Good disagreement: It’s all about leadership!

Recently Ian Paul wrote a piece called ‘Good Disagreement?’

He asked whether ‘Good Disagreement’ was possible in relation to Same Sex Marriage. It’s a good and valid question. Of course the answer slightly depends on expectations and definitions.

I think Ian, and  many involved in the conversation his article stimulated, felt that two issues were at stake: the way Christians behave to others who take a different theological perspective on this most contentious of issues and, the reality of peaceful co-existence.

I suspect, with a heavy heart, that for a small minority it will be necessary to depart, hopefully in peace.

But, I don’t think it will be true for the vast majority.

For the last few weeks I have been mulling other Ian’s final paragraph; it has got under my skin (thank you Ian!)

Here it is:

‘It is far from clear that churches which are ”inclusive” on questions of same-sex marriage are in fact ”inclusive” of welcoming those who support the Church’s current teaching.’

I think Ian is largely correct but, I also question the extent to which the leadership of churches that wish to adhere to the historic position are able to cope with diversity and the idea that some, even in their own congregations, might disagree on this and, other issues.

I suggest there are three problems that follow from Ian’s summation.

The first is the thought that an  individual Church in fact possess a commonly agreed set of doctrines. This may be true for a small number of large stylised town churches but, in rural churches it is unlikely to be true.

I remember the vicar of a large evangelical church I attended being shocked when he discovered in a private conversation that I disagreed profoundly with him on a number of issues. He then found out that so did a significant number of others. ‘His’ church contained far greater theological diversity than he had allowed for, and, this made him feel distinctively uncomfortable.

In one of the parishes in the rural context in which I serve I was asked to lead a series of house group discussions on Same Sex Marriage. Some wanted the Church to proceed full steam ahead (this was a minority perspective), others suggested proceeding with caution (blessing of a union – the majority view), others were extremely uncomfortable with any possible changes.

The second problem is this: when we talk of Churches being inclusive or otherwise who are we talking about? The ‘leadership’ of the church or the congregation? We shouldn’t necessarily conflate the two. (For the Church of England there is of course a third problem, namely the parish and the legitimate expectations of parishioners – but let’s leave that to one side.)

Good disagreement, therefore, might not just be a macro issue. We might need to learn to disagree well within individual churches.

Good Disagreement might call for a radically different form of leadership; one which accepts diversity at both the institutional and congregational level. Good disagreement requires a new form of maturity in leadership. Maybe individual churches (parishes or teams) might need the courage to accept significant theological diversity within their leadership teams?

If my intuition is correct then Good Disagreement isn’t just an aspiration; it is an obligation, and strange to say I think the Bishops have already paved a way through their pastoral letter, Who is my neighbour?

In their open letter addressed to ‘the People and Parishes of the Church of England for the General Election 2015’ the bishops stress that they are not proposing ‘a shopping list of policies we would like to see,’ but instead ‘a new direction that we believe our political life ought to take.’  The same is true for the Church. We, the Church, will no doubt continue to argue about Same Sex Marriage and a whole range of other contentious issues, but maybe the job of the bishops is not simply to oversee a process which leads to a new set of doctrines (policies) and liturgies but, to lead the Church in an entirely new direction?

So how could this be done? Well again I think the pastoral letter gives some clues, for the third problem is concerned with ecclesiology, diversity and catholicity.

In their musings on Disagreement, Diversity and Coalition the Bishops say that it is a ‘fallacy that people can only work together if they agree about every issue,’ suggesting that this thesis is ‘proved wrong day after day.’

We need to be up front and honest: the Church of England, is a coalition comprising significant diversity – to pretend otherwise would be a fallacy. What the Church of England now requires of its leaders – at both the diocesan and parish level is the ability to embrace and encourage diversity; to work in coalition.

My own diocese (Oxford) is currently without a Diocesan Bishop. At one level I have no real interest in the new appointments position on Same Sex Marriage, the reason being that the days of ‘leader knows best,’ are rapidly disappearing, I am far more concerned about the bishops ability to create communities that are adept at ‘breaking free of self-interest and welcoming our opponents as well as our supporters into a messy, noisy, yet rich and creative community of communities.’ The Bishops state that this is ‘the only way we will enrich our almost moribund political culture,’ and that this will require a ‘leap of imagination.’ In the words of Spandau Ballet: ‘So True.’ But if this is true for a moribund political culture, it must be true for the Church.

The Corpus must act as a mirror to the polis.

But, ‘our ability’ to disagree well, to take make the changes in ‘our’ leadership style necessary for good disagreement, depends on the acceptance of one key, theological, principle stressed in the letter: subsidiarity (a virtue also promoted in Theonomics, my book! Cheap plug, sorry!).

Subsidiarity derives from Catholic Social Teaching and stresses that ‘decisions should be devolved to the lowest point consistent with effectiveness.’  Ecclesiologically this means allowing individual congregations (and priests?) to decide on how they wish to proceed within the broad framework that preserves our ‘Anglican identity.’ It also means allowing them to head off in a direction not necessarily favoured by the ‘leader.’

The problem is that the Church is not good at subsidiarity (it might have been before the Synod of Whitby). We have tended to stress a more institutional, alpha style leadership. It’s a style that is now starting to look increasingly outdated.

So let’s return to Ian’s question: ‘So can there be ‘good disagreement’ as we move forward?’

For some people the answer will be no. Doctrinally any changes will be a step too far, and yes there is also a ‘liberal’ voice that will tend to speak in condescending tones to anyone who dares disagree. But, I hope that these people are in the minority.

For the majority ‘good disagreement’ may be not so much about doctrine but more about leadership and a style of leadership animated through an unwavering commitment to the principle of subsidiarity. 


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