Even as we listen to the bickering between political parties and narcissism in candidate debate forums leading up to the upcoming midterm elections, there are still groups of communal leaders trying to discuss differences over public policy and staying respectful to each other.
In a recent podcast titled “Forefront”, I had the chance to interview three women religious leaders from Hilton Head Island who serve our community and region. They met to discuss their religious traditions regarding abortion.
Reverend Robin Dease is the Senior Pastor of St. Andrew By-The-Sea Methodist Church. Sister Pam Smith is a Roman Catholic nun who has dedicated her life to ecumenical relations representing the Roman Catholic position on abortion. She is the senior ecumenical officer for the Diocese of Charleston. The final panelist was Reverend Therese Lee of Unity Church which meets in Hilton Head.
The three faith leaders demonstrated how one can approach a position on abortion that is true to their faith and still do so with kindness and consideration. They remained true to their religious traditions and always engaged in a way that would not diminish their working relationship as religious leaders of this community.
As moderator of the discussion, I believe the clergy panel came away with hope from this agenda and with more knowledge of each other’s positions on reproductive rights, even if they disagree with the positions theories of their colleagues.
I can’t think of a better and bigger group of community leaders like these women from our places of worship to demonstrate how we take on volatile issues in the public square of our society.
They quote scripture and post biblical traditions of law and tradition that inspire them and understand the religious traditions they represent, whether for or against abortion. I appreciated the tone that my colleagues adopted in expressing themselves in a thoughtful but passionate way about their belief that women do or do not have the right to make decisions when it comes to terminating a pregnancy. There is no doubt that having women on the panel also gives us a unique and personal perspective when trying to clarify a position on reproductive rights.
The fact that so many clergy today in American religious denominations are, in fact, women contributes to greater exposure to the perspective of a female clergy leader. The panel gave examples of inspirational moments such as participating in a pro-life march. On the other hand, in an article on the subject of abortion reported in the Washington Post, a pastor described her reaction when she decided to have an abortion and then entered a family planning center. She said she “never felt more known, heard and loved by God when I walked through the doors of Planned Parenthood.” Clearly, this kind of thinking resonated with pro-choice panelists.
The beauty of dialogue is how colleagues listen to each other tell their stories and see how those stories have touched them. Even though they might not agree with them on a theological basis, it created even greater bonds of understanding. This is exactly what we need most between religions today.
It’s not just about agreeing or disagreeing or winning the argument. This kind of dialogue on competition gets us nowhere in a constructive way. The topics of abortion and reproductive choices require a much deeper understanding that may even go beyond the particular theology of a given religion. In the case of our roundtable, three Christian religious leaders have different ideas about when the human person begins in the womb, however, they all agree on their absolute commitment to the sanctity of life for a fetus.
In the same Post article, Archbishop Elpidophorous of Orthodox Christianity may have found some interesting middle ground. He told a March for Life rally that “we are not marching for coercion”. There are even Roman Catholic priests who think that while abortion is a “tragedy”, it should always be up to the woman to make that choice.
The fact is that the clergy in the field have a way of carving out a flexible and humanistic position for themselves without diminishing the position of their religious tradition or their own personal position. They understand that being realistic and listening to all sides of this complicated issue is necessary to have the moral authority to teach what they believe to be the truth.
Reverend Dease said, “My job is not just to teach my interpretation of abortion. Rather, it is my position to teach what I believe God says.
I guess the rest is up to the parishioner to make their decision. The clergy understand that having a “this is what my religion says and if you don’t like it then don’t come back” will only diminish their community of faith. Clergy and volunteer leaders should think carefully before banning other clergy or condemning them for serving in a position different from their own. In doing so, he does not set an example of interreligious cooperation.
The irony of this subject is that some religious leaders can be so sure of their own beliefs and so intolerant of the beliefs of others.
When clergy stand on high moral ground, they show a light that inspires others. When they adhere almost blindly to institutional dictates, they risk alienating many of their supporters.
We may not resolve the issues of how we can all agree on the issue of abortion, but coming together in a mature and respectful way goes a long way to lowering the temperature and getting people to listen, which is the ingredient we need most in this society.