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.


Posted in Church of England, Human Sexuality | 2 Comments

Trusting Our Gut – How We Ultimately Decide

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia.News

Trsuting our gut

So which way will you vote in the Great Debate over Brexit?  We have had a host of senior figures “coming out” on both sides of the debate, keen to sway our thinking by being the voice of someone we can trust.

Sadly though, it seems that trust is at an all-time low.  As “facts and figures” from both sides get spun and counter spun, there is a growing sense of disease amongst the Great British Public.  Who should we listen to?  Whose opinion really counts?  Do they have ulterior motives and if so, what are they?

On Thursday 23rd June 2016 the nation will go to vote on one of its most important decisions since, arguably, the vote in 1975.

So how will you decide?

I would suggest that we will each, ultimately, “trust out gut”.  We will either “feel that we are part of the European Union” and want to work out the concerns we have “from the inside”; or we will “feel that we are distinctly different from the European Union” and want to be free to “travel our own course”.

Both roads have their pros and cons, both definitely have their unquantifiable risks and pitfalls.  All of us will be voting for what we believe will create a better future, all of us will be keen to do so because of what we believe to be “true”.

Our “gut reaction” is incredibly powerful, and is formed over time by such a wide range of inputs it’s normally impossible for us to chart the course that brought us to the place we find ourselves.  Often there is one key encounter or article (or Bible passage) that we’ve read that stands out above all others, but equally frequently it’s a view we’ve just “imbibed over time” due to the normative view of those around us.

It’s interesting to reflect on how we, as Christians, come to these gut reactions – especially when we feel they are inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Many talk of a “knowing” within their Spirit, which can be so powerful and strong that it means that we become determined that we “are right”.

That is why the Bible always cautions us to have a “humble and contrite” heart.  Might we actually be wrong?  Might the certainty that we “know” be formed on false premises, no matter how sincerely believed?

So is it right to “trust our gut”?  Yes, I believe so – but with the humility to accept that we might still encounter further truths that might in time challenge us to change our views.

Posted in Church of England, Jayne Ozanne | 1 Comment

‘Do You See This Woman?’

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


It was a scandal. How dare he overturn nearly two millennia of tradition and upset people’s faith unnecessarily? And he’s kept doing it. It’s absolutely against the rules….  So some Catholics say about the 2013 papal innovation by Pope Francis’ of washing the feet, not just of devout Catholic men, but of people including women and those of other or no faith, on Maundy Thursday in remembrance of the Last Supper.

In 2015 Pope Francis changed the rubric, the rules of the service, to allow others to do what he’d already been doing – not that those who disagreed with him would have wanted him to make it legal anyway. Interesting that Jesus had a habit of doing that: challenging the rules made up by those around him, and doing it in order to share wholeheartedly the love of God and the challenge of God with those who need it.

I was preaching last Sunday on a gospel passage which has spoken powerfully to me across the years about this: Luke 7.36 onwards. And in the context of conversations and disagreements, I was struck anew by the question which Jesus asks his host, a question which on the face of it seems absurd.

‘Do you see this woman?’, Jesus asks Simon the Pharisee as they recline at table, probably in the open courtyard of Simon’s house, perhaps surrounded by curious onlookers. How could he not have been transfixed by the woman in question? She had been sobbing behind Jesus during the dinnertime conversation, had been caressing and kissing and anointing his feet, letting down her hair in the process, and acting in a way which shocked those who looked on. Even in Britain today, such behaviour would be regarded as outrageously inappropriate for a dinner party. Luke tells us what Simon was thinking, and it wasn’t good news for Jesus or the woman. How does Jesus rescue the situation in a way which doesn’t demean anyone but which challenges all with the truth of the love of God?

You can read it: the parabolic story with its transforming question, the comparison between the lack of hospitality given by Simon and the devotion of the woman, and the declaration of forgiveness and healing which further challenges those around the dinner table.

And what does this have to do with us?

As the reactions to Pope Francis show, touch is embarrassing, crosses boundaries, invades our space – but if we don’t touch God and God doesn’t touch us, we’re lost.  And that touch of God is about love and forgiveness, the love which God offers us no matter who or how we are; the love which challenges the judgements we make about others.

‘Do you see this woman?’ The point of Jesus’ question is that we think we do, but we don’t. We need to really stop and see, to look at people as they are, and not cast them as a caricature or stereotype in our categorisation of the world. Think of how we look at people around us, in the street or on the TV, especially those who make us feel uncomfortable. Beggar? Posh person? Rough diamond? Office worker? Celebrity? Slapper? Hoodie? Gay? These categories determine how we react to people as stereotypes, but we don’t see them – and often we’re surprised by the way in which people don’t behave as our script says they should.  Which is because, all around us, there are no stereotypes. Only real people in all their beauty and sin and brokenness and need for transformation. People like us.

That’s what faith should grow in us – the ability to see better, to stop and perceive the person who is there, instead of the image in our own minds. Road safety for small children starts with the phrase: Stop, Look, Listen. That’s a good slogan for safety in our relationships and encounters with others, in person as well as on the road. It even works well for our worship and prayer too, in our relation to God: because at the heart of Christian prayer is contemplation – simply looking to God, paying attention to God, in order to touch and be touched by God and so be changed.

Simon Butler’s blog last week pointed out how we get stuck in talking at one another in the Church instead of talking – and listening – to each other. And that’s why we need to stop, look, and listen to God; and then stop and take time to really look and listen at the person in front of us, and see them as Jesus sees them, and allow God to challenge us through each other.

Do you see this woman, this person? Do you see what forgiveness & acceptance can do? Are you ready to be generous with your love?

Do you see this woman?

Posted in Church of England, Dean of St Pauls, Social Justice | 3 Comments

Having a Difficult Conversation

by the Rev Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor of Canterbury


Once in a while everyone has to have a difficult conversation. The work colleague who isn’t too keen on personal hygiene; someone you manage whose performance requires attention; a long-term relationship where something seems to be going wrong. They are inevitable, often unwelcome, sometimes completely necessary and therefore need careful preparation.

General Synod members are having a difficult conversation in July, on Human Sexuality (actually it’s about homosexuality but we’re now stuck with the unhelpful title, complete with Important Capital Letters). We know it’s been coming. Some have been dreading it and wish it would just go away. Others have been polishing up and putting on their theological and psychological armour, for both offensive and defensive purposes (we seem to find talking to one another almost impossible in the Church of England, so we resort to proxy conversations by talking at each other in advance by writing and blogging!); meanwhile, many other people have been wondering why we need to have the conversation at all because the world has moved on.

Nevertheless, it’s time for the long-awaited Shared Conversations. We can’t avoid talking to one another any longer.

So how am I preparing to take part? How am I going to Have a Difficult Conversation?

The most important thing I am doing is…nothing. This isn’t just because I’m tired of the conversation already – I am, I feel like I’ve been having it for a generation. Rather, it is because the most important thing about this difficult conversation is that it is between fellow-disciples. I realise not everyone agrees about this and that some people believe that people like me are Not Proper Christians – in my worst moments I can be tempted to think the same about them! That apart, the best thing I bring to the conversation is my discipleship, my walk with Jesus.

My discipleship happens to include being attracted exclusively to people of the same sex. But that is nowhere near the sum total of it. The way I have worked out my calling to be a follower of Jesus; the way I have responded to the promises made at my baptism, confirmation and (in my case) ordinations; the way I sustain these in prayer, in theological reflection and in service – these are what truly make me an authentic contributor to this conversation. Despite my inevitable failures as a disciple, it is its authenticity – the way I think about it and the way that it works itself out in love – that is the most important thing I can bring. If I’m not seeking to be faithful in those, then my contribution is likely to be limited, even unhelpful.

Second, to have the right conversation I must be clear about what it is about. We aren’t having a conversation about the ethics of same-sex relationships within the church. We know that conversation will continue and there are strongly-held and stoutly-defended, often-opposing, biblical and theological convictions held. Having that conversation will likely get us nowhere in July. Instead, this difficult conversation is about whether we can actually live together holding the views that we do. The Reformers called it adiaphora: are the disagreements we have, and the divergence of practice they imply, enough to materially affect the ability of Christians to live together in unity? Remembering this essential point helps me to realise that, even though we LGBT people seem to be the subject of the disagreement, it is not our fault that it is going on. The responsibility lies with the whole church to come to an answer about the question of adiaphora. Personally, that takes the pressure of a bit. I’m a baptised disciple, not a problem-causer or a trouble-maker.

And finally, of course, I’m praying. I’m praying for my fellow-LBGT members of Synod in all three Houses, some of whom are clearly more apprehensive about the conversations than I am and fear they have the most to lose. Please join me in praying for them, whatever side of the conversation you are on. Some feel very exposed and vulnerable, despite the strong assurances that have been given. We need to find courage to be able to speak with integrity as disciples.

But I’m also praying for my ‘opponents’. Almost a year ago, at the end of the last General Synod, I found myself praying with Julian Henderson, the Conservative Evangelical Bishop of Blackburn. I promised myself afterwards that I would try to pray for Julian in his ministry, precisely because we held very different views on sexuality. I can’t say I’ve been entirely successful in doing that through the year, but I have remembered him regularly and am doing so in these days leading up to July. His ministry is important to the work of the Gospel in Blackburn: praying for him reminds me of our mutual calling as disciples, deacons and priests, and his as a bishop. It’s hard to argue unlovingly if you’re praying for God to bless someone.

Having a difficult conversation is, well, difficult. But these words of Paul, admittedly taken out of context, have come to set the standard for my own preparation and contribution to Having a Difficult Conversation: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6).  A good thing to remember.


Posted in Church of England, Human Sexuality, Prolocutor of Canterbury | 58 Comments

Oliver O’Donovan – A Role Model for Good Disagreement?

by Canon Dr Angus Ritchie, Director of The Centre for Theology & Community

Oliver O'Donovan

“Good disagreement” is always a via media between two dangerous extremes. At one extreme is the kind of argument that is simply polarising and point-scoring; a zero-sum game where can only win if you are comprehensively refuted. At the other extreme is the laziness of relativism, where you can have your truth and I can have mine. Though superficially “tolerant”, relativism in the end produces a closed mind. It insulates me from any meaningful challenge to my existing opinions. The Other may indeed be tolerated, but is not allowed to change “my truth”.

Good disagreement involves something more than this. To disagree well, we must embrace the possibility that the Other may have something to teach me. Their challenge to my existing beliefs is potentially a gift and not a threat.

Oliver O’Donovan’s recent intervention in the debate on human sexuality is a striking example of good disagreement. From a more conservative position on the issue of same-sex relationships, he shows what it is to subject the ‘affirming’ stance to a rigorous yet sympathetic examination.

As an ‘affirming’ Anglican, I am deeply grateful for what he has written, for two main reasons.

Firstly, I am grateful for the content. As I have argued elsewhere, it is unnecessary and indeed disastrous for ‘affirming’ Anglicans to imply that our position requires a wider theological revisionism – whether about sin and grace or about the authority of Scripture and Tradition.  The challenge O’Donovan poses is one any orthodox Anglican must embrace: “how to conceive and discuss new pastoral initiatives in faithfulness to the catholic Christian identity the [Anglican] church professes.”

But, secondly, I am grateful for the tone of O’Donovan’s essay. The spirit in which he engages in the debate has a great deal to teach polemicists on both ‘sides’ of our current disagreements. (I use inverted commas because, as O’Donovan points out, talking as if there are only two tenable positions is itself a mistake).

O’Donovan’s purpose in writing is not to emerge as victor in an argument, but to instigate a conversation which helps us all to grow in truth. As he has the humility to recognize, such a truth is likely to lie beyond any of our starting-places.

Writing from a more conservative position, his aim is not to condemn ‘affirming’ Anglicans as un-orthodox, but to help us see what is involved in developing a truly orthodox argument. If the experience of gay Christians does present the church with a situation which is genuinely new, then O’Donovan points us to the right way to reflect on the theological issues at stake:

“A church confronting a situation new to history, it supposes, needs a pastoral innovation which it can experience and reflect upon, designed to meet the situation in which it finds itself, sustained in tension, but not destructive tension, with the Catholic doctrine of marriage… it is not a matter of deducing a conclusion from premises, but of seeing new practical horizons in new circumstances.”

The via media of Anglicanism seeks to hold us together, across different theological traditions and understandings, in a common life of prayer and mission. For such a project to succeed, we must learn how to receive one another, across those differences, as gifts from God – as we journey together into the goodness, beauty and truth of God.

Posted in Angus Ritchie, Church of England, Human Sexuality | 2 Comments

Good Disagreement – Sofa Style

by the Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester

Sofa diplomacy

A few nights ago, I found myself sat in an armchair, alongside three others, engaged in a conversation. Nothing unusual about that, except that we were on the stage of one of Manchester’s theatres and the organisers of the event were the local Humanists. I brought along a Muslim colleague and we spent a fascinating evening discussing with two representatives of our hosts, in front of an audience who had cared enough to pay for the privilege, how we do ethics.

It’s not a format I’ve participated in before. I came to it with some nervousness, concerned as to whether we would simply seek to score debating points or talk past each other. What transpired far exceeded my expectations. There were no set piece speeches, we simply began by one participant asking a brief question of another. Nor was there any list of topics that we were required to work our way through systematically. We allowed the conversation to ebb and flow as it would between four friends with different viewpoints; but friends bound together by mutual respect and an agreement that the subject mattered enough for us to devote a full evening to its consideration.

One or two in the audience, those who had come with the hope of seeing at least a verbal, if not physical, fistfight, probably went home disappointed. As we delved into the depths of how both religious and irreligious people get their heads around moral issues we found surprising areas of both agreement and difference, though noticeably more of the former. They were not always in the places I’d expected. Having an audience didn’t tempt any of us into grandstanding, rather it presented us with the challenge of expressing ourselves in sufficient clarity for all to be able to follow.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by how well it went. After all, the format is one that some of the more informative and educative output of BBC radio has followed for many years. It contrasts well with the more binary and adversarial approach to complex and contested issues that dominates much media news output, not least because it doesn’t compel us to simply cheer on one side whilst deprecating the other. It also contrasts with the formal debating processes familiar to large decision making bodies such as parliaments and synods. It left me understanding both my own position, and the views of those who disagree with me, better. I’m confident, not least from the Question and Answer session we held towards the end of the evening, that the audience found the same.

The experience has left me reflecting on whether and how such a process can play a part in the deliberations of the Church, especially where the differences of position are potentially as profound on a particular topic as those between a Christian, a Muslim and two Humanists. Perhaps a hallmark of a good Shared Conversation is that, at least as part of its work, it can include such observed conversation.

Posted in Bishop of Manchester, Church of England | Leave a comment