Address Morning Chapel in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
Every third week in January, Churches throughout the world participate in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It traditionally ends on 25th January, when the Church marks the conversion of St Paul, after his vision on the road to Damascus. I thought this may be a good reason to briefly think about unity and disagreement, particularly thinking about how we can disagree with each other in a way that is constructive.
So let’s first see what Paul has to say about disagreement in his letter to the Ephesians:
Ephesians 4.25-end (The Message)
What this adds up to, then, is this: no more lies, no more pretence. Tell your neighbour the truth. In Christ’s body we’re all connected to each other, after all. When you lie to others, you end up lying to yourself. Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry—but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don’t stay angry. Don’t go to bed angry. Don’t give the Devil that kind of foothold in your life.
Did you use to make ends meet by stealing? Well, no more! Get an honest job so that you can help others who can’t work. Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift. Don’t grieve God. Don’t break his heart. His Holy Spirit, moving and breathing in you, is the most intimate part of your life, making you fit for himself. Don’t take such a gift for granted.
Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk. Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you.
At first, it may seem that disagreement, just like anger, is something that we should avoid at all times. It can lead to arguments and rows, and you can lose friendships over it. However, those are consequences of how we deal with disagreement, rather than following from the issue itself.
We live in a time where it is very easy to be surrounded by people who think the same as you do. If you don’t like someone’s social media posts, you can easily block or silence them, and some of that is done for you by complex algorithms helping you to see precisely what you would like or expect to see. On the one hand, this is very convenient, as you will more easily come across articles or posts that you find interesting and worth reading, and you will be less likely to find – or post – any comments that are harsh and demeaning. However, there is also a danger that your worldview becomes more and more limited, and you never see someone else’s point of view.
I guess that one reason why we rather avoid disagreement than use it well, is because we don’t know how to disagree without being confrontational. So this morning I would like to give you some ideas how you might do this, and encourage you to use them to learn from each other.
Maybe most important is our attitude towards the person with whom we disagree. We may hold very different views: political, religious or otherwise, but we need to remember that each of us is a human being – in Christian terms we would add ‘made in the image of God’. That means that whomever we approach, we need to do so with respect. This respect shows itself in an attitude of kindness, humility and a willingness to listen – even, and particularly, when we don’t agree.
Humility in this case means realising that you may have something to learn from the other. Again, that does not mean that you have to agree, but in most, if not all, cases, there is something you can learn from what someone else is saying. And for that, of course, you need to listen. Many of you are impressive in your ability to articulate your view, so it is worth listening to each other!
And lastly, to disagree well, it is also important to remember that disagreeing with each other does not mean that you cannot do anything together. That one of you thinks that Brexit is something to celebrate, whereas someone else finds it really hard to accept does not mean that you cannot work together on the hockey pitch.
This working together with someone with whom you disagree can be very hard, but it comes back to the realisation that you are both human beings, with much more in common than you think. I have to admit that the Church is not always the best example of people disagreeing well, as we can see from the number of different denominations all having slightly different interpretations of the Christian faith. Let alone religion as a whole, with endless different views of what it means to believe in God.
But all of this does not mean that we should not be committed to a sense unity, a sense shared belonging. That applies, I think, to this College as well. Whether it’s the College at large, or your House or year group, please don’t forget how much you have in common and how much you have to learn from each other. Through constructive discussion, listening and interacting, there is so much we can learn from and with each other. So let’s not ignore those who have different ideas, but let us try to disagree well. That is, I think, what the world very much needs today, and it is our responsibility to learn and to be an example.
And of course, entirely in line with what I’ve just said, I would love to hear from you if you disagree!