Vocations in the Cupboard?

by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral


The Church of England is working to increase vocations to ordination by 50%, including making them more diverse. This is most obvious in relation to ethnic origin, where there is a tiny percentage of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic priests, even compared to the rather larger per cent of BAME church members. But it’s also visible in relation to young women, where some of the evangelical churches providing younger male ordinands don’t support women who feel called to leadership and service through ordination because of complementarian views of the role of the sexes based on biblical interpretation not shared by the rest of the Church of England.

There have been efforts to encourage and work for more vocations among BAME people and young women, to redress the imbalance and encourage priestly diversity. Much of the problem comes from inbuilt discrimination in a Church which still allows legal discrimination against women and which has belittled the equal humanity, ministries and gifts of women and ethnic minority people for centuries.

But there’s another area where attitudes to diversity in ministry are unenlightened – in relation to gay people. This is normally hidden; but an article by Vicky Beeching in The Guardian on 5th September opened a window, not only onto the dilemmas facing young gay Christians feeling called to be ordained, but also the unkindness and hostility with which they can be treated. Beeching’s article was honest in expressing doubts, shared by many she knows, about offering for ordination in a Church which tells her that, while committed same-sex celibate relationships are OK, her belief that gay Christians can marry is wrong and is a problem for ordination. If, however, she embraces celibacy then she could be ordained; a policy which, as she points out, is for many ‘a cruel and unhealthy strain on their partnership that straight clergy couples don’t have to face’.

What do you do when you’re gay, don’t feel ‘called’ by God to celibacy, but do feel ‘called’ to offer yourself to the Church for ordained ministry? Does that mean you’ve got it wrong? That’s what was being said to all women feeling a call to priesthood until very recently in the Church’s history. And it was 25 years ago that Issues in Human Sexuality stated that, although the Church’s teaching might not allow it, gay people might in good Christian conscience live in a committed relationship as part of their Christian discipleship – but not if ordained.

That means that a gay, lay person feeling a call to priesthood is in the same position as a Roman Catholic heterosexual, because they have to deny themselves ever having an intimate exclusive relationship if they are to be ordained a priest. That creates either an absolute bar to gay people who are not also called to celibacy offering for ordination, or else a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ culture in which people don’t tell the truth about who they are and what they do. No wonder gay people feeling called by the Church to explore ordination look at this and wonder what it means for them. They see gay people in partnerships in ministry, some openly and some not, some acknowledging celibacy and others not, and agonise about what they would have to go through, whether they are really able to exercise ministry or not, and the inconsistency of the Church which, if Hilton’s position is strictly followed, would deny ministry to any gay clergy not willing to make a commitment to celibacy, and which for some gay Christians means ending relationships which the Church has allowed them in good conscience to have as lay people.

The blogger Adrian Hilton aka ‘Archbishop Cranmer’ responded to Beeching’s article with a scathing article which belittled her and the dilemma about vocation she exposes, accusing her of ‘selfish obsessions’, ‘wailing in the Guardian’, and being unwilling to accept Christianity’s ‘harsh rigorism’, anguish and sacrifice.

It’s not just that Hilton’s article lacks the compassion which he calls for in his final paragraph. It’s not only that it misrepresents Beeching by using the term ‘selfish ends’, when her article is making a plea, not for her personally, but for all gay Christians who want to serve Jesus Christ and would like – in response to the Church’s need – to have their sense of vocation to priesthood fairly treated, but don’t have confidence that it will be.

Hilton’s article is a good illustration of what Beeching is talking about: although he calls for sacrificial vocation, he doesn’t show the corresponding compassion called for 25 years ago in Issues. He doesn’t seem to understand that gay people not only face a level of public interest in their situation, but that the Church itself has been inconsistent over the issue, and told people to hide their sexuality or their beliefs. The case of Nicholas Chamberlain to which Hilton refers is a case in point: he became a bishop with his situation known privately but not publicly, and didn’t make it public until he feared it would be made so without his consent. He was appointed while not being publicly gay, whereas Jeffrey John who had been honest about his situation by being in a civil partnership and was likewise in a celibate relationship was forced to step down from ordination as a bishop, even though he meets Hilton’s criterion for being able to exercise ministry. How is that going to encourage gay Christians to respond to the Church’s call?

The irony of Hilton using the moniker ‘Cranmer’ is of course that the genuine Archbishop Cranmer got secretly married, breaking his vow of celibacy, and hid his wife in a cupboard when required until his objective of legalising clerical marriage was attained….

That’s why we need a process of growing trust and openness so we can face these things with honesty and compassion. In interfaith dialogue one of the key ways in is to treat your dialogue partners with respect, and to look for the best in what they say rather than look for the worst and how to attack where you disagree.  There are many conservative in theology who are unconditionally compassionate for gay people in the Church, and vice-versa; and such compassion comes, not through duty or in theory, but through empathising with the situation of others.

Most of us will have had to make significant sacrifices in our discipleship of Jesus Christ: if we remember what that meant for us, and the pains they caused us, then we can stand alongside those who grapple with them now. But belittling Christians different from us is no way to encourage a strong and diverse set of vocations for the Church’s ministry.

Posted in Church of England | 1 Comment

The Essence of Being

by the Revd Dr Hayley Matthews, Rector and member of the National Executive for UNITE representing the Faithworkers’ Branch.


Lord Rowan Williams opened Inspire at Magdalen College, Cambridge this Saturday by inviting delegates to consider the two most toxic ways of knowing oneself and being human; first: ‘I know who I am and it’s not you’, second: ‘I know who I am and I don’t need any help from you [to be me]’.

Whichever position we take, whether it be that of a tribal group closure that looks for the differences to be avoided, or an intense independence that is beyond an openness to new perspectives (‘I did it my way’), the movement is that of pushing others away from ourselves, unless they reflect back to us precisely the image we hope to be cultivating for ourselves.

In my visit to the Diocese of Bloemfontein in South Africa some years ago I learned the term ubuntu which translates as ‘I am because you are’.  In other words, I do not exist on my own, I exist only in relation to the other people around me.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains the concept as “mean[ing] my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in theirs. We belong in a bundle of life. We say, “a person is a person through other people.” It is not “I think therefore I am.” It says rather: “I am human because I belong.” I participate, I share.”

To be human is essentially to encounter ourselves in relation to others.  Ancient creation mythologies do not refer to the making of humankind singularly with the Christian tradition specifically resting upon the words, ‘And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him”’ (Genesis 2:18, NKJV).  Isolating ourselves as individuals, and, I would suggest, isolating ourselves as people groups, is ‘not good’.

Sadly, in our desire to attain power we often focus on finding ways of subordinating ‘the other’ to ourselves as our ‘helpers’.  We must lead, they must follow.  ‘We’ are the dominant cultural norm, ‘they’ must jettison their cultural norms and take on ours.  ‘I am working hard at ensuring I live well, live aright, therefore if you think or live differently to me, you must be wrong’.  However, the Holy Spirit is the Trinitarian equivalent of just such a ‘helper’ to Jesus, and what does the Holy Spirit do if not to empower Jesus to fulfil His ministry as the Christ? What does the Holy Spirit do but shower God’s people with spiritual gifts in order to build up a diverse group of people into a new kingdom that does not rely on geo-political states to define boundaries and borders, but which shatters previously held religious and cultural ghettos in which ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28, NKJV).

To be a ‘helper’ is not to be subservient in any way; to be a ‘helper’ is to enable the other to see themselves in a new light; to become all that they might be; to release their own gifts whether mined in the darkness or the light.  To be a ‘helper’ is to reflect back to the other all that they are and all that they might be.  Of course, one of the problems with this, is just how painful it can be to recognise how we are seen by others.  This is possibly why it is so much easier to return to ‘the tribe’ whether it be an affirming partner, or a political or nationalistic tribe in order to find the image in which we have cast ourselves reflected back positively without ever being challenged, extended, critiqued or indeed explored for consonance and depth.

Consequently, the imageo dei with which we are all endowed becomes shrouded in a hall of mirrors as we pick and choose through which one we wish to be viewed. At times we seriously risk losing an authentic sense of self as we build a self-image that is two-dimensional and cannot risk authentic, intimate, honest connection with the other; the not-like-me; the challenge-to-my-thinking; the stranger; the danger-to-my-status-quo.  In trying to become human on our own terms, we lose our genuine humanity.

In these days where mass migration across the globe affects every locality and continent, encountering the stranger, encountering the ‘not-like-me’ gives us myriad new opportunities to harbinger the kingdom in where we are not divided geographically, politically or along any other tribes of race, religion or cultural norms.  It gives us fresh insight into who we are and who we have been, both as individuals and as people-groups or nation-states.  Our preconceptions – and misconceptions – must be challenged afresh as our minds, our hearts and, dare I say, our spirits are enlarged with all that we did not know until we allowed ‘you’ to help us see ourselves for what we are, as we began to truly know you for who you are.  What a gift that is; a pearl beyond price.

Yet there is a stranger much closer to home, a stranger who we ‘other’ for ourselves and who is perhaps all the more dangerous for that.  The one who has (or seems to have) the power, the great job, the perfect partner, the health, the wealth, the happiness.  The person we ‘other’ from envy, bitterness, hatred; the person we judge as undeserving of that which we ourselves desire.  Why were ‘they’ chosen and not me?  It is this ‘other’ that we deliberately construct as an enemy that destroys the imageo dei within us most profoundly, preventing us from radiating that which connects with others as we refuse to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep’ (Romans 12:15).

Genuine human connection exists only between those willing to risk encountering people who will show us our shadow side, dredging up our depths that we might have the opportunity to bring all that sullies our humanity (that which we Christians call ‘sin’) to the surface. Not that we might despise ourselves or lose all hope, but precisely so that we might have hope in bringing all that darkens us to the expansive light of Christ’s love for His all-forgiving, transformative, healing touch; a touch that might well come through those we find most uncomfortable to encounter.

Being human has been packaged into any number of self-help, self-starting, self-reliant ‘life-hacks’ but it will never be the ‘self’ that truly transforms.  We were born out of relationship; we grow and develop in relationships, and as adults continue to become all that we are through relating riskily, readily, intimately and authentically with others.  Then as individuals and as people-groups, we grow ever more confident that whoever we are, and with whomever we are, we share in the profound bond of a common humanity.  It is only from that place that real understanding and a genuine sharing of safe-haven and resources can occur.  Until then, the vast global inequalities and Western protective paranoia with which we live will continue to divide and dehumanise those with whom we are, in fact, inextricably bound.

Picture of Archbishop Desmond Tutu at a gathering of the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation






Posted in Hayley Matthews, Social Justice | Leave a comment

Homophobia, Hugs and Headlines

by Pete Jermey, LGBTI Christian

Last month Justin Welby made some much publicised remarks at the Greenbelt festival about the Church of England’s attitude towards gay relationships. He stated that the church needed to love and embrace everyone, including those who see gay relationships as deeply wrong. This bold statement of inclusion was written up in the press as “hug a homophobe”, but this begs the question – is everyone who opposes same sex relationships homophobic?

This is an easy one. The answer is clearly “no”.

Homophobia can be defined as a fear/hatred of gay people. Whereas it is true that there are a great many Christians who *do* fear or hate gay people, there are also many more who, for example, oppose same sex marriage, but are not afraid or hateful towards gay people.

We all have irrational fears. I am afraid of spiders, snakes and colossal statues. I can remember going swimming as a child and seeing someone in the pool who had a limb missing. I felt fear – it was not something I had seen before and it made me feel uncomfortable. Homophobia is no different to these other fears. Although it may be harder to admit to than a fear of heights or clowns, it is still just a gut reaction to something that unnerves us. Acting out of fear can be a great survival mechanism – staying away from snakes could save my life – but it can also have a very negative impact on the object of our fear. If my mum had organised a petition to have the limbless person banned from the pool it may have made her son more comfortable, but at great cost to the other.

At the time of writing a Christian news website has the headlines “Christian Colleges dominate list of absolute worst for LGBTI students”, “Vicar likens homosexuality to child abuse” and “Leading conservative Anglican says Church of England must split to stop *contagious* gay marriage”. Additionally the site carries the story of the Bishop of Grantham who, although he has embraced the C of E’s requirement of celibacy for gay people, is under fire from some conservatives simply for admitting his orientation.

When this is our reputation amongst Christians, is it any wonder that the world sees the church as homophobic, even evil?

Of course, just because the headlines suggest prevalent aggression towards gay people does not mean there aren’t genuine and rational concerns here. What if you don’t believe LGBTI people can be genuine Christians? What if you do believe being gay to be as grave a sin as abusing children? What if you are worried that homosexuality seems to be spreading as if it is a disease?

Even if the church were able to end homophobia within itself, these concerns would still be there. Ending homophobia will not end the tensions, but there is an alternative. I think the church’s problem with gay people is not one of having irrational fears or genuine concerns, but one of withholding irrational love.

Scripture calls us time and time again to “love the enemy/alien in our midst” (Leviticus 19.33-34, Ruth 1.16-18, Ezekiel 47.21-23, Matt 5.38-48, Matt 25.35-40, Rom 12.9-21, etc), even if to do so is against our best interests – even when it costs us.

This is not the sort of “love” that comes in green ink, with the word “abomination” in CAPITALS, but the sort of love that has a positive impact on the welfare of the individual. This love is perhaps best seen in the parable of the Good Samaritan (which, given the bitter rivalry between Jews and Samaritans, seems perfectly analogous to Christian-LGBTI tension). The Samaritan’s love for the Jew cost him time, money and, almost certainly, reputation. Missing entirely from the tale is the part where the Samaritan berates the Jew for his “bigoted” religious views or the part where the Jew has to lie about his nationality as a prerequisite to receiving mercy. In contrast to that of the Samaritan, the faith of the religious leaders fails to result in mercy and is, therefore, useless. In God’s kingdom mercy is valued more highly than being right.

What if Christians took the call to irrational love seriously enough that Christian colleges were actually the best for LGBTI students, because they were the ones that loved and valued all students? What if theologians who oppose same sex marriage chose their words so as to value LGBTI people, rather than assassinate by connotation? What if the GAFCON chose to believe those who claim to be celibate and gave the benefit of the doubt to the rest of us?

Irrational love isn’t doing your best not to fear/hate someone. Irrational love is feeling those emotions, but helping the person anyway.

Posted in Church of England, Contributor, Human Sexuality, Pete Jermey | 1 Comment

Welcoming Signs

by the Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester


A few weeks ago, in the middle of an afternoon social event for retired clergy and their companions, I noticed a small number of people had wandered out of the house and were standing just outside the front door.  The weather being unusually damp for Manchester(!) the house was fairly packed, but the reason for their exodus was not overcrowding.  This particular group of guests came into that most modern category of social pariahs; they were the smokers.  They had understood, without a word being spoken, that their welcome did not include the ability to light up in my hall, dining room or study.

The notion of “welcome” is rightly finding its way to the centre of current discussions of Anglican theology.  It’s a good, strong and soundly biblical concept.  It takes us well away from the politically fashionable but profoundly unwelcoming notion of “tolerance” – a word that it’s worth remembering the bible uses only occasionally, and then in a deeply negative context.

The verb “welcome” sets up a distinction between its subject, “the welcomer”, and its object, “the one being welcomed”.  In the ubiquitous road signs, “Anytown welcomes careful drivers”, for example, there is a clear sense that the one issuing the welcome is both a separate entity from the one being welcomed and may also determine the limits and boundaries to that welcome.  Yet for Christians, what must come first and be paramount is God’s welcome, made flesh in Christ.  The nails that once held Jesus on the cross now fix God’s “welcome” sign to the doors of heaven, from where none can displace it.  It’s a welcome with no condition attached other than that we accept it and allow both it and him to transform our lives.

The Church, as God’s church, should seek to place no greater limitation on its welcome than Christ himself does.  When we welcome, that welcome is not simply ours but is our attempt to convey God’s own welcome to others.  Moreover, in our initiation liturgy, something beautiful happens.   We say to the newly baptised, “We welcome you into the fellowship of faith; we are children of the same heavenly Father; we welcome you.” From the moment of baptism the ones being welcomed have changed into those who are no longer guests but fully part of the “Body of Christ”.  They are now numbered among all who proclaim and incarnate God’s welcome, not simply the recipients of it.  We cannot claim the right to say to those welcomed in baptism, “This is our house; you are welcome, but only on our terms”, any more than they can demand to impose the same requirement on us.

Yet as we move from the Church as a metaphysical entity to more local expressions, from denominations to house groups, that welcome will necessarily be constrained in various ways.  The particular boundaries to welcome of the Church of England are set out succinctly in the Oaths and Declarations made by clergy prior to taking up any new ministry.  They put forward the delicate balance between our inheritance of faith and the requirement to proclaim it “afresh” in the new and previously unimagined circumstances of each and every generation.  We who must personally make the oaths and subscribe the statements are not required to interpret them in any more specific way.  Much is properly left to our own consciences and integrity, as we are challenged to live out and issue our welcome within our local circumstances.

More locally, we have, in the Diocese of Manchester, churches that offer a particular welcome to those who need or want to worship in languages other than English.  We have churches that hold activities that especially welcome those with dementia.  And of course we have the full range of Anglican churchmanship across the piece.  What our welcome can’t do is offer everything, to everyone, everywhere, all the time.  Some very specific welcomes, for example to those whose names appear on the Sex Offenders Register, may need to be particularly tailored to the most appropriate environments.

These constraints however are entirely missional.  More specifically they are about how we configure ourselves for mission in our own immediate situation, recognising that the missional contexts of others will differ from and, by God’s grace, complement ours.  To this end we might seek to embrace the notion of “mutual flourishing” that respects the welcome that others are able to give to those we do not ourselves reach.

“Welcome” then, is an extremely valuable concept, well worth further exploration.  The key is to remember that it belongs first to God and then to the whole of the baptised.  We may need to tailor it to our specific missional context, but in doing so we do well to keep in mind and in prayer those who are living out God’s welcome in other places, yet are joined in Christ with us.

Cartoon by Peter Steiner – Man Standing At the Gates of Heaven

Posted in Church of England | 2 Comments

“See How These Christians Love One Another…”

by the Rev Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor of Canterbury

Paisley & McGuiness

Have you ever had that experience of profoundly disagreeing with someone while at the same time finding yourself drawn to their character and personality in friendship? At the same time, have you ever discovered that, despite a person you know being completely in tune with your values, your politics and your theology, they still drive you up the wall?

The nature of human friendship, attraction and dislike are profoundly mysterious. So often they transcend the divisions that characterise human society and the church. Recently, as a result of the Shared Conversation process in the Church of England, I have found new or renewed friendships through encounters I have had with those I profoundly disagree with. The reason these relationships emerge is of considerable interest to me, not only as a psychological phenomenon of my life to be analysed and explored (why do I particularly enjoy the company of those I disagree with?), but as a spiritual gift to my own Christian discipleship to be received and celebrated (what is it that God is giving to me in this particular relationship?).

Difference is, of course, the everyday reality of Church of England parish life. Unless we live in a very particular sort of ecclesiastical bubble, or only ever engage with people we think are ‘like us’ in a particular way, our congregations generally contain people who have a wide range of theological, political and other values. Being a parish priest is about negotiating that diversity, finding the places of unity and harnessing both for the mission of the local church (being a bishop, I guess, is about doing these things in spades!). You find yourself, or at least I do, allowing growing relationships with people shaping your view of, and your attitude to, the positions they take on a whole set of matters. You don’t lose your own convictions, but you find them tempered, refined or nuanced by friendship, shaped by your own vocation to serve them, to seek their good and sometimes humbled by a kind of generous faith in Christ that you only can aspire to. Relationships like these are wonderful to me: they help me to understand others and give others a much better chance of respecting and valuing your own point of view. What strikes me from 20 years of incumbency is that Church of England parishes are increasingly unique as places where genuine disagreement can be expressed and as such – in the context of mission – they are a powerful witness to Jesus Christ.

In the current charged atmosphere in the Church, and at a time of national uncertainty, the gift of such friendship-across-divisions is becoming less common, and not necessarily for the well-being of either church or society. It is very easy in the world of social media to engage without relationship and to react without any real knowledge of what makes a person tick or to assume that what you understand by a comment is what they mean: theological colleges will soon be offering a course entitled courses in ‘The Hermeneutics of Suspicion: The Exegesis of Facebook Postings’! It is also increasingly common to polarise into sectional interest or to be driven by anger that diminishes the opponent without allowing for the possibility of relationship to shape the encounter and to allow unexpected conclusions and new directions to emerge. The slogan language of “revisionist” and “homophobe” also has the same overtones. It’s lazy dog-whistle stuff when used without relationship. Such loaded and potentially painful words are sometimes legitimate – don’t get me wrong – but they really only ought to be used, and they genuinely only can be heard, in the context of relationship.

Too often we now talk at each other in the Church and we model our communication on the tactics of the pressure group or the online world. We take our view of our brothers and sisters in Christ from the editorial slant of Anglican Mainstream, Thinking Anglicans or whatever particular blog or angry Facebook posting has interrupted, or upset the equilibrium of, our day. It’s profoundly unbiblical, rather depressing and, as I write this, rest assured I see my own faults all too clearly. If we spent as much time working at our relationships as we do finessing our biblical interpretation, theological arguments or composing that brilliant Tweet of riposte, surely the mission of the Church would be better served?

“See how these Christians love one another”. There is really no other game in town.

Photograph of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness

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Bishop’s Packing Essentials for General Synod

by Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester


I’ve not quite got my bags packed for General Synod as I write this, but it won’t be long. I wonder how much of a minority I am in, being someone who is actually looking forward to the two days of Shared Conversations. I say that, not because I am imagining that every part of the process will be enjoyable, but because it will be deeply enriching. I expect to be brought to tears, and to be challenged in both my assumptions and my long held opinions. I expect to witness the tears and fears of others, and to have to lay their stories alongside mine. By the end of forty eight hours I’m guessing that I’ll be pretty exhausted.

My literal bags may yet lie empty on my bedroom floor, but I’m already well on the way to packing my metaphorical ones. Here’s a few things that have gone in so far. A listening ear, to really grasp and grapple with the words of others, whether we are working in groups of three or larger gatherings. A generous heart, determined to love and affirm those around me, especially when they are very different from me. Sealed lips, so that my fellow participants can be confident that I will be rigorous in respecting the confidentially protocol of the occasion, no matter how shocking or revelatory I might find someone’s contribution to be. A well-thumbed bible, one that can be trusted not to fall open at the same few verses every time. An attentive spirit, expecting to hear the still small voice of God speaking into the situation. Foot plasters, for when I’ve walked that extra mile in someone else’s shoes.

Yet as always when travelling, it’s as important to work out what to leave behind as it is to decide what to put in the suitcase. So here are a few discards. Gut reactions, including my squeamishness in the face of some aspects of sex. Unshakable convictions, those that I won’t even allow God to challenge. Political positions, this really is not the occasion for them. Party loyalties, my commitment must be to God and the process, knowing it will be surrounded and held up in the prayers of so many.

Above all though, there is one thing I need to take with me to York, that must not be packed at all, but be constantly held in my hands. I must carry a sensitivity that what I could treat as an important theological and ecclesiological issue, is for some, and they fall on both sides of the substantive argument, much more. This is a matter that touches their deepest sense of personhood. For them, these days will be especially demanding. My job includes holding them especially before God.

Posted in Church of England | 5 Comments

Why Do Christians Disagree?

by Rt Revd David Atkinson, Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Southwark


‘I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to agree in the Lord.’  St Paul seems to have a lot to say about Christians agreeing.  In the letter to the Philippian church where Euodia and Syntyche belong, he writes of ‘standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the Gospel.’  And in the Letter to the Ephesians there is a calling to make every effort ‘to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’, as there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.’  The varieties of gifts given to the churches are provided in the context of that call to unity, and the expectation that the body of Christ will ‘work properly’, promoting growth and building itself up in love.

So why do Christians disagree?  On the legitimacy of divorce and right of remarriage, on abortion, on just war or pacifism, on usury, on contraception, on genetic engineering, on sexuality, on economic priorities, on response to climate change  –  to name just a few moral and political questions,  not to mention doctrines of church, ministry,  mission and  eschatology.

At one level, of course, disagreements can arise simply because people have different experiences of life and come into contact with different facts about the world which can confront assumptions, challenge previously held views, or harden attitudes.For example, we could think of a woman who senses a call from God into the ordained ministry of the Church.  She belongs to a church congregation that has always taken the view that the ordination of women is contrary to Scripture or tradition or to good ecumenical relationships.  ‘However’, says someone in that congregation, ‘though I have always been against the ordination of women, because it is you I’m willing to change my mind.’  Or to give another example, we could think of a Christian man who has, for social and theological reasons, always been opposed to homosexual relationships but who gets to know a loving gay couple whose lives display the fruits of God’s Spirit, and who then finds himself forced by that fact to revisit his understanding Scripture or his inherited attitudes to gay people.  Sometimes hard facts of experience compel a change of attitude or change of mind.

There is no such thing as uninterpreted experience, and there are other factors that can influence our understanding of ourselves and our interpretation of the facts of our experiences.  Some of these other factors give us different ways into the question:  why do Christians disagree?     Here are five.

1.  Because they look to different sources of authority.

Anglicans, in particular, frequently refer back to the C16th churchman Richard Hooker.  He it was who first spoke of what has been called a triad of ‘scripture’, ‘reason’ and ‘tradition’.  The classic reference comes in Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity:  The Fifth Book,  VIII.2.

‘Be it in matter of the one kind or the other, what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth.  That which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity with reason overrule all other inferior judgements whatsoever.’  [my emphasis].

In another place, speaking of God’s Wisdom, Hooker writes:

“Some things she openeth by the sacred books of Scripture; some things by the glorious works of Nature:  with some things she inspireth them from above by spiritual influence; in somethings she leadeth and traineth them only by worldly experience and practice.   We may not so in any one special kind admire her, that we disgrace her in any other; but let all her ways be according unto their place and degree adored.”  (Laws. II. i. 4).

There can be coherence in all three sources of authority, Scripture, Tradition and Reason, if the triad is held together by a doctrine of the living Word or Wisdom of God, by the Holy Spirit.   But without that living centre, Scripture, if pushed too far without reference to the living Word, become literalistic and fundamentalist. Tradition, if pushed too far without reference to the living Word, becomes a dry and ritualistic formalism.  Reason, if pushed too far without reference to the living Word, leads to a loss of any clear Christian identity.

The interplay of these three sources of authority was given modern expression in the

Report Growing Into Union  (1971), written by two Evangelical Anglican and two Anglo-Catholic scholars.  They related Scripture and Tradition in this way:

‘Jesus Christ is the full and final revelation of God; in him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily and he alone is the Saviour of mankind.  Nevertheless there can be and is development in the Church’s understanding of the Gospel, and it is a legitimate criticism of a great deal of post-Reformation theology, both Catholic and Protestant, that it has tended to interpret both the Scriptures and other documents of the Church in a very wooden way without reference to their history and context.  Not only did this tendency prevent the recovery of a dynamic view of Tradition as essentially the process of the handing on by the Church of the faith of the Scriptures; it also enthroned the static view, which first reduced tradition to a series of traditions, and then represented these as units of divine truth having their status independent of the Bible…..

The ground of both Scripture and Tradition, the reality to which both point, is the fact of divine Revelation given fully and finally in and through Jesus Christ, who is both the Word and the Wisdom of the Father, and who, by his crucifixion and resurrection has redeemed the human race….

The fact that God’s full and final revelation is given in a person is of the utmost significance… because we who are to be redeemed are persons, God has revealed himself to us in a person and as a person, and both his acts and his words ultimately derive from this….

Tradition, however venerable, is not infallible as a mode of transmission, and needs constantly to be tested by the Scriptures whose witness to Christ it seeks to convey.  Scripture, however inspired, was not meant to be self-sufficient as a means of instruction and life, but to operate within the common life of the Christian community by way of preaching, sacrament, fellowship and prayers.’

Sometimes Christians disagree because they have different starting points in their thinking, rooted in different sources of authority, or because of a ‘wooden’ use of them, detached from the personal self-revelation of God.

To take one contemporary cause of Christian disagreement, same-sex relationships:  to rely only on Biblical texts which seem to mention same-sex relationships,  (and on the assumption that what the texts refer to is what we today refer to), one would conclude that Christians must be against all forms of same-sex relating.    The Christian tradition would agree with this if we are referring to certain physical same-sex behaviour, but many would point to significant examples of non-genital homoerotic relationships  –  read Anselm on ‘friendship’  for example.   However, to use Christian reason detached from either Scripture or tradition might lead to the view that contemporary understanding of human sexuality is very different from that which guided the authors of the Bible or Christians of past centuries, and that we are free to decide for ourselves what makes for example, for neighbour love, justice and equality.

2.  Because they draw on different guiding metaphors for God.

Another source of disagreement between Christians can be the ways they ‘do’ theology.  Sallie McFague’s Metaphorical Theology illustrates the variety of ways in which different metaphors for God can lead to different ways of doing theology.  The guiding metaphors that we choose to use for God, dictate the shape of the moral questions we ask and the pastoral responses we may make.

To return to the question of same-sex relationships, for example, to begin with God as ‘Creator, Lawgiver, Judge’ could lead to the conversation being set up in terms of a morality and pastoral practice of rules, of sin and the call to repentance.  Some might describe this in terms of search for what is ‘right’.

To begin with Christ as Saviour could lead to a morality based on the development of virtues rooted in grace, forgiveness and resurrection. The pastoral responses might speak in terms of leaving the past behind and the freedom of a fresh start.    Some might speak of a search for what is ‘good’.

By contrast, to begin with an understanding of The Holy Spirit as Love, even as Lover, could lead to a situational morality, celebrating the rich diversity of human life and sexuality.  We might engage in a search for what is ‘authentic’.

Of course we should want to say that God can be thought of as Creator, Lawgiver, Judge, Saviour, Lover and many other metaphors.   The point is that our starting point is likely to shape how we see the moral question and the pastoral options that are open to us.

3.  Because they look to different social and cultural sources for morality.

An exploration of contemporary social psychology, in Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind, suggests that there are six primary foundations for morality.  Haidt identifies these as

(i)  care / harm

(ii) liberty / oppression

(iii)  fairness /cheating

(iv)  loyalty / betrayal

(v) authority / subversion

(vi)  sanctity / degradation.

(As an aside, it is intriguing to note how closely these relate in different ways to the Decalogue.  Thus; ‘God who brought you out of Egypt’ resonates with the liberty/oppression theme;  ‘No other gods; do not take God’s name in vain’ takes us into purity and danger, sanctity and degradation.  “Keep the Sabbath Day holy’ is partly about sanctity and partly about care for others.  ‘Honour father and mother’ resonates with respect for authority/ submission.  ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is about respect for human life:  care and harm.  ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ refers to respect for faithfulness, loyalty and betrayal.  ‘Thou shalt not steal; Thou shalt not bear false witness’ are about fairness and cheating.  ‘Thou shalt not covet’ is about loving enough not to be envious, about care, compassion/harm.)

Haidt’s argument (for a predominantly American readership) is that

(a) (American political) liberals tend to major on care/ harm, liberty / oppression and to some degree on fairness/ cheating; their most sacred value is ‘care for victims of oppression’;

(b)  libertarians tend to major on liberty/ oppression  and to some smaller degree on fairness / cheating;  their most sacred value is ‘individual liberty’;

(c)  conservatives tend to depend on all six foundations;  their most sacred value is ‘preserve the institutions and traditions that sustain a moral community’.

Why a person chooses to be a liberal, libertarian or conservative is, Haidt argues, something to do with genetics and nurture.   I would want to add that I think it is also to do with the values to which we aspire.   Anthony Storr, for example, in The Integrity of the Personality, argued that ‘It is clear that it is as legitimate to ask towards what end a process is directed, as to inquire from what cause it originated,  and I believe that any psychological description of human beings must attempt to answer both questions.’

Many factors thus may contribute to our choice of source for our understanding of morality.   Among these might be the personality differences noted by Carl Jung, and by the Myers-Briggs work on temperament types.  Another factor might be the extent to which different people  –  indeed different cultures  –  prioritise the two hemispheres of the brain in providing two different ‘takes’ on the world.   As Iain McGilchrist has demonstrated in The Master and His Emissary, the left-brain ‘take’ is more analytical, focussed and linear whereas the right brain tends to operate with a more holistic gestalt, open to new undefined horizons.  His example of the sparrow makes the point.   It concentrates on pecking seed  (left brain activity), but every now and then looks up to take in the wider world and check for safety  (right brain).    Both, of course, are needed, but our Western culture  – McGilchrist argues  –  has become dominated by left-brain analytical ‘pecking’  to the detriment of more holistic, open and creative ways of thinking.

With reference once again to our example: the question of same-sex relationships. There are Christians who believe that our primary task is an analytical, exegetical ‘pecking’ of biblical texts, to discern God’s Word;  others believe that a broader based biblical theology of sexuality, relationships, commitment and the call to holiness provides the proper context in which such texts may be responsibly understood.

4.  Because there are different ways of being religious.

Emerging out of the interplay of personality differences and social and cultural factors, there are different ways of being religious in today’s culture.   William James’ classic The Varieties of Religious Experience, (recently revisited by Charles Tayjor in Varieties of Religion Today), set the agenda for much subsequent psychology of religion.    One major piece of work by Batson and Ventis The Religious Experience, working from a social psychology perspective identified three main  ‘orientations’ in being religious.  They call these  ‘means’, ‘end’ and ‘quest’.   Thus religious experience may be

(i)  extrinsic:   an individual uses their religion as a means to serve other ends  e.g. social status,  to earn a place in God’s kingdom etc.

(ii)  intrinsic:  an individual ‘lives’ their religion as an end in itself,  and it carries over into other aspects of their life.

(iii)  quest:  an open-ended approach to existential questions.

How a person is religious is likely to contribute to their preferences for sources of authority in decision making, for the guiding metaphors which shape their reasoning, for their sources of morality, and their ‘take’ on the world.  The psychology of religion may have a great deal to say about why Christians disagree.

5.  Because of a different approach to basic philosophy

Underneath all the above discussion, however, there is an even deeper cultural factor in some disagreement between Christians.    In her book Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism, Nancey Murphy argues that much contemporary theology is affected much more than it realises by modern philosophy (from Descartes onwards).  Contemporary philosophy has moved on from ‘modern’ to ‘post-modern’, she argues, and Christian theology could benefit considerably from the changes that have taken place in three aspects of contemporary philosophical thought.  She discusses religious language (is it referential or expressivist?), and different ways of construing God’s action in the world (interventionist or immanent?), but her primary point concerns epistemology, the theory of knowledge.

Whereas ‘modern’ philosophy is largely ‘foundationalist’, that is it seeks a universal knowledge based on some indubitable foundation, (Descartes spoke of knowledge as built on a foundation rather as bricks are built into a wall), post-modern philosophy of the past few decades has rejected foundationalism in favour of an organic, network approach to truth   –  a truth of coherence and correspondence.

However, Murphy argues,  theology has tended to remain with a ‘foundationalist’ approach,  seeking an indubitable foundation either in Scripture  (conservatives)  or in reason (liberals). This is the cause of some differences between Christians:  they start from different ‘foundations’ for knowledge.     She proposes that Christian theology needs to move away from foundationalism and towards a ‘network’ approach to knowledge.  Her primary point is to remind theology of its sometimes-unacknowledged debt to philosophical assumptions.


We do not know why Euodia and Syntyche were in disagreement.  Did they look to different sources of authority?  Did they think differently about God?  Were they influenced in their choices differently by genetic make up or environmental factors?  Did they have a different vision leading to different values?   Did they express their faith in different ways?   We, of course, do not know.   We can assume from what St Paul says that their disagreement was destructive of fellowship in some way.   But not all difference is destructive.   Indeed, the very texts that celebrate our Christian unity in Christ  (one Lord, one faith, one baptism), are those which refer to the variety of gifts within the Body of Christ, and the differences between different members in that body.    The unity for which St Paul prays is not a uniformity of view, or an identity of ministry, but a personal unity, by baptism into the one Lord.

Richard Hooker wrote before there was any concept of ‘foundationalism’. And though he does refer to a ‘foundation’  (namely Jesus Christ), he does so in a way which is not far from the organic, living metaphor of which non-foundationalists speak, when they talk of truth emerging in the coherences, as part of a story, part of an on-going narrative.   He operates with what we today might call a ‘Gospel hermeneutic’.  Thus referring to St Paul, he says:

“And as his words concerning the books of ancient Scripture do not take place but with the presupposal of the Gospel of Christ embraced; so our own words also, when we extol the complete sufficiency of the whole entire body of the Scripture, must in like sort be understood with this caution, that the benefit of   nature’s light be not thought excluded as unnecessary, because the necessity of a diviner light is magnified.” (Laws. I xiv.4).

When Hooker refers to Scripture as ‘foundational’, he makes clear what he means:

‘If the foundation of faith do import the general ground whereupon we rest when we do believe, the writings of the Evangelists and the Apostles are the foundation of Christian faith…’;

but then he immediately adds:

‘But if the name Foundation do note the principal thing which is believed, then is that the foundation of our faith which St Paul hath unto Timothy:God manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit…This is Christ the Saviour of  the world.’ (Learned Discourse of Justification, 15-16).

In other words, the foundation of Christian faith is the living Triune God, the incarnate Saviour, the justifying Spirit.  As the authors of Growing Into Union said, God’s self-revelation is personal.  In other words, truth is ultimately personal.  Our knowledge therefore,  (as Michael Polanyi has put it), is personal knowledge.

According to Polanyi, referring to the practice of science, personal knowledge emerges within a community of conviviality as a commitment of faith, based on sufficient evidence, is tested out, seeking reality to reveal itself to our explorings; it is corrigible and open to change; it is also open to being called in question, and to discovering hitherto undreamed of possibilities.

This is not far from the ‘critical realism’ advocated by Tom Wright for reading biblical texts:

‘This is a way of describing the process of ‘knowing’ that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence ‘realism’), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence ‘critical’).   This path leads to critical reflection on the products of our enquiry into ‘reality’, so that our assertions about ‘reality’ acknowledge their own provisionality. Knowledge, in other words, although in principle concerning realities independent of the knower, is never itself independent of the knower’ [except for the special and highly complex case of self-knowledge.]   (The New Testament and the People of God, p. 35).

In his discussion of moral enquiry, Alasdair MacIntyre demonstrates that all interpretation  of texts involves the discovery that the text also interprets the reader.   We need to come to the text with what he calls a ‘tradition of moral enquiry’, that is certain attitudes and dispositions that we bring to the text for them and for ourselves to be called in question.

Between them ‘critical realism’ and a ‘tradition of moral enquiry’ offer a fresh (and non-foundational) way of looking at the engagement between Scripture, Tradition and Reason, and indeed the various other factors which we have outlined that may contribute to Christian disagreement.  To adapt Polanyi:  God’s self-revelation takes place within a community of faith and worship, through our personal dialogue and conversation with the narrative of Scripture, as the Holy Spirit interprets it to us, and interprets us in its light. We come to it within a tradition of interpretation, but ready to have this and ourselves called in question by God’s self-disclosure.   This is a process through which faith matures in the journey of healing and salvation.  Our knowledge is always corrigible and provisional, but none the less dependent on the reality of the living God.

Tom Wright’s own conclusion is worth quoting in some detail:

Knowledge has to do with the interrelation of humans and the created world.  This brings it within the sphere of the biblical belief that humans are made in the image of the creator, and that in consequence they are entrusted with the task of exercising wise responsibility within the created order.   They are neither detached observers of, nor predators upon, creation.   From this point of view, knowledge can be a form of stewardship; granted the present state of the world, knowledge can be a form of redeeming stewardship; it can be, in one sense, a form of love….To know is to be in a relation with the known, which means that the ‘knower’ must be open to the possibility of the ‘known’        being other than had been expected or even desired,  and must be prepared to respond accordingly, not merely to observe from a distance.’  (New Testament and the People of God, p. 45).

An epistemology, a hermeneutic, of love? I think St Paul might agree with that.


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