Andrew Goddard writes: What follows is the text (lightly revised) of a lecture on spirituality I was asked to give to Ridley Hall in November 2020. Given it was to be delivered a week after the appearance of Living in Love and Faith (LLF) which it was my privilege to be part of for over three years, I decided to reflect on my experience on that as well as my involvement over nearly two decades—as an evangelical and ethicist—in the often painful discussions around sexuality here in the CofE and the wider Anglican Communion.
I think it is important to realise that these are only what the subtitle I came up with calls “pointers to a spirituality for theological disagreement”. They are no more than pointers. They are not focussed on theological discernment about the seriousness of our theological disagreements. Nor are they addressing the possible ecclesial consequences of theological disagreement. They are rather about how we approach those disagreements personally and spiritually. My hope is that they may perhaps help us in speaking—and seeking—the truth in love both this year as we engage with the LLF resources and more widely.
In working out how to approach this there were various options. One was to explore further the six pastoral principles that are an important element in LLF. While I recommend those, and will refer to some of them in passing, I chose instead to offer a few reflections on six different areas. Although I will largely relate them to my experience in LLF, I would hope they could be applied much more widely.
Speaking (and Seeking) The Truth in Love – Pointers to a Spirituality for Theological Disagreement
Firstly, the title speaks about “theological disagreement” and at one level it is important we recognise that, and do not run away from it. We are talking about disagreements—sometimes deep disagreements concerning truth. We are talking about specifically theological disagreements—disagreements relating to God and God’s Word and God’s good purposes for us as those made in God’s image, as those called to be God’s holy people. These are therefore not trivial disagreements, ones that we can simply push to one side and forget about. As theological disagreements, they are the most important disagreements possible.
But, having said that, we must not ever approach our theological disagreements simply as an intellectual exercise, an abstract argument, a doctrinal or ethical debate. The disagreements are disagreements between people. More specifically, in my focus here, they are disagreements between Christian people. We must therefore always approach them personally and relationally. We can, of course, approach our theological disagreements simply in terms of ideas which we need to propagate or rebut, arguments—even battles—which we simply need to win. But if we do that then we soon risk losing sight of the fact that our disagreement is always with another person. Whoever they are, whatever they have done, whatever their theological beliefs, they are a unique and precious bearer of the divine image—someone who is so much more than the holder and espouser of views with which we disagree. They are our neighbours whom we are called by Christ to love. In many cases, when it comes to theological disagreement, they are also our brothers or sisters in Christ with whom we are to seek the highest possible degree of communion in Christ. The very worst anyone could be—whether as neighbour and fellow image-bearer or as fellow disciple of Jesus—is our enemy, and even if we see those we disagree with in those terms, then they are to be viewed and received as a gift through whom God can teach us what it means to love our enemies.
I think one of our first responsibilities, therefore, is to build relationships with those with whom we disagree. That might seem obvious, but it has astonished me how often people only really know well people who largely share their outlook. That then so easily leads to basically a form of theological tribalism where we are suspicious, or worse, of the other and prefer to gather together only with those with whom we agree, looking simply to rally them as troops for the fight. We cannot totally avoid feeling closer to some than others, more at home in one group than another, but we can and must refuse to lose sight of the fact that in Ephesians 4 we are to speak the truth in love for “the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament” as it “grows and builds itself up in love”.
For me, one of the joys in the midst of conflict and disagreement has been getting to know people “on the other side”. On LLF that deepened further as, across our disagreements, we worked together in the common task of developing a shared vision and collaboratively producing an astonishing range of resources. All of these were shaped by people from across the spectrum of views whose concerns were listened to and taken on board as far as possible. Yes, we often found ourselves disagreeing along the lines of our well-worn theological disagreements, but sometimes we also found surprising agreements across those “party lines” and disagreements as we sought to work together.
One person I already knew on joining LLF was Giles Goddard. Many years ago—in 2006 and 2007—we wrote open letters to each other across the divide after we met at a private consultation which brought strongly opposed people together. Sadly such a relational approach was then seen as a novelty in the Anglican sexuality wars. We met up quite often outside LLF meetings for coffee or lunch, often sharing in the Eucharist at Giles’ church, to reflect on what we were doing, our different perspectives. We’ve said to each other recently that we would both probably now write quite differently—not so ruthlessly focussed on trying to convince the other that they were wrong and needed to see the light, and we might begin a second series following our work on LLF. Another great memory I have is of going along, with more than a little fear and trepidation, to the launch of Inclusive Church in Oxford, not long after the Jeffrey John Reading Crisis in the diocese. Giles Fraser, the speaker whom I had already got to know a bit, graciously invited me to join him and other Inclusive Church supporters at their post-launch meal at a local restaurant!
Sometimes of course it’s simply not possible to build a relationship but then I try to discipline myself to think of those with whom I disagree—and to relate to them—as I would to my friends who share their views. So, rather than being simply an opponent, someone expressing views I believe to be wrong, I think of them like, say, my good friends Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, who hold similar views I believe to be wrong. What if I responded to this person, a relative stranger, as if I was responding to Brian or Sylvia when they expressed similar views?
Secondly, once set in this relational context, disagreement needs to be approached by listening. Yes, I may think I have a good idea of what someone believes, what arguments they are going to advance, what reasons they have for holding their views. But I can only really know those things by listening to them—really listening to them, not simply assuming I know, and not listening for them to say what I expect—almost want them—to say. As each person is unique there is always something new to learn by listening to them.
And when we step back and think in terms not of personal knowledge but of the substantive disagreements intellectually, unless we are convinced we are 100% right we must accept that we have something to learn. And one of the most likely ways to learn something new is to listen to those who are saying something different to me. In terms of the pastoral principles, if we recognise the need to address ignorance—our own ignorance not simply that of others!—then we need to listen.
We need to listen not only to others’ views but also to their stories—their accounts of who they are and how God has called and shaped them, because what we believe—for all of —is intricately interwoven with who we are. Within LLF after some time we realised that, while we were beginning to work quite well as a team basically designing this massive project together, we had never really listened carefully to each other and got to know each other. So we set aside an evening to eat together and listen attentively to our different journeys and hopes and fears. I’m not sure it lessened let alone resolved any of our disagreements, but it moved our relationships with each other and our respect and care for each other to a totally new level.
The importance of listening actually goes, I think, very deep and has much wider implications for our spiritual life. I have yet to find a better articulation of it than that of Bonhoeffer in Life Together and so, although it is long, I want to read you his words:
The first service one owes to others in the community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them. God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives us God’s Word, but also lends us God’s ear. We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them. So often Christians, especially preachers, think that their only service is always to have to “offer” something when they are together with other people. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people seek a sympathetic ear and do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking even when they should be listening. But Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either; they will always be talking even in the presence of God. The death of the spiritual life starts here, and in the end there is nothing left but empty spiritual chatter and clerical condescension which chokes on pious words. Those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others, and finally no longer will even notice it. Those who think their time is too precious to spend listening will never really have time for God and others, but only for themselves and for their own words and plans.
For Christians, pastoral care differs essentially from preaching in that here the task of listening is joined to the task of speaking the Word. There is also a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. This impatient, inattentive listening really despises the other Christian and finally is only waiting to get a chance to speak and thus to get rid of the other. This sort of listening is no fulfillment of our task. And it is certain that here, too, in our attitude toward other Christians we simply see reflected our own relationship to God. It should be no surprise that we are no longer able to perform the greatest service of listening that God has entrusted to us—hearing the confession of another Christian—if we refuse to lend our ear to another person on lesser subjects. The pagan world [heidnische Welt] today knows something about persons who often can be helped only by having someone who will seriously listen to them. On this insight it has built its own secular form of pastoral care [säkularisierte Seelsorge], which has become popular with many people, including Christians. But Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been entrusted to them by the one who is indeed the great listener and in whose work they are to participate. We should listen with the ears of God, so that we can speak the Word of God. (Work Vol 5, pp. 98-9).
Before we can speak the truth—the Word of God—in love, we need to listen with the ears of God to one another. But we need to listen above all to the Word of God in Scripture. Listening together to Scripture across our differences needs to be absolutely central. The forms this will take will vary. One of the most memorable instances of this on LLF was when we began to wonder whether the Road to Emmaus story would particularly illumine our work, the journey we felt we were on, and perhaps even give a structure to the book. At the end of a long day working together we went and sat in the chapel and did a lectio together, listening to the story in Luke 24, listening to God, listening to each other listening to God. As you will see it didn’t give us the structure of the book but again it took us to a new level of fellowship and understanding as we listened together to hear God speak to us from Scripture, as we witnessed one another genuinely, attentively listening to and for God’s Word to us.
And it is in turning to Scripture together that we will best be able to address our theological disagreements—best able to understand why it is we hear God differently. And we need to come to Scripture and listening with others to it not abandoning what we have heard God say in the past but open to hearing him speak afresh. You may have come across the famous words of John Robinson speaking as the Mayflower set sail in 1620: “the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word”. The context of that is less well known but worth quoting:
I charge you before God…that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow the Lord Jesus Christ. If God reveals anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth by my ministry, for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word. For my part, I cannot sufficiently bewail the condition of those reformed churches which…will go, at present, no further than the instruments of their reformation. The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw; whatever part of His will our God had revealed to Calvin, they will rather die than embrace it; and the Calvinists, you see, stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things. This is a misery much to be lamented…
So often our disagreements become “a misery much to be lamented” because we either listen to God without reference to his Word or we listen to God in his Word knowing in advance what God is going to say to us there and perhaps only with those who also know that in advance.
Some years ago the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant contained a number of important commitments that remain crucial and I think LLF embodies well. As we listen to Scripture, particularly where we disagree, we need “to ensure that biblical texts are received, read and interpreted faithfully, respectfully, comprehensively and coherently, with the expectation that Scripture continues to illuminate and transform the Church and its members, and through them, individuals, cultures and societies” (1.2.5). This is how the Church will ‘discern the fullness of truth into which the Spirit leads us’ (1.2.8). But we need to do that by listening together and so in 3.2.3 there was a call to commit to
spend time with openness and patience in matters of theological debate and reflection, to listen, pray and study with one another in order to discern the will of God. Such prayer, study and debate is an essential feature of the life of the Church as it seeks to be led by the Spirit into all truth and to proclaim the gospel afresh in each generation. Some issues, which are perceived as controversial or new when they arise, may well evoke a deeper understanding of the implications of God’s revelation to us; others may prove to be distractions or even obstacles to the faith. All such matters therefore need to be tested by shared discernment in the life of the Church (3.2.3).
Thirdly, to do this and to help us avoid Robinson’s “lamentable misery” we need to cultivate humility. So often our disagreements are such that we feel compelled to man the barricades, fight in the final ditch, take no prisoners. The grain of truth in such an approach is that one aspect of some theological disagreements is that they are indeed part of a spiritual battle. The error in such an approach is, however, serious. One aspect is that it so often reflects fear and, in the words of another pastoral principle, drawn of course from Scripture, we need to cast out fear. It also quickly becomes a matter of power and power-plays and here again we need to heed that other pastoral principle and “pay attention to power”. But such an approach also forgets that “we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world” (2 Cor 10.3, 4). And a few verses earlier it is noteworthy that Paul has appealed “by the humility and gentleness of Christ” (10.1). The battle is fought by following the way of Christ, the way of the cross.
This humility obviously connects to listening and learning. I was brought up in the Church of Scotland and have always been challenged by the words of Oliver Cromwell written to the General Assembly of the Kirk in 1650 – “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken”. As with the Robinson quotation its wider context is also interesting—he recognises that those to whom he writes “have censured others” and sought to establish themselves upon the Word of God. He then asks: “Is it therefore infallibly agreeable to the Word of God, all that you say? I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken”.
We need to bring to our theological disagreements the same spirit that my father-in-law, John Pearce, sought to encourage in my wife as his fatherly advice when she started studying theology. In contrast to those who were warning her about the dangers, the need to always be on her guard and protect herself from liberal teaching, he urged her to pray each day that God would teach her something new from whoever was on her reading list or giving her lectures. A prayerful humility that we need not fear, that God is our teacher, and that God can and will speak, sometimes where we do not expect it.
The danger here is that this could give the impression that we are always looking for something new. And that perhaps is a particular modern or post-modern danger. Humility, however, is also to be our attitude to the wisdom of the past, to the Scriptures and to Christian tradition. God has not suddenly started speaking to us! We need to beware that appeals to new insights and reasoning and experiences can easily be a sign of hubris and a rejection of a spirit of humility—a belief that we are inventors and innovators which forgets that we first and foremost inheritors.
In the face of our disagreements and the threat to unity that they can often present I have kept coming back to verses from Romans 15 that I felt God particularly gave me early on in LLF. They begin with a reminder of that humility before what we have received: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope”. And Paul then prays
May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 15.5–6)
In that language of “same attitude of mind that Christ Jesus had” we would be right to hear an echo of Philippians 2 and the great Christ hymn and Paul’s call in the preceding verses to “in humility value others above yourselves”.
Fourthly, as we approach theological disagreements in this context of relational, humble listening, I’ve found it helpful to keep asking myself, and sometimes ask others, various questions to try to break out of deadlocks and see if new paths can be opened up. Let me briefly give you some examples:
- Can I express your viewpoint in a way that you will recognise as fair and not a caricature or “Aunt Sally”?
- Rather than dismissing your arguments can I put myself in your shoes and see the best possible case for your understanding? Perhaps even provide you with a better argument than one you’ve offered?
- Are there ways in which I can translate the heart of what you are saying into language I am more comfortable with?
- Can I find ways of saying what I think needs to be said in ways you can hear and be happy with?
- Can my understanding expand to incorporate what really matters to you?
- Can we keep talking until we find agreements—even if they are only agreements on, a shared understanding of, a common language for, the nature of our disagreements?
- What ultimately are we disagreeing about here and what would need to change in my position or your position to remove or reduce that disagreement?
I learned so much more about questions like these and how to bring them to bear when we disagree through the LLF process. In particular, like many others, as we worked on the book I found myself having to work closely with people, one in particular, whose views would be very different from mine on many of the controversial issues. We each drafted sections, commented on each other’s drafts and drafts from others, redrafted and redrafted. Although we never really articulated it to each other—perhaps not even to ourselves—it was I think those sorts of questions that we were, in effect, wrestling with and seeking answers to.
Fifthly, it has struck me afresh how much of what I’ve been saying is simply an elaboration of the Golden Rule Jesus give us: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. We can so often fail to realise the depths of wisdom within that simple statement. I remember realising this early on in my involvement in the Communion politics around sexuality. A good friend, a conservative in the American church, recounted how he had received an email from Louie Crew, one of the leading liberal campaigners for change. Before he looked at it he saw it was immediately followed by an email marked something like “Urgent – delete earlier message” which said he had been sent it in error and please would he remove it without reading it as it related to various political plans and would cause the sender great difficulty and embarrassment to admit it had gone by mistake to one of their conservative opponents. My friend recounted how he thought “ooh…interesting moral dilemma…wonder what on earth it says! Should I look at it?” And then he realised that it wasn’t a moral dilemma at all. He simply needed to follow the Golden Rule. If he had sent a similar email by mistake to Louie Crew and had followed it up with an urgent request to delete and not read, what would he have Crew do? And so he pressed “delete” and never discovered what the email contained.
Most if not all I’ve said so far can I think flow from that same principle. How do we feel when we are not respected as people but simply have our arguments taken to pieces, ridiculed, dismissed? Do we not expect to be listened to by those who find it hard to hear what we are saying?
Sixthly and finally, as I’ve reflected on this whole area I’ve found myself coming back to a description that reminds us of one of the central themes of all I’ve been saying: that it is not just what we believe but how we believe and how we express that belief in the face of disagreement that is important. It’s a description I first began to consider back in 2009 and perhaps sums up the heart of what I think I’ve been trying to say about a “spirituality for theological disagreement”: “undefended”.
I learned the term from Simon Walker and his work on leadership. He describes it as an approach which has faced and so is not controlled by the fears and insecurities which so often produce a defensiveness out of a (often sub-conscious) need for self-preservation and justification. In leadership it is, he says, marked by such qualities as ‘giving away of trust’, ‘being free to receive or not receive’, ‘taking risks’, ‘joining in the up-and-running movement around us’ and ‘being vulnerable’. This description seeks to capture a way of being, a tone of voice, a style of engagement, especially in relation to those who are different and who do not accept, perhaps even strongly oppose, the stance we are taking. An ‘undefended’ approach can and should be marked by confidence, trust and security but these are ultimately placed not in our own position and understanding and theological beliefs but rather in God. For something to be self-consciously undefended is for it to recognise that it is still a work in progress and that transformation only comes through relationship, listening, vulnerability, humility and following the way of Christ.
Simon Walker defines ‘undefended’ in relation to leadership as ‘being free enough as a leader to be fully available for the situation in hand, without being compromised by fears, doubts and the need for self preservation’.
It is, I increasingly believe, such a free, full, fearless and, at times, fragile availability for and engagement with others, including those with whom we strongly disagree, even those we see as enemies, that should shape our approach to theological disagreement. It is a path which mirrors God’s approach to us in Christ.
This undefended approach contrasts with a defended and defending mindset. You may have heard the saying attributed to Charles Spurgeon that “The Word of God is like a lion. You don’t have to defend a lion. All you have to do is let the lion loose, and the lion will defend itself.” It appears this is more a paraphrase of a repeated illustration than a quotation but an 1888 sermon captures the idea well and speaks into how we approach theological disagreement and the false sense that in it we have to defend the truth:
The Word of God can take care of itself, and will do so if we preach it, and cease defending it. See you that lion. They have caged him for his preservation; shut him up behind iron bars to secure him from his foes! See how a band of armed men have gathered together to protect the lion. What a clatter they make with their swords and spears! These mighty men are intent upon defending a lion. O fools, and slow of heart! Open that door! Let the lord of the forest come forth free. Who will dare to encounter him? What does he want with your guardian care? Let the pure gospel go forth in all its lion-like majesty, and it will soon clear its own way and ease itself of its adversaries.
As we think about how we speak and seek the truth in love. As we seek to discern and develop a spirituality for theological disagreement. We need to remember that theology—our human speech about God—is dependent on the God who acts and speaks. The God who acts and speaks in Christ and by the Spirit does not seek those who will defend him but those who will worship him, follow him and bear witness to him; true worship, faithful discipleship and genuine witness require us in turn to be undefended and vulnerable.
The truth is not an inert idea but the living God and his Word which is living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword (Heb. 4:12). The theologian therefore must ultimately trust God to make the truth known by revealing it and not believe that it is the theologian who can reveal the truth by stridently defending it.
That understanding about the nature of the theological task will in turn produce a humble theology which will know itself always subject to divine judgment. An undefended theology will thus be content to rely for its persuasive force not on the rhetorical or political or other powers of its adherents but on the convicting power of the God of whom it seeks to speak. This is not, of course, to say that we can simply “agree to disagree” and that disagreements don’t matter. Nor is to say that theology refuses to name and challenge error as error. This, however, is not a theologian’s or church leader’s primary purpose. Whenever a theologian or church leader is called to this task she must do it aware that all our theologies fail the inerrancy test and that ultimately God alone can overcome and defeat both our own theological errors and those errors we see in the theology of others.
As Paul says at the end of his wrestling with his disagreements with his fellow Jews who have not accepted Jesus as the Christ, those who are “my people” but “as far as the gospel is concerned…are enemies for your sake”.
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
‘Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counsellor?’
‘Who has ever given to God,
That God should repay him?’
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen. (Rom 11:33–36).
Revd Dr Andrew Goddard is Assistant Minister, St James the Less, Pimlico, Tutor in Christian Ethics, Westminster Theological Centre (WTC) and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Anglican Studies, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.