Just inside the doors of the British Museum, to the right as you enter, is a tiny temporary exhibition on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. I only stumbled on it by chance as I was waiting for a friend and had a few minutes to while away. It’s very easy to stride straight past as you head for the Great Court and the myriad other delights beyond.
I wouldn’t consider myself especially religious, but it’s worth a stop. The main feature of the exhibit is a beautiful 16th century model of the church, made of wood and mother-of-pearl, and originally sold to pilgrims as a memento of their visit. The whole model comes to pieces, allowing the pilgrim to dismantle the church section-by-section when they get home, presumably reliving their tour through it as they do so.
Charming and intricately detailed as the model is, it’s not what really stuck in my mind about the exhibition. Instead I was struck by the fact that six denominations of the Christian church share what is essentially a fairly small building – Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Roman Catholic, Coptic, Syriac and Ethiopian rub shoulders (I apologise now if I have missed, or misrepresented, any of them!). And when I say “rub shoulders”, I do so advisedly – a colour-coded plan of the Church shows how the areas occupied and managed by each interleave and weave amongst each other in an astonishingly complex arrangement.
Now, from my history I seem to recall that the various denominations of the church are not renowned for their ability to rub along together, but here somehow they manage to do so. And have done so for an extended period of time, by all accounts.
Which set me thinking about just what’s possible – if you devote energy and effort to achieving something, rather than believing that you can’t. As someone who has worked in big organisations for a large part of my life, I am sometimes struck by how much energy people devote to not doing things: to arguing that such-and-such a task is not their responsibility, but someone else’s, or that issue x will never change because “they” (whoever “they” is) are unwilling or unable to do it. If just half the energy expended on arguing that something isn’t possible were instead devoted to trying to make it happen, who knows what might be achieved.
So much depends on the state of mind in which we approach an issue when we suspect there may be tension or disagreement. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to your guns, not compromising on your values, and arguing your case firmly and clearly. But so often we do this from the perspective of trying to win the argument and beat the other person. If instead of trying to beat the other party we tried to understand them, and instead of seeking to win the argument we tried to secure a lasting settlement, how different might the outcome look.
Of course, I’m not so naive as to believe it is always possible. But over the years I have been amazed at just how often it is – far more often than I would have dared dream or hope.
So next time you are engaged in that ongoing row with your accounts department, just try shifting your approach from winning and beating to understanding and settling, and see what happens. I’m confident you’ll be surprised at the results. And if it all seems too difficult, just think of two thousand years of church conflict somehow set aside in that small building in Jerusalem, and perhaps the thought of reaching an accommodation with John the accounts clerk won’t seem quite so insurmountable!