It is now 12 months since the Pilling Report was published on the topic of how the Church of England was to take forward its attitude to the issues around sexuality and gender. In the report there was a call for ‘facilitated conversations’ which would enable the different approaches to listen to one another in a safe space. Even if there was to be disagreement at the end of the process, it would be ‘good disagreement’ which indicated that each approach found ‘something of Christ in the other’. These conversations have begun and are due to report at the Anglican General Synod in July 2016. The whole process sounds very civilised and generous but needless to say not all Christians can tolerate this move toward ‘good disagreement’. The Anglican group known as Reform, a conservative organisation very close to the Sydney Anglicans from the last post, believes that tolerance of any kind for a position other than its own would be forcing participants to ‘accept an outcome in which the Church moves from its present, biblical, understanding of marriage to one where we accommodate two separate beliefs, with one part of the Church calling for repentance over sexual sin and another declaring God’s blessing’.
There is clearly a difficult problem to be addressed as there is little to allow the two sides to come close. But an interesting paper has been written by the new Dean of St Paul’s, David Ison, himself brought up in a conservative background, which suggests some ways forward. In the first place he looks to the experience of inter-faith and ecumenical dialogue. In such dialogue each party looks at the other side and tries to find all the positives in their position. By affirming the positives on both sides there is then a recognition however well we have done, there is at the same a falling short of what we could be. The insights of the other side in what they see of us, may help us to see these failings more clearly, because it is offered from a different perspective from our own. Ecumenical, inter-faith dialogue is valuable, in short, because it allows the best on both sides to be affirmed while accepting the fact of limitations that can only be seen from the fresh perspective of a stranger.
A failure to engage in this kind of dialogue is perhaps an inability to live with the possibility of our own limitations and fallibilities. David Ison speaks of the way that Paul encouraged the issue of finding a way through disagreement in his letters. One problem for him was the issue of whether or not to eat meat that had been sacrificed to pagan deities in Romans 14 & 15. He recognised that Christians would have different views on how important this was. Even when it was felt to be important, our position must never be a cause of stumbling for a Christian brother or sister. The cause of peace and harmony was always more important than allowing a fellow Christian to fall away over such issues.
A further passage where Paul deal with the problem of disagreement is in 1 Corinthians 11.2ff. Here there are a number of customs about the appearance of women in church, the headship of men over women, length of hair etc. At the end of the section Paul tells the Corinthians what are the customs of other churches under his authority but the injunctions are handed over with a certain tentativeness. ‘Judge for yourselves’, Paul says and ‘there is no such custom among us, or in any of the congregations of God’s people’. One cannot read this as a declaration of God’s will for all time, but as human guidance offered by one human being to others. ‘Take this from me’, Paul is saying, ‘here are examples of good practice in these matters’. But he still leaves room for disagreement. The tone changes from verse 23 of chapter 11. when Paul sets out in a rather more authoritative tone the way that the eucharist/agape is to be ordered. The Church of England has for a long time read the passage about customs connected to women’s appearance during worship as culturally conditioned and certainly not containing commands that have to be obeyed for all time by the church.
The passage in Galatians 5.11-26 also helps us to see the way that Paul understands the task of living with difference. Verse 15 says ‘if you go on fighting one another tooth and nail, all you can expect is mutual destruction.’ In contrast to that, Paul calls them to ‘be servants to one another in love’. There is also a great deal of wisdom in Galatians 6 about how Christians are to carry themselves in relation to one another. What Paul says about mutual love and support is in the context of bitter rows over the question of circumcision. The rights and wrongs of this division are in the last resort transcended by new realities that they are to discover for themselves. ‘Circumcision is nothing; uncircumcision is nothing; the only thing that counts is new creation.’ Clearly for Paul there were more important things to think about and to strive for than second order issues such as the bodily changes of circumcision.
For David Ison the decisive change in his attitude that he experienced in the fruitful lives of people which traditional evangelicalism has wanted to reject. This has meant for him that for ‘good disagreement’ has to mean something more than what he calls a ‘patronising conversation’ with people who are different from us. The Church has had to develop new ways of dealing with people of colour and facing up to its historical anti-Semitism beyond the mere acceptance of such people as a ‘them’. Even to discuss whether people of colour and different race are equal before God would be tantamount to racism. The same goes for a condescending discussion about women and gays. Women and gays are part of us, and any discussion of their status before God as somehow different is discriminatory and certainly not Christian.
David Ison’s paper is valuable because it helps us to see more clearly how far we have to go, not only in making ‘good disagreement’ happen in theological discussion but what is involved in taking the primacy of love into these debates. Love is surely able to overcome the fear of deviancy that plagues discussions at present. Love should be able to sketch out what a mutual life affirming commitment would look like in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. As a final comment in his paper Ison speaks about eschatalogical ‘Kingdom love’, a love towards which all our relationships point. This will be the fulfilment of all our earthly relationships. One hopes this paper will be widely read.