recognizable ministry and sacraments. He opposes unilateralism in changing scriptural interpretation. He recognizes the authority of the majority reading on sexual ethics both historically and globally. He recognizes that the dispute in the communion is not about homosexuality per se but about the authority of scripture, the nature of ministry, including the episcopacy and that the actions of TEC are communion breaking. He creates a rallying point for the communion at large around the covenant process by insisting that acceptance of a Lambeth invitation means acceptance of Windsor and pledges to personally interrogate bishops who have equivocated about their sincerity. He offers a rallying point which may revive the Camp Allen bishops as a group and thus create a larger remnant in TEC. He offers a personal intervention with TEC and the breaking away dioceses to secure Alternate Primatial Oversight more in keeping with Tanzania.

Negative points: The letter is overlong and written with such finesse that it is lacking in the clarity and brevity that is needed. There will be much reading of tea leaves associated with this letter. The letter seems insufficiently in touch with the pace of change on the ground in the United States and the bleeding away of the Anglican faithful which gives rise to the ministry of the Nigeria etc. The letter takes back much of what it says positively and much of what is entailed in the theology of the scripture and the church which it sets out when he says that he in essence cannot accept that the current disputes represent irreconcilable theologies.

Initial Conclusions: I wish the letter were more clear and more bold but it is the strongest statement from the ABC to date. In my Just War Theory inspired view of the crisis in the Anglican Communion this latest intervention by the established authority ought to be given every chance to work. There is a beginning here that could lead to a larger Windsor compliant remnant in TEC and to ultimate unity between those orthodox who have been pursuing inside and outside strategies. It pushes the covenant process forward and I believe that needs to happen as quickly as possible with as large a gathering of the communion and continuing Anglican bodies involved as possible.

I predict that this very modest drawing of a line and limit will produce further statements of intransigence from many bishops and dioceses in TEC and it will become more clear just how unilateralist and revisionist many dioceses of TEC are. It just may be that the ABC has taken an action that however modest it appears now has placed him irrevocably on the side of a unified Anglican Communion and against unilateral revisionism in faith and morals. I hope that those on the reasserter side will give this initiative some time to work. It could be the beginning of a basis for the widest possible orthodox Anglican consensus and the beginning of bringing into one fleet the current array of life boats.