Respectful Dialogue – a way forward in the referendum debate and the gay minister dispute

This article by Rev John Chalmers, the incoming Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, appeared in the Sunday Times on May 11.

In the days when members of the House of Commons carried swords, the front benches were spaced so that they were two swords and an inch apart.

Red lines marked on the carpet are a reminder to seek resolution of differences by peaceful means.

The Westminster model, however, appears to be more conducive to adversarial rather than peaceful settlement. The idea that there are only two sides to every argument is good television, but it is not a good way to explore complex issues.

Often the model of motion and counter-motion allows the participants to escape dealing with the facts; instead the language of such debate appeals to the emotions, descends to name-calling and seldom acknowledges that there may be something valuable in the other point of view.

Of course two sided arguments are good television; what better than two heavy weight champions of any discipline slugging it out, hoping that one incisive argument or cutting phrase will deal a knockout blow to the opponent.

There’s not much room on Newsnight for people who are deeply collaborative or who seek solutions which acknowledge that there might be merit in some part of the other person’s point of view.

I was at Downing Street when the Prime Minister spoke of his understanding of Britain as a Christian country. I was impressed by the sincerity with which he spoke of the way the Church had been meaningful to him and his family at a time of personal loss and I heard him say that the Church had been doing Big Society for 2000 years.

Was I surprised that there was a backlash? Not in the slightest. Instead of looking for at least part of the truth in the Prime Minister’s statement there had to be those who seemed only to see this statement in monochrome and immediately offered a rebuttal.

The critics claimed that asserting Britain is a Christian country “fosters alienation and division in our society.” I am puzzled by this suggestion because in Scotland the evidence is to the contrary. According to the last Census 1.7 million people – a third of the population - indicated that they identified with the Church of Scotland; these are among the people who contribute to the Christian character of our nation; they support the most vulnerable, they help run food banks, they campaign for justice and they pray for the common good.

Of course, they are not the only people who do that, but their influence on our society should not be discounted or named as alienating. A Respectful Dialogue on the nature of the various strands that have contributed, for good and ill, to the make-up of our culture would be more valuable than a superficial tit for tat.

In Scotland, as we stand on the threshold of the most important decision that the Scottish people have faced in peacetime history, we do not need a highly emotive and deeply personalised public rammy.

We need a Respectful Dialogue about Scotland’s future whether it is as an independent nation or as part of the United Kingdom. I am confident that the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland can model the way in which this dialogue should be conducted and I am equally confident that if the Better Together and the Yes campaigners conduct themselves in the same way, then post-referendum healing and recovery will be much more manageable.

What chance, however, of the Church acting as a model of Respectful Dialogue in the nation if it cannot conduct its own internal affairs in the same way? So, when we approach the point of decision making on the question of the ordination of ministers in same-sex relationships I anticipate that, while there will be strong views expressed on both sides of this issue, the discussion will be on people’s understanding of the substantial matters of theology which are at stake and contributions to the debate will be gracious and respectful of the individuals who take part.

This is a matter which appears to be a simple choice between two opinions; however, it is more complex than that. Even those with settled views on this matter have to consider the impact that their view has on the peace and unity of the Church and they have to consider the range of views of more than 400,000 members who belong to the Church of Scotland. Even left to the heavy weight champion theologians this contest might be a split decision, so Respectful Dialogue is the best way to prepare for the Church’s continued life beyond such a momentous debate.

Where passions run high and people are heavily invested in their desired outcome they must be prepared to be benevolent in victory or magnanimous in defeat. Respectful Dialogue acknowledges that others may have a valid point of view and that our own point of view is never furthered by disparaging our rivals. When we stage our debates on such principles we are better prepared to live with one another whatever the outcomes.

Peace and unity within the Church, healing and reconciliation in the nation will be themes that I return to time and time again during this Moderatorial year.