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Reform Magazine | August 18, 2017

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Editorial: How to have a conversation

steve_tomkinsAugustus Toplady wrote the well-loved hymn “Rock of Ages” in 1763, when John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, was at the height of his powers. They were both ministers and religious writers, evangelical leaders in the Church of England who wanted above all to save souls and revive British Christianity.

So you might expect them to see each other as co-workers and brothers. In fact, Toplady called Wesley “the most rancorous hater of the Gospel system that ever appeared in this island,” while Wesley said Toplady was a dirty writer who would foul his fingers if they engaged in debate. Each accused the other of blasphemy. Wesley said Toplady’s God was “worse than the devil”; Toplady said Wesley’s creed was “palpable atheism”.

The question that divided them was: Does God predetermine who will be saved? You might agree with one side or the other, you might disagree with both, you might have no opinion whatsoever. Whatever our position on the matter, there aren’t many of us today who would get so upset about it.

As times change, our assumptions and deeply-rooted thinking change too, and issues that divided us so insuperably become more and more superable. The Protestant church I go to has a prominent image of Mary. The nearby Catholic church has vernacular Bibles. Both inspired violence in the Reformation period.

What doesn’t change, whether we’re looking back 250 years or 500, is how to have a conversation. Hearing and refusing to hear, graciousness and ignorance, arrogance and openness, decency and dishonesty. The debate between Wesley and Toplady failed spectacularly, and the more the urgency of the issue has faded away, the more starkly we see their failures to hear with clarity and speak with charity.

The issues that divide us today and that fuel our arguments are new and different – but only in subject matter. They excite fervour, they are important, they make us feel so emphatically right – in this they are the same as ever. They will pass, and future generations may find our arguments incomprehensible, but what will be perfectly clear to them is how we conducted them.

To Wesley and Toplady, the question of predestination seemed important enough to justify vitriol and distortion. Our perspective shows us, not that their arguments were less important than ours, but that the importance of an argument does not remove the need to listen fairly, intelligently or graciously.

Reform is a forum for debate. People are free to speak their mind and have their say, on a wide range of subjects, from a wide range of perspectives. If there’s anything you disagree with – and I defy you to agree with it at all – then join the debate.

If Reform is also a forum for listening, that could really be worth something.

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This article was published in the May 2014 edition of  Reform.

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