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If we can’t make up, can we still kiss?

16 October 2015

‘Good disagreement’ is a proposed path for the Church. Andrew Atherstone and Andrew Goddard think it through

"IT’S not exactly startling that we have disagreements. What I’m trying to do is not to get everyone to agree, because I don’t think we’re going to agree; it is to try to transform bad disagreement to good disagreement."

So declared the Archbishop of Canterbury in a BBC interview (Hardtalk, BBC World News, January 2014), setting out his vision for the Church of England. The language of "good disagreement", closely linked to "mutual flourishing" is a significant aspect of Archbishop Welby’s theological leadership. In a world and Church deeply divided, reconciliation is the crying need of our age. Disagreement is an indelible fact of life. Can it be transformed for good?

The new General Synod, elected this week, bears a large responsibility for shaping the tone of our debates in a divided Church. The last Synod did not always do well. Most notably, the painful arguments over the consecration of women bishops were often marked by odium theologicum — violent language, broken relationships, pride, suspicion, and grief — to the scandal of a watching world. We need to do better this time around.

"Good disagreement" provides excellent potential for a new way forward. But it also has the potential to mislead, because it means different things to different people. Some reject the whole idea as fundamentally flawed, arguing that "good disagreement" is an oxymoron, like "virtuous sin". There will be diversity but no disagreements in heaven; so the Church should be known as a community where the truth is proclaimed and celebrated. To accept anything less as good, some argue, is sub-Christian.

Others embrace "good disagreement" as a universal panacea, the answer to all the Church’s ills and the way to harmonise contradictory voices. It lies at the heart of the Five Guiding Principles, which (almost miraculously) have held the Church of England together despite our disagreements over women bishops.

Some want the new General Synod to apply the same strategy to disagreements over marriage and sexuality. In Oxford diocese, for example, the Bishop’s staff-team have issued a call for every view on sexuality to be honoured and respected, as "bearing witness to different aspects of the truth which lies in Christ alone".


BUT not every view held by a Christian is necessarily a legitimate Christian view. Some of our opinions may be plainly wrong and in need of correction. The Shared Conversations, in which the General Synod will soon take part, need to face up to this reality.

If "good disagreement" means embracing every opinion within the Church, then it leads only to doctrinal and moral pluralism, which is a recipe for disaster. Where would we be if Athanasius had not challenged Arianism at the Council of Nicaea? Or if Thomas Cranmer had simply gone with the flow? Or if Anglicans in South Africa had not fought against apartheid in the face of its defence by some Reformed denominations?

When a fundamental aspect of the gospel is at stake — such as the deity of Christ, salvation by grace alone, or the dignity and equality of every human being — it is wrong for Christians to "agree to disagree". Good disagreement can too easily become an excuse for failing to do the hard theological work of wrestling together over the interpretation of scripture until we reach a common mind.

We need a different approach to "good disagreement": a middle way between those who reject it outright and those who embrace it unthinkingly.


GOOD disagreement is best understood as "disagreeing with grace", or "disagreeing Christianly". In 17th- century England, a nation ravaged by Civil War, peacemakers in the Church coined the great ecumenical motto In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas, which loosely translates as "in essentials unity, on doubtful matters freedom, in all things love". This is "good disagreement" by another name.

In dubiis libertas is an important principle. When the Bible is clear in its teaching, the Church is not free to modify or reject it. But, sometimes, the Bible is not clear, or its application in our modern context is difficult, and there is legitimate room for debate among Christians. The key question is whether our disagreements are over matters of foundational importance for the Christian gospel and Christian discipleship.

This means, of course, that it is of critical importance to distinguish, in each case, between different areas of disagreement. The Second Vatican Council spoke of "an order or ‘hierarchy’ of truths". Other theologians prefer to speak of "core doctrines" and adiaphora (matters indifferent); or of primary, secondary, and tertiary issues.

The Church often finds itself in a tangled mess when it fails to distinguish properly. To mistake non-essentials for essentials breeds needless division and separation; and to mistake essentials for non-essentials sacrifices the very gospel itself.

However deep our disagreement, we must always disagree graciously. A simple guide is Jesus’s Golden Rule — to act towards others as we would want them to act towards us (Matthew 7.12). Even when disagreement and conflict are at their height, the worst that someone can become is our enemy, and Jesus is clear how we should then respond (Matthew 5.43-44).

We need to take time to build personal relationships across divides, making ourselves vulnerable by sharing who we are — our lives, our loves, our losses. There we must seek what we have in common, not just focus on what divides.

 When speaking or writing, we need to imagine that we are talking to a friend, face to face. Sadly, this is often forgotten, particularly online. That means not creating caricatures or straw men, but engaging respectfully with people’s real convictions and feelings. And we can only do that when we have listened deeply and sought to understand.


SOMETIMES, an outside mediator or facilitator can help. In all this we need the help of God, the great reconciler, by his Word and Spirit. Praying together, and listening to God speak by studying scripture is therefore essential as we seek the truth.

We must always ask “How do I embody the gospel of grace in this situation?” If that is our driving motivation, our disputes will be transformed by the Spirit. The first Bishop of Liverpool, J. C. Ryle, observed that nothing divided and kept Anglicans apart “so much as the common habit of getting hot, and calling names, and throwing mud, and casting dust in the air”. Good disagreement offers a nobler vision of “better-quality disagreement” that is imbued with grace.

One famous example of an attempt to pioneer “good disagreement” in practice is Truro Church, a large Charismatic congregation in Fairfax, near Washington, D. C. It is now part of the Anglican Church in North America, after an acrimonious separation from the Episcopal Church (News, 22 and 29 December 2006), and lost its property to the Episcopal diocese of Virginia in a lengthy court battle (News, 13 April 2012).

But Truro Church, led by its Rector, the Revd Dr Tory Baucum, is establishing a peacemaking and bridge-building ministry both inside and outside the church.

To begin with, Dr Baucum met the Episcopal Bishop of Virginia, the Rt Revd Shannon Johnston, each month, to pray, with no other agenda, followed by conversation over a beer. Gradually, the ice thawed, and, in Dr Baucum’s words, “adversaries became friends”.

Rather than throw Truro out of their old buildings, the Episcopal diocese currently allows them to remain there, rent-free.

Truro remains institutionally separate from the Episcopal Church, because the theological gulf is too wide; but they have sought to bring an end to personal animosities.


GOOD disagreement does not mean unity “purchased at the expense of distinctive truth, and built on the ruins of creeds and doctrines” (Ryle) or playing at “happy families”. It means facing up to the seriousness and depth of our disagreements, and the reality of our divisions.

These are sometimes so serious that we cannot carry on as we are. Archbishop Welby has called the Anglican Primates to Lambeth Palace next January, for a summit meeting about the future shape of the Anglican Communion. It is not yet divorce, one Lambeth source says, but “moving into separate bedrooms” (News, 18 September).

Serious and deep differences over fundamentals, or repeated patterns of bad behaviour, damage family relationships. As in a natural family facing such situations, our obligation is to work for reconciliation that involves repentance and changed behaviour. There will be no reconciliation in the Anglican Communion without repentance on all sides, no matter how much “family therapy” or how many Shared Conversations we attend.

In families, when reconciliation proves impossible, matters often get worse. Either people stick together in the same house, but the unresolved problems lead to relational breakdown and dysfunctionality; or family members storm out, get others to take their side, and destructive legal battles follow.

The parallels in Anglicanism are obvious.

“Good disagreement” speaks grace into these broken relationships. It may include some form of moving apart, or structural parting of ways, but in a manner that is as grace-filled as possible. It always keeps open the future possibility of restoring what has been lost or impaired.

Whether “good disagreement” means holding together or walking apart, the Church has a precious opportunity to witness to a watching world that bitter conflicts can be transformed for good when the gospel of grace takes centre stage.


The Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone is Latimer Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. The Revd Dr Andrew Goddard is Senior Research Fellow at the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, Cambridge. They are editors of Good Disagreement? Grace and truth in a divided Church, published today by Lion Hudson.

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