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