Disagreeing over disagreement A response to the Faith and Order Commission Report Communion and Disagreement


  1. Introduction

As the Bishop of Coventry explains in his Preface, the report Communion and Disagreement (GS Misc 1139 )  has been written to support the shared conversations of human sexuality that are currently taking place in the Church of England by providing ‘some reflections on theologically responsible ways of holding difference, diversity and serious disagreement within the common life of the church’ (p.1).

The report consists of four chapters which look in turn at ‘Disagreement and the Life of the Church,’ ‘Communion, Conflict, Consultation. Conciliarity and Conscience,’ ‘Elements of Communion and Types of Disagreement’ and ‘Sustaining Conversation in Serious Disagreement.’

In addition to the main text of the report, the report is supplemented by five additional papers available separately on the Commission’s website ‘which both provide extended treatment of issues dealt with more briefly in the report itself and model ways of agreeing and disagreeing well together’ (p.2). These papers are:

  1. Loveday Alexander and Joshua Hordern, ‘Communion, Disagreement and Conscience;’
  2. Loveday Alexander and Morwenna Ludlow, ‘Irenaeus and the Date of Easter;’
  3. Christopher Cocksworth and Julie Gittoes, ‘Richard Hooker on Scripture,

Tradition and Reason: Responding to Disagreement;’

  1. Mark Chapman and Tim Dakin, ‘Dialogue and Difference: Symbolic,

Symptomatic and Systemic;’

  1. Jonathan Goodall and Jeremy Worthen, ‘The Limits of Diversity.’

2. Why is there disagreement?

According to the report disagreement is an inevitable part of the life of the Church for two reasons.  First because disagreement inevitably arises as the Church engages in mission in obedience to the Great Commission and secondly because disagreement is a necessary part of the interpretation of Scripture.

The first of these two reasons is set out in paragraphs 2 and 3 in chapter one of the report. These paragraphs declare:

‘It is not necessarily the case that if only Christians were faithful to Christ, there would never be disagreement. The church exists in the dynamic of evangelization, of receiving and proclaiming the good news. Called from every nation to share the gospel with every nation, Christians have to work out what it means to hear and to speak the gospel in their particular time, culture and circumstances. They cannot do this unaided and in isolation, but neither can they always rely wholly on imitating or repeating the words and actions of Christians from other times and other places. The witness of the church is irreducibly pluriform rather than uniform, as the inclusion of four different canonical Gospels underscores. It is in such pluriformity, not in spite of it, that the church fulfils the command to ‘be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.’ [Philippians 2:2]

Questions are however bound to arise as to where the boundary lies between necessary, right pluriformity and confusing, wrong pluriformity – or, to use a different terminology, between legitimate and illegitimate diversity. Different answers will sometimes be given to these questions, leading on some occasions to significant disagreement, one outcome of which may be the judgment that a particular way of speaking and acting is not compatible with abiding in the teaching of Christ (2 John 9). Such exclusion, however, should not be confused with an ideal of uniformity; it concerns rather the proper parameters of Christian diversity. Difference and disagreement remain part of the church’s journey through the dynamic of evangelization towards ever fuller and deeper unanimity in the praise of God and the declaration of God’s truth to the world’ (pp.4-5).

The points made in this two paragraphs are developed further in paragraph 25 at the end of chapter one. This states:

‘Disagreement …. will always arise as the church seeks faithfulness to Christ while it takes part in God’s mission through Christ to ‘all the nations . . . to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28.19–20). Its occurrence does not negate the command, today or in the past, to ‘be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind’, but provides an opportunity to fulfil it more completely. It sends the church back to reflection on its agreement in the gospel and the communion in Christ that flows from it, so that through attending to the different perspectives contained within the disagreement carefully and prayerfully, the church may grow together in knowledge of the truth of the gospel. Such attention will need to encompass both genuine dialogue in which those involved seek to persuade one another of the view they believe to be true, and commitment by all involved to be obedient to the rule of Christ. That would be one way of describing good disagreement – of disagreeing well – in the life of the church.’  (pp.12-13)

What these paragraphs tell us is that there will necessarily be disagreement in the Church because mission necessarily involves pluriformity and Christians will disagree with each other about whether a particular form of pluriformity is compatible faithfulness to the teaching of Christ. Such disagreement has a providential function in the life of the Church because reflection on disagreement is part of the way in which the Church moves towards fuller and deeper unanimity and so fulfils the Pauline injunction to ‘be of one mind.’

The second reason is set out in paragraph 14 of chapter one. This paragraph argues that disagreement will inevitably arise because Christian theology has a ‘hermeneutical character’ in the sense of being based on the interpretation of the Bible:

‘The hermeneutical character of Christian theology ensures that it does not reach a fixed and final state. Interpretive disagreement is a creative and necessary part of how human communities read texts with the expectation of growth in understanding of truth and goodness: different interpretations need to be tested against one another in order for the best interpretation to emerge.’ (p.9)

Here again we see an emphasis on the beneficial results of disagreement. The best interpretation only emerges as a result of disagreement about how to interpret a text.

  1. Why can disagreement be problematic?

The material from the report that I have cited so far seems to point us to a positive view of disagreement in the life of the Church. Disagreement, it says, is a necessary result of engaging in mission and reading Scripture and it leads the Church to deeper and fuller unanimity and a better understanding of the biblical text.

However, alongside this positive view of disagreement the report also notes that disagreement can be problematic. Once again this is for two reasons.

The first reason is that disagreement can involve ‘erring from Christ’s truth and straying from his way.’  This is the implication of what is said in paragraph 16 of chapter one which declares:

‘Disagreement that happens within the church, then, takes place by definition between those who are ‘in Christ Jesus’ and therefore belong to one another in him and recognize one another as belonging to him. This reality of belonging to Christ, shared by all to whom Christ is bound, despite our individual and corporate failure to follow him faithfully, does not however preclude the need at times for both repentance and discipline … Life in Christ calls us to greater conformity to his will and way. Moreover, the possibility always remains for missing his will and way so seriously that our belonging to him and therefore our communion with one another is put at risk: ‘So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall’ (1 Cor. 10.12). There are points in the New Testament where there is a clear demand for it to be acknowledged that this has happened, and distance to be established from those who then reject the opportunity for repentance (e.g. 1 Cor. 5.1–5; cf. paragraph 10 above). There will be occasions when, erring from Christ’s truth and straying from his way, Christ’s people need to be called back to forms of discipleship and church life that will enable them to resume the journey towards ‘the measure of the full stature of Christ’ (Eph 4.13).’ (p.10)

This paragraph seems to indicate, even if it does not explicitly state, that there are occasions when we are called to recognise that disagreement is not simply a benign expression of pluriformity,  but is the result of a departure from the truth and way of Christ that requires repentance and, when necessary, the imposition of discipline.

The second reason is that conflict resulting from disagreement can be the occasion for sinful behaviour within the Church.  This is a point made in paragraphs 29 and 30 of chapter two of the report.

Paragraph 29 notes the general possibility within the life of the Church ‘for sin to take hold in ways that are deeply corrosive of the church’s life as communion and of its witness to the world of the reconciliation that is God’s gift through the cross’ (p.16).  It further notes that:

‘The New Testament contains numerous passages warning against sins associated with occasions of conflict in the Christian community. Of the fifteen ‘works of the flesh’ that Paul sets against ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ in Galatians 5, eight – the majority – relate to situations of conflict that disagreement can generate and indeed be used to legitimate: ‘enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy’ (Galatians 5.20–21).’ (p.16)

Paragraph 30 then draws the moral that we have to recognise that ‘conflicts associated with disagreement provide particular opportunities for sin to take hold in the life of the church’ (p.16).

What these two points mean is that handling disagreement well means understanding when disagreement is a result of departure from Christ’s truth and way and therefore requires repentance and possibly discipline and handling disagreement in way that avoids conflict leading to sinful forms of behaviour.

  1. How to handle disagreement

The report looks at how to handle disagreement in chapters two, three and four, looking in turn at structures for handling disagreement, the need to give proper attention to matters of conscience, the need to distinguish between different types of disagreement and finally what needs to be done in order to sustain conversation in the face of serious disagreement.

a. Structures for handling disagreement

In paragraphs 34 and 35 of chapter two the report argues that handling disagreement needs to involve ‘consultation that includes all’ in order to reflect ‘the reality of the church’s communion as a body in which each member has its place’ and in which ‘each member of the body has a share in perception of the truth of God’s revelation and in the task of listening to what the truth calls for from the church today’ (p.17).  It also asks whether the Church of England lacks the structures to allow this to happen or whether:

‘ …our practices of synodality at all levels of the church (not least Parochial Church Councils and Annual Parochial Church Meetings), discussed in the next section, which include representation of all ‘members’ through election, in fact address this area adequately?’ (p.18)

In paragraphs 36-39 the report argues that a further dimension of handling disagreement is through ‘councils in which some deliberate on behalf of others.’ (p.18). In the Church of England this dimension finds expression through the existence of Parochial Church Councils, Diocesan Synods, the General Synod and the special responsibility of the House of Bishops with regard to worship and doctrine.

Furthermore, the report says, just as ‘no church can exist in isolation from other churches’ but only exists as part of the whole Church of Christ, so also:

‘…no church should approach deliberation and decision-making in a spirit of corporate autonomy, as if there were nothing to be learned from consultation with other churches or as if the implications for relationships with them were of merely secondary interest.’ (p.20)

b. The need to give proper attention to matters of conscience

Drawing on the teaching of St. Paul in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10 the report contends in paragraphs 40-42 of chapter two that due respect needs to be given to people’s consciences in two ways.

On the one hand, we need to reckon seriously with people’s consciences being hurt because of a decision that is made in an area of disagreement:

‘Where disagreements focus on practical questions – what should be done, what may not be done – then, as part of its deliberation, the church needs to attend to the possibility of consciences being wounded. Given the relation between conscience and selfhood, it also needs to reckon with the possibility of persons being seriously hurt because their faith in Christ is threatened, and thereby the fabric of communion itself severely damaged.’ (p.21)

On the other hand, the claims that people make about what their conscience permits may need to be challenged:

‘….if what the person claims to be doing ‘in conscience’ itself undermines faithfulness to Christ and therefore union with him, then the damage is already being done and a questioning of the person’s actions or convictions which aims ultimately at the relief of their conscience may be needed.’ (p.21)

c. The need to distinguish between different types of disagreement

In chapter three the report declares that we need to distinguish between three types of serious theological disagreement. These are summarised in paragraph 53 as follows:

‘The first is a disagreement that puts in question our agreement in the truth of the gospel and therefore what was referred to earlier in this chapter as apostolic communion, our communion with one another in Christ. The second is a disagreement that places a question mark against our ability to sustain common commitments to shared forms of practice with regard to sacraments, ministry, decision-making, witness and service, and therefore our ability to remain one ecclesial communion, without it being denied that all participants remain within the universal church. The third is a disagreement that raises significant issues regarding one or more of the elements for communion that can nonetheless be addressed within the context of those common commitments that hold us securely within a single ecclesial communion.’ (pp.25-26)

The existence of these three different levels of disagreement, it argues, raises the ‘critical question’ about:

‘…the nature of the agreement on which those involved can rely in tackling disagreement. Is it the kind of common commitment to shared beliefs and practices that enables us to be in a relation of ecclesial communion, or is the very reality of apostolic communion itself being doubted in the disagreement, or is neither of these currently in question, although serious theological issues have been raised?’ (p.26)

As a concrete example of this issue the report considers the disagreement in the Church of England over the issue of penal substitution. In paragraph 55 it suggests that it is possible that a consensus will begin to emerge

‘… on one side or the other within the Church of England, and ultimately some opinions that have been identified in the debate will be generally recognized as wrong ways to articulate Christian teaching and others as fitting expressions of the gospel message. In the meantime, however, faithful people can disagree well as members together of the same church.’ (p.26)

According to the report, what this example shows is that:

‘… so long as those involved share sufficient common understanding about the meaning of Scripture – for instance, that it speaks of how God has reconciled the world to himself through Christ – then there can be constructive, illuminating debate about the meaning of particular phrases and passages that explicate salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ between those who recognize one another as being in Christ.’ (pp.26-27)

On the other hand, says the report, if someone joined the Church of England’s debate about the atonement who ‘denies the historical existence of Jesus but believes he remains a powerful spiritual symbol’ in that case ‘the disagreement opening up would seem to be wide enough to cast doubt on whether it can be held within a relationship of being together in Christ, let alone as members together of one church.’ (p.27)

In the remainder of the chapter the report reviews the history of the Church from the New Testament onwards, giving examples of disagreement and how their significance has been understood in relation to the three types of disagreement previously noted. At the end of this review the report argues in paragraph 68 that with regard to the ordination of women to all three orders of ordained ministry the Church of England has found a way of creating a space between the second and third types of disagreement. This is because the disagreement about this issue:

‘… is a disagreement that really does have a bearing on our ability to be fully in communion as one church, and yet we have found a way to bear the impairment to communion that inevitably follows from it without ceasing to be one church. We want to say that ecclesial communion can be significantly impaired with regard to some of its key elements, yet still remain truly ecclesial, knowing that this claim will be regarded with scepticism or incomprehension by many outside the Church of England, as well as by some within it.’ (p.31)

d. What needs to be done in order to sustain conversation in the face of serious disagreement

In its final chapter the report argues that four things need to be done in order to sustain conversation in the face of serious disagreement.

First, the report argues that patience is required in order to allow time for a proper response to be made to an issue of disagreement. As paragraph 71 puts it:

‘Responding to disagreement may take time, and perhaps the first thing that ought to be said here is that recognition of the church as communion in Christ should make us willing to commit to taking the time that is needed for this to be done well.’ (p.33)

Secondly, the report argues that there needs to be a commitment to engage in face to face conversation with those with whom we disagree. In the words of paragraph 74 what is required from ‘disagreeing Christians’ is:

‘…. some kind of commitment to conversation – not without limit, not pursued without any interruption and not without certain goals and values, but nonetheless a conversation in which the participants face one another and recognise in one another those who are one because of their fellowship in Christ, their sharing of the Spirit. Even disagreement of the first type noted in the previous chapter (paragraph 53), disagreement where what is being called apostolic communion seems to be at stake, originates in a context where we have recognised one another as members together of the body of Christ on the basis of faith and baptism at least. We cannot establish whether that remains the case with our backs turned towards one another, refusing to listen to one another but rather defining one another by the positions we attribute to one another without waiting for any response… That is not to say there is no place for discipline in the life of the church, a point made at paragraph 16 above, though as has recently been observed clear-cut examples of church discipline in the New Testament relate to individuals, not to whole congregations or churches.’ (p.35)

Thirdly, the report argues that different types of disagreement will require different types of conversation and people will differ as to their assessment of what kind of conversation is required. Some may want to have a basic conversation about the issue itself whereas others may want to discuss what type of disagreement in involved and what should be the response to it. This means, in the words of paragraph 82, that:

‘… Somehow a way needs to be found to make space for different kinds of conversation about the same issues, requiring different kinds of interaction between agreement and disagreement, to be contained within the church without simply muddling and indeed obstructing one another, while the councils of the church – in the case of the Church of England, the General Synod with a distinctive role for the House of Bishops – nonetheless stay focused on just one of them at a time.’ (p.38)

Fourthly and finally, the report argues that what it calls ‘good disagreement’ requires the exercise of a variety of virtues. It sets these out in paragraph 83 as follows:

‘For all involved, sustaining good disagreement in such circumstances is likely to be highly demanding, not least in requiring a particular kind of empathy. The empathy needed in such a situation is not simply a willingness to enter as it were passively the experiences and beliefs of the other to see how the world looks from inside them. More than that, it means being ready to inhabit actively the conversation that the other believes to be needful when I believe that a different kind of conversation is in fact required – while remaining conscious of the tension between what I am doing in the act of empathy and the convictions that lead me to my own, contrasting belief. To practise good disagreement under these constraints in the life of the church calls for the virtues that the New Testament expects to characterise it: humility, meekness and patience, and being prepared to bear with one another and with one another’s faults and complaints (Col. 3.12–14). Such patience and forbearance are not based on an attitude of resignation to present realities, but on the hope that comes from knowing that ‘When Christ who is your life is revealed, you will be revealed with him in glory’ (Col. 3.4). Humility and meekness mean an utter commitment to the good of the other, which may nonetheless be expressed in denying the legitimacy of the view they are expressing when this is perceived to be tending to their destruction.’ (p.38)

  1. Summarizing the argument of the report

In summary, what the report says is:

  • Disagreement is an inevitable result of the Church’s engagement in mission and the fact that Christian theology is based on the interpretation of Scripture;
  • The goal when discussing areas of disagreement is for the Church to grow together in its knowledge of the truth of the gospel and for the best interpretation of the biblical material to emerge;
  • Disagreement can be problematic when it leads people away from the way and truth of Christ and causes conflict leading to sinful behaviour;
  • Disagreement that leads people away from the truth and way of Christ requires repentance and when necessary ecclesiastical discipline;
  • There need to be structures for handling disagreement that involve the consultation of all members of the Church, deliberation by some on behalf of all and consultation between churches;
  • There needs to be respect for conscience, both in the sense of not deliberately hurting someone’s conscience by what is decided on a matter of disagreement and in the sense of challenging a view of what conscience requires that leads people away from Christ;
  • A distinction needs to be made between three different types of disagreement, disagreement which involves the truth of the Gospel and therefore makes apostolic communion impossible, disagreement which makes ecclesial communion impossible and disagreement which, though serious, does not make either apostolic or ecclesial communion impossible;
  • In order to sustain conversation in the face of disagreement there needs to be patience, a willingness to talk face to face, a variety of different types of conversation (addressing the issue itself, what type of disagreement it is and how to respond to it), and the exercise of the virtues of empathy, humility, meekness and forbearance.
  1. What should we make of this report? 

The report makes a number of helpful points.

It is helpful to be reminded that disagreement can be spiritually dangerous because it can result in people not abiding in the doctrine of Christ (2 John 9) and can be the occasion for the sort of sinful behaviour against which St. Paul warns in Galatians 5:20.

It is helpful to be reminded that there is a place for a call to repentance and the exercise of ecclesiastical discipline in the life of the Church (see Matthew 18:15-18, 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, Titus 3:10-11).

It is helpful to be reminded that we need to distinguish between different types of disagreement, some of which are more serious than others.

It is helpful to be reminded about the need for different types of conversation about matters on which Christians disagree and about the need for structures to allow for consultation of all the faithful, deliberation in church councils (as in Acts 15) and ecumenical discussion.

Finally, it is helpful to be remind about the need for Christians to talk to and not just about each other and about the need for them to exercise the virtues of empathy, patience, meekness, humility and forbearance when engaging with those with whom they disagree.

However, there are also four ways in which the report (and its supporting papers) are less helpful.

A. The report gives an inadequate account of the causes of disagreement

As we have seen, if we ask why there is disagreement in the Church the answer the report gives us is that it is because the Church engages in mission and because Christian theology is based on the reading of the Bible. If we consider this answer we find that it confuses the occasion for disagreement with the cause of disagreement.

To disagree is to have different convictions about how things are or should be. Thus in the fourth century  St. Athanasius and Arius disagreed about whether the Son was a created being brought into existence out of nothing by God the Father or whether he always existed as God alongside the Father. Thus also at the Reformation Protestants and Catholics disagreed about whether people should seek the assistance of the saints through prayer.

Both engagement in mission and the reading of the Bible can be the occasion for such differences of conviction.  For example,  Christians engaged in mission have disagreed about the extent to which it is right to assimilate to a particular culture in order to facilitate the proclamation of the gospel and people who have studied the Book of Revelation have disagreed about how to understand what St. John says about the thousand year reign of Christ in Revelation 20:1-6.

However, it is not clear that either engaging in mission or reading the Bible are the cause of the existence of such disagreement. This is because it is not intrinsically impossible for people to engage in mission or to read the Bible and be in complete agreement with each other.  Thus while some things are completely inconceivable, such as the existence of a square triangle or a true lie, it is not inconceivable that all Christians should agree about cultural assimilation in the service of mission or the meaning of Revelation 20:1-6.  This being the case, it follows that while we can say that people who engage in mission or who read the Bible do disagree doing these things does not explain the reason why they disagree. We need to look for another explanation.

This explanation is provided by the Christian understanding of the fallen nature of human beings, something which is not mentioned in either the report or the supporting papers.

To unpack the link between fallenness and disagreement we need to start by recognizing that 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 created to also 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 whether about mission, or the interpretation of the Bible or about anything else.

Thankfully, God has provided a remedy for this situation. Jesus is truth incarnate (John 14:6 ‘I am the truth’) and he came 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 fully 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.’ [1]

What all this means is that the term ‘good disagreement’ used in the report 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 in this world, 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 do not 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.

B. The report gives us an inadequate account of the goal of handling areas of disagreement

In order to handle disagreement in the best way possible we have to think about the goal we should be aiming at.

As we have noted, according to the report, the goal the Church should be aiming at in its handling of disagreement is for it to grow together in its knowledge of the truth of the gospel and for the best interpretation of the biblical material to emerge.

A similar forward looking approach is implied in Loveday Alexander’s statement in one of the supporting papers that:

‘We should hope and work for resolution to disagreements. There is such a thing as truth, and there is Someone who knows it — and will reveal it at the right time, whether now or in the age to come.’[2]

The problem with the first way of looking at the matter is that it suggests that the goal in handling disagreement is for the Church to know the truth better or interpret the Bible better than it does at present. However, we cannot assume that this is the case. It could equally well be in any particular situation of disagreement that the Church already has a perfectly adequate knowledge of the truth and is interpreting the Bible rightly and that what is required is for the Church to stand firm in its understanding of the truth and the way it interprets the biblical material.  It could also be the case that the Church, or some part of it, has turned away from a right theological understanding and right interpretation of the Bible and that what is required is therefore a return to the truth which it has already known, but from which it has departed.

The problem with the second way of looking at the matter is that it implies that we are seeking a truth that has not yet been revealed. It says that God ‘will reveal it at the right time.’  To say this is to ignore the fact that although there may be further truth to be revealed to us either in this world or in the world to come, there is also truth that God has already revealed to us. For example, that ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1) is not a truth that will be revealed to us, but a truth that has been revealed to us. In relation to this kind of truth our calling is to accept it, uphold it, and return to it if we have departed from it.

What all this means is that handling disagreement well does not necessarily mean seeking a greater understanding of truth or a better interpretation of the Bible.  It could mean this, or it could mean upholding or returning to an existing understand of the truth or way of understanding the Bible.

To give an example, in the latter part of the twentieth century there was disagreement in some parts of the Church over whether Jesus was God incarnate and whether the biblical passages seen to support this idea should be interpreted differently.[3]  Because the truth is that Jesus was God incarnate and that is what the relevant biblical passages teach us, the calling of the Church in the face of this disagreement was not to seek a greater understanding of who Jesus was, or to improve its interpretation of the Bible, but to continue to uphold the truth that Jesus was God incarnate, to continue to hold that the Bible teaches this idea, and to seek to persuade those in error about the matter to return to the truth.[4]  In this situation the Church did not need a revelation of the truth, but to stand fast in the truth already revealed to it.

All this means that when faced with disagreement the Church has to decide whether this is a topic on which its understanding of the truth is inadequate and its biblical interpretation needs to improve, or whether it already has an adequate knowledge of the truth of the matter and how to interpret the Bible in relation to it and it needs to summon the faithful to uphold or return to the Church’s traditional position. It is equally lacking in proper respect for the truth for the Church to refuse to accept what it already knows as it is for the Church to refuse fresh knowledge.

C. The report fails to give us a theological framework within which to decide matters of disagreement

In order to make the judgement called for in the last section there needs to be a framework of accepted theological truth on the basis of which such a judgement could be made. The absence of such a framework would mean that the Church was like someone walking in a dense fog who has no landmarks and therefore cannot know which way to go.

The Faith and Order Commission’s report does not provide us with such a framework. The supporting essays point us in the right direction in their discussion of St. Irenaeus’ teaching on the canon and the rule of faith and Richard Hooker’s teaching on Scripture, tradition and reason, since these begin to outline the Church’s sources of theological knowledge. However, neither the supporting essays nor the main report go on to suggest a clear or comprehensive theological framework within which questions of truth and error and the theological significance of different types of disagreement could be discussed on an agreed basis.

The basic problem is that any judgement about disagreement over matters of theology and practice amongst Christians needs to be settled by an appeal to their common Christian faith. Unfortunately the report does not tell us how we know what the Christian faith is.

The teaching of the Canons

Fortunately, members of the Church of England do not need the Faith and Order Commission to tell them how they can know what the faith is. This is because an authorized answer to the question ‘how do we know what the Christian faith is?’ is provided in Canons A 5 and C15 of the Church of England’s Canons.

Canon A5 declares

‘The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teaching of the Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures.

In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal.

Canon C 15 states that the Church of England:

‘…professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation. Led by the Holy Spirit, it has born witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons.’

In Canon A5 the word ‘doctrine’ is shorthand for the understanding of the Christian faith held by the Church of England and means the same as ‘the faith’ in Canon C15.

What we find in these two statements is a threefold answer to the question how do we know what the Christian faith is. They tell us that we know what the faith is through the Scriptures, the teaching of the Patristic period and the witness of the Church of England’s three historic formularies. However, these three sources of our knowledge of the faith do not possess the same authority. The primary authority is the Holy Scriptures, the secondary authority is the teaching of the patristic period and tertiary authority is the witness of the historic formularies.

The authority of the Scriptures

To understand why the Church of England sees the Scriptures, the thirty nine books of the Old Testament and the twenty seven books of the New Testament,[5] as the primary authority for our understanding of the Christian faith, the point we have to grasp is that the basis of the Christian faith is the witness to Jesus Christ borne by the Apostles in accordance with the promise made by Jesus after his resurrection (Acts 1:8).

Although this Apostolic witness was originally given orally, as in St. Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36) or St Paul’s speech before the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:22-31), the teaching of the Apostles and those associated with them also came to be set down in writings which were intended to convey through the written word the same faith that had originally been proclaimed through the spoken word. In Galatians, for example, the gospel that St. Paul is seeking to expound through his letter is exactly the same one which he has previously preached to the Galatians and which he fears they are deserting.

As N T Wright notes, ‘those who read these writings discovered, from very early on, that the books themselves carried the same power, the same authority in action, that had characterized the initial preaching of the word.’[6]  Because the authority that had characterized the initial preaching of the word was a result of the work of the Holy Spirit given to the Apostles in accordance with Jesus’ promise (Acts 1:8) the Early Church drew the conclusion that the fact that these books possessed the same authority as that possessed by the Apostles themselves meant that these books were inspired by the same Holy Spirit in order to preserve the Apostolic teaching in permanent form in the Church. The canonisation of the New Testament books that gradually took place over the first four centuries was thus an act of acknowledgement, an acknowledgement that in this particular set of books the Apostolic witness and therefore the authentic Christian faith was recorded for posterity in a form inspired by God himself.[7]

In the face of the arguments of those such as Marcion who held that these books (or in his case some edited form of them) were sufficient on their own the Early Church also acknowledged that these books had to be read alongside the books of the Old Testament. This was because the Apostles and the New Testament writings consistently taught that the Christian faith had to be understood against the background of the New Testament, because the story of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus was the story of how the God of the Old Testament had fulfilled his promises by sending his Son to free the world from sin and death so that God’s people might share life with him for ever (for this see, for instance, Luke 1:67-79, Acts 2:14-36, Romans 1-8) and because the basic moral law set out in the Old Testament was still binding on Christian believers (Matt 5:17-20, Romans 3:31, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

The Early Church therefore maintained a dual canon consisting of the books of both the Old and New Testaments, understood according to a scheme of promise and fulfilment, as the basis for its understanding of the Christian faith and the Church of England has continued to do the same.

The authority of the Patristic writings

The reason that the writings of the Patristic period[8] are the second source of our knowledge of the Christian faith is because patristic theologians such St, Irenaeus, St Athanasius and St Augustine, the great orthodox councils of the Patristic period such as the Councils of Nicaea, Second Constantinople and Chalcedon, and the three Catholic creeds that emerged out of the Patristic period, the Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds,[9] teach us how to understand properly the faith contained in the Scriptures. They teach us, for example, that in order to understand the faith correctly we have to understand that the God of the Old and the New Testament is one and the same, that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that Jesus is both truly human and truly divine and that salvation is a result of divine grace and not human effort.

The reason that the authority of the Patristic writings is secondary is because whereas the Scriptures, being inspired by God, have intrinsic authority, the Patristic writings have derived authority in the sense that their authority is dependent on their bearing faithful witness to the Apostolic faith as this is taught in the Scriptures. They are authoritative precisely because they point us beyond themselves to the witness of Scripture. That is why it is specified in Canon A5 that it is only those Fathers and Councils that are ‘agreeable to the said Scriptures’ that are authoritative for the Church of England’s understanding of the Christian faith.

The authority of the historic formularies  

The three historic formularies of the Church of England, the Thirty Nine Articles of 1571 and the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal of 1662 were produced during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in order to give theological and liturgical expression to the faith contained in the Scriptures and witnessed to by the writings of the Patristic period. The reason the Church of England views them as having authority as source for its knowledge of the faith is that they fulfil this objective.

Thus Articles I and II of the Thirty Nine Articles witness to the Biblical and Patristic teaching concerning the Trinity and the Incarnation, the general confession at Morning and Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer reflects the Biblical and Patristic testimony to universal human sinfulness, and the service for the Ordering of Priests in the Ordinal reflects what the Bible and the Patristic writings have to say about the nature of priestly ministry.

The historic formularies bear a tertiary witness to the Christian faith in the sense that they are dependent on the Scriptures as read in the light of the Patristic writings. Like the Patristic writings they have derivative rather than an intrinsic authority, but in their case it is a double derivation.

What about nature and reason?

Neither natural theology nor reason are sources for our knowledge of the Christian faith.

While natural theology, that is to say theology based on a study of the created order, [10]  can show that that the Christian faith is congruent with our general knowledge of the world it cannot tell us what the content of the Christian faith is because, as I have already said, that is based on the witness of the Apostles rather than the witness of nature. It is from the Apostolic witness rather than nature that we learn that the creator God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who has fulfilled his promises to Israel by becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ and dying and rising again for our salvation, that Jesus has ascended to God’s right hand, that he has poured out the Holy Spirit on his people and that he will come in glory to judge the living and dead and to fully and finally bring in God’s kingdom

Reason can be understood as our God given capacity for rational thought and when this is illuminated by the Holy Spirit it can show us that it is rational to believe that the faith is to be found in the threefold witness of the Bible, the Patristic writings and historic formularies and enable us to understand what this witness means. Reason can also be used to refer to what the Anglican Virginia Report calls ‘the ‘mind of a particular culture,’ with its characteristic ways of seeing things, asking about them and explaining them’.[11]  When reason is used in this sense we have to take it seriously in the sense of taking seriously the apologetic task of showing how the Christian faith relates to the beliefs and concerns of a particular culture or sub-culture in order to enable those who belong to that culture to understand the faith more clearly.[12]  Reason thus enables us to understand the Christian faith and to explain it better to others. However in neither sense of the term does reason tell us what the content of the Christian faith is.

What all this means is that as members of the Church of England we need to fill in the gap left by the Faith and Order Commission report by discussing matters on which we disagree within the framework provided by the Scriptures, and by the witness to the teaching of the Scriptures provided by the Patristic writings and the Church of England’s historic formularies. It is these sources that provide the parameters for our discussion by telling us what the Christian faith is in the light of which our disagreements have to be assessed.

D. The report provides insufficient theological explanation of the three types of disagreement it identifies and says nothing about disagreement about moral issues

The report distinguishes between three different types of disagreement, disagreement which involves the truth of the Gospel and therefore makes apostolic communion impossible, disagreement which makes ecclesial communion impossible and disagreement which, though serious, does not make either apostolic or ecclesial communion impossible. However it does not give sufficient theological explanation of the nature of these three types of disagreement or how we can distinguish between them.

On the first type of disagreement the report does not explain what is meant by disagreement which involves ‘the truth of the gospel’ or why such disagreement puts a question mark against ‘our communion with one another in Christ.’

As we have seen, in paragraph 16 the report talks about the possibility of our ‘missing his [Christ’s] will and way so seriously that our belonging to him and therefore our communion with one another is put at risk.’  In similar fashion paragraph 26 of the report states that ‘if someone comes to adhere to a form of teaching that prevents fellowship with the Son, fellowship with them in the body of Christ cannot continue unimpeded either.’ (p.15)  However, the report never explains how we can know what kind of teaching would put our fellowship with Christ in jeopardy or why it would do so.

As we have also seen, in paragraph 55 the report suggests that disagreement over penal substitution would not put fellowship in Christ in jeopardy, but denial of Jesus’ historical existence would, but again there is no explanation of why this would be the case.

On the second type of disagreement the report defines ‘ecclesial communion’ in paragraph 47 as ‘both the kind of communion that enables Christians to be members together of one particular church, and the kind of communion that enables particular churches to be ‘in communion’ with one another’ (p.23). Unfortunately it does not explain the characteristics of this kind of communion, how it differs from ‘apostolic communion’ and how disagreements relating to ‘sacraments, ministry, decision-making, witness and service’ can put it in jeopardy.

On the third type of disagreement the report never explains what sort of disagreements there can be that do not jeopardize apostolic or ecclesial communion or why they do not put these forms of communion in jeopardy.

What all this means is that while it is helpful to distinguish between different kinds of disagreement as the Church has done since New Testament times (as in St. Paul being willing to live with disagreements over food sacrificed to idols and the observation of Jewish festival but not over the issues of justification by faith or compulsory circumcision) a clearer explanation needs to be given of what the difference is between them.  In addition, something needs to be said about where moral issues (such as issues to do with sexual behaviour) fit into the picture.

Other reports have commented on this issue. For instance, the Anglican-Roman Catholic report Growing Together in Unity and Mission declares:

‘Anglicans and Roman Catholics teach that the Christian vocation is to holiness of life (cf. Exodus 9.6; Matthew 5.48), and that moral behaviour is integral to the maintenance of communion with the Holy Trinity, as well as to communion with the community of believers in the Church. We have received the same Gospel and are agreed that the Gospel we proclaim cannot be divorced from the life we live (cf. 1 John 3.18; James 2.20). Our common acceptance of the same fundamental moral values, and the sharing of the same vision of humanity, created in the image of God and recreated in Christ, are constitutive elements of ecclesial communion and are essential for the visible communion of the Church.’ [13]

The fact that there is no comment on the issue in Communion and Disagreement is a major omission, particularly since the current disagreement in the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion is about a moral issue.

A better way forward than that adopted by Communion and Disagreement for looking at the significance of different kinds of agreement would be to use the framework provided by the Scriptures, the Patristic writings and historic formularies of the Church of England to determine what things are necessary for salvation and what puts salvation in jeopardy, what the necessary characteristics of the visible church are and where moral issues fit into the picture.

This would then make clear what those things are on which agreement is absolutely necessary within the Church and those thing on which disagreement, while never desirable, might be tolerable for the time being while the Church seeks agreement in truth.

  1. What does all this mean in practice?

If what has been said in this response is correct it is not enough for the Church of England to establish structures to discuss the current disagreement over human sexuality and for those engaged in these discussions to behave in a virtuous manner towards each other.

Instead, the Church of England needs to aim at resolving the current disagreement over sexuality by achieving agreement on issues of theology and practice in accordance with the truth.

In order to do this it needs to use the theological framework provided by the Scriptures, the Patristic writings, and the Church of England’s historic formularies as the basis for its discussion of human sexuality.

In this discussion it needs to identify what the disagreement about sexuality is about.

It then needs to identify why this disagreement has occurred (given that it is not simply an inevitable result of engaging in mission or studying the Scriptures).

It then needs to identify the status of the disagreement, asking whether it concerns a matter on which agreement is absolutely necessary or one on which disagreement might be tolerable.

It then needs to determine whether this is a matter on which the Church needs to move forward in its theological understanding and interpretation of the Bible or whether it needs to retain its present position or move back to one from which it has moved.

Finally, it needs to determine a practical way forward that will enable the Church to be truthful in its collective teaching and practice.

I would argue that if the Church of England were to follow through this programme in an honest fashion it would discover:

  • That the Scriptures, the Patristic writings and the historic formularies all point to a sexual ethic which is based on God’s creation of two sexes and (heterosexual) marriage and in which Christians are called to live chaste lives marked by sexual abstinence outside marriage and faithfulness within it.
  • That disagreement about sexuality is due to the fact that some people do not wish to accept or live within this pattern of Godly behaviour.
  • That the reason disagreement has occurred is both because of the existence of fallen sexual desires and the influence of a cultural and political movement going back to the French Revolution which has sought to overthrow traditional Christian understandings of marriage and family life. [14]
  • That this is not a matter on which the Church can live with disagreement because sexual holiness is a matter which involves obedience to clear biblical teaching on a matter which involves the salvation of peoples’ souls. (Matthew 5:27-30, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Galatians 5:18-21, Revelation 21:8).
  • That this is not a matter on which the Church needs to move forward in its theological understanding and interpretation of the Bible, but one of which it needs to retain its present position as set out in the General Synod motion of 1987 and Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference.
  • That the proper way forward is for the Church of England to renew its collective commitment to the Church’s traditional view of sexual ethics, to develop a programme to explain and defend its teaching both within the church and in the public square, to develop effective forms of pastoral care to support those with same-sex attraction and to be willing exercise pastoral discipline when required.

M B Davie 28.6.16

[1] C S Lewis, The Great Divorce, Glasgow: Fontana, 1975, p. 41.

[2] Loveday Alexander and Joshua Hordern, ‘Communion, Disagreement and Conscience’ in Supporting Papers for the Faith and Order Commission report Communion and Disagreement, para 1.42, p.17.

[3] See, for example, John Hick (ed), The Myth of God Incarnate, London: SCM 1977.

[4] See Michael Green (ed), The Truth of God Incarnate, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977.

[5] See Article 6 of the Thirty Nine Articles.

[6] N T Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, London: SPCK, 2006, p.38, italics in the original.

[7] For the idea of canonisation as an act of acknowledgement see J Webster, Holy Scripture, Cambridge:

CUP, 2009, pp.52-67.

[8] The Church of England has traditionally counted the first five centuries of the Christian era as constituting the Patristic period.

[9] The Apostles and Athanasian creeds were both produced after the end of the Patristic period as defined in the previous footnote, but they are both seen as embodying the key theological teaching produced during that period and are therefore included with it.

[10] Two classic examples of Church of England natural theology are J Butler, The Analogy of Religion, London, J M Dent, 1936 and William Temple’s two works Mens Creatrix and Christus Veritas, London, Macmillan, 1949.

[11] The Virginia Report in The Official Report of the Lambeth  Conference 1998,  Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 1999, p.32.

[12] It was because the Church of England lay theologian C S Lewis did this so effectively in Mere Christianity and other works that he was and remains such a successful Christian apologist.

[13] Growing Together in Unity and Mission, London: SPCK 2007, para 77, p.39.

[14] For this letter point see Gabriele Kuby, The Global Sexual Revolution, Kettering OH: Life Site, 2015.

2 thoughts on “Disagreeing over disagreement A response to the Faith and Order Commission Report Communion and Disagreement

  1. Pingback: Disagreeing over disagreement Summary | Reflections of an Anglican Theologian
  2. Thank you Martin for this article and for the ones preceding it – particularly the ones relating to the Scottish EC and its stramash over this subject area.

    I have a question for you about where experience fits in.

    We talk about Scripture, Tradition and Reason. But in fact, we all bring our experience into the mix whether we admit this or not. Part of the problem seems to me to be that those affirming SSM etc actually put a carefully selected set of testimonies above S, T and R. They suppress other testimonies vigorously and claim that “Science” supports their position in a definite, but actually hand waving and unscientific way.

    It seems to me a) that scripture has a lot of stories about the experiences of people meeting God whether individually or in large groups.
    b) that a big part of Christian conversion and formation is to do with people meeting God and getting to know Him for themselves
    c) Scripture encourages us to remember before God what He has said and what He has done – I see every reason for such remembering to include such sayings and doings that we and others are witnesses to – provided that they are consistent with the witness of Scripture.

    My conclusion is that we need to formulate a hermeneutic of how we handle arguments based on experience. This should include a consideration of information garnered from sociology, medical and psychiatric science.

    I am also very frustrated that there seems to be no real consideration of what God does when given a chance – eg Rosaria Butterfield’s “Secret Thoughts of an Unexpected Convert”; Dr Frank Lake; Agnes Sanford, Francis MacNutt, Leanne Payne and others.

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