I HAVE had little opportunity to witness the Church of England's
General Synod in action, but last November I was able to watch an
hour of the debate on the proposed legislation to enable women to
I was left with the impression that all the speakers had already
made up their minds. They were not really interested in listening
to what those who had a different view had to say. This may be a
common feature of such a parliamentary-style structure, but it did
not seem particularly fruitful.
David Porter, the Archbishop of Canterbury's director for
reconciliation, a new post, has proposed that, at its next meeting,
the Synod take a day of its business time in small groups, engaging
in facilitated dialogue. This would break the mould of the Synod's
usual debating pattern, but how might it help? What might be the
value of such an approach?
The purpose of such small-group dialogue is not to reach a
decision, although it may usefully contribute to a decision-making
process. Rather, such dialogue is about seeking a way to grow in
understanding of one another. It opens up the possibility of
exploring how each participant has arrived at a particular
position, and why some things are important to him or her. It gives
participants a chance to engage with one another's story. And it
offers the prospect of real and deeper listening to one
IN MY experience, there are a number of factors that can help
determine whether such a small-group dialogue process will work
well. First is clarity of purpose, and having a process designed to
fit that purpose.
Second is having a skilled facilitator who can maintain a calm
presence in the face of others' anxiety. Key tasks will be
establishing a safe environment, securing agreement about any
ground rules and ensuring that they are kept to, and clearly
signposting the different stages of the process.
The third factor is having a suitable space in which to meet,
and enough time so that the dialogue process is not rushed.
Assuming that these conditions are met, what might one expect of
a facilitated small-group dialogue? It is important not to think
that anyone will change his or her position on the main issue.
Instead, the aim to encourage participants to understand each
other's positions, and grow in mutual respect as they do so. The
key impact, then, is a humanising of those who are seen as "the
enemy", or at least as opponents.
The knock-on impact is that, once people return to the formal
decision-making debate, it will be much harder to stereotype and
dismiss those with a different view, and much more likely that
participants will exercise moderation in the language they use
Thus, facilitated dialogue may not change the eventual decision,
but it will change how people feel about it, and how they related
to those who were once seen as their opponents.
THE value of such a dialogue has been experienced within the
wider Anglican Communion through its use of the Indaba process,
originally developed in Africa, and used at the last Lambeth
Conference. The "Continuing Indaba" process is billed as "a journey
of conversation to strengthen relationships for mission". This
points to two key fruits of any effective dialogue process, that of
journeying together and of building relationships.
As Christian disciples, we need to expect that we will disagree
with one another. What becomes critical is how we disagree, whether
we can stay in one another's company on the journey, and whether we
can deepen our relationships with one another in the way that Jesus
longed and prayed for, for his disciples.
Miroslav Volf, the Croatian theologian, writes: "God's reception
of hostile humanity into divine communion is a model for how human
beings should relate to the other." There is no better place for us
to practise this welcome of others who are hostile towards us and
our views than in the Church.
I pray that the facilitated dialogue in the General Synod will
offer participants a taste of such a welcome of one another, and
put them in touch with the heart of God.
Alastair McKay is executive director of Bridge Builders, a
church mediation and training service. For more information, visit