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Conference planned to help churches resolve conflict

A national conference to be held next year will seek to improve the way churches resolve conflict by drawing on real-life experiences ...

A national conference to be held next year will seek to improve the way churches resolve conflict by drawing on real-life experiences.

Delegates from Christian churches all over England, and beyond, will gather in Coventry to explore how conflict is handled, whether it be over national issues or local tensions and power struggles.

The Faith in Conflict conference will be held 26-28 February 2013 in Coventry Cathedral, itself an iconic symbol of reconciliation.

Keynote speakers will be Revd Canon Dr Sam Wells, current incumbent at St Martin-in-the-Fields, whose work often focuses on bringing people together in the context of fear and faith, and Revd Dr Jo Bailey Wells, who has expertise in working across the divides in churches in America in the wake of the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson.

One of the conference sponsors is The Right Revd Justin Welby, recently announced as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury and currently Bishop of Durham.

Bishop Justin, himself a skilled mediator, said: “This conference is unique in that it is designed to help the Church take the task of mediation seriously.”

Revd Canon Dr Sam Wells said: “Conflict evokes exasperation and impatience. Exasperation, because people tend to regard the other side as the enemy; impatience because reconciliation is seen as taking up a lot of time and delaying the work of the kingdom.

“I want to challenge those assumptions. Conflict, diversity and tension are healthy and life-giving. The impatience comes when people say the time taken up by reconciliation delays us getting on with ‘it’ when, in fact, reconciliation is the ‘it’.

“What I want to do is address what happens when the red mist descends and people start defining conflict in terms of war.”

The conference has been organised by a group of professionals looking to assist the church. The group includes top commercial and community mediators, and is supported by Bridge Builders, the country’s leading provider of training for church leaders in handling conflict, Peaceworks, the leading mediation, reconciliation and training agency on the South Coast, and the Reconciliation Ministry Team at Coventry Cathedral.

One of the team is Bill Marsh, who sits on the Organising Committee and is a Workshop Leader.

Bill, one of Europe’s most experienced mediators and a regular advisor on mediation and conflict issues to a range of governments and international bodies, including the World Bank and the UN, said: “What happens with conflict is that it grinds people down. It induces a sense of fear in people and provokes their fight or flight instinct, which is not helpful.

“Such conflicts tend to polarise very quickly. I call it the “descent into simplicity” – I’m right and you’re wrong. As a result, there is little genuine dialogue.

“You can see that in the Church of England, for example, with the debate surrounding women bishops or homosexuality. It quickly becomes a case of caricatured views, and hence people say these disputes are impossible to resolve.

“I think the important first step is not the resolution but the process, getting people to talk and express their views, and to listen. Through that, people reveal their humanity and address the reality of situations, you get beyond caricatures, and the nuances and complexities of disputes can be seen.

“Look at the peace process in Northern Ireland. These were polarised views but they had a dialogue, kept talking and listened to each other. There is not enough proper listening today. Look at the House of Commons, it’s more of a bear pit where no one listens, and people take their lead from that.“
 
Bridging the gap which threatened school’s future

One of the workshop leaders will be Chris Seaton, of the conference Organising Committee, who lives on the south coast.

After a brief early career as a solicitor, Chris spent 12 years working in ministry at Revelation Church in Sussex and Hampshire. He has long been involved in reconciliation and peace-making, including projects in Croatia and Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Africa and North America. In 1999, he co-founded Peaceworks after having trained as a mediator with Bridge Builders.

Earlier this year (2012), Chris was called in when relationships between a pre-school and the church that created it reached an all-time low.

Problems began when the school came under the Ofsted inspection regime and was classified as 'outstanding', the highest rating possible. However, as more resources were expended on matters such as school administration and safeguarding children to meet national requirements, the PCC felt that Christianity was being given a lower priority.

Chris said: “The school staff felt that they were running a good and inclusive school for the community but the church leaders felt that the school was losing the missional element that had been the origin of the school. They felt that they were not seeing the conversions or the people coming into church.

“The situation had become polarised and the two sides were far apart. In these situations, it tends to be about perceptions. What happens is that people become entrenched and a skilled mediator helps them focus on what they want to achieve.

“In this case, once people started talking to each other, stopped looking to the past and focused on the future instead, they realised that they were not far apart and we were able to resolve the situation.

“The result is that the school is still there but some of its events, such as harvest festival, happen in the church instead of in the school, which means parents have a stronger connection with the church. In mediation, you are looking for a win-win result and that was the case here. These kind of cases will become more prevalent with the changes in the education system.”

* For further information on the conference, visit www.faithinconflict.com or call 024 7652 1261.

Photo: Bishop of Durham Rt Rev Justin Welby (Keith Blundy/Aegies Associates)

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