GenComm unity


A discussion of what unity in discussion looks like for the CICCU in order to foist my opinion that GenComm needs to have the tone set from clearly from the front to go well.

Table of Contents

Dear brothers,[1]

I wrote a ‘proper’ (i.e. Peterhouse-length) email, but out of politeness never sent it. This is in lieu of that. This is not really about any of the things on the GenComm agenda; it is a sort of meta-note on the agenda and discussion itself. The short story is this: sometimes GenComm is bad because people come out with unhelpful arguments and leave less united than at the start (“Long bible studies teach us to love Jesus!” — “They distract us from evangelism” — squabbling — compromise leaves everyone unhappy). We have seen bad GenComms; some of you might be too young to have seen some really good GenComms, but the difference is really striking.

What would have liked to request is that the first five minutes (but I really want ten of course) consist of GenComm training to help make discussion useful. Read down as long as you like; the further you go the more of my attitude you get (hopefully). The point is: I believe Phil or Charlie really need to say something about GenComm attitudes at the start to train us to evaluate charitably what we hear, how to work towards understanding, and what it looks like to express what we believe without backing down, but love unity so much more that we prefer compromise than being happy only with getting our way. This would not be not a standard ‘CICCU is united around the gospel talk’, but a practical way of spotting bad arguments and factionalism and working towards something better.

My friends know how much it pains me to send or share anything for fear I have not captured my feelings accurately. It is bound to be off-key in places, but this time I really do want to express this. As usual, I am shockingly loyal given my dissident attitude and will be quiet if I sense it is wanted before Phil as I was for Matt.

Much love,

Note—this is in draft-ish form; I tightened up phrasing a little from the email sitting in my draft box, which in turn had paragraphs added over time. I normally never send or post these things, but with the big day looming tomorrow I am putting it up as-is.

1. Main sentiment

Over the last eight GenComms there have been different approaches to handling discussion. Basically, the last two years have been less good, and last term especially was difficult. It may have seemed productive, but the old-timers would agree that in the past it has been possible to nudge things in a different direction. With more changed over the last term and more change still on agenda than any time in the last few years, we can agree it will be hard to make the meeting useful.

It’s the “flavour” of discussion, the way people talk about things, that either makes the meeting very helpful or a waste of time. We know that there are people in the CICCU with very different views on things; we know that there are churches in Cambridge with different slants on ministry. Last GenComm, many of the comments from the floor, as the meeting went on, seemed to be more and more partisan, and predictable.

I mentioned this to the exec last summer, and I will bring it up again now: I strongly think that when you put a huge number of big items on the agenda, with subtle underlying considerations, the meeting will not go well unless you work from the front to make it so.

My top request is training. We, the committee, need to be trained on how to contribute at GenComm. I think someone needs to actually stand up and give a five to ten minute slot at the start explaining these issues: that we have heard all the simplistic arguments before; to remind us how hard we have to work making comments and counter-comments not to descend to churchism or factionalism; to force us to pause and phrase arguments guilelessly and carefully so that what we say is really what is going on in our minds to make us want to say the thing we want to say; to get us seriously evaluating and understanding the different views in the room rather than flattening them to fit into too short a time.

Perhaps Phil could do it in a chatty way over breakfast, or possibly even squeeze into the president’s slot. What might be better still though would be for Charlie to give us ten minutes at the start on how to think through and engage positively with differing opinions. I am not concerned in this remonstrance with what those opinions are; I am not writing to push any side of any argument. I just want the arguments to come out effectively, which was unusually hard last time. (You know my reverse politics? In full drive: “he sounds like he thinks he could do it” — well of course I do — but by mentioning it hopefully I will avoid giving the impression that I think I know any better than you — I wouldn’t bring out the secret bit of my masterplan if it really were a masterplan, would I? Charlie would be best, though the exec won’t like hearing that.)

So, some GenComms people leave without learning what is underlying their ‘opponents’’ positions, without getting any closer and unhappy with any compromise. Surprisingly, there have been GenComms in the past where the opposite has been true: we have come closer together, seen where the differing opinions come from and been willing to accept changes that we were unhappy with.

This is longer than I wanted it to be. Please make it good, and talk to us at the start in such a way that we make the most of it. There is too much rapid change for it to be easy to avoid shallowness.

PS. The exec gloves are off—I can and will say this in a long comment from the floor if I want to. I am eligible to do so. Think of it a blessing in store, not a threat.

2. Illustrations (appendix)

One GenComm, we discussed Central sermon timings, a good case-study (though details have in fact been changed for illustrative purposes). R made a point: “I hate long sermons, because, like, I just fall asleep you know. They’re not really evangelistic; why not have some more training and cut the sermon to 15 minutes? It’s, like, CICCU’s not church, so let’s stop making general teaching such a big thing.” Z instantly responds “No! We love Jesus, love hearing about him, and putting evangelism in its right place in the whole counsel of scripture and Christian life is essential. Cutting it down from 35 minutes would be terrible; we need that solid food to rightly encourage us”. I butt in: “Sorry Z, but maybe R is right; if we do have to shorten the sermon to make some people comfortable, we have to ask ourselves what is right to put in its place.” Z is shocked and slates me at the end for disagreeing when I should be her ally. I am unapologetic (hence using it as a case-study), in that boring, standard arguments have not helped either of them understand each other’s position. Of course I agree fully with Z, but that is not the point. In a year with R, I desperately wanted him to engage with me by working out why he actually produced certain arguments and explain that to me, and I wanted to put across to him how it was I really felt about the church and what tangy taste it had to me that I wanted to do things a certain way. I would give up five minutes’ sermon time readily if we could come together. What do we want: a GenComm where compromise leaves everyone unhappy and at logger-heads, or a GenComm where we recognise unity and are joyful at compromise if we can understand and respect opposing positions. I would give up a lot to have R in the CICCU, and only wish we could have had more engagement and understanding of each other. We disagreed on so many things, but we have to be more keen to work towards making the CICCU welcoming to everyone than having arguments leaving us only content with a one-sided solution.

The details have been tweaked for illustration, but I can confidently say that much of recent GenComm discussion has contained bad elements. This really hurts the CICCU and the older officers have to work to model unity to the reps or these things get difficult in some college groups too (like Peterhouse!).

Or, another case study: J. J is very forthright. He was direct, ‘quick to make evangelistic applications of passages’, if you know what I mean. A no-sermon-in-Central-at-all proponent. I did not always like the way he pushed college group, the way he led bible studies. The way I understand God’s grace in giving his church a place in his mission did not always line up with the way he used passages, or the way he contributed to bible studies; or my understanding of God’s varied gifting didn’t always line up with the approach to evangelism he sometimes urged on college group. Yet, I think he is great. It is worth biting back one’s tongue every college group for the sake of making him welcome too as well as the Eden-theology crowd, and doing college group together. I don’t regret any concessions of tone or emphasis for the sake of Church. It is hard to have that attitude as an exec or GenComm, but I see and know of colleges where timid people are frightened away, and keen people bored off. That is a huge shame, as a GenComm our reflection of that is to celebrate unity. We should want to express what we actually feel, at the lowest level, rather than what we feel is the quickest defence of a position. The aim is policy and decisions that make it easy to work together. Until all the churches in Cambridge have exactly the same theology, I want to state my position as clearly as possible, explaining my heart and attitude to Jesus without budging an inch, so that we can gladly come together around something mutually acceptable.

I have used myself too much as a shining example here, but I cannot with most honesty claim to know anyone else’s feelings, so I haven’t. I get it wrong all the time too, and it took me a long time to give up my faction and love Church more. We will not get this together on Thursday morning either without some time making it explicit to us.

[1] Meaning, “brothers and sisters”