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