The article below was Originally from Moira Sleight, Managing Editor of the Methodist Recorder and has been submitted by one of our Church Members as food for thought.
The tricky art of disagreeing without being disagreeable
Captain of Israel’s host was sung with great gusto in the Methodist Central Hall Westminster as last year’s Conference of the British Methodist Church came to an end with its traditional closing hymn. True, some felt that the hymn that had opened the proceedings had a first line more suited to our exhausted feelings — Charles Wesley’s “And are we yet alive?” — but for another year the conference’s work was done.
Meeting in conference is a very Methodist way of doing things. Wherever you find Methodists in the world — from Russia to Brazil, from Finland to Kenya and to South Africa — they hold a conference in order to confer together and find their way forward as disciples of Christ in today’s world.
In doing so they are following in a long tradition. The first Methodist Conference was held in 1744 under Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, when he brought together his assistants — both ordained ministers and itinerant lay preachers — to confer about “what to learn, how to teach and what to do”.
In his writings, Wesley referred to “Christian conference” as a means of grace and at its best it can be. Anyone who has been at a bad-tempered church council meeting or synod will know what it can be at its worst.
Wesley also sensibly once asked: “Do not you converse too long at a time? Is not an hour commonly enough? Would it not be well always to have a determinate end in view; and to pray before and after it?” Many people who have served on church committees at any level would say “amen” to that.
In recent years American Methodists have been exploring the idea of “holy conferencing”, which sets out principles to help Christians to be caring in their conversations, conferring and decision-making, especially when dealing with polarising subject matters.
It should be possible to disagree without being disagreeable, they say. In his Letter to the Ephesians, St Paul felt he needed to urge his readers: “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another . . . Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up.” Sadly, over the centuries the Churches of all denominations have not always shown that they have taken this advice to heart.
Holy conferencing does not mean that there is no place for impassioned speech. On the contrary, if people feel strongly about something, then it is natural that their passion will show. Within that passion, though, others should be respected and their viewpoints not misrepresented. In this soundbite age, when people are vilified for making comments that have been taken out of context, this is more important than ever.
The principles put much emphasis on real listening. Holy conferencing is not about convincing others that we are right. Instead it is about listening to others in such a way that we come to understand better why they hold their beliefs. That means proper listening — not just preparing what we are going to say next while we wait for them to finish. True listening is not a passive activity but a demanding one. It involves concentration and is hard work.
When we understand another person because we have listened to them properly — whether in a church, community or political setting — we are less likely to demonise them. We are thus better able to interact with them, coexist with them and, yes, co-operate with them, in spite of real differences.
Holy conferencing is a set of principles we should all be applying to the way we conduct ourselves not just in our church lives, but also in our working lives and personal lives too — and how about over the square from Methodist Central Hall in the Houses of Parliament?