The Challenge of Harmonious Difference

by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral

David ison 2

Cathedrals have been in the news over the last few years, though not always for the reasons that they or the wider Church of England might like.

However, one result is that cathedral deans have had more investment in their training and development: which is why 25 of us were in Cambridge a couple of weeks ago to think about leadership and working in teams. And very useful training it was, not least for helping us work together on how we can better serve and lead the many teams which enable cathedrals to function well.

There were many words of wisdom. But one thing that struck a chord with me spoke to the whole issue of how we live with difference.

The course leader told us that research shows that, in terms of achieving results, harmony in teams is less important than difference. A team that prizes harmony and good relationships above all else will not do as well as a team where conflict is allowed and differences are expressed, though it will do better than a team which falls apart because relationships are broken.

What we didn’t do on the course though was to think about the definition of ‘harmony’.

In musical terms, harmony is having a group of singers or players who take different parts, who sing or play different notes at the same time, but do so in a way where there’s a relationship between them.

The Oxford Dictionary uses words like agreement, correspondence, consistency, pleasing, to define the nature of harmony. It also notes the use of ‘harmony’ in relation to writings, where different passages are arranged together to show their agreement, and refers specifically to ‘harmony of the gospels’.

There are two kinds of ‘gospel harmony’. One where the four gospels are set out side by side, so you can see what’s similar and what the nuances and differences are.  The other is when the four gospels are written into one account, in order to present a single view of the gospel message. But this latter way of treating the differences in the gospels isn’t actually harmony.

Jonathan Sacks, in his important 2002 book The Dignity of Difference, wrote about ‘Plato’s Ghost’: the idea that has haunted Greek and then Western civilisation, that there is one right way for the world and us to be, one perfect form of everything from which all else is derived. And he points out how destructive this is of anything that’s perceived as different from the norm: the view that in everything important there is a right way and a wrong way, and getting it right matters.

Musically, that’s not harmony – it’s unison, when everyone sings or plays the same note at the same time, all singing the same melody.

So a gospel harmony which presents a single, composite, ‘right’ account of the ministry of Jesus shouldn’t be called a ‘harmony’ at all, but a gospel ‘unison’.

And a team which doesn’t tolerate difference and can’t cope with conflict isn’t working in harmony, but in unison.

So what, you may ask? Because it matters for how the Church and the world handle difference. There are three, not two, options on how we look at our differences.

An insistence on unity, unison, conformity, will reject what doesn’t fit in with what whoever in power has defined as ‘right’, and will be poorer as a result – whether that’s liberal or conservative, socialist or free-market. You can sing a unison song on your own. But you need others to enrich you by singing and playing in harmony.  We need each others’ differences to be able to do things well, from leading a cathedral to sharing the love of God with the world.

And harmony also requires relationship. That doesn’t mean being free from conflict. Harmony in music can range from simple chords to complex polyphony, and from Barry Manilow to Stockhausen. Some harmony can sound unresolved; at the edges harmony falls apart into disharmony and chaos – there is such a thing as disharmony, and two or more unison songs sung at the same time can be pretty disharmonious and unpleasant.

Unison, harmony, disharmony. The Church has had an ambiguous relationship with difference, whether musical or spiritual. At periods in its life it has regarded polyphony and diversity as a dangerous pandering to the flesh, and emphasised the need for unison; at other times it has rejoiced in creativity and difference.

In its leadership too, the Church has lurched from one division to another. On our deans’ conference we were asked what model of leadership we espoused, and we supposed it ought to be that of Jesus: but Jesus’ disciples competed among themselves before his resurrection, and went through conflict and division afterwards as Paul and John’s letters bear witness.

To have a successful cathedral, to have a Church which resonates in a chord with the nation in the name of Jesus Christ, requires us to let go of assuming that we are all really meant to be in unison, and allow us to discover what being harmonious in difference can be.

Fashions in music and leadership change; but the need to work together in harmonious difference continues, if we are together to bring the world to Christ and bear witness to the kingdom of God  where celestial choirs and harps for ever will sing…. in harmony.


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2 Responses to The Challenge of Harmonious Difference

  1. ckatsarelis says:

    It’s a good analogy. As a symphony orchestra conductor, violinist, and believer that equal human rights ARE the Good News, I can say that parts of CoE are singing/playing wickedly out-of-tune. And the problem is always that those who are out-of-tune can’t hear it. Playing in tune requires deep understanding, deep listening, and significant empathy, one can’t play in tune when one is tense, rigid, stubborn, or arrogant. Sure, some skills are required, formation of the violinists left hand or a vocalist’s soft palate. But those sorts of formation are readily analogous to theological formation, is it oriented to Jesus’s radical love and skepticism towards the excluding church or towards rigid rules that someone has deemed “necessary,” even though those rules (like divorce) have changed over time? For all of these things, there are fantastic teachers and practitioners. One needs the humility to ask for help and have an open heart and mind for change.

Any thoughts?