Four Principles of Dialogue: Christian Origins – Wider Ownership?

The four principles that I am looking at here were developed by Christians. I want to have an introductory look at that background, but also to highlight the question of their wider ownership. The question mark in the title is no accident. You may have your own answers to the question.The four principles were articulated by the British Council of Churches in the early 1980’s. They are as follows:

  1. Dialogue begins when people meet each other.
  2. Dialogue depends upon mutual understanding and mutual trust.
  3. Dialogue makes it possible to share in service to the community.
  4. And finally, dialogue becomes the medium of authentic witness.

Note the language is largely not particularly Christian, or religious. But the principles have guided Christian churches in dialogue since their publication.

Although the principles were articulated in the UK, they came out of an international Christian context, drawing on the experience of minority Christian groups outside of Europe and North America, who were trying to retain integrity as Christians while being fully part of the surrounding society. The UK principles were developed from the guidelines of the then “Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC).”

So, what can we say again about these four principles? The first, “Dialogue begins when people meet each other,” explains that it is not belief systems that meet, but believers, people; and that is where one should start.

Secondly, dialogue depends upon mutual understanding, mutual trust. The WCC Guidelines say “Dialogue can be recognized as a way of obedience to one of the… 10 Commandments, [which are] held in common by Jews and Christians: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.” It is easy to construct the other in ways that are not true to how they are, rather than going through the way of dialogue to develop mutual understanding and mutual trust.

Guideline 3: Dialogue makes it possible to share in service to community. There may be differences in understanding of ultimate human aims, but there can be shared thought on human need, and shared response.

Guideline 4: Dialogue becomes the medium of authentic witness. Dialogue should be a way of talking about our faith in a way that is neither manipulative nor threatening. It is rooted in sharing that allows the integrity of my faith and the integrity of yours to come together.

The emphasis on people at the centre is key. Of course other dimensions matter. There is often a whole history of discrimination that comes into the room with dialogue participants uninvited. But you’re unlikely to be able to explore challenging history if you don’t begin by meeting as people.

Dialogue depends upon mutual understanding and mutual trust. You could perhaps put that the other way around… Perhaps some minimal mutual understanding and trust is a precondition of dialogue, which can in turn develop deeper mutual understanding and trust.

Dialogue as a medium of authentic witness touches on very sensitive areas. If one’s religion makes a claim about truth, and not just truth for me, but the universal truth, what are the implications for someone of another faith? How can we balance respect for each person’s identity and faith, and freedom to speak about what our traditions say to the world?

It is a challenge to handle this in a world in which two people meeting to share at a deep level are often affected by all kinds of distorting power influences. How can we handle these things together?

Having briefly examined the background to and content of these four principles I leave it to you to decide whether they have any use. Are they just vague statements? Can they help us in thinking about dialogue?

Prof Paul Weller

Universities of Coventry and Derby, and Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford

Reader Interactions

Have Your Say