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Leader: Sharing and caring

08 May 2015

LAST Saturday, 2 May, the Anglican calendar remembered St Athanasius (c.296-373). His dispute with Arius (d.336) and his followers concerned the very nature of God: the divinity of Christ and, later, of the Holy Spirit. There was arguably nothing more vital to the faith, and the disputants took extreme measures against each other, their fortunes rising and falling depending on which emperor held power in a fractured Roman empire. Athanasius's clerical career was not the smoothest: appointed Bishop of Alexandria, he was deposed, returned to his see, forced to flee, restored, then deposed, returned again, but was exiled, restored, exiled again, and finally secure. His opponent Arius, also from Alexandria, was excommunicated, condemned at the Council of Nicaea, banished, and finally died just before he could be restored to communion. We suspect that the phrase "good disagreement" was seldom used at that time. It would be several centuries before Christians could be in dispute without wishing to lay violent hands on each other; and, even now, those days do not seem far away.

In this light, the structured shared conversations about sexuality which began last week might be regarded as particularly bold, even though all that was involved was a three-day stay in a hotel in facilitated debates with other carefully chosen participants, presumably of the non-laying-on-of-violent-hands variety. But talk of sexuality is difficult, and people are seldom honest about it with their partners, or even themselves. One of the participants, Rose Grigg, an Evangelical lesbian, described it as "the most intense three days of my life". The Anglican Mainstream website, not known for its relaxed and easy-going character, picked out the gloomiest aspects of Ms Grigg's account: the paucity of conservative participants, the lack of scriptural scrutiny, the assumption that "good disagreement" was the intended outcome. A fairer approach, though, would have been to quote her own conclusions: "What it showed me was not a clever political resolution, but the heart of the Church: a commitment to listening to, respecting and loving every view and every person in this tangled, messy, conflicted, wounded family."

And she observed perceptively that, by the end, "Some still believed there was no other option but to split. The difference was that they had spent three days laughing, praying, talking, and eating with the people they were going to split from: the loss became real." Speaking in a different context, at the HTB leadership conference, the Revd Nicky Gumbel stated: "It's easy to argue. It's really easy to split. . . It's easy to start our own group with everyone who agrees with us." But Christians were called to unity, not least as a witness to the world. "Ultimately, unity is not doctrinal: it's relational." Whether the conversations lead to unity remains to be seen, but the relationships they engender must be welcomed by all, even Evangelicals.

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