Jess Phillips, the CEEC and the Hollow Pleasure of Being Right



Jess Phillips, the CEEC and the Hollow Pleasure of Being Right

Three people arguing

Craig wrote a beautiful, vulnerable blog last week. It was about the way that the Labour Party had struggled to come together to find a form of words that correctly expressed their desire for a cessation of violence in Gaza. And it was about the values that underpin The Northumbria Collective.

I have some thoughts.

A few years ago I was sitting outside the workplace of an old friend that I hadn’t see for a long, long time.

‘You were right,’ she said, among other things.

I knew it. I was indeed right. Many years ago I had suggested that her boyfriend was not going to be a good choice as a life partner for her. My friend moved to another city, got married, and we lost touch. In the end, the marriage had ended badly and here she was, back in Leeds, in a much better place. She looked almost apologetic.

It should have been a moment of … triumph? Vindication? It’s not often that someone comes back to you after many years and tells you that you were indeed right. Yet my feelings were extremely mixed. My friend had endured many hard years and she had refused to see me for many more. What use was being right? I would rather have been wrong and this woman been happy. Actually, I would rather have kept my mouth shut and my friend in my life.

I thought about this recently, when a friend asked for advice on how to tell someone they loved that they were making a bad decision. We could both see they were making a really bad decision. A younger me would have walked my friend through a process of how to tell someone they’re in the wrong. As a church leader I had done this on many occasions, and been asked to do it many times more. But now I told my friend that he would have to sit with his discomfort. Sometimes our desire to correct people comes from an unconscious need to punish the person who is making us uncomfortable. But of course that person also has unconscious motivations which means that 99 times out of a hundred they are not ready or willing to hear our criticism.

‘One day the person you care about will realise that they’ve made a stupid decision,’ I said, ‘and on that day they will need you nearby. If you alienate them by being right, you won’t be able to help them out of the mess they’re getting themselves into. So which do you want? To be right or to love them?’

And of course it goes without saying that we are not always right. The Old Testament book of Judges ends like a dystopian novel with the line, ‘Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.’ It’s worth remembering that most people, most of the time, are doing what they think is right in their eyes. Very few people choose evil because it is evil. And even less people actively make a bad decision.

My first reaction to Jess Phillips’ resignation from the ‘shadow cabinet’ was, ‘How sad. Jess Phillips just had to be right.’ But reading Craig’s blog made me see that it’s possible to have a beautiful middle ground in which disagreement is expressed clearly but respect and relationship are not lost. Well done to everyone involved.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for the Church of England Evangelical Council, which has reacted to losing a vote in General Synod on the blessing of same sex relationships by being right in a way that is designed to break relationships. It would appear that some of my fellow Baptists are planning on a similar course of action. I don’t want to go into details. I just want to highlight that whether it’s church or politics or a village football team or a local residents’ association, being right can be really, really wrong. There is a pleasure in being right and surrounding ourselves with people who agree with us, but – speaking frankly – it is a childish and ego-driven pleasure. Those of us who claim the name of Christ need to take a long hard look at ourselves if we think that this is where life finds its meaning. 

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About the Author

Simon loves helping individuals, churches and organisations through times of change and re-envisioning, and bringing together the people and resources needed to turn dreams into reality. He is also a gifted teacher and preacher and a member of the British and Irish Association for Practical Theology.

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