Is Good Disagreement Possible?

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia.News and Director of the Ozanne Foundation

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This is the question that I presume many within the Church – particularly the College of Bishops, which met last week – are currently debating and asking.

As many know, I have been an outspoken advocate of “Good Disagreement” as a means of discussion or a “way of working”, but I am certainly no fan of it as a final destination.

In my mind, “Good Disagreement” describes a way of conducting contentious debates in a manner that seeks to always “see the Christ in each other” and therefore looks to treat those with whom we disagree with respect.  As I explained to the Irish Times following the launch of the Good Disagreement Facebook Page, it poses the question “Can someone say what they firmly believed (their perceived “truth”) with enough pastoral insight and sensitivity (ie “grace”) to show they are aware their comments might deeply hurt/offend someone?”

But Good Disagreement cannot be the final end point in this discussion.

Too much rests on it.

As one clergyman put it to me this week:  “Either we evangelicals, owe you and the LGBTI community a profound and heartfelt apology for the trauma and pain we have caused, or you owe us a profound apology for risking the very souls of those around you.”

It is a stark choice – the health and well-being of vulnerable LGBTI teenagers (as well as those of us who are not so young) versus (evidently) the salvation of our very souls.

But can this really be right?  Is this what the unconditional love of God intends?  Did Jesus really mean it when he said “whosoever believes in me shall not perish but have eternal life”?  Where else in the Gospel is there such a stark choice that causes so many people so much pain and anguish in contrast to them gaining their salvation?

God is a God of Love in my book.  Full stop. He loves us just as He has created us.  He comes to bring us life, and life in all its fullness – only legalism and the law brings death.

As it happens, last week was also the fourth anniversary of the tragic death of a young beautiful teenager, Lizzie Lowe, whose life was cut short due to the horrendous internal conflict she faced over trying to reconcile her faith with her burgeoning sexuality.

Her parents, Hilary and Kevin, have spoken out very movingly and bravely about the need for churches to become more inclusive and of their sincere “hope that others do not and will not have to suffer in silence alone.”  Their and Lizzie’s story will be covered in more depth on Monday night by BBC Northwest Tonight, and will be featured on many BBC local radio stations around the country this Sunday.  It seems that the media at least understand the desperate need to ensure that others do not suffer the same fate as Lizzie, and are keen to ensure that young people know that it is possible to be Christian and gay, and have happy, blessed and fulfilling relationships based on mutual love and commitment.

It is my belief that the Church of England can no longer sit on its razor wire fence on this critical and deeply divisive issue.  To do so risks the lives of just too many people – particularly those who are the most vulnerable and undefended in our society.

Many Bishops will undoubtedly say that they are fearful of a split in the Church if they were to make such a clear pronouncement.

But let us be clear – there is a split now!  People are leaving now!

They may not be the leaders of large powerful and rich churches, but they are God’s children all the same.  They are hurt, they are rejected, they feel ostracised, they feel maligned and misunderstood.  They are those who just cannot countenance being in a Church that they think is homophobic and hypocritical – that preaches God’s unconditional love and then puts conditions on it.  Many are the Church of our future – the youth of today.

Whilst I warmly welcome the aims of the Pastoral Guidelines that we have been informed about in Kaya Burgess’ article in The Times, I would plead that the principles that are being proposed to deliver against these aims have no hint of compromise or fudge within them.  We need crystal clarity with no double meanings please.

We need to know – are we to be blessed or cursed?  To be accepted as equal members of the Body of Christ, or rejected as unrepentant sinners who have no place at the Lord’s table?

There is no half way house on this.

Good Disagreement cannot be the final resting place.

The lives and futures of too many of us depend on it.

Jayne Ozanne writes here in a personal capacity and her views are her own.

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3 Responses to Is Good Disagreement Possible?

  1. I tend to disagree, Jayne. There has always been disagreement in the Church of England. Church History is littered with examples of schism into smaller and smaller sects. However, as your own website name suggests, there can be a via media, where the greatest test is not ‘Who is right?’ but do we have the *grace* to love one another and find solidarity in what we share in Christ – in other words, unity in diversity. We have seen tensions before in the Church of England: puritans, moderates, catholics, charismatics… vying for membership and acceptance within our national church. I’d argue that part of the chrism of the Church of England is what it has gained by learning to live with and alongside diverse Christians. So I believe the key challenge is to avoid demand for uniformity of belief, and instead seek unity in Jesus Christ, diversity among ourselves… to really respect the right of others to conscientious belief, and pray for their flourishing in their lives, their work, their givenness to God.

    I have had dialogue with over 40 bishops, and I believe that ‘unity in diversity’ has a lot of traction as what many bishops would like in the Church, but they feel hampered by the threat of schism presented by those (including a small minority of bishops) who regard the human sexuality debate as a ‘first order’ issue. In the end I believe we should fight hard for ‘unity in diversity’, and if that means a small minority in the end choose to leave the Church – insistent on their own demands for uniformity – then so be it. But equally, as a lesbian and a Christian – as someone wounded by exclusion, as someone denied the right to marry… I do not think I should demand uniformity for *my* conscientious beliefs either.

    There is a via media, that is more demanding than theological purity: and it calls for grace and love, rather than doctrinal rectitude, and it’s a challenge to love one another.

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  2. Martin Sewell says:

    I agree with much that you write.

    Yet it seems to me that we will find little peace if we insist on debating “ Who is right “; we might however if we focus on the question “ How do we live together as brothers and sisters in Christ? “ That necessarily requires unconditional respect for all regardless of gender/status/sexuality etc. This might be a necessary staging post on the way.

    There is a story from the American Civil War of an officer overseeing a burial party being asked whether the dead should be separated and buried according to units and States. The answer was to mix them up “ I’m sick of States rights”.

    I feel a little like that.

    The theological argument will become tedious. Brotherly and sisterly love will not.

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