Toxic Debates & Disagreement

by Erika Baker, Convener of the Christians for LGBTI+ Equality Facebook Group

Erika Baker

Our current polarising Brexit debate shows us what happens when politics does not include the notion of Good Disagreement, and when winning at all cost comes at the price of demonising those who don’t agree with us, and even lying about them.

Getting close to people, truly understanding their concerns and not demonising them is the only solution to the clash of civilisations Jayne Ozanne highlights so well in her latest Via Media post.  As long as we divide people dismissively into ‘Remoaners’ and ‘Brexshitters’, or into con-evos and liberals, whereby both words are devoid of any real meaning beyond “disagrees with me on something important”, we will only increase the level of mutual misunderstanding, suspicion and dislike for each other.  Without breaking down our own resistance to giving up our beloved stereotypes, we will never get to that holy grail of Good Disagreement. That state where we respect each other’s views and, even if we don’t agree with them, stop fighting each other with such corrosive passion.

That said, Good Disagreement in itself is not anything tangible. It’s a frame of mind, a way of engaging with people. Of itself, it is not a solution to anything.  In our LGBTI+ debates, we absolutely must find a way of developing an attitude of Good Disagreement  before we can begin constructive conversations about what it is we are disagreeing about and how we can find a solution.

Our Brexit debacle, the decades leading up to it and the way it currently plays out in our politics teaches us something else: If one side in a political debate is completely disenfranchised and feels powerless, the only outcome is resentment, increasing hostility towards “the others” and a semi‑permanent sense of victimhood. Good and durable  political outcomes can only be achieved when all participants have an equal voice in the process, when compromise has been sought and found, and when people feel that everyone’ s interests have been taken seriously.

For our LGBTI+ conversations this means that while we can learn to understand why each side holds their views, and why each side can hold them with genuine love and faith, we simply cannot leave it there. We cannot just stay at the table, accepting that it is difficult.

Living side by side in acceptance of difference is impossible while one side experiences genuine discrimination, in law and in every day Church life. The disenfranchised people in that unequal conversation are never going to accept that they must continue not to have genuine agency in their lives and that they must live out the consequences of other people’s theology while their own is simply dismissed.

It is not possible for the Church as a whole to welcome the “good” LGBTI++ people who believe that God calls them to celibacy and to force the other LGBTI++ people to accept reduced lives that are not aligned with their understanding of God’s will for their lives. There can be no genuine mutuality when only trans people who don’t seek to transition are fully accepted into the fold. There can be no genuine welcome for intersex people while churches define the status of a person born with a variety of sex characteristics as ‘disordered’.

It is not possible for us LGBTI++ people and for our allies to accept that those who disagree with us have the unilateral right to make the rules that govern our lives.

Mutual Flourishing, that other holy grail developed during the Women Bishops debate, is only possible when both sides are genuinely equal and can freely disagree with each other. Our debate can only be solved when competing theologies are officially given equal status and when all legal constraints are removed. Yes: removing all legal constraints and permitting equal marriage for lay people and clergy is not the end point. It’s the baseline without which no peace will be possible.

That’s why I don’t hold with the idea that we must always accept that we may be wrong. It is not credible to expect that happily married gay people who know God’s grace in their lives will suddenly be persuaded that they should have suffered loneliness and self-hatred instead.

It is not credible to expect that trans people who have found wholeness and healing in transitioning will be persuaded to believe that living with constant gender dysphoria would have been what God wanted from them.

And it is not credible to expect intersex people to accept the violation inflicted on them by doctors, and to accept the verdict that they are disordered.

Nor is it credible to expect that gay people who believe that God asks all gay people to lead celibate lives, and who live up to that belief with great courage, faith and personal struggle, will suddenly come to believe that their efforts were misguided.

We and our allies on both sides of this conversation have all grappled with the topic of gender, sexuality and Scripture deeply for years, and none of us with a genuine stake in the debate are likely to come to a different conclusion.

The attitude of Good Disagreement is needed to help us to recognise why people believe what they believe and respecting that. It is not about winning a battle and beating the other side into submission. Rather, it is about recognising that all of us, on all sides of this debate, are living out our lives in faith and trust in the same loving God. And that we are each answerable to God for our own lives and choices. We can take the risk of allowing others to live differently.

Once we commit to an attitude of Good Disagreement , we can finally create a Church that enables genuine mutual flourishing for all.




Posted in Erika Baker, Good Disagreement, Human Sexuality | 3 Comments

Advent – The Challenge of Active Waiting

by the Revd Canon Giles Goddard, Former Chair of the Human Sexuality Group on General Synod and member of the Co-ordinating Group for the “Living in Love and Faith” Project.

Giles Goddard

We have just celebrated Advent Sunday. The new year begins. Our thoughts turn to the people of Advent: Elizabeth, the prophets, John the Baptist., and of course Mary.

Last weekend my parish held a retreat, when twenty of us crossed London to spend the day reflecting and preparing for Advent. The retreat leader was Revd. Jenny Morgans, the curate from the parish next door: the title of the day was ‘God-bearers.’ We focused on the stories of Mary and Elizabeth – both unexpectedly pregnant, both presumably shocked and surprised, both waiting for these unexpected births.

The overarching theme of the day was the notion of Mary as God-bearer, theotokos, enabling us all, through the birth of Jesus Christ, to become God-bearers ourselves. Witnesses to and agents for the love of God, here on earth. All of us. All, all, all! as Desmond Tutu would say. Remembering that Mary would have been an outsider, one rejected by her society, one misunderstood and marginal.

But the theme underlying these reflections was the remembrance of the waiting, of the story of the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth as told in Luke’s Gospel. We thought about the process of waiting. Is it passive or active? Are we engaged in what is happening, even as we wait, or are we simply flotsam drifting down the river of time?

I had a strong sense of waiting being an active process.

As Mary and Elizabeth spent time together, those children growing in their wombs, they must have changed. Their relationships would have deepened. They formed new connections. Mary’s relationship with Joseph would have changed. She had to make sense of these new and unexpected experiences. She had to reckon with the consequences of the ‘yes’ she said to Gabriel.

The resonances of the day were, for me, very great. As we wait for the church to become fully reflective of the Kingdom of God, fully inclusive, fully able to grant each person their full potential as God-bearers, are we waiting passively or actively? Is this a time of creation or a time of dryness? Are we coming open-handed into the long and complex process which the church is engaged in, or are we closed and unwilling to change?

I had a strong sense that waiting is becoming.

There is pain and there is hurt in each of us. Loss and rejection. Heartache and sadness. But there is also Mary’s  proud ‘yes’; her bringing of her whole self to Joseph and to the world around here. Here I am! This is me! Let me be me, she might have said to Joseph, and together let’s work out the consequences.

The idea of waiting being an active thing, a time during which we can ourselves be transformed, was new to me and I am glad of it.

During the retreat, Jenny offered us this poem, by Nicola Slee, which I hope Nicola won’t mind me quoting here:

Fiat  (Luke 1.38)

I uttered myself

I claimed my voice

I was not afraid to question


I held my ground

I made my yes

looking straight into the angel’s eyes

(any slave could have been raped or beaten for less)


There was no mastery here

Nothing was taken from me

Everything was given

Here I am:

See me




The poem Fiat is by Nicola Slee is published in The Book of Mary (SPCK Publishing, Nov 22nd 2007)


Posted in Giles Goddard, Human Sexuality, Social Justice | 1 Comment

A New Clash of Civilisations – Where God is on “Our Side”

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia.News and Member of General Synod

Jayne Ozanne new

It seems our world is getting even more divided by issues that create irreconcilable differences between hitherto relatively peaceful sections of Western society.  There is a growing desire for what can only be likened to divorce, where one side or party no longer wants to live in the same space as the other.  This is becoming increasingly difficult given that they are committed either financially or geographically to living in the same city, town, village or church.

Be it Brexit, Trump, social policy or sexuality debates – the issues are countless.  However, more often than not they tend to be a front for a far deeper difference founded in fundamentally opposing world views.

We are now seeing a “Clash of Civilisations” no longer just between East and West, as put forward by Samuel P. Huntington in his classic text for anyone studying international relations, but within our civilisations.  This is creating a far more worrying fissure that threatens the very bedrock of so much of what we hold so dear.

These opposing world views go to the core of who we see ourselves to be and as such are a key to our identity.  There is much that these opposing views tend to hold in common, namely:

  • Both sides believe the other is wrong – fundamentally wrong.
  • Both sides believe the other is ignorant of the “true facts”.
  • Both sides believe the other is dangerous – creating instability and chaos.

However, there is increasingly the advent of a new dimension which is a far greater cause for concern – and which has yet to be named given the enormity of the size of the ‘elephant’ it represents.

It seems to me that the most dangoeus dimensiom of all, as with the “Clash of Civilisations” text, is that both sides are now invoking a divine dimension – that is, that each now believe that God is on their side.  That they alone hold the true Christian view and that the other is therefore representing a view that is “anti-Christ”.  Put more simply, that the other side is evil.

It is this I believe that is behind the growing tendency to “other” people.

Indeed, it is this belief – that one side is Godly and the other is demonic – that has led to policies and practices that have shocked the world in their inhumane treatment of people who “do not fit certain select criteria”.

Be it the way we welcome or fear the stranger in our midst, or embrace or reject those who are different to ourselves, there appears to be a growing trend to demonise “the other”, the one who is different.

The most frightening thing is that this is happening amongst Christians who arguably should know better.

I’ve been reflecting on why sincere Christians are doing this….and I can only believe it is because they see “the other” as someone who is outside of God’s love and care. Who represents a threat to the Gospel and is what God warns us to ‘guard against’ – they perceive this threat in real people rather than in spiritual powers.

But is this really Biblical?

Do we really have people who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’ – those who have the right skin colour, the right postcode, the right sexuality. Those who have prayed ‘the right prayer’, believe ‘the right thing’, live ‘the right way’.  Members of the ‘lucky spiritual sperm club’ – born in the right place at the right time and into the right church.

Is this really the teaching of our God of unconditional love who we worship? Is this truly what Jesus teaches in His sacrificial death that ensures that we all have access to God because of what He has done, once and for all?

How then should we determine which view is right and which is wrong – if indeed we ever can?

Well I for one believe the answer is plain and simple….which ‘side’ is the side of love? Or perhaps it’s easier to discern the opposite – which side is the view based on fear?

Unconditional love has no limits, no boundaries, no borders.

It loves all, embraces all, forgives all.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

It Just Loves…

Posted in Human Sexuality, International Relations, Jayne Ozanne, Social Justice | 8 Comments

Spinning the Stats – Are We Too Defensive to Really Listen?

by the Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge

Jeremy Morris

Is the Church of England still the church of the nation?

It’s probably only Anglicans themselves who still assume it is, and even then not all of them.  Constitutionally, little has changed in the last century or so to imply that the Church of England’s position is fundamentally different now from what it was at the beginning of the twentieth century.  In that sense, it is still the national church, or at least the established church.  But it would be very foolish to think that the vast majority of the population of England have any real, tangible sense of this.  Many – but a declining number – still get baptized, married and have their funerals in Church of England churches, but with an ageing and shrinking congregation, the wider claim looks more and more fragile.

Two weeks ago the usual annual report on statistics was issued, bearing the by now well-established balance of good and bad news.

There was plenty of bad news.  Once again, the average Sunday attendance was down, to 765,000 in October 2017; that’s a seemingly catastrophic decline of almost 15% in ten years; but the fall was higher – 24% – for attending children.  Easter attendance has fallen by 16%.  Baptisms have fallen by 22%, weddings and associated services by 27%, and funerals by 28%.  All of the falls reflect longer term trends, though of course there are fluctuations in various indices year on year.  No wonder the perception of many parish clergy is that the Church is in dire straits.

But there is some good news.  Christmas attendances are up again, rising gradually over the last few years to reach 2.68 million, suggesting that nearly 5% of the population are at a Church of England church at some point at Christmas.  That led the Bishop of Manchester to suggest that Christmas services probably represent a more attractive form of worship than the usual Sunday fare.

But the other quoted statistic concerned a different measurement, the ‘worshipping community’, a more amorphous concept meant to catch those who ‘regularly’ attend at least once a month, but not necessarily weekly.  This suggested no essential change since 2012, with some 1.1 million in that category.  Moreover, the Church’s ‘hits’ on social media more than doubled in one year from 1.2 million to 2.44 million.

These positive figures enabled the statistics to be spun, as critics were quick to point out, and it doesn’t take a lot of thought to work out that if (and it’s a big ‘if’) we take all these figures at face value as accurate, then one conclusion must be that commitment to regular attendance is thinning out, as the weekly Sunday numbers continue to fall, yet people’s wish to be in some way connected to their church via less frequent attendance remains apparently stable.

As lots of people have pointed out, the idea of the ‘worshipping community’ is particularly problematic, because it’s not at all clear what it’s really measuring.  The broader and looser the technique of measuring something is, the greater the number of variables one is likely to have to factor in when interpreting the data.  Someone who slips into Evensong from time to time because they like the relative calm and the opportunity to reflect, and the music (if there is any), might have very little real sense of identity with the local worshipping community – indeed the whole point for them might be to avoid community.  And yet, I suspect there is a basic realism about the measure, however slippery.

When I was in a parish, and also when I was in charge of a chapel, I’d often find myself totting up roughly the number of people I would see from time to time and would count as part of the wider ‘family’ of the church or chapel – it was of course always much bigger than the weekly attendance.  Sometimes the only connection between all these people was me.  Sometimes someone who attended irregularly turned out to have a very strong, informed faith.  Amongst those who came for the sake of the music, or the peace (when they could have it), were certainly some virtual non-believers.

All of that reminds us that spirituality is not the same thing as going to church, that great devotion does not necessarily show itself in being active in church life, above all that people’s motives are always very complex and varied.  The statistics barely penetrate these deep, below-the-surface realities, and the only way to get at them at all is by close study of particular communities – a brilliant example being Linda Woodhead and Paul Heelas’s study of Kendal (The Spiritual Revolution, 2005).

We should, then, be very cautious in making precise deductions about what people do and don’t want from the annual statistics, and also of being a bit inclined to seize immediately on the positives – in that sense, I doubt that Christmas really is much of a pointer to ways forward.  That downward trend looks pretty steep, and it poses an enormous challenge to the Church of England.

In response to that challenge, there seem to be two quite different strategies on the table – I’m talking in general terms, not about specific church policies.

One is to emphasize the distinctiveness of Christian teaching over and against the world around us, and to press people to make firm decisions between the Church and the world.  Some would call this circling the wagons, or going into the bunker.  It looks like a defensive move, but it usually depends on a definite strategy of mission, with catechesis, with distinct forms of outreach, and so on.  So it isn’t necessarily inward-looking.  But it is what the larger Evangelical congregations essentially are about, and it’s usually defensive about wider developments in society such as changes in sexual ethics and changing concepts of identity.

The other is to stress inclusivity, to widen the boundaries of those to be welcomed, to open up the Church to those who might otherwise feel excluded or condemned by it.   This has its own risks, of course, which are likely to include looking a bit woolly and a bit over-reactive to social change.

Both may miss something vital about the Church, which ought to be relentlessly inclusive and at the same time confident in its values and traditions.  Reconciling those two things requires a lot of hard work, but it also requires a readiness to change and above all a willingness to listen to others and to learn from them.

We have a gospel to proclaim.  But our first thought should surely be, ‘What do others have to say to us, and what can we learn from that?’  In order for us to hear what they have to say, we have to encounter them wherever they may be – and that means tearing down the walls of our own defensiveness and insecurity.  Only then can the Church truly be an inclusive community.



Posted in Establishment, Human Sexuality, Jeremy Morris | 9 Comments

There Can Be No Half-Way House on Marriage Equality

by the Revd Andrew Forshew-Cain, Interim Chaplain at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford and former member of General Synod

Andrew Forshew Cain

Civil Partnerships have been in the news again, and it has got me reflecting on them, and their part in our journey towards a fully inclusive Church.

Personally, I had hoped that the government would decide to abolish Civil Partnerships entirely. Admittedly that was simply because I knew that it would force the Church of England into having some difficult discussions, but I happily acknowledge that if Civil Partnerships are going to exist then they have to be available to everyone, and an injustice has been removed by extending them to straight couples.

But I don’t think that the extension is going to do much for the struggle for full equality for those of us who are gay or lesbian within the Church.  In my view, the only possible logical response for the Bishops is to issue a statement reiterating the position that the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage remains unchanged, and that any straight couple in a Civil Partnership considering ordination will be subject to the same rules as any co-habiting straight couple or gay and lesbian couple in a Civil Partnership. Marriage is for straights, and sex is for straight marriage. Those are the rules, even if many of us are fully aware that those rules aren’t evenly applied.

The other recent development, this time in the Church in Wales, is perhaps more concerning.  It may be that I am misreading the signs there, even whilst being fairly sure of the problems ahead of us here in England.

The Governing Body of the Church in Wales has voted by a substantial majority to task their Bishops with looking at ways of making ‘formal provision’ for people who are in ‘committed same-gender relationships.’ The Archbishop of Wales has said that not to do so is “unsustainable and unjust”. He is not wrong  and the Church in Wales is right to look at this. We have to be hopeful that their Bishops will come back in due course with a way forward that honours and respects the reality of so many gay and lesbian Christians’ lives, and at the same time protects the conscience of those for whom any change will be difficult.  The Welsh Bishops deserve our prayers, and they are fortunate to have the model of the Scottish Episcopal Church to draw on.

In the Scottish Episcopal Church the decision was to amend the Canons and then to allow individual parishes and clergy to opt into the ability to offer marriage in their church to any couple approaching them, gay, lesbian or straight. Those who in conscience can’t do so can simply not register,  although they have been asked to signpost gay and lesbian couples who approach them to other local Episcopal Churches which do. Both traditional and modern understandings of marriage are therefore officially recognized.  It’s a simple solution and one that appears to be working.

Here in England we are waiting to see what will come out of the process of preparing the Bishops documents under the banner of ‘Living in Love and Faith’ in 2020.  In my mind, it is inconceivable that the Bishops will not also conclude that it is ‘unsustainable and unjust’ to offer no provision for committed faithful gay and lesbian couples in Church.

But what I am expecting from the Church of England, and possibly also in the Church in Wales, is not the “full monty” of equality in terms of marriage, but some form of half-way house that extends the allowance of ‘informal prayers’  after marriage or Civil Partnerships – which is the current Church of England position. In Wales there have been specific prayers available for some time, issued a few years ago by Archbishop Barry, though they lack the official approval of the General Assembly.

However, if this does happen then I for one think we need to say “No. not good enough!”

In fact, I believe we in England will need to campaign vigorously to have any such proposal rejected if it comes to General Synod, and I would hope that Welsh activists might respond similarly in their own rather different situation.

It’s perhaps not widely known that LGBTI activists in the Scottish Episcopal Church actively campaigned with their conservative colleagues to defeat a proposal to provide services of blessing for Civil Partnerships in the Scottish Episcopal Church. They did so of course for different reasons.  The LGBTI activists were absolutely clear that the goal, and the only goal in their mind, was marriage equality.  Nothing less would suffice.  Interestingly they did so whilst at the same time offering those very services, without official permission, in their parishes.

It is my strongly held conviction that the problem with the ‘any step on the journey helps’ approach is that some steps lead to dead ends, and that is the danger with any proposal that isn’t full equality.

I am not a member of the Church in Wales, and therefore my opinion on what that Church should do carries little weight. None the less I hope that those there who seek full equality will consider carefully how to respond if their bishops come back to the General Assembly with anything less than full equality.

Here in England we should also be prepared to say an official “no” to services of thanksgiving and blessing after civil marriages or partnerships even as an increasing number of us continue to do this unofficially in our parishes.  We should say no to an official liturgy or prayers not to say that we are going to stop offering those services in the interim, but so that we do not get distracted from the ultimate goal which is full equality in marriage and ministry.

The struggle for that ultimate goal means being brave enough to refuse to accept anything less – however well intended. Refusing to accept a half-way house would send a powerful message. It would underline that we are seeking full and equal treatment for gay and lesbian couples in marriage and ministry and that a side step is not acceptable.

We would then have to continue the pressure for that equality of treatment, ensuring that in every conversation, in every debate, in every way possible we keep making our point that the current situation is ‘unsustainable and unjust’.

We must not rest until it is possible for any lesbian or gay couple, ordained or not, can walk down the aisle of their local parish with as little fuss, and as much joy and happiness, as any couple on their wedding day.


Posted in Andrew Forshew-Cain, Human Sexuality | 12 Comments

Is Agreement Over-Rated?

by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool


In 2012 Rowan Williams published a collection of lectures under the title “Faith in the Public Square”. They are significant contributions to a whole range of issues, and each lecture was spoken in the expectation that there would indeed be a public square within which they would be heard.

Even in 2012 this was a debatable proposition, and it’s yet more so now. The public square is splintering and is being replaced with a series of echo-chambers within which people build up their own micro-solidarities, and from which they issue manifestos aimed at others, not in the room, who disagree with them.

We risk abandoning the public square for a series of private circles who never meet directly. Recent actions of the US President are an example of what I mean. He attended remembrance-related meetings in France at which statements about nationalism were made by the French President in his presence. He seems to have said nothing about them publicly in the presence of his peers, preferring to launch Twitter broadsides against President Macron later from the safety of the White House.

This sort of behaviour is rooted in human emotion, and in particular in fear and aggression. Today, blame for it is usually laid at the door of the social media platforms. But the temptation to avoid the hard work of meeting other people, and instead to pillory them from a safe fortress, is far older than Facebook and Twitter.

This fragmentation of the public square leads to bad disagreement.

By contrast I myself believe in the possibility, and now and again the reality, of good disagreement. Within the Anglican family I strongly stand with those, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who commend good disagreement and work towards it within the churches and the Communion and who see it as a potential gift of the Church to the world, a potential gift of our community to the splintered public square.

But good disagreement is not easy, and not comfortable. For disagreement to be good it must first be recognised as disagreement, and faced as disagreement, and worked through as disagreement. This recognition and facing and work should not be confused with another task  – trying to dissolve disagreement by producing a synthesis with which all may agree. This is often a commendable aim and it works well when a problem is simple.

But some problems are not simple. They are wicked.

As Wikipedia will tell you, “A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The use of the term “wicked” here has come to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil. Another definition is “a problem whose social complexity means that it has no determinable stopping point”. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.” 

The present turmoils in the UK over Brexit are suitably wicked. They demonstrate once again, as if the matter needed demonstration, that you can’t please everyone and that attempting to do so pleases no one. And yet decisions must be made and conclusions reached, preferably by people in the room together. But this is not what is happening, with a Cabinet from which new people are resigning daily and occasionally hourly.

So what should be the disposition of people in the nation – and in the churches –  who face wicked problems together, in the splintered public square, with the intention of working towards good disagreement? Well, Jimmy Cagney knew.

Asked about the art of performance, the great Hollywood star summed up his working philosophy in the words at the head of this article: “Find your mark, look the other fellow in the eye, and tell the truth.” There’s a lot to be said for this way of being.

“Find your mark…” Cagney is speaking of the bits of tape, stuck to the floor of a film set out of the camera’s sight, which tell the actor where to stand if he or she is to be properly lit and placed. In the movies it helps to find your mark, to know where you stand. And not only in the movies.

The great Jesuit peace campaigner Daniel Berrigan, imprisoned many times for nonviolent civil disobedience, used to say “know where you stand – and stand there”.

Good disagreement demands transparency about what people think and what they want to see done. Bad disagreement, the sort of disagreement we’re seeing in the Conservative Party over Brexit, involves threatening to leave the room, or actually leaving the room, and replacing conversation with articles in newspapers, open letters, leaked statements and the like.

Threatening to leave a room strains and splinters the public square, but it also gets you noticed. As the US political commentator David Frum said in last week’s “Atlantic” magazine, speaking of the Republican Party: “In politics, it’s very often the people nearest the exits who claim the most attention”. By contrast good disagreement involves remaining in the room, finding your mark and then seeing who else is there.

“…look the other fellow in the eye…” Especially when facing wicked problems, human connection matters. It is harder to objectify or demonise someone if you face them across a table. Miraculous, rabbit-from-the-hat solutions are unlikely (though with God all things are possible), but surprising convergences and unlikely alliances can emerge from conversations in the room. The partnership between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in Northern Ireland stands as an example from the political world of what can happen when people stay in the room and eyeball one another.

Bad disagreement emerges when people do not look one another in the eye – in other words when the elephants stand unchallenged in the empty room, when a jaunty and distant politeness takes the place of an honest conversation.

“…and tell the truth.” A frustrated diplomat once said that the people he was meeting “do not think what they feel, do not say what they think, and do not do what they say.” Bad disagreement emerges when people for whatever reason – fear, confusion, ulterior motive – do not tell the truth to themselves or to others.

To tell the truth is to make yourself vulnerable, because you could be wrong. Anyone who faces another in a room of disagreement should be saying to themselves, as well as to the other, the words that Oliver Cromwell spoke to the Scottish Church Assembly: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken”. Or as the Marxist Rosa Luxembourg put it: “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently”.

But at any given moment it helps conversation if you communicate what you believe to be true, even though you’re open to a change of mind. And the truth is not always sharp and clear. Communicating an honest confusion is better than communicating a false clarity. It helps then to remain in the room with others, and openly to share the truth you have to share. To do so is to move either towards understanding and agreement, or towards understanding and good disagreement.

Agreement is lovely, if it is indeed agreement; the end of a journey and not a fudged waymarker on the road to a quiet life. Too often however, in the words of my friend Shannon Johnston the retired Bishop of Virginia, “Agreement is over-rated”. Cheap, hasty, quiet-life agreement is over-rated. It closes down the conversation. It puts an end to the meeting in the room. And in the end it breaks, and returns us to the remote and tribal mud-slinging that marks our political discourse in these days. By contrast good disagreement is a disenchanted but human possibility, demanding patience and forbearance, from which divine surprises may indeed emerge.

Find your mark, look the other person in the eye, and tell the truth.

To do so is to contribute to the building of the public square once again. In the splintered, fractious social and political climate in which we are compelled to live today, surely by God’s grace this is the least we can do together.

Posted in Bishop of Liverpool, Good Disagreement, Human Sexuality | 3 Comments

Remembering, Reliving & Dealing with the Church’s Abuse

by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham and Member of General Synod

Rosie Haarper

So much remembering. We’ve had some very moving events. Poetry and music evoking the darkest moments of WW1. In Great Missenden, the village where I work, there were 39 men killed. Many of them lived in Church Street and went to our school. We all stood round our newly restored memorial at 11000 on the 11th our heads bowed in respectful silence. Then we processed into Church and one sort of remembering morphed into another. ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’

As a human and as a Christian community it’s what we do. We remember.

Memories are a crucial component of our identity. If illness erodes your ability to access your memory, it leaves you and the people around you in a difficult and scary place. Every bit of scientific progress that helps tackle such illness is crucial, and I’m sure we are all hoping or praying for a real medical breakthrough.

In the light of the recent #MeToo revelations I was thinking about another dynamic of remembering. It’s to do with the difference between remembering and re-living.

We all sometimes think about painful things that have happened. It is healthy to do that.

Like most churches we have a special service for those who have been recently bereaved. It’s called Remembering with Love, and just for an hour we deliberately step into that space of recollection. The love and the pain are still there, but as time passes we distil the memory so that we remember without having to re-live.

If we haven’t dealt with it however, remembering becomes agony. Many of the women who were abused by Harvey Weinstein suppressed the painful memory so effectively that it is only now that they truly access their feelings about what happened. They are not so much remembering as re-living those events.

I have heard people recently saying: ‘for heaven’s sake, it was 25 years ago!’. Well, I would urge compassion. Facebook has been full of people saying that the recent Judge Kavanaugh allegations have triggered memories for them, and it feels ‘like yesterday.’ These are events in their lives that have not been processed or resolved. This is why it is so important to take historic disclosures seriously. Until that happens the person is never able to be free of the pain.

It’s interesting that remembering is at the very heart of the Christian faith. Knowing that he was about to be killed Jesus said ‘remember me’ and gave his friends a symbolic way of doing that which has lasted to this day. Over 2,000 years it has no longer got any overtone of grief. There is no re-living in the Eucharist. The remembering is all about love and thankfulness. We have probably now reached this place with WW1. It’s not raw grief, we weren’t there. But the gratitude, respect and hopefully commitment to peace, that is worth the ceremony.

So our Eucharistic heart should make church a good, safe, and healing place to do all sorts of remembering.

Sadly this isn’t always the case. We are only just beginning to uncover the extent of abuse that has happened in a church context. With extraordinary courage there are people who are telling their stories and considerable resource is being put into making it less likely that this can happen in the future.

It will of course, human beings do unspeakable things. But we are trying hard. Safeguarding training is now obligatory and there are more robust new protocols in place.

It’s the remembering part that hasn’t gone well. For most people who make a disclosure the speaking out and telling the story is like re-living it.

When men returned from the war most of them didn’t tell their stories. Articulating the memories would have taken them right back there. It was a self-protection strategy, but a very costly one. A whole generation of men were emotionally unavailable. Women and children lived with people who couldn’t show affection. I hear this again and again as I sit with families to prepare funeral tributes.

When someone speaks out about their abuse in the church they become a ‘case’ to be managed, dealt with.  It’s as if the person who listens to their story is being asked to face the real church rather than the fantasy one, and that is too hard.

The significant thing is that their remembering is also ours.

None of us were at the battle of the Somme. Half my family didn’t even live in this country during the war. They were Swiss. Yet standing silent for two minutes at the memorial the memories become all our memories. Remembering becomes community.

This is the step the church needs to take. As someone courageously speaks out about their abuse we need to embrace that story, painful though it will be, and allow the truth to dawn. When things do go tragically wrong we all have to take responsibility and understand that ‘their’ story is really also ‘our’ story. Then we can share the pain and share the healing.

This is work that we all need to do, and it is urgent. I cannot begin to say how urgent.

The National Catholic Reporter printed a letter on 9 November 2018. This was the headline: Open letter to US Catholic Bishops: It’s over.

It’s over?!

People wonder why I push and push about equal rights and moral responses to survivors. Well -it’s because I do care about the C of E, and every time I step outside the protected (shrinking) bubble I am told that we have lost our way.

The test of a civilized society is the way it treats its weakest members. The same applies to the Church. Look at the way we treat the weakest and most vulnerable and the news is bad.  People who have been ‘othered’ and left outside, show to the world that we don’t act out what we say we believe.

This week-end Churches were full. There is a wonderful residual good will toward the Church of England, but for too long we have been spending the capital. It is such a simple message and one which most decent folk in this country take as given. Treat everyone equally and let people remember their abuse and respond with love and care and generosity. End of.




Posted in Human Sexuality, Rosie Harper, Sexual abuse | 3 Comments