All Change Please:

Well this week two church leaders confirmed a change of view on the most contentious issues of debate in the Church: female headship and same sex marriage.

The Bishop of Horsham had for many years held the view that priestly and episcopal ministry was the preserve of the male of the species. I think it is fair to say that +Mark Sowerby’s decision came as something of a surprise to many.

Tony Campolo’s declaration that he now thinks it is right for gay and lesbian Christians to be afforded full and equal status in the Church is, apparently, less of a surprise.

For both men the decision they have come to has followed a long and difficult period of prayer and reflection. Christianity Today’s article on Campolo’s affirmation puts it as follows:

”He explains it has taken hours of prayer, study, conversation and emotional turmoil to get to the point where he is ready to change his mind and finally call for the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the Church.”

Martin Warner, the Bishop of Chichester, has written charitably of his colleague:

“Bishop Mark’s shift in theological outlook on the ordination of women priests and bishops is a costly one. All who know and respect him will understand the serious struggle with conscience that will have led to his decision. We respect his honesty and applaud his courage. For some of those he serves it will be a development that they cannot follow, and that will be painful. For others, this news will be greeted with relief and considerable rejoicing.”

From these two quotes we can see that both men have sought, with serious intent, to discern God’s will. We are told by those who know them well that the process has been a struggle involving significant personal turmoil and, that both men know that others will feel let down by their decision. The Church it appears remains somewhat tribal!

So following this weeks ‘church notices’ are there any lessons we can learn, and, apply in the context of ‘good disagreement?’ I think there are!

  • For liberals (and I would count myself as a liberal) beware of name calling! It just can’t be the case that +Mark and Dr. Campolo were fundamentalists and bigots last week, but this week they are fully redeemed members of the authentic Christian community, can it?
  • For conservatives ditto: be aware of name calling! It is surely implausible to suggest that last week Mark and Tony were orthodox and traditional Christians but that over the weekend they became progressives and revisionists, can it?
  • For all of us, liberal and conservative alike. Respect the journey and the fact that we possibly don’t know everything about the spiritual turmoil going on in each others lives. Also, lets recognise and accept that the Church is tribal, brutally so at times, and that changes in theological outlook demand humility and courage. I think that there is a great deal to learn from the Bishop of Chichester’s response, because Martin Warner continues to believe that it is only men who are called to exercise priestly and episcopal ministry (as far as I know) and, yet his instinct is to offer the hand of friendship.
  • We also need to understand that discernment can be a long-term process and, this is uncomfortable for those of us who are in a hurry. It is uncomfortable for those of us who want change and want it now, it is equally uncomfortable for those wishing for a guarantee that liturgical rites will never be developed for same sex couples. So we might as well accept our ‘common discomfort,’ but……………(I will get back to my but and it is a big but!

I used to think that ‘good disagreement,’ and ‘facilitated conversions’ were a bit of a waste of time because, ultimately, whatever ‘head office,’ decides priests who wish to affirm same sex relationships will just go ahead and do it and, those who don’t, won’t.

Now I still think that should the Church spend too much time ‘procrastinating’ some priests will either start, or in some cases continue to conduct, same sex liturgies creatively designed to fall short of Holy Matrimony, or even an official blessing, yet looking remarkably similar. And, the bishops will be impotent to do anything about it, even if they want to. This is something that the Bishops need to grasp.

My other issue with good disagreement, and others have also shared this perspective, is that nobody knows what it means. However, is this, paradoxically, part of its genius?. Could it be that good disagreement is something we stumble into, rather than arrive at? Is there a danger that in seeking to define good disagreement too precisely we run the risk of ensuring failure? Maybe.

Could it be that the real, unplanned genius in the process, is to provide time for reflection not for those committed to a given course of action (or inaction) but to those still going through hours of prayer, study, conversation and emotional turmoil? 

Is it just possible that the real actors are not those involved in Church sponsored conversations but the countess others seeking to discern God’s will from the margins? Again, maybe. And could it be that we, the Church, need to give the Marks and Tonys of this world just a little bit more time for a serious struggle with conscience? 

But……… let me get back to my but:

I don’t think that a process which only facilitates an exchange of views but which doesn’t provide alternative ways of doing or being church can ever be regarded as good disagreement.  Ultimately good disagreement must involve the possibility of different forms of non binding practice. Can such models be developed, where the issue is so contentious? I think so and, the New Testament provides a wonderful example in Romans 14.

The issue up for discussion was not, of course, same sex relationships (although fornication is mentioned) but whether gentiles should be forced to accept Jewish ‘food standards,’ and this was a contentious humdinger of an issue which we mustn’t trivialise.

Echoing the decisions made at the Council of Jerusalem, St. Paul permits alternative (and competing) theologies writing ‘let us therefore no longer pass judgement on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block in the way of another. I know, and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean of itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean,’ (verses 13 &14).  The early Church managed to respect the integrity of different positions, allowing for different forms of practice. Ultimately,so should we.

I hope that we will stumble into good disagreement, for I suspect that ultimately the only real choice is to march stridently into bad and militant disagreement.

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