Clare Martin reflects on some common questions people raise about reconciliation work. Is a neutral space for dialogue possible? Can you ever really escape an echo chamber?

There are two kinds of conversation openers I’ve grown used to since becoming Co-Director of a peace centre. One goes like this: “Clare, St Ethelburga’s really needs to take a position on [insert political cause here]. You can’t just stand by and be neutral, that’s not ok. You need to take a position or else you’re complicit.”  The other one goes like this: “Isn’t ‘reconciliation’  just code for middle class / woke/ progressive/ globalist/ elite/ white/ Anywheres/ Eurocentric/ Global North /(the list goes on) groupthink?”

Both of these are fair questions. It’s true that our world is beset with unbearably urgent problems which need to be named. And it’s true that the peacemaking sector can be an awful echo chamber. I tend to give the same reply in every case. No, on the whole we don’t endorse specific political causes. Our aim is to offer a space for dialogue across differences. Yes, it’s tricky and in practice we do find that despite all our best intentions we can end up constellating all sorts of unconscious echo chamber dynamics in our work. It’s imperfect, and it’s always an evolving animal, and being honest and self-reflective is an important feature of our approach. 

Whatever answer I give, it usually doesn’t satisfy people. They often challenge me in unexpected ways I find it difficult to answer. Conversations get passionate, messy. Sometimes I reach for Rumi – ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field, I’ll meet you there’ – and it falls flat. It sounds saccharine,  disconnected from the realities of conflict and injustice as they’re playing out in people’s lives. Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to persuade people of the existence of some mythical land – the safe pluralist space. Sometimes I wonder if I’m trying to convince myself.

Ultimately, both these questions are about the same thing. What’s the status of a (supposedly) neutral space for dialogue? Is it morally compromised? Is it unsafe? Is it a practical impossibility? What’s really needed to create spaces for honest disclosure, in a culture that has wounded so many people’s basic sense of trust? I like to be challenged on these questions. It feels more honest to be puzzled and confronted, than it does to be certain. In practice, though, what really interests me is the subtle magic that comes into play, when you’re facilitating a room full of people. There’s an alchemy that happens when you work with the basic elements of risk and softness, open-heartedness and truth.  For me, the ‘bridging divides’ part of our strapline (Bridging divides, loving Earth) is about this subtle alchemy. It’s experiential, intimate. It includes a sense of bridging the divide between the outer and inner worlds, as well as between people and the Earth. It isn’t about fixing a problem. It doesn’t mean a conflict is resolved.  It often happens unexpectedly, as a moment of grace in the midst of all the mess, as in John O’Donohgue’s words in his blessing over conflict:

When no true word can be said, or heard

And you mirror each other in the script of hurt,

When even the silence has become raw and torn,
May you hear again an echo of your first music. 

What do you think? What does ‘bridging divides’ mean to you, and what creates a space that feels safe and real enough for you to explore this with others? I hope you’ll join us at our upcoming Bridging divides, loving Earth conference where we’ll be exploring these themes and more. We’ve just announced full details of our workshop sessions –  do have a look!

Clare Martin


Clare is Co-Director of St Ethelburga’s. Previously Development Director, Clare created and led on the Radical Resilience programme and went on to be the strategic lead on our viewpoint diversity work, before stepping up to co-lead the centre alongside Tarot Couzyn. She brings more than 20 years’ experience facilitating groups for the sake of inner enquiry and outer change, and is interested in how contemplative practices can play a role in cultural repair. She has has worked on numerous interfaith projects, most notably for Nisa Nashim, the Jewish Muslim Women’s Network. Prior to this, Clare worked as a communications consultant in the corporate and charitable sector. Currently she runs a community garden on her Hackney housing estate, where she lives with her husband and 9-year old daughter. Raised a Christian, Clare has also studied Buddhism and Sufism. You can read her thoughts on the role of visionary imagination in resilience building here, and here is a short piece about contemplation as an antidote to conflict.