Good Disagreement – Sofa Style

by the Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester

Sofa diplomacy

A few nights ago, I found myself sat in an armchair, alongside three others, engaged in a conversation. Nothing unusual about that, except that we were on the stage of one of Manchester’s theatres and the organisers of the event were the local Humanists. I brought along a Muslim colleague and we spent a fascinating evening discussing with two representatives of our hosts, in front of an audience who had cared enough to pay for the privilege, how we do ethics.

It’s not a format I’ve participated in before. I came to it with some nervousness, concerned as to whether we would simply seek to score debating points or talk past each other. What transpired far exceeded my expectations. There were no set piece speeches, we simply began by one participant asking a brief question of another. Nor was there any list of topics that we were required to work our way through systematically. We allowed the conversation to ebb and flow as it would between four friends with different viewpoints; but friends bound together by mutual respect and an agreement that the subject mattered enough for us to devote a full evening to its consideration.

One or two in the audience, those who had come with the hope of seeing at least a verbal, if not physical, fistfight, probably went home disappointed. As we delved into the depths of how both religious and irreligious people get their heads around moral issues we found surprising areas of both agreement and difference, though noticeably more of the former. They were not always in the places I’d expected. Having an audience didn’t tempt any of us into grandstanding, rather it presented us with the challenge of expressing ourselves in sufficient clarity for all to be able to follow.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by how well it went. After all, the format is one that some of the more informative and educative output of BBC radio has followed for many years. It contrasts well with the more binary and adversarial approach to complex and contested issues that dominates much media news output, not least because it doesn’t compel us to simply cheer on one side whilst deprecating the other. It also contrasts with the formal debating processes familiar to large decision making bodies such as parliaments and synods. It left me understanding both my own position, and the views of those who disagree with me, better. I’m confident, not least from the Question and Answer session we held towards the end of the evening, that the audience found the same.

The experience has left me reflecting on whether and how such a process can play a part in the deliberations of the Church, especially where the differences of position are potentially as profound on a particular topic as those between a Christian, a Muslim and two Humanists. Perhaps a hallmark of a good Shared Conversation is that, at least as part of its work, it can include such observed conversation.

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