Sun on Cross

A new guide which shows Christian leaders how to work through their differences without becoming embroiled in long-term disputes has been released.

Through this course we hope to encourage religious leaders to treat conflict as an opportunity for change and transformation.

Dr Sara Savage

Transforming Conflict, which is being published by the Foundation for Church Leadership, was written by researchers at Cambridge University and offers a step-by-step curriculum in conflict management.

Its authors hope that it will help to reduce internal feuding among Christians of all denominations, from the most senior through to parish ministers.

"The Church often regards conflict as a stigma or a sign of failure," Dr Sara Savage, from the University of Cambridge's Psychology and Religion Research Project, said. "Through this course we hope to encourage religious leaders to treat conflict as an opportunity for change and transformation."

The 128-page guide was produced following a series of successful pilot courses run by Dr Savage and her colleague, Dr Eolene Boyd-MacMillan, earlier this year. Some 29 leaders from the Anglican, Baptist, Church of Scotland, Methodist, Roman Catholic and United Reform denominations underwent three days of conflict management training.

A short synopsis of the guide has already been sent for free to all Bishops and Archbishops in the Anglican Communion who attended the Lambeth Conference in July. Disputes over the appointment of gay clergy, of female bishops and whether Anglican Churches should condone gay unions have continued to cause bitter rifts in recent months.

The researchers used questionnaires and profiles, compiled during the training course, to analyse the specific needs of Christian leaders attempting to work through disputes.

Several common problems were identified. Many of the leaders presumed themselves to be "good" listeners when in fact their listening skills were poor. They also tried to resolve arguments by forcing others to accept their point of view, and exhibited a psychological tendency to "filter out" contrary opinions.

While these weaknesses apply to most people, rather than just Church leaders themselves, the research also revealed a number of institutional problems specific to the Church. Many leaders, for example, expressed a weariness with, and resignation towards conflict, leading to a "siege" mentality and a tendency to shy away from quarrels.

Others regarded conflict as "un-Christian". The guide remarks that there is "pressure on senior leaders to avoid conflict at all costs." It adds: "Senior church leaders seem relatively unaware of personal preferences and how these lead to and escalate conflict."

The book aims to offer a comprehensive course that deals directly with these weaknesses. Biblical precedents and examples are used throughout in an effort to strengthen the arguments by highlighting their roots in scripture.

Emphasis is placed on listening to the views of others. Readers are encouraged to search for an underlying value that all parties share, while curbing their natural, human instinct to hold firm to their own opinions and defend their corner. Without trying to synthesise or compromise their arguments, they are then shown how to develop creative solutions which reflect the core values of seemingly incompatible stances.

This "Integrative Complexity", the authors argue, is "the fundamental skill of every negotiation strategy". Opponents in arguments need to be reassured that their views are still of value even though others may not agree, and that they are discussing matters in a "shared space" where agreement can ultimately happen.

Other suggested techniques include a system of "Enlightened Tit for Tat" designed to reduce tension levels in meetings and teach participants that they can work together.

This method encourages readers to meet destructive comments with responses that highlight their damaging qualities - for instance, perpetrators should be asked to rephrase criticism "more constructively" where it borders on the offensive. As soon as their critics start to co-operate, however, users are advised to display Christian forgiveness by immediately becoming more co-operative in their own manner. Counter-insults and put-downs are banned.

The guide's authors hope it will help faith communities to become mediators for other disputants and restore them to their traditional role as guiding lights for others, rather than remaining embroiled in arguments themselves.

"Research has shown that without preparation and training, dialogue often perpetuates and entrenches conflicts," Dr Boyd-Macmillan said. "Our programme will prevent, avoid and reverse that finding."

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