Unity: ideal or idolatry? Now there’s a question

Unity; ideal or idolatry?

Last week I went to the last in  this year’s series of the Westminster Faith Debates.

The last two lectures in the series were, to my mind, the most interesting. The topics were how much diversity can the Church cope with and, what does the Church offer the next generation.(These are not the exact titles  but my paraphrased versions.)

In the very last seconds of the very last debate, perhaps the most interesting question – I think in some ways it was more of a statement – was raised from the floor:

Has unity become an idol?

As so often happens the real issue, the issue that everyone wanted to unwrap, to expose to the highest levels of scrutiny, emerged just as the speakers were preparing their concluding points.

I think that it in asking ‘the question’ our friendly provocateur revealed one of the problems the Church faces: the culture of nice. And, the problem with the ‘culture of nice’ is that it’s phony, inauthentic.

If I am really, really, honest I don’t agree with the views put forward, even if they are sincerely held, by the likes of Andrew Symes and Anglican Mainstream. In fact I would want to go further and say that some of their views on issues of human sexuality are just plain wrong and damaging. I think their theology is poor.

I also reject wholeheartedly, in fact I think this is by a considerable distance the weakest of the arguments put forward by the likes of Anglican Mainstream, the idea that issues of human sexuality are somehow second order issues, for me they are, like all ethical issues, first order.

But, Andrew Symes would probably say exactly the same thing about the likes of me.

It is very clear that we don’t, whatever the ‘culture of nice’ wants us to say respect each other’s position. We both think the other is just plain wrong. We both think the positions the other holds are are, in different ways, harmful. And yet the Church and its ‘leadership’ want us to pretend that we somehow respect and see integrity in each other’s positions. How can we in reality?

Andrew Symes was upfront about this, insisting (rightly) that there is, in reality only so much divergence that can be held with any form of organisation, even one that is loosely constructed, such as the Church of England. Andrew and I are as one, on this one point!

He also, again rightly, suggested that this is true even for the most liberal forms of institution. He is right because, despite conservative caricatures of liberalism, liberalism has always been, and remains committed to, not relativism, but to arriving at ‘good’ decisions through a particular form of reasoning. Liberalism, whatever else it might be, is a process of thinking about and doing theology, just as conservatism is.

So is unity an idol? Or, is it an ideal?

In a previous life, as a university lecturer (in organisational ethics) I used to advise students not to fall into the trap of coming down too firmly on one side or the other of an argument. I encouraged students to look for some form of synthesis, to examine the merits of various sets of thinkers (and their weaknesses too), to analyse where theorists may be guilty of overly constructing a particular line of argument (such as the argument that issues of gender and sexuality are second order issues) or where a thinker has a real, but as yet to be fully developed, nugget of an idea.

Now if this is the way I am going to engage with the question, to look for some form of synthesis, it could be argued that I am inherently on the side of unity. But, I am not sure that I am, in this case, at least not in the terms the Church (of England) currently understands unity.

I think I might be prepared to say that my provisional view is this: Unity is an ideal, but at the moment we are treating it as an idol. (Please note the caution in my language: think, provisional).

Because I reject the first order – second order discourse in relation to the big ethical issues around gender and sexuality(and because I want to be honest I would also suggest that those who are firmly on the other side of the argument also regard these as first order issues, even when they seek to  present them as second order issues),’good disagreement’ might involve freeing each  other to invoke the spirit of the Nunc Dimitus: now let you servant depart in peace, because my eyes have seen your salvation.’ We could, presumably, do so in the prayerful expectation that we might one day come together again?

In the meantime we could journey with Peter to the shores of the Sea of Tiberius allow ourselves to be re-commissioned for loving ministry and hear Jesus tell us to stop worrying about his plans for ‘our rivals,’ for God’s favour (John 21, 21) which, despite being given the mandate to feed the flock, appears to be Peter’s primary concern, and maybe ours as well?

Jesus famously prayed for unity amongst all believers just before his trial and crucifixion (John 17, 21), and yet, he also said that he came ‘not to bring peace but a sword,’ (Matthew 10, 34). I think we need to hold these two verses in creative tension, because maybe this is the way we ultimately get to unity, rather than through a phony culture of niceness and pretence?  I suspect that in the interim it may be that we need to go our separate ways confident that in the end God will reconcile all people?

This does not necessarily mean one group having to leave the Church of England (although I suspect it would mean a reduction in the size of the Anglican Communion – perhaps no bad thing?)

‘Good disagreement,’ Archbishop Justin’s hope, could lead to a further loosening up of what is already a federated institution. Our focus of unity could be restricted to adherence to the Catholic Creeds and acts of social mission, the institutional (and diocesan?)  model might need changing, and episcopacy might need rethinking, under this scenario. But would this be a bad thing in a church where the cost of the episcopate appears to be ludicrously high and where a common complaint is that bishops are insufficiently pastoral?

Of this I feel certain: ‘good disagreement,’ needs to be built on honesty and integrity and not on a culture of niceness. Good disagreement need not imply unity at all costs, for this would be idolatry, but it should always hold unity as an ideal.

Good disagreement requires us to imagine different, perhaps radically different, futures. If we persist in sticking to the status quo, seeking unity at all costs, it might be because what we really want is institutional conformity with any form of unity being the idol that delivers it. If this is the case we would all be like the ‘rich caught in the imagination of their hearts;’ incapable of giving birth to Christ in this generation.

Good disagreement may involve the deliberate, and explicit, opening up of theological space between those with strongly held, and first-order disagreements , not in order to self harm, but in the belief that ‘fresh air is good for cuts.’ Maybe this is what Jesus did in with Peter and the Beloved Disciple on the shores of Tiberius? Maybe this is what God wants for the Church now?


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