Noisy gongs and clanging cymbals

penny mulveyPENNY MULVEY

Have you ever considered what a respectful conversation might sound like? This might seem an odd question if you are always respectful. However, the concept of respect is not necessarily a given, as is evidenced by the degree of vitriol witnessed on social media, in parliament, on television talk shows and directed at people working in customer services.

Last month, Stuart McMillan, the president of the Uniting Church, issued a public statement urging members of the Church to engage in respectful conversations around the topic of marriage equality and the Government’s proposal for a plebiscite.

“How as the people of God in the Uniting Church in Australia do we engage,” Mr McMillan asked, “firstly, with one another within the Christian community recognising the range of theological diversity; and secondly, how do we engage with the wider Australian community?”

Is it even possible to be respectful if you are expressing an opinion on whether someone who has a different sexual orientation than you should be allowed to marry?

I posed this question to Uniting Church member and Victoria’s inaugural Commissioner for Gender and Sexuality, Rowena Allen.

Ms Allen believes respectful conversations can happen – with extreme care. She said each person needs to actively listen, tell the truth and ‘stay to the conversation’. She expressed concern about some public statements in opposition to marriage equality, which raise issues of bestiality and harm to children.

This is not staying to the conversation, is not respectful and is offensive. Ms Allen also stressed the importance of ‘I’ statements.

While the Uniting Church has not come to a common mind on the question of marriage equality, last year’s 14th Assembly committed to encourage the “space for grace”.

This is a challenging time for all of us. For some it might appear that the very bedrock of society, the institution of marriage, is under threat. How do we manage our complex thoughts and emotions as we witness the public debate swirl around us? How do we discern God’s truth in the deluge of often acrimonious words?

In a world that seems to be increasingly presented as black-and-white it can be hard to sit in the middle, to not have an opinion or not know what to think. That’s okay. Ultimately it is how we treat each other. For President McMillan, it is “through conversations from the heart, listening deeply to one another and God”.

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