How the way we word our views can spark hostility
The installation this week of the new Methodist President, the Rev Peter Murray, and the church's AGM in Dublin brings to an end this season of church synods and assemblies.
To some outsiders, they may seem archaic and even irrelevant, but that is not so. They provide an important role in keeping the churches well-organised to meet the challenges of serving their members and society at large.
Of course, they have some remarkable debates, such as the Presbyterian Church's recent deliberations as to whether people should be baptised by full immersion or by 'sprinkling water' on the forehead.
Both sides of the matter were discussed with deep feelings but, after reading the reports and listening to the speeches, I am none the wiser. Some prefer 'dunking' and others like 'sprinkling', but it looks as if Presbyterian churches are not going to be allowed to install 'baptisteries' for total immersion any time soon.
Much was said, and done, in the past few weeks, but one of the most memorable points was made by new Presbyterian Moderator Dr Michael Barry. He spoke out forcefully and eloquently against racism and attacks on other people.
However, it was his remarks on the tone of debate in public life that caught my attention, and they are worth reporting in full.
He said: "One thing I have been discovering in the last few months is how difficult it is to speak – and to be understood correctly.
"Words can be interpreted in a way we never intended. We can be misunderstood so easily. And, of course, there will always be those who will deny us the right to speak if they disagree with us, claiming that our words are inflammatory.
"We must be careful in what we say, and we must be careful to say it in a clear and gracious manner. But we must also be allowed to state our case when others disagree with us."
These words should be studied closely by everyone, because they contain a practicality and a wisdom which, if acted upon, could reduce the number of 'crises' and squabbles in our public life.
Think, for example what the difference would have been if Pastor James McConnell had stated his views originally in a gracious manner. Think of the trouble Peter Robinson could have saved himself if he had taken a little longer to couch his initial statement about Islam in a way which would not have offended so many people.
Every day we hear examples of this verbal confrontation in public life, and there are times when it seems that our political dialogue, or the lack of it, is being conducted through various versions of the BBC current affairs programmes. Some of the arguments are soul-destroying.
I am also amazed by the number of people in public life who use Twitter in a way which adds fuel to the flames. I think Twittter is for shallow twittering, and is there not a colossal personal arrogance in stating one's instant views to a worldwide audience, as if people actually cared what you think?
Surely it is time for people to take a careful thought, not only for what they say, but how they say it. The Bible tells us, among many other things, that 'a soft answer turns away wrath'.
That is not a sign of weakness, but of strength, and I wish that more of our politicians, preachers and people speaking in public took such advice to heart. I always remember the old maxim, 'Mud thrown is ground lost ...'
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