How can we engage in peaceful dialogue?

An interfaith dialogue between the official faith chaplains of St Andrews University.

Sandy Edwards – Hon. Humanist Chaplain

The success of the human race as a species rests for the most part on the very different areas of the world that we have come to inhabit and the accompanying enormous diversity of cultures which have evolved there. Variety is certainly the spice of life. Along with this is our ability as a species to communicate; from simple face to face conversation and literature to present day digital remote conversation and information. These differences have also given rise to an enormous number of life stances and philosophies. Most of these differences are slight; different languages and ways of life in different habitats. A few are fundamentally different and have been the cause of often violent opposition. We tend to think of these as religious differences, but there are many secular differences such as extreme dictatorships, political movements and cultural morality. The key to an understanding and attempts to a resolution is the word “dialogue”, which is in the title of the question. The problem here is that the individuals concerned, and it usually is an individual, refuse to enter into any dialogue.

One of the ways to avoid this is somehow to have a dialogue with their relevant population. This is often achieved by pamphlets and posters and nowadays by what we call social media; i.e. the internet. There is also the fear/worry that another lifestyle will replace your own. Evidence of this can be seen in the history of colonisation, a system of replacement rather than cooperation. Or one belief system being so convinced that it is right and all others wrong. Certainly, if suffering or human rights violations are concerned then there is a problem, but usually close inspection of origins and interpretation will show distortions which are used for personal gain or vendetta. I am not a psychologist but the causes of people becoming, what we would call fanatics, is no doubt very complex. Here again analysis, discussion and listening may help but how to have a peaceful dialogue is very difficult. I once went to a discussion and group workshop on Peace. There was someone there who negotiated meetings between rival leaders of countries or states. He first asked them individually to write down the things they liked; books, music, food, films etc. He then, when they were together asked them about these but only choosing the things they liked in common. This would give a good start to getting them to talk to one another.

There are things most of us have an interest or like in common; food and music I think are the commonest. We all like the latter and usually enjoy trying food from other cultures and countries. This is a short reply, partly because I have just started to read “How the World Thinks” by Julian Baginni. It is comparative philosophy and looks to perhaps answer the question of peaceful dialogue. I have heard him speak and he speaks, and writes, simply and concisely. I’ve only got as far as the introduction but will finish with a quote from this.

To travel around the world’s philosophies is an opportunity to challenge the beliefs and ways of thinking we take for granted. By gaining greater knowledge of how others think, we can become less certain of the knowledge we think we have, which is always a first step to greater understanding.


Revd Dr Donald MacEwan – University Chaplain

Although I am employed by the University in an ecumenical capacity, I belong to the Church of Scotland. This church has faced some difficult questions over recent years, which have been emotive and divisive. Examples have been – Should the Church divest from companies working with fossil fuels? What attitude should the Church take to Scottish independence? Should the Church close particular buildings? But the most contentious questions nationally have been about LGBT issues. Should gay ministers, in partnerships, work in the Church? Should marriage be extended to same sex couples?

Some of our dialogue has not been peaceful. In fact it’s been more diatribe than dialogue. In person, in print, in blogs and in meetings, people on different sides of these questions have tried to say that people with different views are not welcome in the Church.

Responding to this, the Church of Scotland’s Theological Forum (of which I’m the current convener), has promoted constrained difference. This approach recognises that Christians disagree profoundly about certain questions, and that a variety of approaches may all have validity arising from scripture within our tradition (this is the difference). Nevertheless there are common principles and accepted boundaries to our faith which guide the breadth of faithful views and what lies outside (this is what is meant by constrained).

In practice this has allowed many people in the Church, who disagree about whether marriage should be extended to same sex couples, to listen attentively to others, and to continue to share the same church without feeling the need to remove others or walk away themselves. We can love our sisters, brothers and friends in Christ while disagreeing with their opinions. Of course the debate on the issues continue – and the Church appears to be moving towards fuller acceptance of gay ministers and same sex marriage. But constrained difference provides an environment which allows the debate to be respectful, honest, and ultimately, I hope, peaceful.


Leslie Stevenson – Hon. Quaker Chaplain

There is little point in proceeding direct to controversy and confrontation (unless someone is presently being harmed).

My ideal dialogue would go something like this: (best done with individuals, but may work in very small groups):

Greet the person in a friendly way, with a smile and if appropriate a handshake (some may have cultural issues about the latter, and it’s presently forbidden by the virus).

Introduce yourself with little indication of your own views, so that the person doesn’t immediately categorize you.

Sit down if possible, and preferably share an appropriate drink, showing you’re prepared to spend some time together.

Ask friendly but probing questions rather than making assertions or criticisms.   What do you think about X?  Why do you think so?  Is it consistent with what you think about analogous cases Y and Z?  Can you accept the consequences of X?

Of course, the person may well turn the questions on you, and if so you must answer honestly.  But you don’t need to pile in with elaborate speeches, just answer the questions actually asked.  And don’t be afraid to admit uncertainty on some issues.

It may be that things proceed to a stage where some more personal experiences and attitudes can be shared, both ways round, non-judgmentally.  What in your culture or religion or whatever has led you to believe X, and do Y?  What in your individual experience has led you in this direction?

You should be able to finish in as friendly a manner as you started.  It may seem as if nothing has changed, but change for the better is possible, both ways round, perhaps in unexpected ways.

This is an idealized version of Socratic dialogue, as practiced (according to Plato’s dialogues) by the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates in the late 5th century BCE.  It also represents, I hope, some of the best of Quaker values.


Barbara Davey – Hon. Quaker Chaplain

My reflections on this question have evolved from the opening phrase “peaceful dialogue” – what might our expectations be of such a dialogue? And as a starting point, what is carried in that word ”peace”?

I’ve found it helpful to reread a passage in Sydney Bailey’s 1993 Swarthmore Lecture where he places peace within an exploration of the Kingdom of God –

That Kingdom has two tenses: it is already here, in each one of us; and it is still to come, when God’s goodness becomes a universal norm. We are to live now ‘as if’ the Kingdom of God were already fulfilled.

Quaker faith & practice 24.57

In this context then, peace begins within ourselves, implemented in each and every aspect of our daily lives. It is a task that will never be done –

Peace is a process to engage in, not a goal to be reached.

When faced with the seemingly irreconcilable issues that the prompt refers to, I am reassured by the sense of peace being a process not a goal: peaceful dialogue is something that we can work towards. I am likewise encouraged by the idea that encountering difference can help us to learn: handled with care, our differences can be a point of change and growth. We need not necessarily be fearful of dialogue around emotive issues; in fact working creatively through conflict is probably a necessary element in achieving change.

Mary Lou Leavitt (Quaker faith & practice 20.71) outlines some practical skills that support such fruitful dialogue. We would do well to begin by naming the issues, individually owning them in statements such as ‘I see’ or ‘I feel’, rather than ‘surely it is obvious that…’ Getting the issues out into the open might seem confrontational but, done with love, and in a language we hope others can hear, the naming helps towards understanding what we are dealing with.

A second skill is listening, not simply to the words, but to what lies behind them. Listening well is a collaborative process. It takes time and energy and courage. What we each hear might be hurtful. Can we also be open to the possibility we might be changed by what we hear?

A third skill is letting go, not giving up, but letting go of our commitment to opposition and separation, making room for the Spirit, being aware of our connectedness as human beings. All around us we see the dangers of de-humanising those we disagree with.

Naming, listening, letting go, none of this is easy, but –

Hold yourself and others in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God

Quaker faith & practice Advices & queries 3


This assurance strengthens my resolve to trust and stay rooted in waiting on God. The trusting and the waiting are both a discipline and a gift, acknowledged every day, and nurtured as I go about my daily life…

Alongside the stories that bring anguish and despair, I do come across ways in which peaceful dialogue has been made possible.

In 2016 the Republic of Ireland held a year-long Citizen’s Assembly to investigate the emotive question of the legalisation of abortion. Such a patient and undogmatic approach broke the deadlock around a deeply complex and divisive issue that had dogged the country for years.

And recently I read of The Olive Tree Scholarship Programme which ran for twelve years at London’s City University, bringing Palestinian and Israeli students together, sharing accommodation, their degree studies supplemented by dialogue, interaction and debate. “The Olive Tree changed my life,” said one participant, and another, “It gave me a chance to talk to the other, the enemy. We have more things in common than disliking the English weather.”

The programme provided a special place, not possible in their homeland, where ’enemies’ could learn from each other –

Somewhere beyond right and wrong, there is a garden. I will meet you there.

Rumi (13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic)


Republic of Ireland Citizen’s Assembly

The Olive Tree Programme

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