Unity in Diversity – a modern parallel

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.


I have a great deal of respect for the writings of the Dean of Saint Paul’s, David Ison, but I never expected his description of his experience of a recent meeting of Church of England cathedral Deans to turn into an essay on the need of diversity in order to produce a more perfect unity.

Using a choral musical motif as a paradigm, Dean David addresses what might be thought of as the current tendency to disharmony in the Church of England – or even in the worldwide Anglican Communion – as a struggle to maintain what our liturgies refer to as: ‘The unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace’. We so often parrot that phrase in the celebration of the Eucharist that I wonder sometimes if we do not really comprehend what it might entail – in the surrender of our own insistence on doing things ‘my way’ at the expense of accepting that, in certain matters, another way is possibly preferable. It may even prove to be a composition of different ideas that will bring about a better result.

This brings into question the Church’s current struggle for relevance in the nuclear age. How do we approach the problems of a pluralistic society, for instance, when each branch of the Church seems to emphasise a need for a single understanding of how life ought to be lived out on a basis of a single community tradition – when, in fact, even the Church herself is divided into different understandings of what it means to be ‘The Church’ in different ethnic and cultural situations?

This does not mean, as David here articulates; that we all need to sing the same tune, but that we all might be sensitive to the actual existence of other parts of the chorus that, being engaged with,  might make – rather than mar – the ongoing performance. The question here might be; Why did God create so many different ethnic and cultural communities if we were all intended to look and behave in the same way as one another?

Who would have thought that a conference of cathedral deans would have provided an object lesson on the need for diversity of opinion in the ethos of the Body of Christ? And yet, this is the right time for a more reflective understanding of the need for harmony in relationships. One paradigm of this need for harmony – rather than enforced uniformity – is the existence of the 4 Gospel accounts of the Incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Singly, the narrative produces only one experience of a relationship with Jesus; whereas together, they bring a fuller, richer experience of the work of God in Christ that can be seen and experienced by people with different levels of understanding.

There is some talk of churches of today needing to be willing to engage with ‘different integrities’ – indicating the possibility that there is more than one ‘integrity’ in the living out of our faith journey. For Christians, there can only be one integrity; that of God’s-self being at the centre of the universe. We are all satellites around that central reality. What can be assumed, however, is the possibility of there being differing (and individual) perceptions of that reality/integrity. What, therefore, may be needed is a radical openness to the ‘unity in diversity’ that is best expressed in the doctrine of the Trinity – the Blessed Three-in-One that is ‘hidden with Christ in God’.

Christ is Risen, Alleluia! He is Risen indeed, Alleluia, Alleluia!

Easter Blessings to ALL – Father Ron, Christchurch, New Zealand


About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.