51 Viewpoints -facing diversity in the Church

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.


About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

14 thoughts on “51 Viewpoints -facing diversity in the Church

  1. The Adrian Plass quote expresses a natural option for the person who is deeply confused and doesn’t know what to think. Their experience feels fragmented, and they can’t find a way to join up their jumbled ideas into anything that resembles a coherent whole, nor a governing principle by which to sort and judge different positions. In the modern world most people do not grow up in an isolated bubble with an all-pervasive thought system telling us how to see reality, though some people may do. We grow up with a cacophany of ideologies competing for our attention and credibility. What to do? Where can you learn from or how to choose among the various ways of understanding things? Other people seem to know so much more, and to be so much more confident in expressing it.

    So the task is not only to hear and acknowledge everyone’s viewpoint, as if that viewpoint were a static construct. But seeing that everyone is on a journey, their viewpoint must develop too, so the task is to enable positive change to take place. We could discuss for ever what “positive” means here, and indeed, if a person’s outlook changes significantly, who is to judge that it is for the better? People do not always become more wise and mature as they age.

    Who also is to say when the leadership should not merely “listen to, respect and honour” dissenting viewpoints, but actually decide that the dissenters and the voices of the vulnerable and powerless are offering new angles on the truth, so that the leaders are ready to be learners and change their own position? Unless this is a real possibility, the listening is merely token. Some of us have experienced many largely sham invitations to “have our say”, albeit not necessarily in a church context, so that we could “feel that we’ve been heard”, but experience in the long run showed that our speaking never had any chance of changing anything.

  2. Weighing up everything that is said in a group is, I believe, doing more than letting people ‘have their say’. I don’t think we disagree on this. Leadership, according to the latest thing I have read, is this profound listening and reflecting back to a group what they are saying in an ordered coherent way. I shall be saying some more on this at some point. A lot of leaders don’t even go through the motions of listening to the wider group. That is the frequent complaint against authoritarian set-ups, many of them to do with church!

  3. Well at the moment I’m aware of some anxiety about an ongoing bible study group I’ve agreed to help with when it starts, to be led by a very experienced retired colleague who is a strong, confident character, has an encyclopedic knowledge – unlike me – , can quote strings of texts in what can feel like a proof-texting and authoritarian way, and espouses some of the theology such as penal substitutionary atonement that I don’t. I am uneasy that everyone will be listened to and affirmed on a personal and pastoral level – but then finally told what to think; and that if I am not happy about what is happening I won’t know how to influence the situation. So I will have to see whether in fact I find there are things I struggle with and how I cope.

  4. I think the point Stephen makes about listening and reflecting back is one of the main lessons coming out of the recent progress on the Women Bishops and treatment of homosexuality debates. I’m not sure whether we have Justin Welby to thank for this. The Pilling Report, for all its faults, stresses how much was learned from meeting and listening carefully to others. As a Church, we’re sadly far more inclined to hide behind our parapets and hurl bricks at those who disagree with our viewpoints, rather than meet them and listen to them.
    Haikusinomine, as for your confident colleague with the encyclopedic knowledge, I think it’s very important that issues like penal substitutionary atonement, which in my experience heap guilt onto people and give them a picture of a wrathful, vindictive God, do not go unchallenged, however uncomfortable it may become for you. You owe it to the others who are attending and listening to what might become life-changing and faith-threatening doctrines. It lies at the heart of what this blog is all about. Maybe you could use ‘open’ questions to open up the debate and encourage the others to challenge?

  5. I remember a phone conversation that I once had with a famous English evangelist. He clearly taught that all outside ‘born-again’ experience, go to Hell! I had been working with people who had ‘learning difficulties’ (Formally known then as “Mentally handicapped”) and was outraged to find a man who believed that the gentle loving Downs Syndrome people I was working with, were going to Hell! When I challenged him on this he became very irritable. This was the late 1980’s. I fear that the people who sat under his ‘ministry,’ may very well still believe that! For them, this compartmental way of thinking is written in indelible ink within the mechanics of logic they use. Reaching these people or even trying to persuade them that it is not sinful to have a debate within one’s thinking, I see as an intellectual impossibility. However extreme these views may seem to the people involved with this blog, I solemnly assure you that they are out there. To them the whole idea of diversity, is like entering the Devil’s playground. This depresses me and I would welcome comments on any ways you think you can engage these abused people.


  6. James, I will see how this goes. The difficulty I’ve found in the planning meetings is the way everything is open-minded and friendly listening until the end – and then we are whacked with a long “authoritative” summary conclusion, with the implication that now we are being told what’s what, and the time for further discussion is over. And it has to be said, that at least one person in the planning meeting is very much at the place where she is saying she wants an authoritative leader to tell her what Christian doctrine “is”, ie what to think. Others are coming from very different angles. It may have just been an uncomfortable experience once or twice, and it won’t always be like that. But if it is, I will need to consider what I can do. Yes I owe it to others and myself – but that doesn’t mean I’m always capable of doing what I would like. I’m always on a learning curve in terms of communication, articulation, and understanding and working effectively with interpersonal dynamics. I come from a point earlier in my life of extreme inability and disempowerment, and I can still much more easily slip back into being intimidated in the flesh, which is partly why I like writing, where I am able to reflect in my own time, know I can express myself well even if it may be misread, and feel much bolder and safer.

    From my point of view women bishops seems hopefully to be going in the right direction at last. But gay priests? Isn’t the recent bishops letter a perfect example of supposedly listening, and then finding that nothing is heard or reflected, and whatever you say has no effect on actual decisions or policy?

  7. Haikusinenomine, one of things that I was taught, which might help, was to ask the question ‘If that is true, what picture of God does it paint, and does that picture match what we know about Jesus?’ It may or may not help, and I feel for your predicament. Manipulative people are particularly difficult to challenge and can get away with murder by pure bluster. They’re clever and know how to make everything look fine whilst underneath there’s an iron fist with a pre-ordained agenda. Good luck; I don’t know what else to say.
    As for Pilling re homosexuality, I’ve just started reading the whole orignal report in 195 pages, so that I can make my own mind up rather than take in a press summary. You might well be right about it being a sham – I’ll know shortly. The only point I was trying to make was not that Pilling is a good example of how to do things, but that under Welby we seem to have someone who will insist that warring factions meet each other eyeball to eyeball, listen and reflect. Even if this doesn’t result in people changing their minds, it must surely be better than pronouncing on homsexuality when you’ve never met or spoken to anyone who has to live with the consequences of the Church’s policy on gay priests, eg the partner of a gay priest?
    And Chris, I know you’re right that there are the people you describe in the Church. For a short time I took ‘Church of England’ newspaper, and it is full of people who write letters like that. I no longer read it. I just hope that they’re in a small minority, but they do a lot of damage. I wish we knew how many there are actually; our Bishops probably have a pretty good idea how many churches they have on their patch who are preaching hellfire and judgment.

  8. What a lot of good points. Hi Haiku, all power to your elbow. I’m afraid I just jump in with “but we don’t believe in that now do we? There have been alternatives since the 19th century”. Might not work with your “leader”. Leadership is not about giving orders, though there are many, including those on the receiving end, who think it is. Who appointed him? Someone needs a reality check. I still remember doing a Bible study, and being confounded by a bloke who turned up with a photo copy from a book, which rejoiced in the title “True Christian Doctrine”, the substance of which was very strange and strange to me, too! I think it was a particularly outre form of Catholicism. We talked completely at cross purposes for some time until I twigged he thought that this must be, because of the title, the dernier crie, absolutely the right beliefs for everyone. I was a bit thrown as to how to deal with it. My protests that this was just the title of the book, not Holy Writ, were met with huge scepticism. I’m not sure what he thought anyone could do if someone published a book called “This is the ultimate truth”, and it wasn’t! But there we go.

  9. Hi. Thanks all for your encouragement. The thing is, it’s not just about combating a particular theology of the atonement – that’s just an example I drew from a recent sermon, when of course there’s no comeback available. It’s partly about the idea that we can all say things, and then there will be a summary, which turns out not to reflect everything that’s been said, but will be in essence putting us “right”. Within a group of people of all sorts, some of whom don’t give a fig for authority, orthodoxy or what anyone says, while others feel uninformed and anxious to progress in their discipleship by learning a solid line uncontaminated by the wacky suggestions emanating from other people’s ignorance or outre angles. Such fun!

    Who appointed him – well he joined our team, and is very well qualified to be part of it and makes a splendid contribution. He’s a lovely person with lots of wisdom, let’s not get falsely black and white. However it does raise interesting questions for me about what happens when you have people ministering in a team with different angles. Is it a problem? Does it confuse or upset people? Or should we delight in the fact that our people are indeed exposed to a variety of approaches, which makes very real the idea that no-one has the last word, and if contradictions are perceived, ultimately it is yourself who has to think through where you stand?

  10. James – at some point would you like to write a guest post about Pilling. Those of us who are not inclined to wade through 192 pages might benefit from your thoughts as we feel we half know you from the blog.

    Haiku et al we are getting into a area of great importance. How does authority fit into the belief in conscience and free thinking? It is a very difficult line to draw. On the one side some of us feel that the church has far too many examples of coercive (and abusive) ways of exercising leadership. On the other side this is not felt to be a problem. The same thing exists in politics. My next blog post which will appear tomorrow is about my personal political beliefs, how they swing between leftish liberal thoughts and others which are more right wing. I suspect that the attitude to belief and theology has the same tension. The divide, in other words, exists inside each of us

  11. Hi Stephen
    Yes, I’d be happy to do that. I also have an evening meeting on 1st April, when our Bishop is going to address our Deanery Chapter about Pilling and it might be good to hear what he has to say first. You’ll have to show me how to do a ‘guest post’ as this blogging thing is all new to me (never done it before). Perhaps you have a way of contacting me without me having to publish my email address on this public blog?
    I think the homosexuality debate is important, as like the women bishops’ debate, it’s exposed lots of ‘abuse’. There was a most interesting programme on Channel 4 last night ‘Undercover Doctor: Cure me, I’m gay’ (it may be available on 4OD?). One of the ‘wow’ moments was when Dr Christian Jessen asked a church leader in the East End of London, who claimed to be able to cure gays through exorcism ‘So if you think homosexuality is caused by a trauma in early life, how can it be a sin?’ There was an incredibly long pause, followed by the words ‘That’s a good question.’ I should warn you that the programme is a terrifying depiction of abuse, both historic and current, not all by the Church, but a lot of it primed by church people, both in the UK and the Southern US.

  12. Thank you James. I have written to you by email to say that guest posts have to pass through me as editor. So there is nothing technical for you to master as I operate something called Dashboard which is the ‘cockpit’ , as it were, of the programme. I too am learning so it is good to have Dick Davies to help me when I get in a jam. I sometimes have to wipe out contributions as this blog attract spam. Anyone else may submit a post, though the editor reserves the right ……. !

  13. Not quite on topic, but since Stephen mentioned abuse.. . Yesterday I had yet another conversation with a cleric who said, “I can’t say anything” meaning, no supportive noises, when I told her the story of something unpleasant that had been done to me. How is that an adequate response? She knows the people. She might have been able to say something as a friend, a word to the wise, you know. But no. She perceives her duty to be to hold the line. Loyalty to other clergy above all.

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