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Hear, O Israel: learning to listen

06 March 2015

Agreeing to disagree can be the most creative way forward, argues David Ison


Divided we stand: St Paul's Cathedral and the remains of the old Blackfriars railway bridge, dismantled in 1984

Divided we stand: St Paul's Cathedral and the remains of the old Blackfriars railway bridge, dismantled in 1984

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 and others.

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 like.

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.

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