From Disagreement to Trust
A Goldmine of Possibilities
A TIO Interview with Tom Wilson
Last December TIO reviewed Learning to Live Well Together by Tom Wilson and Riaz Ravat, calling it “a pioneering book that sets our assumptions topsy-turvy, makes us rethink the whole process of dialogue with ‘the other,’ and offers directions for a peaceful world in spite of all the conflict we face today.” Dr. Wilson is director of St Philip’s Centre in Leicester, UK, providing training and consultancy on interfaith issues for a wide range of local and national bodies. For this issue of TIO, dedicated to Towards a Global Ethic – An Initial Declaration, TIO interviewed Tom to learn more about transforming disagreement into trust.
** ** **
TIO: What in your vocational journey, your own spiritual growth, helped prepare you for dealing with serious disagreement as if it were a goldmine of possibilities?
Tom Wilson: Growing up in a family with shared Polish and English heritage, living in Wales till I was eighteen, meant I have always been used to different points of view. Sometimes it can just be fun – I am still a supporter of the Welsh rugby team, something I started in part to annoy my dad who was as English as they come. At other times, disagreements can be more serious, but they are always an opportunity to learn and to grow. My family are Catholic, and when I decided to get ordained in the Church of England, my grandfather disapproved, and wrote to tell me why he thought I was making a mistake. In his view, I should have joined the Catholic Church and he was not shy in telling me why. Rather than respond in-kind, I decided to simply write to him regularly, telling him what I was doing and what it meant to me. Although he died while I was still in training, we kept up a strong relationship and I think he at least came to understand my perspective, even if he was not fully convinced.
TIO: Trust seems to be the core value you pursue in developing interfaith relationships. Would you talk about trust, what it means and what you do at St Philip’s program to establish trust?
TOM: I thought a lot about tolerance, respect and trust while completing my PhD. As I say in the book, tolerance is sometimes held out as a good thing. It certainly is better than hatred, but it is not exactly a gold-standard to aim for. I can tolerate things I do not really like. For example, I have tolerated eating deep-fried locust in Thailand and goat intestine in Uganda. But I did not like doing so. As I understand it, tolerance implies I have the ability to stop something or to not do something, but I choose to not use that ability.
Trust, on the other hand, means I really understand you, I know where we disagree, and I will work so that you get the best you can despite those disagreements. At the St Philip’s Centre, we establish trust by demonstrating trust. That might involve us being vulnerable and demonstrating where we disagree with each other as a staff team; how we trust each other and work together despite those differences. It might be that we allow people to express their views, whatever they are. Sometimes we ask the dumb or possibly offensive questions to show that this is a safe space where no questions are off-limits. There are disrespectful and respectful ways of asking, and we are against anything that is deliberately rude or offensive.
But genuine questions are always welcome, so long as they are asked in a spirit of learning and a desire to develop trust. For example, whenever we work with groups trying to understand Islam, if no one else asks questions related to terrorism and the role of women, then I ask those questions. When we work with Christians, we might ask questions about the child abuse scandals that have rocked the Church. With Hindus it might be a question about how many gods they believe in, and whether they engage in idol worship. All of these questions have the potential to be offensive. But they also have the potential to be informative, to open up conversation, to become the foundations through which understanding and trust can develop.
TIO: Your book proposes a new response to serious disagreements. Please talk about the counterintuitive approach you take, about the alchemy of transforming opposition into collaboration, and how you work to achieve it.
TOM: Serious disagreements require serious responses. That is to say, if the problem is big, then we need to put sufficient resources into tackling the issues. We also need to recognise that it takes time to bring about transformation and finally that not every issue can be resolved nor will everyone necessarily be happy with what the final outcome is.
We have four values that we use to assess our work: encounter; understanding; trust and cooperation.
- Encounter: Encounter must be meaningful and sustained rather than superficial or fleeting. It should be between people, both as individuals and as groups. It enables both discovery of commonality and learning to disagree well.
- Understanding: Encounter can lead to increased understanding. Those participating develop a clearer sense of their own identity and beliefs as well as the identity and beliefs of others. Understanding does not necessarily lead to agreement, but it will lead to an empathetic appreciation of why different views are held. It may include recognising that some views are unacceptable.
- Trust: Understanding can develop into trust. Differences are held in tension, but as mutual respect grows, at the same time the common humanity of all those participating in the encounter is appreciated and celebrated, and we begin to trust each other.
- Cooperation: Trust provides the basis for cooperation in tackling areas of common concern. A shared objective is pursued even if motivations for action differ and differences in belief remain.
The four values that the St Philip’s Centre operates with are crucial in our approach to serious disagreements. They all feed off each other, rather than being a crude step-by-step process. People have to encounter difference with a willing spirit, a desire to learn; with disagreement, a desire for change and for agreement to be reached. They have to come to understand each other’s perspective. They probably will not agree with each other, but at least they come to understand how someone else sees the world. This understanding may develop into trust. Or it may be that you have to establish trust before you can even have a first encounter, or you have to help people understand the theory of why someone else is different before they trust you enough to meet them. With disagreements, it is likely that cooperation is the fruit of the process if you manage to get there at all.
Recently a lot of disagreement in Leicester has emerged about a planning application; it is for a Muslim madrassah (school) and prayer facility in a Hindu-majority part of the city. With so many different sides, accusations, and counter-accusations, it is difficult to know what good can come of it. We are still very much in the middle of this disagreement. I am not claiming that the Centre has any of the answers. But we are doing our best to understand how different people see the situation and asking how they can re-establish trust with each other so that positive civic engagement can continue between and across communities.
In another example, a few months ago I visited a rural school to explain to parents why it was safe for their children to come to the city for an educational visit. I started by asking them to tell me what their concerns were, trying to understand where they were coming from. Once they had been heard, they were ready to listen to me, and we managed to understand our different perspectives.
Happily some of those who had been ambivalent were persuaded to join the trip. A group of parents organized interfaith encounters they would otherwise not have had and began to trust people they would not otherwise have met. You could call it an example of “the goldmine of opportunities” that can come from disagreement. If a parent had not raised concerns about the visit, the head teacher of the school would not have contacted me. I would not have visited their school, and parents would not have come on the visit to Leicester. So a problem actually became an opportunity.
TIO: The work at St Philip’s is catching the attention of peacemakers around the world who deal with disagreement every day. How scalable is this work and how well might it fit into communities and cultures outside of Leicester?
This is a difficult one. It is tempting to say, just copy us and everything will be fine. Real life is not that simple. Every community is particular, each with its own situation, challenges, and opportunities. Some of what we do is very scalable. The work with schools for example, could be done anywhere. Similarly, the programs with our public services and uniformed organisations could also be run elsewhere.
For me the most important thing is to start at the edge of people’s comfort zones and slowly expand the area where they feel safe. Start small, achieve manageable change, and people will stay with you. Start big, push people too hard, and you will leave them all behind.
TIO: What are the ethical assumptions/values that guide St Philip’s mission and work?
TOM: The St Philip’s Centre is founded on the understanding that every human being is unique, all of us are intrinsically valuable, and all of us need help to become the individuals we were created to be.
We recognize the complexity of the world, including that of how faith and belief communities relate to each other. We believe that we are called to take risks and to actively engage with the other. We accept that all those involved with the Centre do not necessarily believe in the same way. We embrace people from a wide variety of perspectives and backgrounds to serve the good of all, which we understand to be founded upon the ethos and values derived from the Christian foundation of the Centre.
Finally our experience is that being asked what we believe helps us understand what we believe; questions and challenges are rewarding and enriching, not something to hide away from.
TIO: To what extent is St Philip’s a living response to the 1993 Global Ethic document? And what is necessary, what do we need to achieve, for the world to make a similar response grounded in the same ethic?
TOM: The 1993 Global Ethic set high standards which remain a challenge for us all. But we must also recognise that 25 years later, the world is in some ways a very different place. We are more divided, more fractured than we were 25 years ago. At the same time, we are more in touch, more able to communicate than previously. The rise of populism, disinterest in democracy, an increase in self-interest and isolation are some of the often-cited challenges we face. What we do not always talk about are the times when people have learnt to live well together.
Some of what the 1993 Global Ethic document promotes are not core aims at St Philip’s. We are a resourcing organisation, not a campaigning or a representative one. We try to be environmentally conscious, but we do not campaign on environmental issues. They are important, but we recognise that small organisations that do not have a clear focus do not survive.
Our contribution is a modest one. We encourage people of all faiths and no faith to meet together, to understand each other, to develop trust with each other, and to cooperate together for the good of all. Although it is not everything that needs to be done, it is one thing, and we firmly believe that if more people join in, then greater transformation can take place.