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Archbishop Justin Pope Francis

Good Disagreement?

Archbishop Justin Pope Francis

The General Synod of the Church of England voted yesterday to allow women bishops:

House of Bishops: Yes 37 No 2 Abstentions 1
House of Clergy: Yes 162 No 25 Abstentions 4
House of Laity: Yes 152 No 45 Abstentions 5

Archbishop Justin Welby said:

Today is the completion of what was begun over 20 years with the ordination of women as priests. I am delighted with today’s result. Today marks the start of a great adventure of seeking mutual flourishing while still, in some cases disagreeing.

The challenge for us will be for the church to model good disagreement and to continue to demonstrate love for those who disagree on theological grounds. Very few institutions achieve this, but if we manage this we will be living our more fully the call of Jesus Christ to love one another. As delighted as I am for the outcome of this vote I am also mindful of those within the Church for whom the result will be difficult and a cause of sorrow.

“Good disagreement” is becoming the new approach, a significant shift from Archbishop Rowan Williams’ attempt to hammer out shared agreement.

Where are the edges of “good disagreement”? There are many, many Christians holding a sacramental theology who think that (sorry to put it so bluntly) one can no more ordain a woman a bishop than one can ordain a lampshade. Such a sacramental approach of “matter” and “form” thinks that a woman is the wrong “matter” for ordination. Just as many think two persons of the same sex are the wrong “matter” for marriage. And Ribena or grape juice is the wrong “matter” for the Eucharist. And so on.

Others approach things differently. For them it is not about what one cannot do, it is about what the Bible says you shall not do.

In both these above approaches this is about positions or principles more than people.

Increasingly, there is the use of another approach, “to clarify the implications of what it means for the Church of England to live with what the Archbishop of Canterbury has called ‘good disagreement’ on these issues.” (CofE General Synod Shared Conversations on Sexuality, Scripture and Mission 4)

In some ways, the debate about ordaining women can become a model, a paradigm, for other debates. Understanding about episcopacy, for example, divides between those who see it essential to the nature of Christianity and the Church (of the esse); those who think it is good for Christianity (bene esse); and those who see it as important for the fulness of Christianity (plene esse).

Certainly, it is easy to point to the “Anglican Covenant” project (the above-mentioned Rowan Williams approach) as not having succeeded. But, in saying that, one immediately encounters the question: “succeeded in what?” What was the purpose of that project? And is/was that an appropriate aim? Or a fundamentally flawed aim? Or merely an unrealistic goal in this context? [Sorry: saying that getting this number of people to agree on a basic list of tenets is impossible, is clearly false…]

Another example: many people who held a position against ordaining women change their position once they actually encounter an ordained woman, especially if they are helped by this person at a deep point of need. That is when person trumps principle.

In families, whanau (extended families; communities) there is often strong disagreement – but/and the family/whanau is healthy and loving. Is that a helpful model of “good disagreement”?

Or is “good disagreement” an oxymoron?


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16 thoughts on “Good Disagreement?”

  1. The Evangelical Lytheran Church in America has been struggling with “good disagreement” over the ordination of married and partnered gay and lesbian clergy for five years now. We’ve held to the concept of Bound Conscience, the idea that in the Church we can hold drastically different interpretations of scripture and tradition and yet love one another and accept that our consciences are bound to the positions we hold. It’s still a struggle, but one we are called to live into as the Church of the 21st century. I pray every communion wrestles with their majors issues but ultimately lives into the love of God and the radical welcome of Christ that are a gift from God and our message to a wounded world.


  2. Dear Fr Bosco,

    I liked you put the finger on the episcopacy: esse, bene esse, plene esse.

    Personally, the principle of the «person [that] trumps principle» worked with me in the past. It’s the same thing with gay/lesbian couples.

    In the past years, it was common to see only sissy boys as “representative” of gays; it was difficult to see gay-parenting families in flesh; now, that they are more visible, acceptance grows too. I think we have a huge problem with female priests and bishops, in the same way.

    Yesterday, on different women’s and men’s blogs, I saw applauses that exalted “leadership” and power of women in the Church as equal to those of men. But the question is of ministry and service, regardless of gender. If it took so much to the CofE to accept women in episcopacy, it’s because they have asked the wrong question.

    (By the way, in the Lutheran and Old-Catholic Churches, the women’s episcopacy was accepted at the same time that their presbyterate!)

    I am therefore still expecting to see and hear women bishops defending loud and clear the traditional doctrines of the Church, preside over traditional high Masses etc. I am tired of reading and hearing in the press that this or that woman bishop has again doubted about Jesus’ Godhead, or about I don’t know what else.

  3. In once sense ‘good disagreement’ is obvious and people practice it without thinking. Is there really any reason to get into a blood curdling argument over the difference between Amilenialism and Historic Premilenialism? But even that example reveals the inherent problems that lurk below the surface.

    1. ‘Good disagreement’ is permissive. It inherently legitimizes both positions as acceptably orthodox. When the disagreement involves contrary assertions of orthodoxy (as is true in the arguments about homosexuality) the invocation of ‘good disagreement’ becomes a de facto assertion that the more permissive side is right. You cannot allow a practice or teaching without legitimizing that practice or teaching. ‘Good disagreement’ is not in this case a neutral field between two positions. It is instead a means to establish one position will defanging the other.

    2. ‘Good disagreement’ has no inherent limits. Christianity has essential content. It is not defined by membership or self-identification. So there are assertions – the deity of Christ, for example – over which no disagreement can be allowed if a Christian identity is to be maintained. This requires clear boundaries. The concept of ‘good disagreement’ does not contain any inherent boundaries. It teaches quite the opposite. To establish it properly, you would need to begin with its opposite and work outward from the boundary of essential Christianity. I suspect the purpose is rather to tacitly deny the existence of essential Christianity.

    3. It doesn’t account for the fact that the disagreement may be rooted in a conflict of essentials. It’s commonplace for people to say that homosexuality is only a presenting issue. The real argument is over the authority and nature of Scripture. To resolve an argument over homosexuality by appeal to good disagreement has collateral implications for the essential principle that is really being defended. You may say “We are going to agree to disagree on homosexuality.” But the necessary implication is that one side’s view of Scripture is wrong. Why? Because that is the only way the argument can be relegated to the realm of good disagreement. People will not overlook that implication. If essentials are impacted, the appeal will fail.

    Good disagreement can only work in an atmosphere of broad agreement on essentials. But that requires definition and defense of essentials. It can never be made to bridge the gap between a conflict over essentials.


    1. Thanks, Carl. Are you creating an “objective third” looking at two different positions in “good disagreement”? Good disagreement, it seems to me, is A disagreeing with B. Even about what you refer to as “essential”. Who determines what is “essential” in your approach, and how? Blessings.

  4. Chris Sullivan

    I think a Good Disagreement involves a genuine respect for the other, a willingness to listen, to dialogue, to seriously consider other views, a willingness to change ones own position, an openess to the possibility that God is speaking to one thru the views of those one disagrees with.

    I expect that experience is crucial in effecting change – once one has experienced oneself God’s ministry thru eg a gay minister, or a woman priest, then one has moral certainty that God really is working through their ministry. Increasingly Christians are experiencing that.

    Historically, people of faith have always disagreed, there never was a “golden age” of complete agreement, and scripture records how that disagreement played out painfully in the early Church and led to changed understanding of eg the necessity of circumcision for gentile converts.

    There is an interesting and generous article here:

    God Bless

  5. Good disagreement is an exciting and essential concept. It could apply between Palestinians and Israelis. When the vote for women priests went through, after so much prayer and discussion by all, I wondered what God meant by a 70-30 vote. I felt then it meant ‘You’re not quite asking the right question yet’. And I think the real answer might be about ministry as service and collaboration, rather than priesthood, and today, as episcopacy.

  6. Bosco,
    it has been interesting watching this unfold from a distance, especially the response of Anglocatholics within the C of E – quite a different mix to what we generally encounter here in ACANZP – they are largely orthodox in belief and catholic in practice (none of this is news to you). It looks like both Forward in Faith and the Mission Society of St Wilfrid and Saint Hilda, whilst dissapointed with the outcome, will be able to live under the current arrangements due to The House of Bishops’ Declaration says that it is committed to their flourishing and that their understanding of ministry remains within the spectrum of Anglican teaching and tradition as well as the fourth principle of the declaration which will provide for alternative episcopal oversight.

    I wonder how far that good disagreement can stretch, or whether that principle will hold up when the first female Archbishop of Canterbury is appointed. Will person really trump principle at that point?

    When we talk about person vs principle I’m not sure many clergy in our Church would accept a layman celebrating Holy Communion just because they know he believes in the bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead, is a jolly nice bloke who has been a helpful and encouraging friend during times of crisis during their lives.

    So, what principle applies where, and which can we exercise ‘good disagreement’ over?

    It seems to me that as we explore the shape of our unity less and less emphasis is placed on the historical beliefs of our Denomination, so ‘we’ve never accepted lay people presiding’ (for example) no longer holds up.In the last 60 years we’ve thrown off so much the Anglican Church never believed in or accepted I wonder where we will stop – and as we see more and more changed, surely there will come breaking points along the way.

    So as for ‘Good Disagreement’ – that got scuppered with the Anglican Covenant.

  7. Chris Sullivan

    seriously consider other views, a willingness to change ones own position

    The willingness to change can not be separated from the measure by which the rightness of change may be determined. In other words, if you are going to say “You must be willing to change your views” you must add “according to this authority.”

    I am quite willing to change my views. All you have to do is adopt my hermeneutic and show me that my view is inconsistent with it. But too often this appeal for a willingness to change one’s views is a disguised appeal to substitute one authority for another. It’s not “Lets reason together under the authority of Scripture.” It’s rather “Let’s agree that Scripture doesn’t have the authority you ascribe to it, and find something else.”

    That is something I will not do. I will not admit the possibility that I am wrong about the nature and purpose of Scripture. I begin with Scripture as the Norm the norms all norms. The purpose of Scripture is to reveal God to man. Both its authority and its capacity are rooted in that sovereign purpose of God. Were that not the case, we would be thrown back upon our finite limited selves, and moral reasoning would become impossible.

    The limits of Good Disagreement revealed.


    1. Thanks, Carl. Your idea sounds nice in theory – but just doesn’t work out in practice. In practice people who “reason together under the authority of Scripture” disagree – and significantly. So this is nothing like “a disguised appeal”, it is merely plain honesty about the Christian situation we find ourselves in. Blessings.

    2. “The purpose of Scripture is to reveal God to man.”

      So you say Carl.

      Some would point out that scripture merely reinforces what the winning side in past arguments believe about God.

  8. Bosco

    By what authority did Paul reject the Gnostics? He certainly did not model “good disagreement” with them when he was telling them to go and castrate themselves. Neither did he receive them. How did Paul know their teaching was corrupt? How did he recognize them as false brothers who shouted “Christ,Christ!” but knew neither God nor Christ? Answer this question and you will answer your question to me.

    God is not an opaque mist of incomprehensibility. He is there. He is not silent. Truth may be known. If this isn’t true, then what are we doing here? What message do we preach – other than our pointless metaphysical speculations about an unknown and perpetually unknowable god? We might as well eat drink and be merry. Tomorrow we are all dead.


    1. I cannot answer your question, Carl, because Paul did not tell the Gnostics to go and castrate themselves. When you’ve finished confusing your New Testament texts, you could return to attempting to answer my question 🙂 Blessings.

  9. Bosco

    When you’ve finished confusing your New Testament texts

    Ahem … Yes, well … Oh look! A SQUIRREL!

    Anyways, I blame Microsoft. It was that autocorrect they gave me.

    Yes, I am so going to stick to that story.

    somewhat sheepish carl

  10. Dear Bosco,

    haven’t dropped by for a while ( been ill ) but what a great day for UK religion and politics. It has been a thorn in my side for a long time, knowing how wrong some of men are.

    Of course the next day was the Ukraine/Russian terrorism ( if I have my days in perfect order ) and the global realization, wow- if we who claim to value human life will not get along and organized, how are people who do not value human life expected to conduct themselves?

    It was the same phrase jumped out at me: how wrong some men are.

    Different context. Still a lack of compassion and responsibility.

    Most of us have probably never seen images like the way the plane crash site- a mass grave whatever happened- was desecrated…it’s just not expected or acceptable behavior in 2014. When the Synod was similarly brutal and uncaring, of course it’s a different sort of medievalism. But it’s still ruining lives and holding back development.

    I’m not sure what it all means, theodicy is beyond us all! but hopefully all this tribal-values anachronism will be overcome by a renewal of desire to create peace.

    Someone once said to me ( as an English-born woman ) ‘the British were the civilizers of the modern world’. I said- ‘that explains a lot, for they weren’t yet fully civilized at times themselves’ a notion which hit me hard when the women bishops were denied and promises were broken.

    Not as much as when balaclada-clad cigarette-smoking mercenaries shoot rifles into the air to prevent officials from accessing a crime scene investigation…and trample and man-handle multiple murder victims’ grave site.

    But in some ways more- because those ignorant terrorists don’t know any better. They’re just the tools of whoever hires/pays/trains them.

    In free countries people don’t have excuses like that. Especially not in Canterbury, Oxford, York, Cambridge, Durham, London etc….

    We all need to be more sincere in our values. Not for a minute subscribe to the kind of men who deny the modernity of women or other realistic sanctity of humankind…

    Much love to you Bosco and family. Keep fighting-the GOOD fight!


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