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Rumour has it

Gossip in church can hurt. But like it or not, it's part of who we are.

By Ken Gallinger

“Psst. Did you hear about Mary? Yeah, Joseph’s girlfriend. I hear she’s knocked up. Yup — pregnant. And wait ’til you hear this: Joseph isn’t the father! Mary says it’s God’s kid. As if. I wouldn’t be planning a wedding anytime soon if I were Joseph.”

And so it begins. Gossip — swirling around Jesus and his birth.

This past summer’s General Council, when it wasn’t considering mundane matters like the future of the church or the boycott of Israeli settlement products, stepped up to the plate and voiced its vigorous opposition to gossip. Council was spurred to action by a proposal from Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario Conference encouraging the church to “take a stand against the spreading of gossip in the same manner that it has taken a stand against gambling and other evils of society.”

Well, now.

There’s no denying the long history of gossip in the Christian community. Early in his ministry, Jesus complained that “John the Baptist came, neither eating nor drinking, and people say, ‘He is possessed.’ The Son of Man comes, eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard.’” Gossip!

Later in his life, Jesus would ask his friends, “Who do people say that I am?” His friends replied, “Well, some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and others claim you are one of the prophets.” Gossip again.

Jesus would surely be pleased to hear that the United Church has decisively put an end to it, once and for all.

There’s no denying, either, that gossip can be dangerous — especially when it spreads untrue stories damaging the reputation of innocent people. Of course, Jesus was no stranger to this particularly nasty form of rumour-mongering. After he died, a weird story circulated throughout the church. Apparently, on the day of his final visit to Jerusalem, Jesus threw a fit — blasting a fig tree to oblivion because he was hungry and wanted a fig, even though figs were patently out of season. Mark, the earliest Gospel writer, picks up this story and offers it verbatim, even though it makes Jesus look petulant and foolish.

What’s interesting, though, is how the church back then dealt with this unpleasant rumour. Matthew, writing 20 years or so later, tells the story but leaves out the part about figs being out of season. He then turns the whole episode into an object lesson on prayer — so rather than looking like a temperamental teenager, Jesus emerges as a wise prophet. Luke, a contemporary of Matthew, reshapes the event into a parable. Luke’s Jesus never actually kills an innocent tree (in fact, he advocates fertilizer). Instead, he talks about barren trees and how useless they are — just like people whose faith is fruitless.

And John, the last of the Gospel writers, makes no mention of figs trees at all. Like General Council, he wants no part of such gossip.

So yes, gossip is no stranger to the church; yes, it has great potential for damage — especially when mean-spirited or untrue; and yes, the church has always had to repair the damage done. One understands how, after prayerful consideration, Council might take a hard line against what some call the “cancer of the church.”

But hold on a second. Eliminate gossip entirely from church life? Perhaps this is a time to be careful what we pray for.

In the first place, without gossip, we wouldn’t have the four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — and without them, we would know very little about this amazing man and his life. The Gospels were written many years after the death of Jesus, by men who didn’t even know him first-hand. So how did the stories survive so long? Simple: gossip. One believer told another believer, who told another, who told another. Some stories got augmented. Others got lost. Almost all got modified, either in the innocent way every kid who’s played telephone knows well, or more deliberately to suit the agenda of the storyteller. Stories were told over back fences, in secret basements and upper rooms, in public squares and musty prisons. “Psst — did you hear the one about Jesus walking on water?” And so the stories (rumours?) spread, evolved and developed until finally they were written down in the form we have them now.

Thank goodness that first church council, meeting on Pentecost, hadn’t decided that gossip was to be obliterated from church life; if it had, we’d know nothing about the time Jesus fed 5,000, dragged the “dead” Lazarus from the cave or, for that matter, dragged his dead self from another cave. “Psst — did you hear what happened Easter morning?” Well, yes, as a matter of fact, we have.

More to the point, however, it’s hard to understand how the church could be effective at exercising a ministry of caring in an environment that was antiseptically gossip-free. In its proposal to General Council, Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario Conference declared that “there is a difference between ‘gossip’ and a ‘caring conversation,’ and that difference can become a fine line, easily crossed.”

A fine line indeed.

During my 40-plus years of ministry in the United Church, I served two kinds of congregations: those in which members talked about each other too much, and those in which members talked about each other too little. In the first bunch, everyone knew everything about everybody. Nurses in the congregation shared stories about who was in the hospital. Teachers told stories about kids. Lawyers talked about what had gone on in court. Boundaries were broken, and sometimes hurt was the result. In the second kind of congregation, where “what people think of me” was all that mattered, everything that could possibly be kept secret was. People got sick, kids got in trouble, parents died — nobody knew. And nobody cared. In those churches, Mary could have had six babies before anyone found out. In the first group of congregations, when a tragedy happened in the community, the minister’s phone rang a dozen times. Everyone wanted to be sure you knew and did what ministers are trained to do. In the second group, the phone never rang. Tragedies were private affairs — embarrassing, humiliating, “What would people think?” — and the minister’s phone was silent as death.

The congregations of the first type were real churches, warts and all. And there were plenty of warts. But at the end of the day, I’d still rather belong to a church where people care about each other enough to tell stories than be part of a congregation where everyone’s too wary to show their dirty laundry. I’d rather risk inaccuracy than silence; way back in the first century, the church knew how to “fix” inaccurate stories about Jesus. But in a culture of silence, there are no stories to fix.

Storytelling is vital to the church’s life. We used to sing the hymn, I Love to Tell the Story. And we sang it because, well, we do — we love to tell stories. Back in biblical times, people understood that stories have their own intrinsic value, their own life-giving power — a power quite independent from the literal truth or falsehood of the tale. The church does well, of course, to rid itself of gossip that is malicious, hurtful or even cruel — as gossip can sometimes be. But we need to be careful, as our parents used to tell us, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I’ve been in churches where everyone talks about everyone else. And I’ve been in churches where everyone talks about the stock market, the golf course, their latest vacation and the Blue Jays. And given my druthers, I’ll choose the former.  

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