IN THE later 19th century, there was an occasion in St Paul's
when anti-ritual protesters ran up to the altar and swept the
communion vessels and candles on to the floor. One man who shouted
"Protestants to the rescue!" was silenced by a canon stuffing a
handkerchief into his mouth.
This would probably not be the model for good disagreement which
the Archbishop of Canterbury and his colleagues had in mind for the
process of "shared conversations" between people with different
views on sexuality. These are the conversations that will be taking
place in regional groups over the next 16 months, against which
Reform and others have urged a boycott.
In response to those who refuse to engage, we might note the
requirement of Christian love not to walk away. The formal process
of shared conversations is not going to remove disagreements; but
it could help us to begin a longer process of resolving them, by
accepting that there is actually something to discuss - and that
it's profoundly uncomfortable.
We need to recognise the insecurity that such conversations
provoke, on all sides, in order to get beyond it. "We" includes
traditionalists, liberals, straight, and LGBT people, as well as
the uneasy people in the middle who would rather all this just went
away. We fear that we will be judged, not heard; that our integrity
as a follower of Christ will be denied; that someone else's culture
will interpret scripture in a way that leaves no room for ours; and
that what we believe may change, as we see what it does for, and
to, others. That's why we need to work first towards good
disagreement: a recognition of our mutual humanity before God,
which then allows us to face reality, and to engage with the
underlying issues that cause us to disagree.
EXPERIENCE of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue can help. At its
best, dialogue allows us to be honest about what we find hard about
another's belief and practice, in a setting in which that can be
heard; it can also challenge us to pursue the best in our own
traditions while appreciating the insights of others. It doesn't
mean giving up what we hold dear, but it enables others, and us, to
understand it more deeply, in the context of relationship with God
To withdraw from dialogue means to deny both our own
fallib-ility and our need to find God in others, as well as the
opportunity to share with them the gift of our experience of God.
Withdrawal means, to use the words of the House of Bishops, the
failure to "find something of Christ in each other": the
in-practice denial that you have anything to learn from others, and
indeed the refusal to see the other as truly Christian.
WE ARE often tempted to mistake our truth for God's truth. The
Church of England is not infallible, and nor are we. We don't own
the truth, though we may pray that the truth owns us. How we
interpret scripture in the light of our experience and our
religious tradition will need to be balanced by other perspectives,
across time and space. And we do need honest conversations about
how scriptural interpretation and people's experience are related
to, and in dialogue with, each other.
Ever since St Paul began to pursue the logic of St Peter's
experience ministering to Gentiles in Caesarea, the Church has
grappled with disagreements about how the gospel applies to
culture. How is salvation through faith in Christ to be worked out
in practical moral behaviour in different societies? What room is
there for difference in interpretation and practice? LGBT
Christians need to help us all to explore what faithfully Christian
straight, gay, bisexual, and transgendered living should look
Civil partnership has provided a way for the Church to support
and affirm celibate gay mutual commitment. We need to consider
carefully what the acceptance of same- sex marriage in the Church
would mean in reality, and how it would be understood in relation
to the theology of Christian marriage, besides reflecting on
contemporary social practice around sexuality. Christian gay people
have to cope with both the disapproval of some of their own
churches, and the contempt of an outside world that thinks
Christianity has nothing positive to say about gay relationships:
we need to work out how we can change that, together.
CATHEDRALS can have a part to play here, as places for
conversations which are bigger than the local: loyal to their
bishop and to the Church of England; there for every Christian in
their diocese - from right across the spectrum; seeking to welcome
and challenge all, in-cluding ourselves, with the radical love of
God in Jesus Christ.
It's something I hope we can do at St Paul's. It would be better
than shouting and hankies.
The Very Revd Dr David Ison is Dean of St Paul's.