Understanding in Context

September 2, 2010

Dave Snowden blogged recently on the importance of context and said

None of us know how we would act in a radically different context. We are changed by the flow of history and our interactions. Go back and look at the casual racist stereotyping of many a BBC programme in the 1960s that would be inconceivable now. Significant acts in the flow of history change the way we perceive the world, but they do so after those events.

Well, another of the talks from Greenbelt drove this home still further for me this week – provocatively entitled “The English Civil War and the Future of the Church of England” this was a fascinating take by Giles Fraser (Canon Chancellor at St Paul’s Cathedral in London) on how national histories have shaped our outlook on life centuries after the events.

He took an extended view of the English Civil War to be from the reign of Henry VIII until the Reformation and related some of the grizzly acts of that period – the bloodshed and trauma. The Church of England emerged as a way of dealing with the “poison in disagreements” – things had been so bloody and traumatic that a peace treaty was needed. Religious differences needed to be put aside to stop the killing.

Giles said that the terms of the treaty were that members would worship together but [not] discuss theology or doctrine – i.e. “Dinner-party rules”. What bound people together was the Book of Common Prayer, something which allowed people in a local church to come together to worship, but they didn’t then discuss doctrine or theology because their experience had been that that’s what gets people to kill each other.

He contrasted this with what he believes is deep in the American psyche as a result of their Civil War: “You’ve got to be right, and you’ve got to win”.

Thus the two distinct rules of engagement are drawn up for disagreements in the Anglican Communion between geographically diverse parts of the Church.

The seed of the problem was that as Christianity spread from England although the Prayer Book helped to shape faith, what could not be exported with it was the crucible of the context in which it had been created – the culture and understanding that peace treaty/dinner party rules were essential.

Now, with the rise of instant access digital media people from different parts of the Anglican Communion are seeing each other’s actions without understanding the context of what is happening there too – and so the whole structure is under intense pressure. Things are now too big and too diverse.

Giles continued by looking at Liberalism which he defined as meaning that freedom is important and the worst thing you can have is religious division and hatred. There are two main understandings of this:

  1. human beings are fundamentally good, so remove all barriers and let them express themselves (but this can lead to deeply individualistic behaviour and rampant consumerism) or
  2. Modus Vivendi liberalism which is based on the understanding that we are all fundamentally flawed, not just as individuals but also corporately, and that even at our best we can bring about bloodshed.

He said that for modus vivendi liberalism to succeed people need to allow many flowers to bloom and be extremely cautious of imposing their vision of the world on others and that they need to “foster self-critical vigilance” even when they think they are at their best.

He ended with a quote from Burke “Perhaps truth may be better than peace, but as we have scarcely ever the same certainty in the one that we have in the other, I would unless the truth is evident indeed, hold fast to peace which has in her company charity, the highest of virtues.”

So, always be vigilant for the historical subtexts in organisations you work with – they may be distant in time and even in memory, but can still exert a very strong influence over what is happening (or even dictate it) – the Cognitive Edge “Future Backwards” technique can be very helpful in flushing these things out.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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