Why so much crypto and secrecy?
The Bible is full of open disputation. In Galatians Peter and Paul have a technicolor public row. In the Acts various apostles fall out with each other and take their separate ways. In the gospels disciples vie with one another in front of all the others (or at any rate their mothers do) for hot spots in the Kingdom of Heaven.
All this is done without shame, or any particular feeling that it would have been very much better if the elite had stitched everything up behind closed doors. The only attempt to do this (the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15) was a brilliant day out, but its conclusions didn't last five minutes — soon enough Christians were eating non-kosher food anyway, and Peter and Paul arguing as forcibly as ever.
We all, of course, have deeply personal, random and inconsequential thoughts that don’t belong in public. Privacy is precious because it enables us to achieve intimacy and friendship with our friends and families, in a privileged environment where much can be taken for granted. Depth is sometimes only accessible to the solo scholar slogging away in the stacks. we all need space for meditation, solitude and desert experiences.
Also, it is only really possible for to allow particular friends into our full confidence with the security that comes from having invited them. A hot blazing eyeballs world of full exposure disallows this very important aspect of human friendship. So I am not against proper privacy.
However, I suspect we Home Counties Anglicans could allow ourselves a little bit more room for openness, especially about publicly significant issues. Here are some distinct advantages to public discussion, especially if it can be conducted by people who listen to each other with mutual respect and a longing to understand:
- Openness prevents people treating questions as settled before, in fact, they are. Premature closure breeds immaturity in a community, and privileges reductionism.
- As we discover with open source software, openness is the precondition of collaboration. When I am open I trust others with thoughts that matter to me, and, if they do the same with me, our relationship grows. Modelling a world where you can like and value people with whom you disagree witnesses to the possibility of a kingdom based on transformed relationships.
- Openness stops people taking hierarchy seriously in the wrong kind of way. In a public discussion peopl's last idea is as good as their last job, which pricks the bubble of hierarchy and gives opportunity to shine to the person with the best idea, which can then be acknowledged
- As Benedict points out in the rule, the youngest and most improbable person sometimes has the best idea — without being open to this the whole community is stunted.
- Being open forces me to try and be consistent. If I go round saying to one closed clique that I think the C of E is all washed up and morally bankrupt and to another that I think it’s a marvellous national mission with a big moral message for society, I suggest both cliques going out for a drink together to prick the bubble of hypocrisy and force me to say what I really think to both.
- being open forces theoretical thinkers to earth their wisdom in human reality, and test it in an open forum. It brings together people who are big on ideas and those big on pragmatism.
- Open discussion privileges the kinds of people who like to think out loud, indeed cannot develop ideas without sharpening them up in a group discussion. That means it disciminates against reflective learners, who need space to develop their thinking before they feel it worth brining into the light of day. That’s why you need some conventions, disciplines and routines; to protect thinking space, and prevent either kind of thinker from stealing the show.
- The Holy Spirit sometimes reveals his will, Quaker style, in a gathering of people, when a deep conviction emerges among them through processes of open debate. This communal activity transcends the arrogance of individual primacy, and expresses the corporate nature of authority in the Christian tradition.
- Public debate builds trust. Stitch ups breed cynicism.
- What is public belongs to the public. If a community knows not only what was decided but how it came to that conclusion, it can move on to the next decision with understanding, and own what has happened.
- Public life destroys the myths of perfection. People interacting publicly show their weaknesses and absurdities as well as their shining intellectual process, or lack of it. In a Hungarian public bath earlier this year, splashing around with the family and several hundred people of all sizes, ages, shapes and proclivities, I noticed how everybody is absurd, but everybody is also, in their own way beautiful.