One of the gifts of an event like the Kirchentag is the opportunity to think along with others about things that can get crowded out by the sheer volume or busyness of normal work.

I bumped into a friend today who has spent his life in the business of reconciliation. Not notional reconciliation or spiritualised reconciliation, but the hard, bloody stuff of (among other things) Northern Ireland. We were then joined by a Professor who engages in bioethics and a junior professor of systematic theology. We had a conversation that ranged widely, but touched on a question that still puzzles me in relation to the conflict that currently afflict the Anglican Communion. When did ‘diversity’ cease being a phenomenon and become a virtue?

‘Diversity’ simply describes the reality that there is (whatever one might think of any particular element of it) a diversity amongst human beings in relation to nature, experience and opinion/conviction. That is a phenomenological fact. It describes reality, but ascribes to that reality no particular moral value.

But, at some point in recent years the word became transformed into a virtue – one in relation to which we are compelled to be either for or against. To question diversity as a value is to be described as a bigot by some. This stifles genuine debate and turns discussion into polemic that divides.

I just wonder if this confusion lies at the heart of our conflicts over matters such as sexuality. I just wonder if the same word is used to mean different things to different interlocutors (or antagonists).

I also wonder if differentiating between the two might be helpful in promoting peaceful coexistence where resolution is not possible.

I once said in a public dialogue with an Imam friend of mine that, as a Christian, I think it is vital that he should become a Christian… and that, as a Muslim, he will think it vital that I should become a Muslim… but that it looked extremely unlikely that either of us was going to convert. That then brings us on to a different set of questions which can be summed up as: How then shall we live together?

It is important not to confuse the questions. The question of ‘content’ (the truth of Christianity or Islam) is hugely important and should be pursued with integrity and humility as well as confidence and generosity. But, the question of how, given the unresolved differences, we should now live together for the benefit of the common good, is equally vital. But they are different questions and shouldn’t be confused.

The sort of clarity needed in such sensitive conversation was illustrated in a debate this afternoon in Dresden. The top man of the EKD (Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland), Präses Nikolaus Schneider, was in discussion with Dresden’s elder statesman, Professor Kurt Biedenkopf, about which economic system might make us ‘happy’. They both set out their stores and then engaged in what I thought was intelligent and respectful argument. But, much of the argument was about the meaning of words.

Schneider rooted ‘happiness’ in relationships, whereas Biedenkopf located it in achievement. Schneider questioned whether achievement means anything if there is no one to share it with. Both kept having to check the assumptions behind the apparent intention of the other’s words. Schneider was pro Market, but could not allow the Market to set its own rules. He wanted some attention paid to solidarity. Biedenkopf, on the other hand, did not want economics set over against the rest of public polity, but to be restored (with necessary correctives) to being one part of that polity. He questioned, however, who should set the boundaries: state or responsible individuals? He thought Schneider was unrealistic in wanting some social correctives for the poor and vulnerable and asked the (pertinent and reasonable) question as to who should decide – for example – what should be cut and who should cut it. He would not allow abstract questions about economics without practical implications being considered. (None of us wants our children to pay the price for our economic profligacy, but that common desire doesn’t of itself guide us to the precise and costly decisions that then need to be made in re-stabilising the economy.)

Biedenkopf then went on to question the meaning of ‘solidarity’ – concluding in the end that (a) the Market is us: we can’t be forced to send our money on what we don’t want, so we decide how much cars or mobile phone sell for; and (b) that freedom demands risk as well as responsibility.

In one sense the debate itself wasn’t exactly illuminating other than to demonstrate that our assumptions about what the other person means can be misleading. It was an interesting exploration of semantics.

But the other point of note was that this discussion didn’t take place in a confined space for people who like that sort of thing. It wasn’t shut off in a private place where some people believe ‘religious’ discussion should be confined. It took place in a full-to-overflowing Frauenkirche, but was relayed to a huge screen in the square outside. I watched and listened to it in the sun… in the marketplace… amid all the competing voices… along with hundreds of others.

The Germans didn’t lock this up in some dodgy compartment, but opened it up to an intelligent marketplace where it would stand or fall on it’s merits. And that’s the power of the Kirchentag: it runs through the public space of a city and is not confined (as, for example, Greenbelt) in a place for those who have chosen it.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad