Why disagreement is not good

In the new edition of his biography of Archbishop Justin Welby, Andrew Atherstone draws the following contrast between the approaches of Archbishop Welby and his predecessor:

‘Rowan Williams spent most of his archepiscopate seeking areas of core theological agreement around which Anglicans could coalesce, most notably in the failed Anglican Covenant. Welby’s project is different: not the pursuit of theological agreement but learning to live with theological disagreement.’

In this quotation Atherstone has put his finger on the heart of Archbishop Welby’s approach to the challenges facing the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion. Rather than trying to get everyone to agree on issues such as women bishops or same-sex relationships the Archbishop is concerned instead with getting people to disagree well with each other, what he has called ‘good disagreement.’

The phrase ‘good disagreement’ is one that the Archbishop has used on several occasions and it has also been used by the Church of England’s House of Bishops, most recently in a statement about the facilitated conversations on issues of human sexuality that are due to take place across the Church of England in the next couple of years. This statement said that one of the objectives of these conversations is ‘to clarify the implications of what it means for the Church of England to live with what the Archbishop of Canterbury has called ‘good disagreement’ on these issues.’

Unfortunately, neither the Archbishop of Canterbury, nor the House of Bishops, nor anyone else, has produced a clear definition of what is meant by ‘good disagreement’ and no understanding of the term has ever been agreed by the Church of England. This is a problem because you cannot begin to think about whether good disagreement is a sensible idea unless and until you know what this term means. In this blog post I want to suggest that whole idea of ‘good disagreement’ is radically misconceived and that what we should be talking about instead is how to handle disagreement, which is in itself necessarily a bad thing, in the best way possible as part of our calling as Christians to be a community of truth.

To begin to think about this topic the first thing we have to be clear about is that ‘disagreement’ is not the same as ‘diversity’. To disagree is to have different convictions about how things are or should be. Thus there is a disagreement between those who think that unaccompanied psalmody is the only permissible form of music in church and those who think that other forms of hymnody can be equally legitimate. Diversity, on the other hand, just means difference. Thus there could be a church that had total agreement that there should be a variety of different styles of music in use in its services. That would be diversity but not disagreement.

The second thing I think we need to be clear about is that disagreement is a result of our fallen condition. God knows the truth about all things. This is what is meant when Job 28:24 tells us that God ‘looks to the ends of the earth and sees everything under heaven’ and Hebrews 4:13 declares ‘before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.’ As creatures made in God’s image human beings are also created to know the truth. We can see this in the account of creation in Genesis in which we are told that ‘the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name’ (Genesis 2:19). What is described here is an act of truthful discernment. Adam is not just arbitrarily assigning names to the birds and the animals, he is discerning truthfully what they are. Like God he knows the true nature, ‘the name,’ of things.

If all human beings engaged in this kind of truthful discernment all of the time then there would never be any disagreement between them. We would all know the truth and we would all agree about the truth. Tragically, however, the result of the big lie told by the devil and accepted by the first human beings (Genesis 3) is that we have lost the ability to always see things as they really are and to always be honest about what we do see. It is for that reason that human beings disagree.

Fortunately, God has provided a remedy for this situation. Jesus is truth incarnate (John 14:6 ‘I am the truth’) and he has come to restore our ability to know the truth. In John 8:31-32 Jesus declares ‘if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ This comes about through the work of the Holy Spirit who is sent by Jesus to ‘guide you into all the truth’ (John 16:13). Like the whole of our re-creation through Jesus, our ability to discern the truth is a work in progress. At the moment ‘our knowledge is imperfect’ (1 Corinthians 13:9) but in heaven we shall understand fully in the same way that we ourselves are fully understood by God (1 Corinthians 13:12). As C S Lewis puts it in his book The Great Divorce, human beings are created with an innate desire for truth and this desire will one day be satisfied. God will bring us to a place where we can taste truth ‘like honey and be embraced by it like a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched’

What all this means is that the term ‘good disagreement’ is an oxymoron like ‘virtuous sin’. Disagreement can never in itself be good. We disagree because in our fallen condition we either don’t know the truth, or are unwilling to accept it when it is presented to us. The vocation of the Church is therefore not to practice ‘good disagreement.’ The vocation of the Church is to be a community where as far as possible disagreement does not exist because truth is known, accepted and celebrated.

The saints in glory presumably already fully practice this vocation. However, as already noted, those of us who are still on earth remain imperfect in knowledge and therefore don’t have a full knowledge of the truth. We are also still sinful and therefore unwilling to accept the truth when it challenges what we want to believe, makes us look bad, or involves having to admit we were wrong. For these reasons the potential for disagreement will always be present in the Church and we have to think about how to handle it in the best way possible. This means that while we can never sensibly talk about ‘good disagreement’ it does make sense to talk about better and worse ways of handling disagreement.

We have to begin by recognizing that our own knowledge of the truth and willingness to accept is limited. We therefore always need to be willing to accept correction from those with whom we disagree and change what we think or do providing that we that our reason for change is a greater perception of truth and not just a desire to please someone else or achieve some advantage for ourselves.

We also have to recognize that those with whom we disagree are people. This means that the prohibitions in the sixth and ninth commandments (Exodus 20: 13 and 16) apply. As the paraphrase of the commandments in the Prayer Book Catechism tells us, these commandments tell us that we are ‘to hurt nobody by word nor deed’, ‘to bear no malice in my heart’ and to keep our tongue ‘from evil-speaking, lying and slandering.’ However strongly we disagree with people, and however much this may lead us to want to attack them in word or deed, the commandments still apply and so we may not do so. We may legitimately criticize their beliefs or actions, but we may not attack them as people, but should instead pray that God will deliver them from error.

Finally we need to understand that the command to ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18/Matthew 19:19) means that as far as we can we are called to lead people into truth and protect them from error. If we know that someone is in error, particularly when that error is about something serious, and especially when it has to do with their obedience to God, we cannot simply shrug our shoulders and say ‘Ok, go your own way then.’ That would be failure of love. Human beings are made not to live in error, but to live in the truth, and if we can help this to happen then we have an inescapable obligation to do so.

Equally, in so far as we able to do so we have an obligation to protect people from error. That is to say, when there are people who know the truth, but may potentially be tempted to depart from it we must do our best to prevent this happening. This is a particularly important part of the vocation of church leaders. That is what St Paul was getting at when he told the Ephesian elders at Miletus

‘Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.’ (Acts 20:28)

Caring for the flock means seeking to prevent the sheep being led astray.

In the light of all this I suggest that Archbishop Welby and the House of Bishops should expunge the term ‘good disagreement’ from their vocabulary. They should talk instead about the importance of the Church of England being a truthful community, a community which aims at agreement in the truth and in which those with leadership roles take seriously their responsibility to encourage this search for truth and, as far as possible, to protect the faithful from error.

4 thoughts on “Why disagreement is not good

  1. I agree that the shorthand “good disagreement” for handling disagreements well is problematic. It invites us to abandon the search for a fuller understanding of the truth.

    I disagree with one of the assumptions I see expressed in your post, namely that the ultimate reason for our inability to attain a comprehensive knowledge of the truth on which we all agree is our sin. I grant of course that sin darkens our minds and chokes our imagination and so hinders our grasp of the truth. But is not comprehensive knowledge of the truth a prerogative of our Creator?

    (Do you maybe have 1 Corinthians 13:12 in mind? The apostle here contrasts our present partial knowledge with a much more thorough knowledge in the future which will be like meeting someone in person whom we had known only through the medium of the internet. But this does not seem to warrant the view that we will know everything comprehensively.)

    Our knowledge of the truth is always from a certain vantage point in space and time. Yes, we can change our vantage point and explore the truth from different angles and in addition can learn from the insights of those who see from vantage points which are not accessible to us, but we are not able to experience the full truth immediately, instantaneously and errorless – and this is not exclusively as a result of sin. As James K. A. Smith argues in The Fall of Interpretation (2000, 2nd ed. 2012), “the ineluctable plurality of interpretation, both of texts and of the world, belongs to creation in its goodness and not (merely) to the Fall.”

    How does this affect your argument? Given the definition of “disagreement” as always relating to truth claims, you may be right to state. “If all human beings engaged in this kind of truthful discernment all of the time then there would never be any disagreement between them.” But the following sentence would need amending to something like, “We would all be mindful of the limits of our grasp of the truth and our different interpretations would enrich us rather than conflict with each other.”

    It is problematic to have such a discussion in the abstract, not least because it is not always easy to discern the difference between false teachers and pastors whose teaching contains major errors. Do Baptist or Roman Catholic distinctives indicate significant theological error? I should think so. Are therefore all Baptist or Roman Catholic pastors false teachers? I do not think so. It will hardly do to relegate such distinctives to the realm of secondary issues and yet I do not address these issues at ecumenical clergy meetings. Should I for the sake of resolute truth-telling?

    Our disagreements are indeed “a result of our fallen condition” and should therefore never be thought of as “good” but so are our divisions into denominations. Denominationalism bears falls witness to Christ and his church and therefore, I fear, cannot but compromise our grasp of the truth which is to say our knowledge of the truth is compromised, maybe in areas of which we remain unaware, even if we are on the side of truth rather than error with regard to, say, infant baptism or papal infallibility. This is because we grow into the truth through learning from a plurality of perspectives; by excluding some members of the body, even if we do so for the sake of affirming truth and refuting error, we lose what they would have contributed in other ways.

    In holding our disagreements in abeyance at ecumenical clergy gatherings, we are making space for ministering to one another in other areas. This also works for us at deanery level on a number of important issues on which we disagree as Anglicans. You are right to caution us against minimising the moral seriousness of disagreement as a consequence of focusing on disagreeing well but I sense the right way forward is more complex than resolute truth-telling.

  2. I hesitate to join this discussion between two great thinkers. However, while I agree with a lot of what Martin Davie writes, I also agree with Thomas that in practice things can be more nuanced.

    Indeed, the quote that Martin gives from Acts 20:28 does indeed warn against those who ‘speak perverse things’, but the thrust of the concern is about people ‘drawing away disciples after them.’ In other words there is a deeper concern about dis-unity being created in the church. I guess the idea of ‘good disagreement’ could be taken (and perhaps is meant to be taken) as a disagreement that doesn’t lead to division. It doesn’t mean that the disagreement is by nature, ‘good’, but that it does not become really bad by causing disunity in the church. Perhaps, ‘disagreement that is not that bad’ might be a more accurate if rather clumsy phrase.

    The church is called to be the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. To be apostolic suggests working hard at uniting around Biblical truth and that will indeed require the need to ‘speak the truth in love.’ However, we also need to work at being ‘one’, which is as much to do with good relationships as agreement in the truth. We are called to work for reconciliation and truth in our church, but at times this combination will be hard to hold together.

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