The Rev. Liz Embler-Beazley
Mtr. Liz is the Associate for Congregational Development at St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
I recently listened to an episode of For People with Bishop Rob Wright, a podcast hosted by the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. The podcast is an interesting mix of his sermons, musings, and interviews with all kinds of people. The episode I most recently listened to is one I've been so looking forward to hearing. It's an episode with Archbishop Foley Beach of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). For those of you who may not know, ACNA was formed by breaking away from the Episcopal Church, particularly over issues around women's ordination and human sexuality. And so, I was eager to hear what these two men, these two leaders of two very different churches, would have to say to each other. The episode, which you can listen to here, did not disappoint. And in fact, I think their conversation is encouraging. In the span of about 40 minutes, they cover a lot of topics that are incredibly controversial and divisive and throughout it all, they maintain their civility and respect for one another, even go so far as to challenge each other. At the end of the episode, these two men keep the lines of communication open and even leave open the possibility of another conversation like this one. I don't know if Bishop Wright and Archbishop Beach spend much time together outside of the podcast world or not, but the example they give to us, in the ways they respectfully disagree and remain in relationship, at least professionally, is something to commend.
Their conversation began to take on additional meaning for me at the Wednesday night service that is part of our W@tCh program. Fr. Rob preached about Aelred of Rievaulx, a monastic and theologian in the 12th Century. Aelred is most well-known for his book entitled Spiritual Friendship. Aelred believed that friendship is a gift given by God and is a product of human creation, it is both freely given and requires effort on the part of people. ("Aelred of Rievaulx", Lesser Feasts and Fasts, 2018, p.66) This concept of spiritual friendship being both a gift from God and something that we humans have to work at, sustain, and care for comes across almost as counter cultural these days. Our recent years have been characterized by isolation and division, hate-filled arguments and fearful conversations. There has seemed to be little to no space for respectful disagreements or much willingness to listen to the other side. And so, this idea of spiritual friendship being a gift from God that we have to actively work at, even when conversations are challenging, and perhaps even hurtful is an important message that I believe we all need to be reminded of. *Quick disclaimer to say that this is not an argument for staying in unhealthy, toxic, or abusive relationships. Each person's well-being must be maintained and respected for a true spiritual friendship.* In regards to the W@tCh service, Fr. Rob preached that Jesus is our ultimate spiritual friend, the one encouraging and challenging us. He is the perfect spiritual friend, who loves us unconditionally and is always working to maintain a deep, abiding, and caring relationship with us. And so, if we are to follow in the example of our best and most faithful spiritual friend, perhaps we can begin to approach our own relationships with a different intention.
"There are four qualities that characterize a friend: Loyalty, right intention, discretion, and patience." - Aelred of Rievaulx
In his work Spiritual Friends, Aelred wrote, "There are four qualities that characterize a friend: Loyalty, right intention, discretion, and patience. Right intention seeks for nothing other than God and natural good. Discretion brings understanding of what is done on a friend’s behalf, and ability to know when to correct faults. Patience enables one to be justly rebuked, or to bear adversity on another’s behalf. Loyalty guards and protects friendship, in good or bitter times.” (Ibid) I wonder how our relationships might change if we were to commit to abiding by each of these qualities in them. I wonder how our world might change if our relationships began to improve bit by bit, through our committed and intentional care for them.
I don't know whether Bishop Wright and Archbishop Beach would consider each other "spiritual friends" or not, but their example they offer us of two people of faith, who are seemingly diametrically opposed in their interpretations of scripture and theology, being willing to have hard conversations with each other, respectfully challenge one another, and really and truly listening to each other is inspiring. I pray that we all may grow deeper in our relationships so that they may better resemble the spiritual friendship given to us by Jesus Christ. And perhaps, this love and care we show to one another will flow out into the world. Maybe then, we'll live into the well-known hymn "They'll know we are Christians by our love."