Jesus is hailed as the Prince of Peace. And yet his followers have a wretched reputation for the way they handle disagreements. Festering disputes like the decade-long saga of Lincoln Cathedral, or the high-profile sacking of Dr Martin Neary, organist at Westminster Abbey, where the legal costs neared £600,000, have scandalised believers and left the world incredulous. But these are by no means isolated affairs. James Behrens, a London barrister and author of Practical Church Management, says "My research has revealed that, in the Church of England alone, each diocese will have at least six disputes ongoing at any one time. Multiply that among the 43 dioceses, and 250 disputes at any one time represents a pretty big problem."

Disputes are by no means the sole province of the Church of England. The goldfish bowl of small independent churches, with no regional or national structures, can be the scene of interminable conflict. While such disputes mostly come down to personalities, many of them manifest themselves in other forms. It could be failure to agree on the appointment of a new minister, dissension over styles of worship, or even differences over millennial theories. The period between 1970 - 1990 witnessed huge numbers of rows over the Charismatic issue. However, many splits born in acrimony resulted in church growth even if some of the growth was transfer - not conversions. Other divisive issues include 'The Toronto Blessing', women priests, the homosexual debate and rows over theological issues. The Church of England, with many historic buildings, can be a veritable playground for disputes. One recent high profile dispute concerned wording of a gravestone in a churchyard. The people wanted the word 'Dad' on the memorial plaque, but the vicar would have none of it.

Everyone living within the boundaries of a Church of England parish can qualify to be on the church electoral roll. Many a 'progressive' parochial Church Council wishing to implement radical measures have come undone. Measures like gutting the pews or creating a space for Sunday School in part of seedy old church building have come unstuck when opponents marshall people who haven't darkened the door for years to vote the scheme down. Plans to remove gargoyles, alter graveyards, replace windows or even install lavatories can blow up into disputes that end up in an expensive Consistory (Church) Court. Likewise working through hoops that may include necessity to obtain agreement to change a building from British Heritage or the Victorian Society can be like walking on glass. While much work has been done to streamline church procedures, according to James Behrens, if anything the situation is getting more complex. "When I became a church warden in Fulham a few years ago I found that many issues arose that I wasn't qualified to deal with." For example churchwardens can find themselves having to negotiate and sign contracts of employment for lay staff. Their portfolio of responsibility can involve matters as diverse as tenancy agreements, administration of trust funds, security, and insurance. More recently churches of all denominations have been faced with the necessity to comply with the complex provisions of the Children's Act.

Little wonder, then, that church members can easily be overtaken by legal disputes. But is there something about the way Christians understand and practice their faith that makes them specially vulnerable to falling out? "Christian disputes are surprising, but not unusual," says Behrens. He agrees that there are special dynamics and characteristics that feed Christian disputes. In early October, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) ran a one day conference on how the Church might benefit from using mediation as a means of solving disputes instead of recourse to expensive and adversarial litigation, with Behrens was one of the speakers. The day was co-sponsored by of the London based Centre for Disputes Resolution (CEDR).

CEDR, founded 10 years ago, is a not for profit social business with charity status and the biggest mediation organisation in Europe. Sets standard for mediation world-wide. It deals with two disputes daily or about 500 a year. Some mediations are very high profile. CEDR was brought in to help sort out the long-running dispute at Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club where pitch invasions and riots had become commonplace. CEDR was brought in to mediate in a multi-million pound action between the owners of the Hibernia Oil Rig and a Korean construction company. It worked on the Maxwell Pension Fund Dispute. David Richbell, who formerly worked in the construction industry is a director of CEDR and was another main speaker at the CTBI conference. He agrees with Behrens that the Christian community makes very heavy weather of disagreements. "My theory is that most Christians believe they have to be nice to one another," he said. Out of this grows a pattern of sweeping trouble under the carpet. "So it festers away and then one day explodes into a huge problem."

Richbell believes churches are the losers for failing to view conflict positively. "In my understanding Christians should love each other, but they don't necessary have to agree with each other. Conflict can be very positive. It creates discussion and discussion creates understanding. It leads to the valuing of a person's position and working co-operatively to find a solution." He defines mediation "an assisted negotiation" that "puts an independent neutral with he parties in dispute and within a very flexible framework of open and private meetings, that neutral person helps the parties find their own solution to the problem." In litigation or arbitration, says Richbell, "it means that there's a winner and a loser. None of that applies in mediation where the solution is crafted by the parties. It's not imposed on them so the likelihood of it being a lasting solution is enhanced. He says mediation is used much more in the USA and Canada than in Britain and is now very much part of corporate culture. He would like to see British Churches form a national panel of mediators. "I think it's very much about the Christian approach to living in this world. It's all about peacemaking and reconciliation. Even in hard nosed business disputes there's reconciliation. What mediation does is help parties re-open lines of communication, help them understand and value each other." Richbell passionately believes that there is no dispute where mediation cannot bring a solution. That includes Northern Ireland and other areas of civil unrest. He believes that the Church of England would have suffered far less pain in the bruising debate about the ordination of women if it had used mediation. The gay debate is another area crying out for this approach. Richbell has occasionally undertaken church mediations. One was a situation in a provincial town where two churches of different denominations had merged in a Local Ecumenical Project (LEP)> "But the uniting wasn't done through a proper consultation process," Richbell recalls. "And it wasn't shephered or helped in the process of uniting. So they became two congregations within the one church, with a wish to have different styles of worship and different layers of authority."

This went on for nine years. Every so often there was a "spat" or falling out, but the problem would then disappear from view. The crunch came to surface in a major disagreement about forms to worship. One side complained about children being allowed to be mobile during the service. They believed it reduced the sanctity of worship. The other side said that it was a family church and children are a part of it, they can't be restrained - that a child walks down the aisle during a hymn is no problem. Richbell spent over 70 hours helping members address the issues at a series of open and private meetings. They got to the stage when people from either side of the divide began a dialogue with each other, talking about what was possible and what was not, listening to each other's worries and concerns. Gradually a solution evolved... "After nine years the only solution was that one faction in the church should go off to form another church or house church, but that wasn't the solution in sight at the beginning. The solution enabled the core of the church to stay together, because they still believed in the original vision for the LEP. But some people who disagreed decided to leave. The way the church approached it was if these people could find a spiritual home for their forms of worship, that's fine." Not all mediations produce complete consensus. But the process of talking things out in an atmosphere of complete transparency will get both sides to a point where they will give their consent to a solution that works for everyone. The Evangelical Alliance often finds itself mediating between groups and factions. As well as being a peacemaker between estranged parties, the EA is concerned to maintain evangelical unity.

Some wrongly see EA as a policeman or statutory body, and expect it to haul people or groups into line. "We generally tend to know about disputes before anyone comes to us," said an EA spokesman. In the last decade, probably the biggest issue of evangelical disagreement was over the 'Toronto Blessing'. The EA put an enormous amount of effort in bringing representatives of different viewpoints together. The outcome didn't stretch to full theological agreement, but it did enabled all sides to 'live and let live', and at the same time remain in broad solidarity within the evangelical constituency. The EA and the British Evangelical Council recently published a document called The Evangelical Commitment. It's a re-working of a Victoria document, Practical Responsibility, a code for evangelical relationships agreed by the inaugural EA Assembly in 1846. EA hopes it will serve as a DIY package that individuals and groups in dispute can use it to talk things through to consensus. A final comment from David Richbell. "I don't believe anything's impossible. With love at the centre - that is God at the centre because God is love - then its possible for people and situations to be transformed. I believe the best mediation is putting this into practice, love in action."


Each side puts their case to a neutral person/s (judge/jury) in an endeavour to win. The atmosphere is adversarial. The are decided by the jury or sometimes the judge sitting alone. The final ruling is made by the judge on the basis of the law.

Not much different than litigation. Both sides put their case before a neutral person (usually an expert). As with litigation the atmosphere is adversarial. The conclusion has to be based on the letter of the law.

An assisted negotiation, within a very flexible framework of open and private meetings, where a neutral person helps the parties find their own solution to the problem.

What the Bible Says

In 1 Corinthians 6:1-6, Paul admonishes the Corinthians because they were taking their disputes with to the civil courts. To resort to pagan courts, he says, is unacceptable. He calls on the Corinthians to appoint some from their number to settle disputes.

The fullest statement of how Christians should act in the face of controversies is from Jesus (Matthew 18: 15-17). If a fellow Christian does you wrong, says Jesus, in the first place talk to him or her face to face about it. Should that fail, take with your two or three witnesses who will verify every word said. Finally, if both of these actions fail to bring a settlement, take the matter before the entire church. In that case, should the person refuse to comply with the church's direction, s/he is to be expelled.

Seven steps for ringing changes in the church

  1. Take counsel from all sectors to discover if a course of action is 'sensitive'.
  2. Don't introduce change overnight.
  3. Consult the movers and shakers about all options.
  4. Seek to understand the different points of view.
  5. If possible, try to achieve a consensus.
  6. Most people accept a decision if they believe a wide range of views have been sought and considered - even if they don't themselves agree.
  7. Explain the need for change and envision them for the future

A tale of two organists

In 1698 Westminster Abbey found itself in dispute with its somewhat precocious organist. It came to the attention of the Dean and Cathedral authorities he had made a private profit by selling places in the organ loft to spectators. In March 1998 the Abbey found itself in a strikingly similar situation. The Dean, the Very Rev Wesley Carr, suspended and later sacked Dr Martin Neary, the organist and Master of Choristers. It was alleged that Neary and his wife had made secret profits from recitals and tours which it was alleged should have gone to members of the choir. On 22 April the Nearys were dismissed by the Dean for alleged gross misconduct. It triggered a huge public rumpus and MPs, former choristers and former Cathedral staff rallied to their support in a high profile campaign. Offers of mediation were turned down by the Dean. Gradually Dr Neary's attitude hardened and he set out to win his case and return to his job in triumph. The Abbey is a 'royal peculiar' - in other words a place of worship under the direct jurisdiction of the Queen. When Dr Neary appealed to the Queen she referred it to the Lord Chancellor who appointed a Law Lord, Lord Jauncey to hear the appeal. The hearing in September 1998 lasted 12 days.

The Nearys said the money related to events not promoted by the Abbey and denied any dishonesty in the matter. It emerged that the sum involved was £13,900. They had indicated willingness either to pay back the money or give it to charity. Neither option was accepted by the Dean. Lord Jauncey, however, upheld the dismissal. But he also criticised the Dean's conduct of the matter which he said "must score gamma minus on the scale of natural justice." He added that he was surprised that those concerned had not found a less public way to resolve their differences. Legal costs on the Neary's side have been estimated at around £200,000. It is estimated that the Abbey's costs were between £250,000-£400,000. As for the case in 1689, the Cathedral authorities wrote to the organist, demanding that he cease the practice and return the money. The organist in question was Henry Purcell. He duly paid up, and during the years that followed won the reputation of being perhaps the finest organist and composer ever to serve at Westminster Abbey.