(How) can we live with disagreement?

51ka0d0GNNLEarlier this year, I took part in a consultation on the current conflicts in the Church of England, particularly on sexuality, and whether it is possible to disagree well. Out of that discussion has come the book Good Disagreement? edited by Andrews Atherstone and Goddard and published very promptly by Lion Hudson. The back cover blurb runs as follows:

At every level of church life from the local congregation to worldwide denominations, Christians can find themselves in turmoil and divided over a range of important issues.  Many conclude that harmony is not achievable, and never will be.  Can we, as Archbishop Justin Welby has asked, transform ‘bad disagreement’ into ‘good disagreement’? What would that look like in practice? This book is designed to help readers unpack the idea of ‘good disagreement’ and apply it to their own church situations. It doesn’t enter into specific contentious debates, but instead considers issues such as reconciliation, division, discipline, peacemaking, mediation and mission. It asks what needs to happen for those from differing viewpoints to both listen and be heard, and does not shy away from hard questions about unity in the gospel and the church‘s public witness.

Not a few readers will immediately be suspicious that this is an exercise in ‘holding things together’ or papering over the cracks of important differences that might suggest something is wrong with the foundation. But in fact the collection of essays in this volume manages to avoid that very clearly. This is, in part, indicated by the book’s subtitle ‘Grace and truth in a divided church’ but is also highlighted in Justin Welby’s foreword.

There is not a little irony in the fact that one of the greatest sources of tension between Christians is the issue of how they should disagree with one another. As alluded to at various points in this book, I have spoken of my hope that the Church might model ‘good disagreement’ in living out its differences and conflicts. Yet the telling question mark in this book’s title, Good Disagreement?, points to the unease which the concept evokes in many people. As the editors set out eloquently in their opening chapter, this unease is often rooted in questions of profound theological importance which it is valuable and essential to explore: can disagreement be ‘good’? How can we find the balance between grace and truth or (as explored in Tom Wright’s excellent fourth chapter) unity and holiness?

Justin goes on to note that this issue is hardly novel; it has been a concern from the writing of the New Testament.

This book reminds us that these questions are nothing new. From the first years of the early Church, Christians have grappled with the reality of deep division and have sought to respond in ways which build, rather than hamper, the Kingdom of God. It is very appropriate that Ian Paul’s study of the meaning of reconciliation in Pauline theology should be one of the first chapters, laying as it does this crucial foundation: that we seek reconciliation because we have first been reconciled to God in Christ.

And whilst he clearly draws on his own experience and appreciate of processes of reconciliation, he is also clear that there might be issues on which the right course of action is division.

I was struck again and again by the importance of truly encountering, in their full humanity, those with whom we disagree. Whether each side has much or little in common with one another, whether the outcome is unanimity or separation, it seems the only way to imitate Christ in our conflicts is to invest trust, love and time in the people from whom we are currently divided.

I hope to write on a number of the essays in the coming days; I think the book could make a significant and honest contribution to our current discussions. Here is a full list of contents.

Foreword (Archbishop of Canterbury)

  1. Disagreeing with Grace (Andrew Atherstone and Andrew Goddard)
  2. Reconciliation in the New Testament (Ian Paul)
  3. Division and Discipline in the New Testament Church (Michael B. Thompson)
  4. Pastoral Theology for Perplexing Topics: Paul and Adiaphora (Tom Wright)
  5. Good Disagreement and the Reformation (Ashley Null)
  6. Ecumenical (Dis)agreements (Andrew Atherstone and Martin Davie)
  7. Good Disagreement between Religions (Toby Howarth)
  8. From Castles to Conversations: Reflections on How to Disagree Well (Lis Goddard and Clare Hendry)
  9. Ministry in Samaria: Peacemaking at Truro Church (Tory Baucum)
  10. Mediation and the Church’s Mission (Stephen Ruttle Q.C.)

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21 thoughts on “(How) can we live with disagreement?”

  1. I have put this book on pre-order as I think the question of how to handle disagreement and conflict is probably one of the most important ones that we face.

    It is certainly the one I felt least prepared for in ministry. I hope this book will be significant in helping me and the wider church move forward on this.

  2. I haven’t read the book of course but is it fair to comment that, by the look of the list of authors, there won’t be a lot of disagreement between them, particularly on the issue of sexuality? It looks quite a ‘monochrome’ list? Surely to see if good disagreement is possible you need some authors who disagree with each other?

    • Glad to see the opportunity to make everything about sexuality is taken by you as always Andrew, is it just possible the New Testament addresses other issues that the essay list seem to address rather than homosexuality?

  3. Good point, Andrew!

    “Good disagreement” is simple enough: stop trying to impose your beliefs on others. English Anglicans went through all this in the 19th century, when the Oxford Movement got going. At first, Anglo-Catholics were hauled into church courts (and even jailed) for “ritualism,” but soon after the turn of the 20th century, that nonsense stopped, and both groups were able to inhabit the same organization.

    • “Stop trying to impose your beliefs on others” – we’ve both been coming on this blog for a while now, James, and I’ve noticed you’ve said this quite a few times.

      It just seems to me to be self-defeating though: surely any church is going to have to ‘impose’ *some* beliefs, let’s say for example the Nicene Creed? If it doesn’t, then what makes it a church? I’d say for a church to be a Christian church, it must impose some doctrine. And historically the doctrine imposed has been that of the 39 articles, the Book of Common Prayer, and the ordinal – you can’t get away from it.

      The CofE in its liturgy does not recognise Anglo-Catholics (find the word ‘altar’ anywhere in Common Worship, for example). It is assumed that we basically all share one doctrine. As much as that may be so absurd as to be laughable given what goes on in practice, it is the ‘official’ assumption, so to speak.

      So when you talk about not imposing beliefs on others, it seems to me that you actually want to fundamentally change the very nature of the CofE. And this is exactly the problem – sexuality is the presenting issue but actually exposes the fact that we all have very different ideas about what the CofE actually *is*, its authority and so on.

      • The Church of England might not have the word “altar” in its liturgy, but it gives a free pass to those who refer to it as such, dress it as such, genuflect to it as such, and even import the Roman Missal to do the job instead of Common Worship. As you admit, the “official” assumption is laughable, and wholesale ignored in practice. It’s not even a believable fiction.

        That being so, I could accept, arguendo, that the church should have some creed (personally, I don’t believe it’s necessary: the Quakers and Unitarians do just fine without one), and even that it may hold traditional positions on sexuality, and still say that it should tolerate dissent both in word and in practice. Unless you’re suggesting that Anglo-Catholics again be hauled off into church courts, you’ve already conceded this position in one sphere. Why not another?

        • In many ways I agree with you – the current CofE setup is a farce. I don’t know about Anglo-Catholics being hauled off into court, but to this day clergy still take a legal oath that we will only use forms of service allowed by canon law. (Maybe the Anglo-Catholics cross their fingers at that point?)

          An issue such as sexuality exposes this tension in between how the church actually is in practice and how it is on paper. Whichever way we go we’re going to have to make big changes – either the church needs to be brought into line with how it is on paper, so to speak, or the official doctrine needs to be brought into line with how it is in practice. It’s unsustainable for the two things to be so far apart.

          If the church had simply applied its official teaching consistently over the last 150 years then we wouldn’t be facing the same problems.

          Should a church have a creed? I think it has a creed as soon as you say that it is a “church” (rather than a mosque, temple etc). Once you start saying something is specifically Christian, you are making a particular statement about beliefs. How far those beliefs need to be specified is something to be debated, but there does need to be some kind of creed. I’m not sure the Quakers or the Unitarians are a shining example of what happens when you have no creed at all.

  4. So, the Church of England now affirms that ‘good disagreement’ is a virtue, especially when compared to the vice of ‘bad disagreement’.

    It’s surprising then that Jesus, in Matthew 23, falls prey to the traits that are associated with the latter. For instance:

    So, here’s the diagnosis and remedies from contemporary conflict resolution experts:

    Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! (vs. 13); “Woe to you, blind guides! (vs. 16);

    Symptom 1: Blaming/Criticism:Why did He not resort to ‘I feel’ language which is far less combative?

    ‘You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? (vs. 16, 17)

    Symptom 2. Defensiveness: Avoid ‘you’ language. Why did He not preface His comments with a desire from clarification: ‘Now I just want to make sure that we’re on the same page about the temple and its wealth; that I’ve understood exactly what you’re teaching and why’?

    ‘“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?’

    Symptom 3. Contempt: (sarcasm, belittling, cynicism) Again, it would have demonstrated a desire for mutual flourishing and respect to keep the lines of communication open.with a remark like ‘It feels like you’re a bit reckless with the long-term consequences of your actions. I find that hurtful.’

    ‘Look, your house is left to you desolate.For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ (vs. 38, 39)

    Symptom 4. Stonewalling: (tuning out, cutting off communication):In such a situation, it would have been far more helpful to ask for a ‘safe space’ to explain His own teachings and a facilitator to help Him to engage with the Pharisees more productively. The real enemy that exacerbated the situation was Jesus’ own suspicion and fear.

    As Justin Welby stated in His 2014 Presidential address: ‘We all know that perfect love casts out fear. We know it although we don’t often apply it. We mostly know that perfect fear casts out love. In any institution or organisation, the moment that suspicion reigns and the assumption that everything is zero sum becomes dominant (that is to say that some else’s gain must be my loss, we can’t both flourish) that institution will be increasingly dominated by fear. It is an old problem in game theory. The moment at which something is zero sum, players stop looking so much at their objectives and increasingly look at each other. The more they look at each other, the more they are dominated by fear and the less they are able to focus on their objectives.’

    If Jesus had only realised that empty pharisaic ritualism and inner spirituality are not a zero-sum game. instead of allowing suspicion to hold sway, patiently focusing on His own objectives, and really listening to His detractors might have averted that terrible escalation of ‘bad disagreement’ that led to His arrest, trial, crucifixion and, ultimately, our eternal redemption.

    Hmm, maybe ‘bad disagreement’ ain’t so bad after all.

    ‘But, of course, there must be divisions among you so that you who have God’s approval will be recognized!’ (1 Cor. 11:19)

    • David, I want to say how threatened I feel by your tone – quoting all those clobber verses in what I should be able to feel is a safe space!

      • I would agree that I too found that post threatening but I guess it was designed to intimidate. It is ironic that it should appear on a thread devoted to living with disagreement. Clearly, David doesn’t think this is possible.

      • Dear Don,

        By definition, clobber verses are a few excerpts employed to establish a general rule.

        In contrast to your assertion, I referred to Matthew 23 in order to establish the validity of *exceptions*: that there are instances where, as exhibited by Jesus, what might be called ‘bad disagreement’ ain’t so bad after all.

        I’m not sure why the mere possibility of an exception to the mantra of ‘good disagreement’ is such a threat to this ‘safe space’.

        Just to be clear, I never suggested that living with disagreement is impossible. My post simply countered the notion that ‘good disagreement’ is not an inviolable principle of Christian practice. Christ Himself demonstrated otherwise.

        In fact, given that I have only challenged the doctrinaire orthodoxy of ‘good disagreement’, I feel that you are thwarting this site as a ‘safe space’ in which dissent from orthodoxy can normally be tolerated.

        • I meant to write:

          ‘My post simply countered the notion that ‘good disagreement’ is an inviolable principle of Christian practice. Christ Himself demonstrated otherwise.’

        • David, your first comment to which I responded was spot on – my response was an ironic way of agreeing with you! The fact that it was so easily taken at face value demonstrates how far we are down the road of accepting this mealy mouthed way of communicating.

          Phrases like ‘I want to say’ (even worse ‘I think I want to say’), ‘feel threatened’ and ‘safe space’ are clichés which have become all too effective in suffocating honest debate. In particular I have been amazed at how few evangelical clergy and others have dared publicly to voice an opinion about the current existential issue for the CofE. It seems there’s real intimidation out there, and use of language and the consequent taking of offense is perhaps the main weapon.

          By contrast, as you pointed out so clearly, Jesus spoke the unvarnished truth; he was often misunderstood, frequently misinterpreted and ultimately crucified but he never flinched from speaking the truth. It makes you wonder if the work of salvation would ever have been accomplished if He had used today’s euphemistic terms for sin and repentance.

          • Dear Don,

            I saw your post at 11:30pm, which is when my irony detection gauge’s sleep mode kicks in.

            Of course, you’re right. What kind of a conversation can you have people whose feign the emotional equivalent of fragile skin syndrome?

            I doubt that any honest dialogue can result from the all too shrewd groupthink manipulation of spoon-passing facilitators (‘and how does what David said make us feel? Anyone?’)

  5. As Andrew says, this book would have had a broader appeal if it had represented more than the Ridley/Wycliffe hive. But, then again, it’s target audience may be just that narrow band of brothers.
    What has always interested me is how Anglicanism has managed its diversity hitherto and how the gay issue fits into that pattern. We have a complex history and as early revisions of our Prayer Book show there was a battle for the soul of Anglicanism from the beginning. From Puritans to Pusey we have struggled with competing claims and each has won a part of the fellowship and there have been expulsions, exiles, imprisonments and even burnings along the road.
    Some have now decided to respond to the absence of King and Prayer Book with confessional statements, changing the character of Anglucanism in a much more profound way than ordaining a gay bishop ever could.
    It was clear to many that the gay issue became a useful opportunity for old disagreements to be ramped up and given a new life and we have seen the moderate middle ground get thinner as those who have always disagreed build new camps and are refreshed with bishops of their own.
    The role of Sydney has been key to the way things have panned out.
    Under a threat of being cut off from Anglicanism they responded by seizing control of the largest part of the communion, it was an extraordinary coup.
    Having become the new Shibboleth, we wonder just how we will be placed as the new order settles down and the new reality takes hold.
    In the Church of England new ‘homelands’ have been created and an apartheid regime is now in situ, just how that will play out if gay people are granted full citizenship we have yet to see, but one suspects that further structural divisions are likely and good disagreement will be seen as a sell out by many who no longer are labeled extremists.
    I have long though that the wallpaper has been the main structure holding our family together, that was paradoxically its greatest strength, the new energy in old quarrels seems to have seen that paper cut up and one wonders if there is now the will or leadership to see this pasted back together.

  6. There can be no good disagreement as the Episcopalian Church in America has shown. The revisionists accept nothing but full capitulation. This can be seen in society at the moment – we have moved from acceptance of diversity to full celebration of homosexuality, and now moved on to transsexual issues.
    The Church needs to be counter culture and Gospel proclaiming of the salvation of Christ for all. The fall out will come and the suffering will listen. Just because we are deafened by the clamour for acceptance of every form of sexual desire and gender confusion does not mean we fall. Christ tells us it is those who persevere who will inherit the Kingdom. Society now is just reverting to the pagan time so familiar to St Paul.

    • Tricia, TEC’s conservative wing upped and left (and tried to take the church silver with them), they weren’t forced out.

      If they’d stayed, who knows, perhaps they’d have put the breaks on policy changes. As it is, TEC priests and bishops retain the right not to allow same-sex weddings in their church or diocese.

      • Oh, you mean this: http://www.christiantoday.com/article/breakaway.south.carolina.diocese.can.keep.500.million.church.property.judge.says/47415.htm

        So, by ‘the family silver’, I assume that you mean that obscurely defined ‘right’ to be called The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, that TEC asserts to be a federally protected identity.

        Or is it deference of civil courts to TEC’s decisions on for what is essentially a property dispute by scaremongering about the most tenuous of implications for Church-State relations?

        Well, if they can afford to burn $40 million in legal disputes while losing 17.4 per cent of membership since 2003, those who didn’t leave TEC must be loaded, or…

        No, don’t tell me, it’s about principle. The ‘family silver’ is a ‘salvation issue’!

      • They left after it became clear how the future was mapping out. They have been taken to the cleaners by the episcopal church spending millions as David has commented.
        the last will now be driven out by the latest decisions taken to re-write the canon on marriage. It is about time they were cut off from the orthodox Anglican world. Katherine Jefferts Schori is no more a Christian than Gandhi. Her replacement is not much better.

  7. My perception of TEC from infrequent visits is that it remains diverse with bishops remaining deeply opposed to equal marriage and refusing to authorise any such thing as well as refusing to ordain gay folk.
    Indeed, I was just reading a post from bishop Dan Martins ridiculing a TEC parish for advertising themselves as somewhat nontheist, which attracted the usual gasps from the usual people. My impression was the parish were of the Honest to God, demythologising , apophatic type rather than anything else. There in a nutshell is itself the extraordinary diversity of TEC that remains even after the splits.
    And what other Church would have sanctioned the election of someone determined to lead a schism like Mark Lawrence. My bishops would never have contenanced ordaining him, he would have been rejected by Holy Synod. No, some would argue the opposite, saying TEC lacks any cohesive central authority and ability to manage itself structurally and recent changes to its Canon Law have not made things better.

    • As a matter of interest look at the appalling wave of hatred that poured out onto one of these contributors, Tony Baucum following his refreshing dialogues with the bishop of his former diocese …… No hint of intolerance from the bishop, or TEC demanding full compliance, rather a withering, bitter and deeply disturbing drubbing from those who who say they are Anglicans


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