Putting conversation back at the heart of our community and Gandhian nonviolent verbal communication

Happy New Year to you all.

This year is clearly going to be a tough one in many ways - I don't need to alert you to the general economic and political worries that beset us. As liberals we are going to have to find ways to rise to the social, political and religious challenges that will thrown up as a consequence of recent events. This blog is just a brief note to alert you to a new initiative that will, I hope, help us to respond creatively and effectively. Please feel free to copy and adapt it for your own communities if it makes some sense to you.

I've been concerned for some time that our liberal religious rhetoric, though good in itself, is not really sufficiently being acted upon to be taken seriously or to do much good.

But firstly, what is our (that is the local church I serve - though I hope it resonates more widely) basic liberal rhetoric and, secondly, why does it look like it does? I'll answer these two in reverse order. Well, it looks like it does because when one takes a close look at the whole of the four-and-a-half century old liberal Christian tradition I belong to it is possible to see that its truth as a community was never made manifest in 'a closed system of propositions’ but, as my friend and historian Joe Bord noted, through 'an historically extended way of thinking and acting.’

A simple way of summing this up is to say that, when we are at our best, we uphold and sustain a coherent culture of free religious inquiry and function, in part, as an academy of liberal religious praxis and thought. This historically extended way of thinking and acting results in the rhetoric which appears on all our orders of service i.e. that we meet together simply in the spirit of Jesus, for the worship of God and the service of humankind; that we hold that 'conversation as the natural organ communicating, mind with mind, . . . is the method of human culture’ and by it we 'come nearer to those whom we shall address than by any other means’; and that any address given here is simply ‘offered to the congregation as encouragement to further reflection and thought and most certainly not a definitive statement with which you must agree.’

The significant problem I see is that we are not making the best of this historically extended way of thinking and acting that we might - sometimes we really end up only pay lip service to it. Our approach, our culture of free religious inquiry, is something that we know is very appealing to many kinds of people. The trick is to get folk to engage in that process directly and over a long (hopefully a lifetime long) period.

One simple way that we can begin address this matter is by repositioning the Sunday morning address so that this free inquiry, this conversation actually takes place in our community as part of our regular weekly meeting for worship - putting our money where our mouth is so to speak.

To this end in the coming months the Sunday service will (from time to time and, perhaps, permanently) pause about two-thirds of the way through so that we may immediately reconvene in the Church Hall. Then, as usual, the address will be offered but, in this more informal context, there will be an immediate opportunity for people to respond to clarify/critique/support some of its themes and ideas. Each Sunday I’ll be distribute some notes and a set of ground rules drawn from Arne Naess’ study of Gandhian Non-violent verbal communication to help this process. The service will then conclude, as usual, with the prayer for peace, a closing reflection and our usual benediction. We can then carry on with tea, coffee and conversation as usual but I hope that what has preceded will encourage and enable us to converse in a much more engaged and informed way than before.

This is not as radical a development as some of you might imagine. Something similar was regularly occurring amongst the Dutch Collegiant community (with whom British Unitarian and Free Christians have direct historical connections) in the seventeenth century and, today, many other churches (of all varieties) are also seeking better to engage with their members and wider society by using this approach.

I can’t guarantee that this initiative will work and result in making our liberal ideas more accessible, more finely honed, useful and supportive of both ourselves and wider civil society. All I know is it seems worth trying . . .