A short while ago I bumped into my M.P. in a supermarket car park (okay it was Tesco, and when I say I bumped into him him I don’t mean it literally).
The Honourable Member for Buckingham is non other than John Bercow, Speaker of the House.
I vaguely know John because when he was a parliamentary candidate he spent a week working on my father in laws farm. As a ‘city boy’ he was seeking to deepen his experience of rural life. ‘Dad’ ensured he did some of the dirtiest jobs on the farm!
I told John how pleased I was that he was trying to raise the standard of behaviour in the House of Commons. Looking straight at my dog collar, for John isn’t tall enough to look me squarely in the eyes (and I am only 5 ft 8 – although when I played rugby I was always down in the programme at 5ft 10) John said:
‘You know Andrew their are two institutions that have a moral obligation to show how difficult issues can be debated in a fitting way: yours and mine.’
I have been thinking about the language of leadership ever since, and have become convinced that the language of leadership is the language of love.
And here’s the strange thing. This statement becomes increasingly true as the level of heat in any given debate rises. And boy in the Church are we dealing with some ‘hot topics:’ the nature of episcopal leadership, issues in human sexuality, the relationship between faith and politics (or the corpus and the polis) to name just a few.
In recent weeks I have been involved in discussions on these issues and, there is no doubt that feelings run high; exceedingly high. And, this is is a good thing, but………..
But, the language employed has sometimes (well often) fallen below the standards we might expect and hope for.
I know that on occasion I have sought to make cheap points, deliver a carefully aimed jab to the ribs in order to deflate my adversary and, allowed the combative, competitive and curmudgeonly side of my character to play the leading part. And yet in today’s Gospel reading (I use the daily readings for the Eucharist in Morning Prayer) we are reminded of the injunction to: ‘love you adversaries.’ And, one of the ways we are to do is by praying for them (Matthew 5, 43 & 44).
Can you imagine what might happen if in all our contentious debates, we prayed for those who hold opposite views; not that they might change their minds, but simply for their welfare?
But, if we are serious about using the leadership language of love we must go beyond prayer, into the guarding of the tongue. This does not mean that we shouldn’t speak out, but that we should only do so having repressed the combative, competitive and curmudgeonly sides of our characters. Ecclesiastes 9, 17 & 18 seems apt:
‘The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouting of a ruler among fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one bungler destroys much good.’
Wisdom asks us to consider not only which words we use, but how we use them. Are the words we use designed to impress, put down or undermine – in which case they are simply weapons – or are they used to question, affirm and reconcile?
James provides an insight into the value of words: ‘If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless,’ (James 1, 26).
James seems to be saying you may be right, but if the words you use don’t re-ligature (religion) you would be better off keeping schtum. I think there is also something in James’ pithy observation that speaks to the use of specific words and phrases: liberal, conservative, orthodox, biblical all have positive meanings and yet are all frequently used as put downs. I suspect we all know this to be true?
St. Paul (who could be a tad cantankerous) reminds us that the words we use must be exercised with one aim in mind; building up the body of Christ, the Church in other words: ‘let no evil talk come out of your mouths but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so your words may give grace to those who hear,’ (Ephesians 4, 29). Blimey! The words we use, the language we deploy, should be ‘gifts of grace.’
So to summarise:
Christians have a moral obligation to model good (virtuous) and lively debate (according to the Speaker of the House no less!)
Our debates must be rooted in prayer and, the welfare of those who disagree with us must be our priority in prayer.
Our motive must be to re-ligature, to build up and to reconcile.
We are to regard words as a gift of grace.
Let’s leave the last word to the Psalmist:
‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer,’ (Psalm 19, 14).
Next week, I hope to reflect on human sexuality. I will try to do so with ‘gentle grace.’ (So help me God).