This afternoon, my wife and I made a short drive to walk on the hills that overlook our village. From the place where we leave our car, it is but a short amble to a point from which we can look in three directions. In each direction we can see a different part of Britain. To the north are the hills of Dumfries while to the east, the range of the Pennines is clearly visible. In the other south westerly direction are the Fells of Cumbria, with a snow capped peak of Helvellyn just visible.
My readers might wonder why I bother to recount this anecdote but the crucial point for this blog post is in this word, viewpoint. Each of the ranges of hills I have mentioned could be looked at from many other places but the particular distinct perspective that we were able to enjoy belonged only to that one place. A viewpoint is the thing that is visible to an individual who stands at a particular point. No one else can see the same view unless they go to that particular spot. This viewpoint is not something to be argued about because, although the individual has only glimpsed one particular view, it in some sense belongs to him. This is where he/she was standing when he gazed at the view.
Each of us are the proud possessor of any number of viewpoints on a whole variety of things. Each viewpoint we possess will be a combination of our life experience and things we have been taught or learnt. This will of course apply to our theological position as with all the others we have. No two people will have exactly the same viewpoint. But the leaders of some groups will choose to encourage their members not to dwell on these natural differences among individuals. They believe that the belief system of the members must be presented and understood in an identical way. I have often complained that when a congregation or even a group of churches is presented as all thinking in an identical way and having identical viewpoints on a topical issue, there is something artificial and wrong. The only reason for a whole group of people expressing the same opinion and having the same viewpoint is to support the leadership in some particular power and political games. We have read recently of the Archbishops of Nigeria and Uganda supporting the political leadership of their respective countries over the gay issue. There is no way that these Archbishops can really claim to represent the viewpoints of every Anglican in their countries. This is what they are claiming to do. When a Christian leader says ‘what we think’, it is always wise to be a bit cynical as to whether this is indeed true.
The other point I want to raise, connected with viewpoints, is the importance for everyone to try and understand other people and the viewpoints they hold. All of need to recognise and respect that viewpoint, along with the particular personality, history and understanding of the individual which makes it unique. Everyone sees the landscape, whether it be politics or the Christian faith, in their own way. It will always take a particular set of qualities to enter someone else’s viewpoint – imagination, flexible thinking and empathy. But these qualities of standing inside someone’s space and seeing the world as they see it, are much needed. We often fall into one of two positions in our approach to the viewpoint of others. The first is to assume that we know the viewpoints of another person when we have not made any real effort to find out where they really are. The second position, in many ways worse, is totally to ignore the viewpoints of other people as though they have no importance. Being totally ignored or having your views subsumed into a group is, sadly, the experience of many Christian people. The ‘group-mind’ takes over and the individuals become depersonalised in the process. There is a wonderful passage in the Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass when the author is talking about his experience in a study group. He says, and I quote from memory. ‘I looked at the leader to find out what we think.’
The plethora of different viewpoints in any organisation or church is always going to be an untidy, even messy affair. The task of coping with the variety of these differing positions is not going to be met by suppressing or ignoring them. The cost of doing this will involve the disempowerment and devaluation of the richness of individual experience and knowledge. There is another path which is to develop at a profound level the ability to listen to where individuals are coming from. This does not necessarily involve condescension or control. The task of representing all these views, experiences and insights in a group situation is the task of leadership. The true leader is the one who can articulate a position which has weighed up what is being said to him/her. Listening profoundly and sensitively so that everyone feels that they have been heard is a rare but not impossible task. The leader cannot of course agree with every viewpoint in the organisation, but if he/she can show that each one expressed has been respected and heard then at least the individuals represented by the leader still feel affirmed by the process.
Listening to, respecting and honouring the many viewpoints in a group or a church is a major responsibility of leadership. Enforcing conformity and suppressing dissent in the group is sadly a more common scenario. May the readers of the blog do all in their power to promote the first kind of leadership so that the richness and variety of people’s experiences and understanding can be allowed to flourish within the church.