by the Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge
I’m always sceptical of sentences that begin with some such phrase as ‘history teaches us that…’ It’s not that history doesn’t teach us things. But what it teaches is complicated, and almost always not simply transferable from one situation in the past to the present. It’s not possible to lift ‘answers’ from the past to the questions of the present. But it is possible to develop an awareness about ourselves now from study of the past. As a historian, I find myself time and again returning to the dictum ‘Know your enemies’ – that is, don’t just caricature and malign a position with which you disagree, but really get to grips with it, and understand it from within. See what its assumptions are and what its logic is – all the better prepared will you be to criticize and counter its arguments.
Practical examples of this are easy to come by, if sometimes apparently shocking. Don’t just call people racist – try to understand why they think what they think, how they have come to see their identity in a certain way, what they think is lacking in others, and so on. Don’t just demonize Trump or his supporters – try to work out their griefs, their rage, their ambition, and perhaps even their ideals. Don’t just assume that all those who defend the gender pay gap, or who fail to protect women adequately in public life, are simply spineless or bigots (I know it’s tempting…) – try to grasp the intricate and often hidden operations of power and prejudice.
Trying to do this with people with whom we disagree in the Church is a trickier matter than you might think. I suspect that’s because we can all too easily confuse our own good intentions – or at least, our belief in our good intentions – with an unwillingness to face head-on dissenting voices with which we strongly disagree. People bound together by a belief in a God of love may, paradoxically, find it harder to understand the hostility and disagreement of others, than those unencumbered by any prior moral or religious commitment.
I’m often struck by that thought when I consider the current ethical conflicts in the Church. Military strategists often talk about ‘asymmetrical conflict’, in which there is a disparity in power or strength between two sides, perhaps through one side’s technological superiority, or its numbers, or its financial muscle, and so on. But this asymmetry need not be a simple one-sidedness: it might, for example, encompass technological superiority on one side (‘smart’ bombs?) with low-level but deadly weapons (suicide vests?) on the other.
Almost all the Church divisions and disagreements I can think of are essentially asymmetrical. Take attitudes to homosexuality. On one side, there are people who might well accept that some people are gay, by nature as it were, but who argue that sexual relationships ought to be, by divine command, restricted to married heterosexual couples. For them, homosexual sex is essentially a moral matter, for it is a falling short of what God intends for us. For others, on the contrary, our humanity consists in welcoming and affirming what God has made possible in human nature and society: to condemn homosexual sex is itself to fall short of God’s love for all. These two positions may profess Christian faith and seem to be in disagreement about one, identifiable thing – homosexual sex – but their disagreement is asymmetrical: they disagree on different grounds, and for different reasons, and with different consequences, and they are unlikely ever to find any final reconciliation.
When moral and religious conflicts are asymmetrical, it is very difficult to see how there could ever be an end to the argument. Of course, in practice one position might die in the course of time – practically what happened, for example, to arguments against evolution on this side of the Atlantic. Is that what might happen to traditionalist arguments over sexuality? Or one side might effectively crush the opposition – out-shout and out-publish it, defeat it in assembly, drive out its proponents from their positions, and so on. Could that one day happen in the Church of England? Neither outcome seems likely. But what does not seem to be in prospect is some kind of unifying, transcending position – a position which all concerned will recognize and accept, so that their disagreements will come to be seen as minor or unimportant wrangles and their opposing positions will be drawn together and mutually affirmed in some all-encompassing synthesis.
That’s why the talk of ‘agreeing to disagree’ in the end can be a kind of illusion – if, that is, we think that simply saying that is enough to allow us all to live together in peace. We can live together in courtesy, but there’s always an implicit and unresolved tension. For those who oppose homosexual sex, it would be a fatal moral compromise. And for those who do not, although they may think it is easy to welcome ‘in love’ those who oppose them on this matter, in practice what they are asking is that their opponents fail to carry through the natural conclusions of their moral disapproval.
So we ought to be clear that there is no united way forward on this, as perhaps on other conflicted issues. All there can be – at least as a bare minimum – is a set of operational rules, or courtesies, by which we try to contain the explosive consequences of our own disagreements, and work together, despite our clear differences, in the hope that some greater wisdom might ultimately emerge, and we will eventually come to see our own and others’ views differently. That has to be done out of utter conviction in the truth of the position we defend – in other words, it has to be done as we try to convince our opponents they are wrong – but with the open and honest commitment to ‘know our enemies’ as best as we can.