As General Synod approaches, scripture shows us we can speak the same language—even if we’re not of the same mind.
The feast of Pentecost is one of my favourite celebrations of the church year. In recent years, a church decorated in red, yellow and orange and a birthday cake (who doesn’t love a birthday cake?) have added to the festive feeling—but even before that, I never wanted to miss worshipping on Pentecost Sunday. We hear those passages from John where Jesus promises we will be forever guided by the Holy Spirit, and we hear that story from Acts where so many people have a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit.
Even the story of the tower of Babel, sometimes read at Pentecost, I find oddly comforting. Here the people decide to build a tower; caught up in their own accomplishments and abilities, they set out to make a name for themselves. The result, however, is that they are scattered. Why is that comforting? In those moments when I am tempted to fear for our church—when I think of aging congregations, declining attendance, dwindling finances, deep differences—I am reminded that if we are building a monument to our own achievements, rather than building a relationship with God, our efforts will be confounded.
Contrast their perspective with that of the followers of Jesus who had stayed in Jerusalem as Jesus instructed. These are the people who had been with him in his earthly ministry, who had supported him, travelled with him, watched him, learned from him and been shaped by him. They were gathered together in one room facing an uncertain future, knowing only that Jesus had told them to stay and believing that Jesus would fulfill his promise that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, would guide them.
If anyone had cause to fear, it was this group. They were beginning to truly understand the danger of being a disciple of Jesus and had had a glimpse of what their fate could be, even if they didn’t yet know the full extent of the persecution they would face. They had gathered without their leader, dejected and in despair. In the midst of this pain, they had an experience of the Holy Spirit: an amazing, awesome, mind-blowing experience, an experience so profound and liberating that they were empowered to spend the remainder of their lives sharing the message of Jesus with the world.
But that was not all—“at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each” (Acts 2:6). This development tells us something about hearing someone speak your language.
Learning to speak another language is about much more than learning vocabulary and grammar. It’s about opening up a new world, about understanding something of the culture and people whose language you learn. It’s one of the reasons that the recovery of language in Indigenous communities is such an important step towards reconciliation—language, culture and history are all intertwined. There was a poem that appeared in a Grade 10 French textbook used in Newfoundland and Labrador, written by Shirley Kawahara, which says in part, “To learn a language is to open your eyes on a new and fascinating world… to understand the worth of another human being and to share it.”
When the crowd heard these followers of Jesus speaking in their own language, were they able to understand the full impact of the message they were hearing? Did they and Jesus’ followers come to understand each other at a deeper level than they might otherwise have?
As you read through the Book of Acts, it is clear that the early church experienced disagreements, discord and division. It is also clear that they worked through those differences and still managed to build a church—not a monument to themselves but a monument to the power of God. Was that because, in the power of the Spirit, they were able to communicate with one another in a way that went beyond the words they used, that they were able to truly understand and appreciate each other?
We, as the Anglican Church of Canada, will gather together in one room in July for General Synod. We will speak to each other, we will discuss and debate and we will disagree profoundly on some things, particularly on our understanding and teaching of marriage. We have given consideration, as called for in the constitution, to the change to the marriage canon that passed first reading in 2016. Having read through the reports of that consideration by provinces and dioceses over the past three years, I can say that there has emerged a common message: the desire for us to find a way to continue to live together as a church no matter the outcome of the second reading. I see a wish and prayer that we continue to talk and that we focus on the mission of God. I am convinced that the promised Holy Spirit has been at work in these conversations and deliberations.
Marcus Borg, in his reflection “Pentecost and Babble/Babel” had this to say:
“According to this story [of the Tower of Babel], the people of the earth once spoke a common language but were then scattered into different linguistic groups because of their prideful attempt to build a tower with its top in the heavens. Indeed, the English word “babble” comes from the name “Babel.” Babel is the story of the fragmentation of humankind into separate and often hostile groups who do not understand each other.
“For the author of Luke-Acts, the coming of Jesus and the continuation of his presence in the power of the Spirit inaugurated a new age in which the fragmentation of humanity was overcome. Or, in words attributed to Paul, through Christ and the Spirit, the breaking down of “the dividing wall of separation” and the creation of “one new humanity” had begun (Ephesians 2:14-15).”
We are a church that has profound disagreements—it has been so in our past, it is so now and it will be so in the future—so being of one mind on all matters will not happen. But that does not mean that we need be a fragmented church. Not through our own efforts but through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we can continue to walk together and to preserve our communion one with another.
However, when we gather, there will also be many areas where we will be united in our common mission as Anglican Christians. We will hear about the work and ministry of our Church: a church that seeks to care for all God’s people, for God’s creation and for our hurting world. We will hear from PWRDF as we celebrate 60 years since its creation. We will continue our work of reconciliation as Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, in building a truly Indigenous church within the Anglican Church of Canada. We will share meals together, we will worship together and we will share in the Eucharist together.
The unity of that church will not be achieved by our working together to build monuments for ourselves, and nor is it dependent on us being of one mind. Unity flows when we follow Jesus in the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
Cynthia Haines-Turner is prolocutor of General Synod and a member of the diocese of Western Newfoundland. Her term ends at the conclusion of General Synod 2019.