Booked out more than a week ahead, Wednesday’s inaugural question-and-answer forum at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney, was a resounding success with important issues such as racism, euthanasia, the downside of social media, same-sex marriage and the persecution of Christians discussed in depth, without rancour or rudeness.
“It was really good that different points of view were put forward about same-sex marriage, and people in the audience were free to ask the questions they wanted to ask,” says Helen Rutledge, Research Scientist at the University of NSW, who was among the 400 who attended the Forum in St Benedict’s Hall.
“It was really enlightening to hear the different sides of the argument with people willing to debate and engage in that conversation,” she said.
With same-sex marriage making headlines over the past week as the Government wrestles with whether a plebiscite or referendum should be held to decide the issue, it came as no surprise that many of the questions from the floor involved the possible legalisation of marriage between same sex attracted couples. But other contemporary issues were also addressed with both sides of each issue discussed and given consideration.
“The debate was amazing. The breadth of opinions and wide variety of topics covered was remarkable and even though same-sex marriage dominated much of the conversation, it was by no means the only issue covered,” says Notre Dame law student, Elise Distefano, adding that as someone who is studying law, one of the highlights of the night was meeting and speaking with retired Justice of the High Court of Australia, the Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG.
The Hon Michael Kirby was among the outstanding leaders and thinkers who agreed to take part in the inaugural forum and form the panel to which audience participants addressed their questions.
The forum also featured the Archbishop of Sydney, the Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP, a former lawyer and international expert on bio-ethics; Lyle Shelton, Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby; Dr Ryan T. Anderson, Senior Research Fellow in American Principles and Public Policy at the Heritage Foundation, Washington DC; Dr Justine Toh, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and Patrick Langrell, Officer for Engagement & Public Affairs at UNDA’s Institute for Ethics and Society.
An initiative of UNDA’s Institute for Ethics and Society, the QndA Forum is very much the brainchild of Patrick Langrell.
“There has long been a need for a place or forum where people of different faith traditions, political persuasions and ideology can come together to discuss contentious social issues with civility and without rudeness or rancour,” he says.
Notre Dame’s QndA forums are a chance to put “faith and reason in action,” and will give leaders from different religions, different ideologies and different politics a chance to address and discuss issues of concern without resorting to sound bites, sloganeering or the sort of narrow political commentary put forward by much of today’s media, he says.
“There needs to be better public discourse and mature debate on issues of concern so they can be explored in depth to allow people to make informed decisions and to make up their own minds on a particular concern or issue,” he says.
But in today’s world of quick bites and easy slogans, important debates are frequently shouted down, with neither side listening to the other, and intent only on shutting the debate down.
“This is the type debate that causes young people to shut down and become disengaged and disconnected from the political process and from issues of importance,” Patrick says. “They don’t want to be swayed by winds of popular opinion in the media. They want to understand issues and concerns at a more profound level.”
At Notre Dame, students are encouraged to think critically and deeply about social and ethical issues.
“This is why we have designed QndA to show civic disagreement at its best, and how it should be conducted,” Patrick says describing upcoming forums as “a meeting of the minds between leaders of different faiths, cultures, traditions and politics where issues are explored with each saying what they mean and why.”
The QndA forums will also show the public that it is possible to have stimulating, intelligent and passionate discussions with those we disagree with, and that these conversations often lead to unexpected insights and understanding.
In addition to his role as Officer for Engagement & Public Affairs at the UNDA’s Institute of Ethics and Society, Patrick is Chaplaincy Convenor at the University and also well known as the founder of Sydney’s popular Theology on Tap.