This is my first visit to the United States since Donald Trump was sworn in as President. In some ways, it still seems like a dream, so bizarre has some of the news emanating from the White House become. We have moved a long way from US Presidents being denied mobile phones until Barack Obama insisted on retaining his Blackberry. I travel with some trepidation and not just because some of the toilets on this nine-hour flight were only fixed ten minutes before take-off. What will have changed, if anything, in the places I visit or the people I talk too? I feel a certain wariness has crept into my thinking, the same wariness I feel when I enter an Israeli bar and get asked my views on the situation, or start a conversation about Brexit at home. Trump didn’t manufacture the extreme polarization of American politics, he simply exploited it to his own short-term ends.
I am also preparing for meetings with United Methodist colleagues just as the Council of Bishops have signed off the work of the Commission of a Way Forward. After decades of often rancorous debate and disagreement about the place of LGBTQ+ people in the life of the Church, there is some hope that this report might help to move things on in a significant way. Is this a realistic prospect after so much hurt and pain, when relationships have been fractured and splintered? Will this, once again, become the love that dare not speak its name?
And speaking of the gays, I am mid-Atlantic just as the Grand Final of the Eurovision Song Contest gets underway in Portugal. This is the third biggest television event in the world, only surpassed by the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games. Hundreds of millions of people are tuning in right now, though not in China, who rightly incurred the wrath of the European Broadcasting Union by censoring the performance of Ireland’s entry, Ryan O’Shaughnessy, because it featured two (fully-clothed) male dancers enacting a normal gay relationship. Though beyond belief for some, it simply highlights the work still to be done to create a world where all LGBTQ+ people can live with dignity and without discrimination and hate. For me, the gay hajj will have to wait until next year ….
Despite my love of discussion and argument, I am becoming more fearful of public engagement. More than once I have been accused by others I disagree with of being ‘too articulate’, but which they usually mean that my arguments are too well thought out and hard to refute. Somehow, I seem to have created an unfair advantage by thinking before I open my mouth. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth and so my articulacy comes, not from breeding or genes, but is learnt behaviour, a skill set I have acquired. In a contemporary public square drenched with gut reactions and the echo-chamber of social media, these skills have become rarer and even despised by some.
I remember my first attempt at debating when I was sixteen. Before that, I was a pretty awkward and even introverted teenager, too afraid of criticism and getting it wrong to go public with my opinions. So I chose, for that maiden foray, to defend blood sports!! I got mauled, rightly, but it began a training that continued
through theological college and the wider Church and challenged me to think the best thoughts I could and not be satisfied with stuff that ‘felt’ okay.
I fear a world, and a church, where articulacy is scorned and leaders think only in 140 characters. If politics, or schools, or higher education, will not train us to think better and harder, to make sure our opinions are well-informed, and to be able to hear the views of our opponents with respect and openness, then perhaps the church and civil society need to step in.
Thirty years on from that first debate, I am eternally grateful for the mauling I got that day, the encouragement of a teacher called Eibhlin Shaw who gave up her time to counsel and warn, and the one person out of thirty members of the Debating Society who leant me their support that day.