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Frances Taylor Gench on the art of listening

In her book "Faithful Disagreement: Wrestling with Scripture in the Midst of Church Conflict", Dr. Frances Taylor Gench describes her five-year involvement with the task force reporting on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which was commissioned by the denomination’s 213th General Assembly. She describes this time as a challenging exercise in the art of listening.

The Zenos Lectures, which she delivered at McCormick on February 21, 2011, were an extension of these same suggestions on how to listen but with an even greater emphasis on the Bible, drawing upon her latest book, "Desperate Housewives? Engaging Tyrannical Texts".

She mentioned that many people tacitly think their own position is the proper one and create a stereotype of the other side - either liberal bleeding hearts who don’t value the Word or conservative prooftexters who don’t value people.

Gench said the reality is that stereotypes are not only unhelpful but outright damaging to the unity of God’s people. Perpetuating these caricatures can actually constitute bearing false witness against a fellow believer. Even though there is a range of views on scriptural authority, she said, Presbyterians do value the Bible and reading scripture together instead of just talking about issues in a vague sense can help dispel stereotypes.  

“The Bible has the power to shape and transform us as a community of faith – but we have to stop shaking it at each other,” Gench said. “Sometimes we are better at challenging the authority of scripture than reading it.”

This task of listening to scripture is easily said and less easily executed. It takes time and hard work to acknowledge personal failure and break the habits of blaming opponents for the problems in the church. Gench advises that the best method to reconciliation is real dialogue – this means all involved need to stop speaking in sound bites and challenging others on minutiae and learn how to really listen.

“Those on the other side of divisive issues can have logic and integrity to their positions and be wrestling with their faith in a genuine way,” Gench said.

Though she believes peace and unity are a gift God gives to the universal Church, Gench thinks Presbyterians should focus on getting along with each other before they try to make peace across denominations.

She personally believes the search for unity – specifically the formulation of a task force to focus on peace despite disagreement – has become more of a necessity than a choice.

“Something had to change,” Gench said. “We weren’t going to solve problems if we kept going about it in the same way.”

In order to move past tired debates and learn a new pattern of relating, Gench insists that humility, flexibility, and genuinely open ears are essential. Sometimes, she says, Robert’s Rules of Order need to give way to prayer.

“This doesn’t mean checking your brain at the door,” Gench said, “but even if you don’t take an infallible view of scripture, you can still wrestle with scripture and receive revelation.”

The Zenos Lectures at McCormick are presented bi-annually to honor the memory of Andrew C. Zenos, professor of Bible and ecclesiastical history and dean at the seminary for more than 40 years, retiring in 1934. The Zenos Lectures were inaugurated in 1946 by Professor Emil Brunner to offer the wider community the opportunity to hear what's on the hearts and minds of some of our greatest Biblical scholars.

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