Putting the Thaw on Polarization

In her sermon at the closing Eucharist of the General Convention in Anaheim CA, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori spoke in tribute to the reconciling temper of William White, Bishop of Pennsylvania (and founder of Episcopal Academy) whom the church remembers on July 17th, and who presided over the first General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Bishop White attempted to hold the church together in a time of great polarities and uncertainty about the future of the Anglican Church in America, not to mention its relationship to the Anglican Church in England—a time toward the end of the 18th century that sounds as if it had a great deal in common with where we find ourselves right now. Bishop White, our Presiding Bishop concluded, was, “…a master of the both/and in thinking and living,” who also possessed the “…audacity to change his mind.” Avoiding the great temptation to move toward one polarity or another, White held the church to live with a certain tension. It is, as the Presiding Bishop put it, the very tension that, “…keeps our hearts pumping and mission thriving,” yet at the same time, “…drives some of us crazy.” [Click here for the text of the Presiding Bishop’s sermon.]

As we think about the disagreements that abound in all of our institutions today—government, the church, our schools—we see the discouraging, at times devastating, effects that polarization can have on our common discourse and life together. A lot of it, the Presiding Bishop reminded us, has to do with, “How right we think we are.” In our school communities, for example, we are blessed with faculty, parents, alumni, who feel strongly about the school and what it should stand for. As Kim Hays put it, in her fine book, Practicing Virtues, faculty meetings can be times of intense standoff, where those who hold to the rigors of standards face off against the purveyors of mercy and the second chance. Both sides feel passionately about their view, yet both sides are not in full possession of the truth, for, as Bishop Katharine put it in her sermon, “Truth is always larger than one end of the polarity.”

Many of us might find ourselves still hurting from an intense debate at school, or an issue that gripped the institution, this past year. Others may worry about an issue that may erupt this coming year. While the summer months may give us the blessing of some distance from those intense times of discord and polarization, we know how easily it is to fall back into that same mode, be the issue one of justice vs. mercy, inclusion vs. commonality, cutting back on one aspect of school life as opposed to another.

As we begin to approach the coming school year, with all of the promise, joy, and opportunity it presents, what are some of the ways in which polarization can all too easily surface in our communities? Likewise, for we who lead or minister in Episcopal schools, what are some of the guideposts or images we might keep with us as we attempt to be reconciling tempers within a place where it is all too easy for people to think how right they are, particularly in contrast to those who do not agree with them?

What are some of the ways we can model that both/and, and perhaps help our communities be places that know something beyond the face-off, the gridlock, and the chill of polarities? How can we help our schools live within the tension that can keep our hearts pumping with the common vision and mission that makes our schools the sacred places that they are?