by the Right Revd Dr David Walker, Bishop of Manchester
Back in my days as a vicar, some time in the mid 1990s, we had a very good piece of mission work going on in my parish. Ten years or so later a term was coined and popularised for such activities: they were to be called Fresh Expressions of Church. Bestowing a name, as a parent on a child, or as a researcher identifying a new phenomenon or object, doesn’t only reflect identity, it helps establish it. If the term Fresh Expression had been around at the time, we would have understood better what our activity was about, and maybe how to help it grow and develop to its maximum potential. And I could more easily have fended off the occasional church council member who grumbled that all these people didn’t seem to be coming along to the traditional Sunday morning services.
Naming things matters. And at the moment one of the key new names on the Church of England block is “good disagreement”. Its birthplace can be found in the process of Shared Conversations that lies at the heart of the C of E’s attempts to respond to the deeply divided views around LGBT Christians and their place in the church. It’s a useful term to identify that there can be a meaningful (perhaps even transformative) outcome to a conflict that does not involve either one side winning or the achievement of a largely agreed compromise. Yet a name that applies to only one specific circumstance carries an inevitable weakness. If good disagreement is only defined in relation to sexuality, then our attempts to develop it as a concept, even for use in that specific case, will be limited. Can we take the notion away from its origins and nurture it in ways that will give it strength, perhaps by finding examples of where, like my 1990s parish, we can discover we’ve already been doing it, before the name was invented?
Over the last three or so years I’ve done quite a few rounds of media interviews on the topics of migration and refugees. The subjects are emotive, and after every set of TV and radio appearances I could guarantee a little wave of angry, and often abusive, emails. Quite early on, resisting the temptation to make a sharp or witty response, and avoiding the desire simply to bin them, I decided that any that had a name and address to respond to, and that managed to include at least one point of view amid the abuse, would get a courteous reply that attempted to engage with their viewpoint. What happened next surprised me. In up to half the cases I then got a second email, almost always deeply apologetic for the tone of the first. My views on the subject matter didn’t change hugely, but they became better informed and more understanding of why people might with integrity differ from me. It was clear that in many cases their perceptions of me had also changed significantly, because I’d taken the time to respond. And their views too were becoming more reasoned and reflected.
What I am contending is that even such a limited process as this goes beyond a simple combination of courtesy and agreement to differ. What was happening was that me and my correspondents were ceasing to be ciphers for our views and attitudes, and becoming real human beings to each other. A very basic level of relationship was being forged. Relationship lies at the heart of our Christian Faith. The Father sent his son rather than a rule book, and sent him that we might have a life changing and life building relationship with him here and now. Our doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that relationship is central to God’s own self. Good disagreement, whatever the topic, is in its essence relational. It represents the conclusion of a process in which the other has been met as a fellow human being and Christian, even if we might still think that they hold views incompatible with both our sense of the canon of scripture and the trajectory of God’s Kingdom.
Applying that to this January’s meeting of Anglican Primates convinces me that it was precisely the depth of relationship, forged by the efforts of Archbishop Justin in visiting each of them in their own provinces, sustained by worshipping and loving together at Canterbury, and upheld by those surrounding them in prayer, that enabled all bar one of them not just to remain through the process but to make an explicit commitment to continue in fellowship. It seems to be what has happened for a large majority of participants at the regional Conversations. The immediate challenge is how to incorporate that relation building process into the July General Synod, recognising that what is possible in smaller groups becomes much more complex in large gatherings. But the wider challenge is, I believe, to develop an understanding of what Good Disagreement means which can take us far beyond the presenting problem within whose crucible the term was forged.