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When Christians Disagree

Ross Bay and Jim White
Bishops Ross Bay and Jim White. Picture – Anglican Taonga

Christians disagree. About lots of things. We disagree about war, and when it is just to fight in war. We disagree about evolution and science. We disagree about divorce. We disagree about the place of women in church leadership.

This post is not debating particular disagreements – this is looking at “the next layer up”, acknowledging that we disagree, and looking at what happens when we disagree, and how we can live with disagreement.

An excellent current example is the NZ debate about euthanasia. Nine Anglican bishops urged Parliament not to open the door to euthanasia. Two of the three South Island pakeha bishops did not sign this submission. One bishop put in an opposite submission, arguing that terminally ill New Zealanders should have the right to medically-assisted suicide in cases of unbearable suffering.

I repeat – this is not the place to debate euthanasia. What interests me, however, is that two bishops, one opposed to euthanasia and the other in favour, are diocesan and assistant bishop of Auckland. They are in the same diocese.

This is not some minor discussion. This is disagreement about implementation of the sixth commandment, You shall not murder. [Leave to one side that Christians cannot agree on the numbering of the commandments!]

Do we have here, then, a model of respectful disagreement, in a most significant ethical issue (literally a matter of life and death)? Here are two bishops (Bishops Ross Bay and Jim White), overseeing the same diocese, disagreeing about such an important moral question.

We can manage this with such a life-and-death question. We do not seem to be able to manage this with homosexuality. I have said often enough that I think this is because the proportions of homosexuals are so small. The response of those who disagree with me is that we are being asked to bless something that God (apparently) does not approve of. My response is that this is what is being done when a second, third,…seventh heterosexual relationship is blessed (with previous partners still living).

With life-and-death moral questions we do not think that a bishop’s integrity is impugned by having clergy in her/his diocese disagreeing. In fact, we can have bishops in the same diocese openly and publicly disagree. We can bless a second, third,…seventh heterosexual relationship without anyone questioning the integrity of the bishop in whose diocese this occurs. But, when it comes to blessing a committed same-sex couple, we cannot imagine similar gracious disagreement and can only attempt to construct mechanisms that mean no one anywhere in a diocese that so chooses will be able to bless such a couple.

Mechanisms of Living Together with Disagreement

I was one of the first to highlight that the recent meeting of Primates does not have the ability to stop TEC delegates from participating fully on ecumenical bodies in which they have been appointed, nor within Anglican bodies that they are part of. Now all three representatives of the Episcopal Church have confirmed that they will attend and vote at the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Lusaka, from 8 to 19 April.

A similar over-reaching to that of the Primates seems to have been at work in the Way Forward working group in imagining that individual clergy can somehow be prevented from using a formulary of our church by a diocesan synod vote.

In the way we can agree to disagree and stay in friendship and communion about life-and-death ethics, in the way we can agree to disagree and stay in friendship and communion dealing pastorally with divorce, surely there are models for the way we can deal with other disagreements?

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26 Responses to When Christians Disagree

  1. I think it’s helpful to remember that the 1st century Church and Judaism didn’t agree about everything either; disagreement is part of our tradition.

    It is odd that there is more vehement disagreement about homosexuality than about objectively much more serious issues like killing people.

    It is interesting that nowhere in the bible is God ever said to disaprove of homosexual activity, and neither did Jesus. But God and Jesus are clear against killing human beings.

    I am impressed by the Anglican ability to discuss the issues and allow divergent viewpoints – a very healthy thing.

    Blessings

  2. In the parish that I go to there are radically differing viewpoints with regard to homosexuality and no antipathy but mutual respect.
    However, as one of the I think few are not accepting of homosexuals is the vicar, I would not imagine that openly or even covertly homosexual would at all feel at all comfortable there.

    • Thanks, Stephen. I think what you are saying that the ability to accept that there are strongly differing positions is a positive dimension of Christian leadership. If so – I heartily agree with that. That point may be worth my expanding in a future post. Blessings.

    • Not necessarily. Our vicar thinks sex outside heterosexual marriage is a sin, but when a gay parishioner died he was as gracious, encouraging, and comforting to the surviving partner (who is not a Christian) as one would hope/expect one’s vicar to be to a heterosexual survivor. So, although I’m gay, I’m still very happy to keep worshipping there.

      • Thanks, Robert. That is exactly the sort of gracious-disagreement story that we need to hear more. Blessings.

    • Hi Helen,

      as invited on your web-site, I have re-blogged your article onto my own site – kiwianglo – a site dedicated to opening up the Anglican Communion Churches to the loving accommodation of LGBTQI people and Women.

      I’m grateful for your insider’s view of the Oxford ‘Conversations’ process. One can only hope that General Synod will be able to have access to some of the participants’ experience gained in the talks. I hope for some progress towards the opening up of the Church of England to ALL people, regardless.

      Blessings, Fr. Ron

      • Delighted that you found it useful, Fr Ron. There’ll be more reflections on my blog shortly – the processing is taking a while!

        Blessings,
        Helen

  3. “We disagree about evolution and science.”

    Surely there are times when one should be less accommodating of debate, times when another person is simply wrong, whether due to stubborn denialism or to misinformation or ignorance — all of which surface in young-Earth creationism — or out of malice.

    P.S. Thank you for the precision of your translation of the sixth commandment, as “You shall not murder” rather than “You shall not kill.”

    • Thanks, Seth. We could have a wonderful, distracting discussion about young-Earth creationism vs. Big Bang/evolution (no surprise, Seth, that I’m of the latter conviction). [I cannot get beyond: “God made the universe 6,000 years ago, and made it to look 13.7 billion years old”]. I am convinced I am right about my positions (that’s how they are “my position”). When it gets to war (or vegetarianism to add another one to the above list), these are very serious differences. Where, on the “spectrum”, do we stop being “accommodating of debate”? Thanks for your thought-provoking comment. Blessings.

      • “Where…?”

        Where we encounter evidence.

        Funnily enough, since you raise vegetarianism, the main Biblical example that comes to mind is precisely *not* of ideological motivation but a prime example of following the available evidence at the time.

  4. “God made the universe 6,000 years ago, and made it to look 13.7 billion years old”

    But you do admit that God could have pulled that off had God wanted to do so, right Padre? 😀

  5. Their Excellencies appear that they also were in great disagreement on the liturgical color of the day in their photo op. Or is that another aspect of ministering in the Anglican Church of Or?

    • Fr Ron, below, explains the NZ situation of regularly only having a single cope, and using a cope, whatever its colour, on various occasions. The stole will vary. I have checked the context (there are other photos in the sequence), ordination. In NZ, red is the normal colour at such a service. That explains the red stole with the copes. Blessings.

  6. I have been thinking about your thoughts on the possibility that we might have a formulary in our church which diocese might choose not to authorise for use. Thus, above, you note that you do not see how a canon re diocesan choice can trump the right of clergy to use such a rite.

    But discussion with a colleague has prompted a thought which goes in a different direction. If we have a formulary which clergy do not have to use because they do not agree with its being a formulary of our church, then those clergy are dissenters from the (now agreed) teaching of our church, expressed in a formulary.

    Dissenters in Anglican terms are a little bit different from disagree-ers. We have no formal teaching on euthanasia, nor agreed interpretation of the relevant commandment re euthanasia, thus +Jim is not a dissenter from our church’s teaching (at least, not as I understand it). The example re remarriage of divorcees may be more pertinent.

    Anyway, I think we will find that some ACANZP Anglicans are not going to embrace the possibility of becoming formal dissenters from our church’s teaching with alacrity.

    • Thanks, Peter.

      1) I agree that none of those for, against, or those without a position on euthanasia are dissenters in Anglican terms.
      2) I think that blessing the relationship of those who are divorced and committing themselves to a new relationship while their previous partner is still alive forms a better model for exploring blessing a committed same-sex couple.
      3) As you indicate, I think the formulary route for blessing committed same-sex couples is fraught – and that fraughtness is not solved by creating a fiction of having dioceses absenting themselves from leading such services.
      4) I think there is no other route available to us for blessing committed same-sex couples.
      5) I think that Anglicans have managed to use language in such a way in other formularies that seemingly-opposite positions may be held with integrity by those who take seriously our vowing and signing up to them.
      6) So I think that finding such a wording may be the pathway we need to pursue.

      Blessings.

  7. Ah, the limits of disagreement. For those taking part in the C of E Regional Conversations, it was made clear that these were not about changing people’s minds. It was, indeed, very frustrating not to be able to offer any ‘correction’ -e.g. (and this wasn’t something said in any of the sub-groups I was in, but it’s around in the general literature, so I can say it without breaking any protocols) I’ve read those opposed to same-sex marriage quoting various bits of Roman lit to prove same-sex marriage existed and was always condemned, but the bits they cite are from satire, so not to be used as representing actual practice.
    I think what I’ve learned is that challenging a view isn’t heard if the person you challenge is invested in that view.

    • Yes, Helen. We have the same with some pieces of St Paul’s correspondence. Sometimes what he writes isn’t what he is saying at all – he is quoting the correspondence he received, those to whom he is replying obviously know this is a quote (no quotation marks in those days), and he is quoting them in disagreement rather than agreement! Later generations, not knowing the context and origin, now quote what St Paul was writing against as his teaching!

      The question I get from your final sentence: why is it that many people are SO invested about homosexuality?!

      Blessings.

        • Thanks, Helen.

          I appreciated reading the Church Times article. And thanks for your encouragement about this site.

          An example of misunderstanding St Paul that springs first to my mind is 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

          women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

          This may very well be a well-known statement at the time from the Corinthian church, and Paul is quoting them not to agree with them, but to disagree with this statement. He immediately responds with a rejoinder:

          did the word of God originate with you?! Or are you the only ones it has reached?!

          I have written about this text: Rethinking Paul’s Clobber Passages

          Blessings.

  8. Brother David, you obviously don’t know about our ACANZP tradition of cope-wearing bishops. The bishops, when wearing copes, have to wear whatever the diocese has provided for them – regardless of litrugical colours. Some bishops likely have only one cope. The Auckland Diocesan Bishop Ross Bay, would appear to be wearing a cope belonging to a former Auckland suffrangan Bishop, Ted Buckle. Mind you, I don’t think the red stole goes very well with it.

    Concerning the business of ‘agreeing to disagree’ the Church of England House of Bishops has been doing that ever since the Reformation, so why should we get our knickers in a twist about it? It’s a very Anglican tradition. Mind you, that tactic might be a little more difficult for our Roman Catholic brethren. They have a Vaticani ‘Magisterium’ – much more authoritative and less likely to encourage ‘agreeable disagreement’.

    • Thanks, Fr Ron. I agree that Anglicanism has diversity as a strength, not a weakness. Also, those who look to Rome may not be quite as monochromatic as some might think. There are a variety of “rites”, of schools of spirituality, and differences of theological approaches. I think Pope Francis is very open to such diversity, such gracious disagreement. Blessings.

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