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Home  >  Features  >  Healing the Wounds



Healing the Wounds

Tuesday March 19 2019


Thomas Baldwin considers the role of the Church in situations of polarised division

The original version of this story, written in January, began: ‘By the time you read this, the UK may be around a month away from leaving the European Union. Or it may not’.

Two months on, with less than a fortnight to go until the leaving date, the picture is still no clearer.

The only thing that is certain is that emotions are running high. Insults fly on social media, journalists and politicians are abused outside Parliament. MPs opposing Brexit have reported receiving death threats – threats that cannot be lightly dismissed, in the light of the murder of Jo Cox in 2016.

It’s equally clear that these divisions will not go away, at least not in the near future: whatever the final outcome, whenever it comes, a significant proportion of the population will remain angry.

In this climate, is there a role for the churches in helping to lower the temperature of the debate, to demonstrate that it is possible to disagree well?

In the aftermath of Parliament’s initial rejection of the EU Withdrawal Agreement, the Rev Dr Richard Frazer, Convener of the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland, called for ‘a different approach’ to the debate.

He said: “Reconciliation across our divided society needs a different approach, one in which we can take a deliberately slower and more thoughtful approach to discerning our future relationship with the EU.

“We need a much more respectful dialogue, one which is based on listening attentively rather than shouting louder.”

The Very Rev Dr John Chalmers also emphasises the importance of listening. Dr Chalmers has been at the centre of reconciliation efforts in various situations: as Moderator to the General Assembly during the Church of Scotland’s Respectful Dialogue events during the Scottish independence referendum in 2014; as Principal Clerk to the General Assembly for seven years at the height of the Church’s own divisive debates on human sexuality; and also playing a key part in the Church’s peacebuilding work in South Sudan.

He says that peacebuilding and the ministry of reconciliation has its roots in the work of Jesus, quoting 2 Corinthians 5 – ‘God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation’.

He says: “My journey into the world of Respectful Dialogue began as a result of recognising that in every role I have ever had, from parish ministry to Principal Clerk, I have been required to understand three things.

“First, that I cannot always rely on my feelings and if the world was full of people who simply followed their feelings then we would walk headlong into a lifetime of discontent and embattlement.

“What we need to function is more than intuition – it is the faculty of critical thinking. This raises the conversation above our emotions and beyond our feelings – to the place where our critical faculties engage with the facts and examine the evidence and begin the process of (at the very least) considering the possibility that the other person in the conversation may have something important to say.

“The second is to realise that the issues which people present with are seldom the real issue that is getting under their skin. So, attentive listening becomes extraordinarily important as the vehicle by which we drill down to the matters which really have to be addressed.

“The third is this: that everything in the world is not a battle between good and evil, right and wrong, my way or the highway. Sometimes there are solutions which are win/win rather than win/lose or, worse, win/destroy. We can look for compromises or we can learn to live with our differences. Sometimes equally valid points of view simply have to be held in dynamic tension.

“These three things add up to the need for every single one of us to able to exercise the craft of mediation. And, in fact, to some extent or another some sort of safe passage through life requires us to use this skill.”

The organisation Place for Hope arose out of concern about how the Church of Scotland handles internal conflicts. Now an independent charity, it is best known for helping congregations deal with disputes, but also offers learning programmes to help places of worship become reconciling presences in their community.

The organisation’s director, the Rev Ruth Harvey, says reconciliation is part of the search for Christian unity.

She says: “For many of us Christ’s call to unity is the bedrock on which our faith stands, and the lens through which we approach our calling. The unity we seek is a unity in diversity. This is no ‘lowest-common denominator’ uniformity, but a complex web of human relationships exploring deep connections of the spirit, rooted in Gospel-inspired action for justice and peace.

“Within Place for Hope we aim to model what we teach about reconciliation It’s not easy. We look for unity in the differences that we display within our own organisational life as well as without. Neither are we immune from human error, nor are we reaching for an unattainable perfection. Rather we hold before us a vision of reconciliation – of unity in the spirit – that transcends difference while honouring diversity.

“What then do we pray for in and through Brexit?

“We pray for a tone of conversation that is gracious, generous, and open.

“We pray for an attitude of listening predicated on a desire to understand (and be changed by) the other, more than to press home our own point.

“We pray for a desire to ask deep questions about the strong stance of those whose position is at odds with our own.

“We pray for a calmness and a vigour in equal measure, in the way we talk with one another.

“And we pray for a way into stillness, and the divine, that is the ‘inward source of our strength’.

“All these we pray for our political and religious leaders in the days and the months – and the years – ahead. Then we may transform lives and reform hearts.”

A longer version of this feature appeared in the March issue of Life and Work. Download or subscribe here.