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Disagreeing with grace

David Bannister



I am writing this blog a mere two days after the UK was shocked at the news that a young female member of Parliament was murdered in a street in her constituency where she was born and brought up.  Jo Cox was, everyone agrees, a principled and much loved and respected MP who represented a culturally diverse constituency where people of all religions and none are united in the grief and respect they have shown for her.

Among the many tributes paid to her in the short time since her death, one has stuck in my mind.  Jo Cox was a campaigner and activist previously employed by Oxfam where she had travelled to and worked extensively in many of the world’s major areas of conflict.  She was a fearless campaigner on refugee issues.  The tribute paid to her that rang a special chord with me was: ‘Jo could disagree with people without being disagreeable’.  Not many of us manage that over things we feel strongly about.

That remarkable comment came to mind today when I was reading in my newspaper an article about a forthcoming Church of England Synod (a kind of high level decision making council for the worldwide church).  The Church of England has been riven by many disagreements in recent years as it has reviewed its traditional doctrinal position in the light of modern events and cultural changes.  The present one concerns homosexuality and, in particular, gay marriage which the Church does not condone in principle but the range of opinions about it is as wide as possible and seemingly irreconcilable. 

To help its debate at the synod, the church has published a short document written by a facilitator and mediator and called ‘Grace and Dialogue – Shared Conversations on Difficult Issues’.  You can see this at www.churchofengland.org.  The document concentrates on the difference between what it calls ‘Debate and Dialogue’.  In Scotwork we use the terms ‘Argument and Negotiating Dialogue’ but we mean the same things. The document suggests that disagreement can be divisive, destructive and dangerous to our health, both individually and collectively.   Importantly, it can disguise the many things we do agree about. There are, it says, many different degrees of disagreement. Moreover, it identifies the fact that it is easy to forget, when we are constantly beset by differences, that we have much to agree on.   It identifies ’dialogue’ as a formal conversation that systematically encourages people to understand each other and to respond to each other honestly and openly and to value what others are saying even when we disagree with them.  Dialogue is consciously developed in a way that helps us to respect each other and to remember what we hold in common despite our differences. I have paraphrased, But I am sure you get the drift. One conclusion which stuck in my mind was: “There is little incentive to remember our common humanity when we are trying to ‘win’”. It suggests that argument encourages people to do all they can to win by demonstrating that they are ‘right’. This can result in personal attacks on others, belittling their arguments and sometimes using facts, evidence and interpretation selectively.

The document describes dialogue in some detail. The highlights of the description are that dialogue is collaborative and develops mutual understanding, it enlarges points of view, it evaluates assumptions to check their validity, it actively encourages reflection, it encourages people to explore the needs, interests and values that motivate everybody’s positions, it highlights commonalities and others’ positions and builds on shared strengths. Argument, of course, does the opposite, closing the mind and hardening the heart and highlighting the flaws and weaknesses in others’ positions.

Grace and Dialogue is a very simple, short document to read. Its purpose may be to avoid needless confrontation in the difficult discussions which the Church has ahead of it but its fundamental suggestions and recommendations have relevance for all of us who deal in the resolution of conflict. Understanding others, seeking consensus and identifying these ‘shared strengths’   while never leaving our principles at the door of the discussion is a great challenge when we disagree with each other.

If, within her considerable legacy, Jo Cox is it able to help us all to remember never to abandon our principles  but always to disagree without being disagreeable, then we should emulate her: this would be a lasting tribute to a life of principle and purpose cut cruelly and incomprehensively short.

David Bannister

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