Response by Jonathan Clatworthy
Bishop Tom Wright's call for 'proper theological debate, not a postmodern exchange of prejudices' in his Presidential Address is most welcome.
However the way he uses Paul's remarks about adiaphora (issues on which we can agree to differ) in favour of delaying the introduction of women bishops, opposing gay and lesbian sexuality and supporting the proposed Anglican Covenant goes far beyond anything Paul could have expected.
Paul was seeking practical proposals for specific situations when there was no international Christian authority to settle the arguments in his favour. When Wright argues that deciding which issues count as adiaphora is not itself adiaphora and therefore cannot be 'decided locally', he is presupposing an international authority with the power to lay down which is which. At the same time he is busy trying to establish such an authority for the first time within Anglicanism, by means of the Anglican Covenant.
We need to avoid that Puritan mindset which expects everyone in the Church to agree on everything important. Wright gives the impression that the Church consists of bishops and their committees: in the case of sexual ethics, for example, he declares that 'the church as a whole, in all its global meetings, not least the Lambeth Conference, has solidly and consistently reaffirmed' what he calls 'the clear and unambiguous teaching of the New Testament', even though in fact he knows all too well that the Church is deeply divided on the matter.
Similarly on women bishops he calls for 'proper theological argument, which we have not yet had'. Since the disastrous 1993 Act of Synod debate has indeed often degenerated into exchanges of prejudices, but there has also been much serious theological discussion over an extended period: the Modern Churchpeople's Union has been proposing theological arguments for women priests and bishops since the 1920s!
There is bound to be conflict between tidy institutions and the search for truth. Clergy who run dioceses and provinces like them to run smoothly with everyone in agreement. Independent seekers after truth object to being told what to think. Scientists face the same issue, but are a century ahead of clergy: they recognise that we make no progress unless we make full use of tradition, but also that every corner of tradition must be in principle open to challenge - not only to help us discover our past mistakes, but also to better understand what it means for our truths to be true.
This means freedom of thought, and allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us where we never expected to go. It means admitting our uncertainties, however uncomfortable it makes the tidy-minded.