Two of the things I’ve done this weekend have led me to further reflections on the Shared Conversations process. This has raised more questions about the process, and also challenged me deeply.
Last night I went to one of the Merry Opera Company’s (semi)staged performances of the ‘Messiah‘. This was my second experience of this powerful version – the music performed by 12 professional singers, but the story set in the church in which the performance is happening. Each of the characters has a back-story, which the audience picks up from their clothing – hoodie, suit, party frock, and so on – and from their gestures and their reactions to the libretto. For example, the young woman who starts by rushing into the building and kneeling at the altar rail in obvious distress has a clear double-take at the words ‘A virgin shall conceive…’
In the loo queue (a typical feature of Anglican churches putting on concerts!) I chatted to one of the cast. He told me that they get a one-page summary of their role, and in his case at least he was given a further page of updates. The audience can’t know this back-story, but it informs what each cast member does. This reminded me of a 3-day training session I once had, for inspections under the aegis of the Quality Assurance Agency – we had to do a mock inspection in which some of us played reviewers, others staff and students at an imaginary college. The role brief was extensive. I played the fairly sulky mature student who can’t stand her head of department because he can never get her name right, and who is determined to say his name in the maximum number of possible variants! Some people were so far in character that one kicked another under the table to shut him up.
So, in the Shared Conversations, we are going to come together for 3 days; will we be able to understand sufficiently the back-stories we all bring to this meeting? And who constructs our stories anyway? For the Merry Opera Company, they’re given their role briefs, but in real life we are always constructing and reconstructing our stories, selecting key events as formative according to what happened after them. How should we be reflecting on our stories before we get to the Shared Conversations so that they are as honest as they can be? And is that honest story ever possible? How do we know if we are telling our own stories true-ly?
The second event was today; the third talk in a series on Christianity and Islam, arranged at my local church. The speaker was discussing extremism in both religions – timely after what’s happening in Paris – and emphasised the point that we construct the other as ‘Other’ by labelling, by ridicule, by associating her with particular music (or food – as in ‘The Frogs’), and that all this can go so far that it starts dehumanising the other. Once the other is no longer human, it becomes OK to stop applying normal ethical standards; to send Jews to the gas chambers, to experiment on Roma people, to detonate bombs… ‘Do not kill’ won’t hold you back if the other is no longer properly human.
And in the church, while we don’t go that far, we do a fair amount of that labelling and so on. It’s about creating a group identity – ‘they’ are ‘higher up the candle’, ‘smells and bells’, ‘happy-clappy’, and ‘we’ are defined by not being any of those. How am I going to face my own faults here? Can I do this? It’s always easier to overcome a prejudice when we focus on the person not the label, as when we express a prejudiced view about a social, racial or religious group but then say ‘of course, person X is great’ even though she’s in one of those groups. So will the intensity of being with the others during the Shared Conversations allow us to go beyond our prejudices? I sincerely hope so. But I’d be lying if I were to say I find this easy.