“Plastering Over the Cracks?”

by the Revd Dr Hayley Matthews, member of the National Executive of UNITE representing the Faithworkers’ Branch

They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.  

‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.

Jeremiah 6:14 NIV

Recently a builder dropped out of a job on my house. He wanted to know if I was having the work done for myself, or simply to sell it on or rent it out.  When he discovered that it was for myself, he pulled out because that would mean that he couldn’t simply board over the cracks and the damp and then skim the lot with fresh plaster. Instead, he would need to check for and treat any issues with the damp course, and then he would need to insulate and line the room before plastering.  The job became messy, awkward and potentially very time consuming.   A “quick fix followed by a quick pay out” it was not.

Papering, plastering or even talking over the cracks in any room, be it literal or figurative, is never a long-term solution. Even if it does the job long enough to ‘sell it on or rent it out’, at some point the whole thing is going to come crashing down around somebody’s ears. And then it will not only need to be done properly, but it is likely to include significant remedial work to undo any further damage from both the original issue, and the consequences of ‘the inevitable fall’.

If ‘the’ fall teaches us nothing else, it teaches us to tread carefully when covering over our mistakes or even our inner rot if we stretch the analogy.  The fig leaves and ‘hiding from God’ were as ineffective as boarding over the damp and plastering over the cracks. It simply couldn’t be done.  Precisely the same applies to conflict.  For conflict is bruising, and particularly wounding to any party that is either power-less or powerless in comparison to the other.  Yet Christians can still fall foul of the temptation to ‘plaster over’ the deepest of wounds in order that unity, which seems apparent on the surface of some of their most broken relationships, may be maintained.

We find this in the current debates around gender, sexuality, BAME and different abilities.  Groups of people have rightly felt marginalised and excluded from taking an active role as living bricks in the temple of Christ.  They have been unable to exercise their God-given gifts and talents and in many cases, held to standards of delivery or lifestyle that are either inappropriate or simply impossible to achieve.  Each of these groups[1] is subject to a majority group, free to exercise their own rights, exercising privilege over them and making decisions about them.

It seems inconceivable that any committee, albeit made up of the good and Godly, could make decisions on behalf of people groups living with identity and ability issues that are unknown to the group itself.  Pure Doctrine is a delight sitting in the hallowed halls of esteemed universities scribing one’s notes, but all genuine theology is contextual; it’s where the rubber hits the road and reality meets divinity; it’s where Christ sends out His disciples in pairs knowing full well what they will face in His service; it’s where creation continually creaks and groans with the birthing of new understandings, new knowledge and an ever expanding grasp of what it is to be human living in the vast universe gifted to us as curators.

I cannot know your privilege or your disadvantage I can only grasp mine; I can only view our respective lives and have a sense of where we might sit in that pecking order and how I might use any privilege I might have to shrink the distances between us.  But I cannot do that unless I first listen to you, open up my table to you, that you might hear how we are thinking of approaching your unique identity, the one I have absolutely no experience of living with.  This is the bare bones basis of reflective practice, of contextual theological praxis – what I like to think of as a practising priest as “bread and butter” theology.  It means that I need to be willing to hear things that I don’t want to hear, to be hurt myself as I hear your pain and anger and to risk being deeply wounded as I begin to recognise how I have wounded you.

The truth can be profoundly painful, but refusing to acknowledge the depth of any wound connected to a human being’s basic personal and relational identity will not do if we are the bearers of Christ’s light seeking to enlighten those ‘bruised reeds’ and ‘smouldering wicks’ to whom we have been sent as harbingers of God’s love.  Why plaster over these difficult topics with vaguely ameliorating platitudes that please no-one?  Are we guilty of simply papering over the great gaping wounds of persons forbidden to love, disabled from service, or simply excluded whether that be via unconscious bias or worse, deliberate prohibitions, spoken or unspoken?

Genuine peace is costly.  Genuine peace-seeking is a painful process.  It does not make us ‘feel better’ but confronts us with our own biases, privileges and lack of compassion and understanding.  We come face to face with our own deeply writ prejudices and we are humbled by the process. It is neither a pleasant task nor one for the faint-hearted but it is necessary if the prize – the pearl of great price – is to be won.

So please, do not send out yet another missive saying, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace”.  Tell me that we grasp the pain of our sisters and brothers in Christ who have and do feel wounded on the grounds of their identity; tell me that we are deeply wounded as a Church by our own sins of omission and commission towards people who belong to minority groups; tell me that there are no easy answers and that we are listening and learning and that it is challenging and painful to hear; tell me that you can’t imagine being in love with somebody you can’t hold in your arms or how soul destroying it must be to hear somebody tutting every time you do a reading.  Then ask those whom you wish to open up the breadth and depth of the Kingdom of God to how that might look to them.  For it is imperative that we grasp that people of excluded and minority identities do not hear ‘you are fully welcome’ they hear the sound of someone peeling back a sticking plaster, or worse still, a door closing and silence. For some, that sound is synonymous with God.

Imagine if what they heard was, ‘Come in and tell us your story; let us dress the deep wounds of our sisters and brothers; let us – together – find peace.’


[1] The diversity within these groups is beyond the scope of such a brief blog, not to mention intersectionality where two or more of those minority identities are lived out by any one individual.

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