Disagreeing over disagreement Summary

A response to the Faith and Order Commission Report Communion and Disagreement

What is the report?

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;’
  4. Mark Chapman and Tim Dakin, ‘Dialogue and Difference: Symbolic,Symptomatic and Systemic;’
  5. Jonathan Goodall and Jeremy Worthen, ‘The Limits of Diversity.’

What does the report say?

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.

What are we to make of the report?

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;
  • 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);
  • That we need to distinguish between different types of disagreement, some of which are more serious than others;
  • There is a need for 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;
  • Christians need to talk to and not just about each other and 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. It gives an inadequate account of the causes of disagreement. Disagreement is not an inevitable result of engaging in mission or studying the Scriptures. It exists because in a fallen world people either do not know the truth or are unwilling to accept it or live by it. 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.

b.It gives us an inadequate account of the goal of handling areas of disagreement. 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 understanding of the truth or way of understanding the Bible.

 c. It fails to give us a theological framework within which to decide matters of disagreement. Any disagreement over matters of theology and practice among 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. Fortunately the Church of England has a framework for knowing this set out in Canons A5 and C15 consisting of the primary witness of the Scriptures and the secondary witness of the Fathers and the historic Church of England formularies. It is within this framework that the disagreement of sexuality needs to be assessed.

 d. It provides insufficient theological explanation of the three types of disagreement it identifies and says nothing about the status of disagreement about moral issues. While it is helpful to distinguish between different kinds of disagreement as the Church as 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. How significant is disagreement about moral issues?

A more detailed response to the report can be found at https://mbarrattdavie.wordpress.com/2016/06/29/disagreeing-over-disagreement-a-response-to-the-faith-and-order-commission-report-communion-and-disagreement/

M B Davie 28.6.16

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