Is Agreement Over-Rated?

by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool


In 2012 Rowan Williams published a collection of lectures under the title “Faith in the Public Square”. They are significant contributions to a whole range of issues, and each lecture was spoken in the expectation that there would indeed be a public square within which they would be heard.

Even in 2012 this was a debatable proposition, and it’s yet more so now. The public square is splintering and is being replaced with a series of echo-chambers within which people build up their own micro-solidarities, and from which they issue manifestos aimed at others, not in the room, who disagree with them.

We risk abandoning the public square for a series of private circles who never meet directly. Recent actions of the US President are an example of what I mean. He attended remembrance-related meetings in France at which statements about nationalism were made by the French President in his presence. He seems to have said nothing about them publicly in the presence of his peers, preferring to launch Twitter broadsides against President Macron later from the safety of the White House.

This sort of behaviour is rooted in human emotion, and in particular in fear and aggression. Today, blame for it is usually laid at the door of the social media platforms. But the temptation to avoid the hard work of meeting other people, and instead to pillory them from a safe fortress, is far older than Facebook and Twitter.

This fragmentation of the public square leads to bad disagreement.

By contrast I myself believe in the possibility, and now and again the reality, of good disagreement. Within the Anglican family I strongly stand with those, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who commend good disagreement and work towards it within the churches and the Communion and who see it as a potential gift of the Church to the world, a potential gift of our community to the splintered public square.

But good disagreement is not easy, and not comfortable. For disagreement to be good it must first be recognised as disagreement, and faced as disagreement, and worked through as disagreement. This recognition and facing and work should not be confused with another task  – trying to dissolve disagreement by producing a synthesis with which all may agree. This is often a commendable aim and it works well when a problem is simple.

But some problems are not simple. They are wicked.

As Wikipedia will tell you, “A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The use of the term “wicked” here has come to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil. Another definition is “a problem whose social complexity means that it has no determinable stopping point”. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.” 

The present turmoils in the UK over Brexit are suitably wicked. They demonstrate once again, as if the matter needed demonstration, that you can’t please everyone and that attempting to do so pleases no one. And yet decisions must be made and conclusions reached, preferably by people in the room together. But this is not what is happening, with a Cabinet from which new people are resigning daily and occasionally hourly.

So what should be the disposition of people in the nation – and in the churches –  who face wicked problems together, in the splintered public square, with the intention of working towards good disagreement? Well, Jimmy Cagney knew.

Asked about the art of performance, the great Hollywood star summed up his working philosophy in the words at the head of this article: “Find your mark, look the other fellow in the eye, and tell the truth.” There’s a lot to be said for this way of being.

“Find your mark…” Cagney is speaking of the bits of tape, stuck to the floor of a film set out of the camera’s sight, which tell the actor where to stand if he or she is to be properly lit and placed. In the movies it helps to find your mark, to know where you stand. And not only in the movies.

The great Jesuit peace campaigner Daniel Berrigan, imprisoned many times for nonviolent civil disobedience, used to say “know where you stand – and stand there”.

Good disagreement demands transparency about what people think and what they want to see done. Bad disagreement, the sort of disagreement we’re seeing in the Conservative Party over Brexit, involves threatening to leave the room, or actually leaving the room, and replacing conversation with articles in newspapers, open letters, leaked statements and the like.

Threatening to leave a room strains and splinters the public square, but it also gets you noticed. As the US political commentator David Frum said in last week’s “Atlantic” magazine, speaking of the Republican Party: “In politics, it’s very often the people nearest the exits who claim the most attention”. By contrast good disagreement involves remaining in the room, finding your mark and then seeing who else is there.

“…look the other fellow in the eye…” Especially when facing wicked problems, human connection matters. It is harder to objectify or demonise someone if you face them across a table. Miraculous, rabbit-from-the-hat solutions are unlikely (though with God all things are possible), but surprising convergences and unlikely alliances can emerge from conversations in the room. The partnership between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in Northern Ireland stands as an example from the political world of what can happen when people stay in the room and eyeball one another.

Bad disagreement emerges when people do not look one another in the eye – in other words when the elephants stand unchallenged in the empty room, when a jaunty and distant politeness takes the place of an honest conversation.

“…and tell the truth.” A frustrated diplomat once said that the people he was meeting “do not think what they feel, do not say what they think, and do not do what they say.” Bad disagreement emerges when people for whatever reason – fear, confusion, ulterior motive – do not tell the truth to themselves or to others.

To tell the truth is to make yourself vulnerable, because you could be wrong. Anyone who faces another in a room of disagreement should be saying to themselves, as well as to the other, the words that Oliver Cromwell spoke to the Scottish Church Assembly: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken”. Or as the Marxist Rosa Luxembourg put it: “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently”.

But at any given moment it helps conversation if you communicate what you believe to be true, even though you’re open to a change of mind. And the truth is not always sharp and clear. Communicating an honest confusion is better than communicating a false clarity. It helps then to remain in the room with others, and openly to share the truth you have to share. To do so is to move either towards understanding and agreement, or towards understanding and good disagreement.

Agreement is lovely, if it is indeed agreement; the end of a journey and not a fudged waymarker on the road to a quiet life. Too often however, in the words of my friend Shannon Johnston the retired Bishop of Virginia, “Agreement is over-rated”. Cheap, hasty, quiet-life agreement is over-rated. It closes down the conversation. It puts an end to the meeting in the room. And in the end it breaks, and returns us to the remote and tribal mud-slinging that marks our political discourse in these days. By contrast good disagreement is a disenchanted but human possibility, demanding patience and forbearance, from which divine surprises may indeed emerge.

Find your mark, look the other person in the eye, and tell the truth.

To do so is to contribute to the building of the public square once again. In the splintered, fractious social and political climate in which we are compelled to live today, surely by God’s grace this is the least we can do together.

This entry was posted in Bishop of Liverpool, Good Disagreement, Human Sexuality. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Is Agreement Over-Rated?

  1. Pingback: Opinion – 17 November 2018 – Thinking Anglicans

  2. andiibowsher says:

    This is a genuine question: where was this public square where people didn’t fragment into mutually-reinforcing echo chambers? Was there ever a public square in the sense of somewhere where people of differing and apparently exclusive convictions looked each other in the eye and told the truth? I’m not being idly cynical, but genuinely trying to think of where/when this was the case and -importantly- what conditions existed in them to overcome the heterofugal tendencies?


  3. Dear Paul,

    “Within the Anglican family I strongly stand with those, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who commend good disagreement.”

    I don’t understand how threatening The Episcopal Church with sanctions for its celebration of lesbian and gay sexuality is ‘good disagreement’.

    Nor do I understand how calling for celibacy of gay and lesbian people (with negative consequences for priests and ordinands if they don’t conform, and psychologically damaging consequences if they do) is ‘good disagreement’.

    Nor do I really see the half million pounds spent pursuing Jeremy Pemberton because he married the person he loved as ‘good disagreement’.

    I could go on, but my point is that Justin still presides over a governance that penalises decent people with divergent conscientious views.

    I do fundamentally believe in ‘Unity in Diversity’. Good disagreement is respecting other people’s right to different conscientious opinion and practice. And still praying for their flourishing. Our unity is in Christ, not in imposed uniformity.

    Nor is it one group’s conscience dominating another group’s conscience. Justin doesn’t even know if gay sex is a ‘sin’. But he still demands celibacy of priests and ordinands. That doesn’t stack up with good disagreement in a clearly divergent church.



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