The Rt. Rev. Kee Sloan, Bishop of Alabama, recently preached at an ordination service. As he looked down from the pulpit at those nine persons about to be made deacons, he suggested a sentence they would hopefully use in their ministry: “I might be wrong.”
This was a call, not to constant self-doubt or anxiety, but instead to the reality that there is much beyond our grasp in any given moment. Bishop Sloan spoke of how approaching conversations from this perspective of humility allows people who disagree to actually listen to one another in the midst of difference and challenge.
And this idea, this simple sentence, “I might be wrong,” perhaps ought to be on the hearts and minds of all those who take counsel in Austin at this 79th General Convention. There is a stream of thought at work in our culture and our churches that desires to purify, to silence or eliminate opposition and disagreement. There is a desire at times to end any diversity of thought that often seems based on the premise: “I am certainly right.”
And yet, there is much that good Christians may disagree on. Having diversity of thought, of experiences, of perspectives, and of persons always makes us stronger and enriches our communal life.
This desire to eliminate difference or disagreement can be seen in various ways, but two are notable. One situation has to do with the five dioceses that do not allow same-sex marriage. These bishops refuse to allow even ‘flying bishops’ (Alternative Pastoral Oversight) to give permission for some clergy to perform same-sex marriages. Coming from a very different direction, the Special Committee on Sexual Harassment and Exploitation has called for every Episcopal seminary to mandate that students use inclusive language for God in papers, sermons, and other work. This would penalize any student who would prefer for cultural or theological reasons to use primarily masculine language for God.
In both cases, there is a desire to close debate and prevent disagreement by mandating one way of being and requiring conformity either by means of episcopal fiat or through a General Convention resolution.
The problem with both situations is that one cannot support either position and, at the same time, honestly believe Bishop Sloan’s sentence, “I might be wrong.”
“I might be wrong” isn’t solely about our own lack or blindspots. It is an acknowledgement of the dignity and integrity of the person with whom we disagree. As former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once put it, “there is a proper kind of humility which… obliges us to acknowledge with respect the depth and richness of another’s devotion to and obedience to what they have received as truth. As we learn that kind of respect for each other, we remember that we have none of us received the whole truth as God knows it; we all have things to learn.”
Perhaps even more than, “I might be wrong,” we as the Episcopal Church might take up this mantra instead: “we all have things to learn.”