LLF: a left brain car crash

In my studies I am starting to think about Iain McGilchrist’s work, and I have begun to work my way through his ‘The Master and His Emissary’, which is an exploration of the different functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and the impact this has had upon our culture. There is a good Youtube explanation of his work here.

Some of his comments seem especially pertinent when considering the Anglican predicament of our time. Put simply the left brain seeks certainty and order, using existing knowledge – think of a chess board, or a machine – whereas the right brain is all about meaning and relationships, ie how to discern the context in which something is understood. Where there is right brain damage then a person loses the capacity to ‘get’ a joke, to empathise with others, to understand their relationship with a wider whole.

What we have in this culmination of the LLF process at General Synod is, it seems to me, the product of two groups captivated by a left-brain dominant approach to the question at issue. On the one side we have the mechanic logic of ‘the bible says it, I believe it, that’s the end of it’ – no subtlety or nuance there. Yet on the other an equally secular and mechanical process of ‘equality and rights you bigot’. Each has an internally consistent and complete world-view, which clashes fundamentally with the other. As McGilchrist puts it (p82 of my edition): “So the left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right. The right hemisphere makes it possible to hold several ambiguous possibilities in suspension together without premature closure on one outcome.” The left side lacks empathy and awareness of ‘the other’ – both in the sense of other people and also in the sense of a higher authority, like God. Which is ironic – something else that the left-brain dominated are unable to appreciate.

So a left-brain conflict inevitably descends into a political struggle, with more or less transparent moves to exercise control (another left-brain feature). Those familiar with the conflict will recognise the increasingly blatant power manoeuvring on both sides.

The interesting question is always: what is to be done? I have a memory of one comment, I think from Evelyn Underhill, but almost certainly mediated through a Susan Howatch novel, to the effect that ‘when the two wings of the church have exhausted themselves fighting each other it is the return to the mystical path that brings life to the church again’.

Which is a right-brain process. What might that ‘return to the mystical path’ look like, and in particular what might it look like amidst the aftermath of General Synod? Well the right-brain is about ambiguity, and relationships, and the group, and about stories and imagination and metaphor.

So what we need from our bruised and battered and fearful leadership is a re-presentation of our founding stories, emphasising what is held in common and placing each left-brain chessboard into a much larger portrait of meaning. We need leadership of poetry not prose, communication not speech, awe and wonder not compromising pragmatics.

It may be that this needs to be done before making a conclusion to the LLF process – yes it has been dragging on for years, but fruitlessly because the more fundamental spiritual work has not been done (and the same applies to the ordination of women – that argument is now mostly over not because of a winning of hearts and minds but because of political reality).

So what might this more spiritual work look like? For me I would emphasise a few things, where I believe – where I hope! – it may be possible to forge a consensus. So: the Anglican quadrilateral; the autonomy of the Church of England; the sinfulness of taking offence; the shape of discipleship in the world; the demonic nature of the Modern world and so on. With agreement on big things (the right brain stuff) the left brain approach would find its proper place. As it is LLF is the proverbial tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Ah well. One last quotation, and I shall ‘let the reader understand’ the relevance: “The right hemisphere is also much more realistic about how it stands in relation to the world at large, less grandiose, more self-aware, than the left hemisphere.”