by Guy Elsmore
from Signs of the Times No. 58 - Jul 2015
Browsing the website of Reform recently, I came across an article by Susie Leafe, originally published in the Church of England Newspaper.
In the article 'What is meant by Good Disagreement', Leafe challenges the moves the Church is currently making toward the goal of 'Good Disagreement' on the issue of human sexuality. Surely, she argues, we should be seeking agreement, rather than disagreement, truth, rather than more Anglican fudge.
According to the article, for Reform, the truth has already been revealed and it is the traditional view on matters of sexuality that must prevail. There should be no truck with agreeing to disagree with those who take a different view. Collusion with heresy is not an option. Hence, the article concludes, the Reform Council view, that members should not take part in the current round of conversations on scripture and sexuality, is to be applauded.
Many readers of Signs and members of Modern Church would take a much more open view on issues of sexuality and are hoping and praying for the day when the Church can be a place where same-sex relationships are blessed and same-sex partnered clergy are able to minister without fear of denunciation or prejudice.
How then, from the Modern Church end of the spectrum, should we see those in Reform and how should we respond to an organisation which does not wish to enter into debate or disagreement (good or otherwise) because its mind is already made up? More broadly, how should we as Christians engage with those with whom we disagree?
Organisations are not monolithic, they are complex networks of people. No organisation is ever as rigid as the statements produced by their central body, even when those statements sum up the common mind of the organisation. The people who make up Reform are not on some other planet, they are around us in the Church - they are in the neighbouring parish or the Deanery down the road. Members of Reform churches may also be members of our families or friendship networks. If Reform won't come to centrally organised encounters, is there benefit to seeking occasions to engage, informally with members of Reform at a local level?
I believe that at the level of the personal and the local, we can make progress. Here, at local level, some of the prejudices and the grandstanding about truth and heresy on both sides can be broken down. As neighbours, we know more about each other than the easy stereotypes which it is so easy to tilt against at an organisational level. At local level, we might hope to find a hint of what caused the first apostles while in vehement disagreement in Jerusalem over the circumcision of gentile converts (Acts 15), nonetheless to refer to one another as brothers in Christ.
In relationship counselling, one highly effective strategy is to ask one party to remain silent while the other speaks. The silent party is then asked to reflect back, as accurately as possible, the point of view they have just heard. The process then reverses. This simple technique often works really well because so often we are not actually listening to those with whom we disagree. To enter into dialogue where both parties really hear one another can be a profound experience. I'm not suggesting we go to marriage guidance with the local Reform minister (now that would get people talking!) but applying the principle of trying to see the situation from the other person's point of view is a good discipline for us to bring to such informal conversations.
Hearing one another, of course, is not the end of the story, but it does give us a starting point. The next step is to look for something to build upon. Richard Rohr often talks about the 10% principle in Christian disagreement. He proposes that we should search the other person's arguments for the 10% we can agree on and explore that. Often the 10% will grow, but even more importantly, common ground can be established and trust may grow.
Building community with those who are different is a difficult but essential skill for our times. We live in a world fractured by religious divides. Lives across many countries are lost on a daily basis because of religious wars. Anglican disagreements tend to be less violent but are no less deadly to the Church and to the soul. Our long held self-identity as a 'bridge Church' able to span Protestantism and Catholicism holds the promise of an organisation which, if it can better learn the art of reconciliation, may yet hold some promise for the wider world.
The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has done his greatest work in the field of the philosophy which underpins applied ethics. While a deeply religious man himself, he set himself the task of creating a non-religious basis for ethics but in so doing created an approach which seems to me to be profoundly incarnational. Levinas argues that the basis for ethics is the regard of another - to look into the eyes of another, fully and deeply is to connect with them in a way which transcends principle, dogma, prejudice, class and category of every kind.
In the connection of one human being with another is the potential for the stripping away of all preconceptions ('Simon, do you see this woman'). Can we find occasions to enter into an attitude of deep regard for those whose theological positions we may find difficult?
A friend is recently returned from Palestine where she visited an extraordinary project, 'The Tent of Nations', a grass roots environmental project situated a few kilometres away from Bethlehem. Despite the most extreme provocation and pressure The Tent of Nations holds to this principle:
At Tent of Nations we seek to embody an approach to conflict and occupation. Faced with great injustice, we know that we do not need to hate, we do not need to despair, and we do not need to flee. We can refuse to be enemies and channel our pain and frustration into positive actions which will build a better future.
The refusal of Reform to join in the current round of conversations on sexuality is surely a challenge and an opportunity for us all. What if we refused to be enemies of Reform and other theologically conservative groups? What might flow from a sincere attempt to reach out to those with whom we disagree, parish by parish? How much do we long for a healed Church?
This is a time to reach out across the fences of ecclesiastical tradition. We have much to learn from one another. Occasionally we may encounter a difficult reception. Here, the challenge and the power of self-giving Christ-like love is set before us.
He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.
Outwitted by Edwin Markham