Speaking Out on Controversies

The news story that has dominated the headlines over the past 5 days or so was the reaction to a tweet posted by the sports presenter, Gary Lineker. The tweet was critical of the government’s policy and language towards migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. It compared the language used to some of the language used in 1930’s Germany by the then Nazi government.

The BBC, who employs Mr. Lineker, but on a freelance basis, felt the tweet was a breach of impartiality guidelines and made the decision to suspend him from his presenting duties on their flagship football show, ‘Match of the Day’, on Saturday night. His colleagues on the programme, and other football shows, said they would not be presenting until he was reinstated and that he had every right in a democracy to say what he wanted. 

People felt very strongly on both sides of the argument. Some people argued that he had no right to pass judgment on government policy and that he was speaking from a position of privileged isolation. Others felt that he had every right to use his platform to speak out on an issue he feels very strongly about. Mr. Lineker has welcomed asylum seekers into his home and given them a safe space as they get established in their studies and employment as they flee from situations of war and conflict in their home countries.

I heard one radio show describe this controversy as the most divisive public debate since Brexit, such was the depth of feeling being expressed on both sides.

The controversy got me thinking about the church’s role in public debate. I wonder if following the way of Jesus can help us to model something powerful and important in these situations of division in public debate?

Of course, the church is not without its own controversies when it comes to divergence of opinion. My own denomination of Anglicanism finds itself deeply divided about questions of human sexuality and same sex marriage. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has had quite a bit of publicity in recent times over the election of a new moderator who has spoken out very publicly about his views on women in leadership roles in the church, even though women have been ordained for quite some time in that denomination.

These are emotive subjects and people express their views in the strongest possible terms. At times, those debates can move away from the subject being debated to personal attacks on those who hold different views, and that rarely turns out well from my own experience and observations.

One of the most challenging and powerful sessions I had as a theological student came about when the College Fellowship invited two former students who became bishops to come and share their experience of friendship in the midst of difference.

Bishop Peter Barrett (now deceased) was a high church man. He revered liturgy and sacraments and a particular tradition and style of worship. He became friendly during his time in college with Bishop Alan Abernethy, who is the retired Bishop of Connor. Bishop Abernethy came from a more Evangelical background, with a particular love and reverence for the Bible. Their backgrounds were different and, while they may have held different theological positions on certain matters, their friendship became the common ground to explore the richness of each other’s background.

Theological colleges can become quite a hot house of strongly held convictions and beliefs. People can be labelled as belonging to one particular camp or tradition and, as such, expected to do things in a particular way. These two men in their talk described a safe space where, in their friendship, they could ask questions of the other. Why do you do things in that particular way or why do you find this practice helpful? Is there anything you could recommend that I read to help me understand that a bit better?  It didn’t mean that they stopped being themselves, but it gave them both an appreciation for some of the riches of the others tradition and a willingness to explore if it could be something they might find helpful or beneficial in their own walk with the Lord. I loved that openness and respect and humility in their joined approach as they spoke to that meeting.

When it comes to the controversies of our own day, whether they be theological, political or expressing our opinion on some of the issues of the day, there are a few suggestions we could offer as the ‘church without walls.’

The first is a call to listen and pray. Even if our instinct is to disagree profoundly with someone, it’s important to listen carefully to them. Why have they come to the conclusions they have? What has led them to that opinion? Maybe it’s their background or personal experiences to this point, but we need to listen and hear and pray for them.

The second one is closely aligned to that and it’s perhaps hard to take on board in the heat of battle or strong debate. We are called to recognise that the person with whom we debate is someone for whom Christ died, just as we are. Whether we agree with them, or believe them to be totally wrong, we still have a responsibility to love them. In John 13 verses 34-35 Jesus stated, “ A new command I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you so you must love one another.” Does our opinion have some grounding in our understanding of the scriptures, recognising that people don’t always interpret them in the same way?

The third one is an awareness of the power of the tongue and our language. St. James in his letter reminds us of this and how for such a small part of the body it has the power to do immense harm as well as good. When something is said, it’s hard to take it back and people will always remember that you said something against them if you overreact.

The last principle I’m going to suggest, which may seem boring or bland to a society that thrives on controversies, is that you don’t always have to give your opinion. If you hold a position of influence, or you have a platform on which you can express your views, it’s a good thing to ask the question, “Will expressing my opinion cause division or bring healing? Will it impact my capacity to be an agent for reconciliation and peace in the community?”

It’s never easy to get the balance right and there are times when we feel the strong conviction that we need to speak out against what we believe is wrong or unjust. It’s always important to frame our words in the context of relationship. Even if we disagree profoundly, can we still love the other and want what would be best for them and have the humility to recognise that we ourselves could be wrong and be prepared to admit that?

Look forward to speaking again soon.

Much love to everyone,


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