A response to ‘The Andrews:’ Atherstone and Goddard.

I enjoyed reading ‘the Andrews’ (Atherstone and Goddard) in the Church Times and, agree with much, perhaps even all, of what they write.

I appreciate their sense of realism:

‘Disagreement is an indelible fact of life.’ 

It is from this straightforward statement that they are able to draw the question:

‘Can it be transformed for good?’

Andrew and Andrew are also correct when thy point out that ‘good disagreement’ is a slippery term. For some it is not just slippery, it is also vacuous a bit like ‘virtuous sin.’

I am in the ‘camp’ that regards good disagreement as a real and distinct possibility, but not at this stage a probability. For good disagreement to become a probability flexibility and creativity will be required along with an acceptance that most of those with strong views, liberals and conservatives alike, are probably going to have to give a little. (Liberals – on this issue – are probably going to have to accept that opening up Holy Matrimony to same-sex couples is unlikely, and conservatives -on this issue – are going to have to accept that liturgies will be offered to solemnize committed, faithful and monogamous same-sex relationships. In my opinion).

The Andrews article focuses on the ethics of dialogue. They rightly insist that the nature of debate in the coming synod must be far more gracious than that which characterized the previous synod.  But, realistically, when the stakes for so many are so high this will be difficult. And, so I think the argument that ‘we need a different approach to good disagreement; a middle way between those who reject it outright and those who embrace it unthinkingly,’ is spot on.

As a member of the clergy in the Oxford Diocese I appreciated the way the authors employed the statement from ‘our’ Bishop’s staff team that every view on the issue be honoured and respected ‘bearing witness to different aspects of the truth which lies in Christ alone,’ to illustrate grace in dialogue.

But, here is the problem: I don’t know (perhaps a bit like the term Good Disagreement) what this means in reality. It fails to answer two open questions. ‘How’ will every view be honoured? And, ‘who’ decides whether a view is honoured or otherwise? These are perhaps the two critical questions in the whole debate about ‘good disagreement.’

And, this is where the Andrews thought piece (and the sub-title to the article makes it clear that it is a thought piece) doesn’t quite, to my mind, go far enough.

Ultimately where the Church lives with ‘good disagreement’ (and I would strongly argue that the Church has for centuries lived with good disagreement on a large range of issues), it is able to do so because it offers a range of practices and styles that facilitate differences in interpretation.

Good disagreement in the Church of England is seldom about ideas, instead it is concerned with praxis. The terms given for the range of practices about which we disagree, mostly well, include rites, liturgies and even sacraments.

Rites, liturgies and sacraments are the epistemology of the Church, they are ‘doctrine in action.’  It is through rites, liturgies and sacraments that divergent theological perspectives are ‘honoured and respected as bearing witness to different aspects of the truth which is in Christ alone.’

Resolving the question of  ‘how will very view be honoured’ (and to be clear ‘we’ don’t mean every view – we are only talking about monogamous, faithful same-sex relationships) is therefore straightforward. It can only be resolved liturgically.

Until liturgies are in place the view of the ‘inclusives,’ or ‘progressives’ can be listened to, listened to with respect and grace, but it cannot be honoured.

Liturgies, rites and, sacraments  are the proof statements of what range of  perceived ‘truths’ the Church is prepared to accommodate and, honour. The Church has  no other formal epistemology.

So ‘who’ decides? Well clearly synod will make some non binding and provisional decisions over the next five years. But ‘who’ decides should be a question that is delegated to the lowest effective level. The local congregation and minister in other words; subsidiarity.

I hope every view can be honoured. But honouring every view  is not something that can ever be resolved in the synodical equivalent of smoke-filled rooms, or even in a bishop’s staff-meeting. Good disagreement is ultimately not about views and arguments, it is about different interpretations of what is taking place in a liturgical context.

Good disagreement therefore necessitates the widening of the range of liturgies without insisting that these liturgies are used by any individual minister.

In the absence of rites and liturgies all talk about ‘honouring’ and ‘disagreeing well,’ is both meaningless and  ‘fundamentally flawed.’ 

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6 thoughts on “A response to ‘The Andrews:’ Atherstone and Goddard.

  1. I’m sad to say that local congregations are not always that good at any kind of disagreement let alone good disagreement. Perhaps the great hope of the headline debates may be we get more experience of disagreeing well (whatever we find that means) at ever level of the family of God.

  2. I agree, but good disagreement must have more than one dimension, I think. That is to say it must involve disagreeing about not just beliefs but practices.Synod must set the broad parameters or range of permissions so we can disagree well as the family of God.

  3. “Liberals – on this issue – are probably going to have to accept that opening up Holy Matrimony to same-sex couples is unlikely”

    Unlikely where? Most dioceses in the Episcopal Church have, in Truth, “open[ed] up Holy Matrimony to same-sex couples” (similarly in the Anglican Church of Canada). As the article in question concerned the entire Anglican Communion, not just the CofE, perhaps you need to expand your horizons? [And more and more same-sex couples throughout Anglian-Land *will* find their way (one way or another) to Anglican altars which will marry them. TBTG!]

  4. I agree that liturgies and rites are key to the discussion, but this seems singularly to ignore the lex orandi; lex credendi principle. Up till now, all authorised liturgy has been based on the understanding that, because it expresses doctrine, liturgy must be able to be used in good conscience by all. To develop a series of texts that would not meet those criteria would fly in the face of all our previous liturgical revision – and would be a deal-breaker for many of us. To give liturgical expression to that which we cannot accept as biblically or canonically true would be a departure from the norm. We may be back to separate rooms.

    • You may well be correct but ‘good disagreement’ and ‘honouring all views’ cannot simply mean listening courteously to those you disagree with. So how without simply sticking to the status quo can we move ahead in any meaningful way? I would add that liturgy is used and interpreted differently by diverse groups using similar if not identical texts on a range of other issues. Perhaps, we need to lose the ‘good disagreement’ and ‘honouring’ strap-lines? Thanks for agreeing that liturgies are key to the discussion. I think that sometimes this is ignored either deliberately or otherwise (as in Atherstone and Goddard’s article).

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