Is there a spirituality of good disagreement?

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 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, do not run away from that.  We are talking about disagreements.  Sometimes deep disagreements.  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. Disagreements 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, 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 neighbour whom we are called by Christ to love.  In many cases, when it comes to theological disagreement, they are also our brother or sister 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.

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