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The feelings beneath the thoughts

21 April 2017

The stances that people adopt are never solely governed by reason, says David Ison

Ken McKay/ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Both sides of the argument: the former UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, and Tony Blair’s former com­­munica­tions director, Alastair Campbell, clash over Brexit on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, last month

Both sides of the argument: the former UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, and Tony Blair’s former com­­munica­tions director, Alastair Campbell, clash over Br...

THE triggering of Article 50 last month was regarded as totemic by many, but for diametrically op­­posite reasons. Over the next few years, as the country enters the uncharted waters of Brexit, there will be much debate — but how many intellectual ex­­changes will engage with the deeper feelings at work?

During the campaign, there were many arguments and claims made on both sides, the truth of which was disputed; and that argument continues to play out. But underlying such argument, such reason­ing, and the quest for truth are the feelings that drove much of the debate, and which were very power­ful in deciding what people thought.

What many of us will remember about the result of the referendum is not what we thought about it, but how we felt about it: our emotional response to leaving, and our feel­ings about the people who re­­sponded with a different view.

And that conflict of emotion continues, in the way in which “Re­­moaners” and “Brexiteers” are ste­reo­­typed and written off by those on the other side, instead of coming together with those with whom they disagree to find the best way for­ward for the country.


THE reality is that we are not rational people, though we may try hard to be. We are whole people, and, until we acknowledge and work with our feelings as well as our thoughts, we will not be able to ad­­dress the underlying issues.

Until Remainers respond to the desire for change among those voting Leave, especially those who feel excluded by globalisation and social and economic change, and until Leavers recognise the feelings of loss and fear that Remainers have with regard to an unknown future for their children and wider society, the greater national unity to which the Prime Minister aspires will be unat­­tainable.

And this applies, also, to the issues around ordained women and LGBTI people in the Church. We can’t treat these as simply rational matters, problems to be intellectu­ally solved, issues of pro­claiming bib­­­­­­lical truth or avoiding it.

As the practice of Shared Con­versations acknowledges, until those on either side (or none) can recog­nise the power of feelings over what all of us think — and not just over what those on the other side think — we will be unable to engage hon­estly to find an understanding of how to move forward together.

This isn’t simply about choosing to negotiate on the principles by which we interpret scripture to decide what is true. It involves a whole raft of feelings and loyalties, a commitment to a community that sees scripture in a particular way, an emotional commitment that is quite independent of intellectual inquiry.

We have an emotional invest­ment in what we believe, and we don’t just change it because the opposing argument is good. As hu­­man beings we are social; like a wolf pack, we follow the lead of others, and we fear stepping out of line. We won’t be able really to talk about the ways we interpret scrip­ture until we’re honest about the feelings that underlie our commit­ments to them.

After the 1992 vote went through to allow women to be ordained priest, I encountered male clergy who were intellectually accepting of women’s ordination but joined For­ward in Faith because they didn’t want to lose their friends and community. I also met clergy who had been ostracised by their “friends” because they agreed with the change, and so had, in the view of others, been disloyal to their com­­­munity.


AT A deanery synod in a village in North Devon, 20 years ago, which was debating Issues in Human Sexuality, I overheard one lady saying to another: “I was just brought up to believe it was dis­­­gusting.”

And it’s that which we need to get out into the open: the feelings that underlie and affect our thinking and our ability to em­­pathise with others; coming out of our own experiences of sex and gender; the need to identify with a group; and the fear of those dif­ferent from us.

What it feels like to face the prospect of being expelled from your group for having a different view; what it feels like as a woman priest or bishop to have people re­­ject your ministry and be allowed to discriminate against you; how it feels to be gay or transgender and be told there is something deeply wrong with and about you; how it feels to be regarded by many in society as unacceptable in your views; what it feels like to believe you’re being faithful to biblical truth when those outside your constituency (whatever it is) tell you you’re wrong. . .

As with Brexit, so with the Church: until we listen to one another’s feelings and acknowledge the power of our own, we have little prospect of coming together for the future.


The Very Revd David Ison is Dean of St Paul’s. This is an edited version of an article that was first published at www.ViaMedia.News.

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