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Varieties of consensus

01 January 2016

‘Good disagreement’ is not enough, Paul Avis concludes

Good Disagreement: Grace and truth in a divided Church
Andrew Atherstone and Andrew Goddard, editors
Lion £9.99
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AS THE Primates gather at Lambeth Palace and the prospects for the next Lambeth Conference are weighed up, the essays in Good Disagreement will help the process of prayerful reflection which must now engage the Anglican Communion.

Though written by Evangelicals for Evangelicals, this book deserves a wider audience among all who are exercised by the problem of Anglican disunity. It is concerned with the ethical integrity of intra-Anglican debate and questions of unity and communion, and does not enter into the substantive issues within the culture of modernity which are generating tensions in the Anglican Communion, particularly gender roles in the Church and same-sex unions.

In the keynote first chapter, Andrew Atherstone and Andrew Goddard, historian and ethicist respectively, explore the notion of “disagreeing with grace”. They recognise that we are dealing fundamentally with divergent interpretations of scripture, even of what truth and holiness mean in practice. They explicitly countenance “some form of separation among professing Christians” in extreme circumstances.

But Michael B. Thompson’s study of “Division and Discipline in the New Testament Church” (Chapter 3) significantly finds no New Testament authority for Churches’ breaking away from each other: “every case of discipline in the New Testament concerns the failings of individuals who profess the faith — there are no examples of the apostles excluding entire congregations.”

Ian Paul’s chapter on reconciliation in the New Testament concludes that “it is not possible to argue that the only thing which matters is the truth.” Besides proclaiming the truth of the gospel, Jesus devoted himself to the restoration and rebuilding of relationships. Reconciliation comes through attending together to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, embodied in the scriptures.

Tom Wright deals with “how Paul sees the question of adiaphora, ‘things indifferent’”. But Paul never uses the word adiaphora, which comes rather from Reformation concerns with Christian unity; the idea may be Pauline, but not the word. For Paul, foods, days, and circumcision were examples of things that did not “make a difference” to salvation. I think these were more than “cultural taboos” (Wright’s phrase): they were cultic instantiations of the unique election of Israel among the nations; so it was no light matter to relativise them as Paul did.

Wright highlights Paul’s use of “the strong and the weak” in one’s attitude to things indifferent, where conscience must be the arbiter. Anglicans need to learn the Pauline wisdom of holding back if their proposed action is likely to prove a stumbling-block (skandalon) to the faith of others “for whom Christ died”.

The problem is that in the Anglican Communion same-sex unions are not regarded as “things indifferent” either by progressives, who see them as matters of love and justice, or by conservatives, for whom they are forbidden by divine law. So who are “the strong” and who are “the weak” in this case?

Ashley Null surveys attempts at conciliation in the 16th century — between the various Protestant Reformers themselves and between Protestants and Roman Catholics. For the Reformers, “things indifferent” were theological tenets or liturgical practices that made no difference to salvation.

For the reconciler Martin Bucer, the mode of Christ’s presence in the sacramental elements was an adiaphoron. But for Martin Luther, the words of Christ at the Last Supper, “This is my body,” were the pledge and the means of salvation, and, therefore, there could be no compromise. The Reformers were adamant that separation was never justified, even by serious scandal in a Church, but only when the way of salvation was at stake.

Null sometimes asserts that the partners to dialogue were looking for “a form of words” or “a formula” that would facilitate agreement. That might suit a cynical political ploy, but what the Reformers were looking for was agreement with integrity — much more than papering over the cracks. In fact, Null shows that this is really his view, too, when he sets out four principles that enabled genuine, though fragmentary, accord to come about. All concerned recognised that (1) division in the Church was a scandal; (2) theological truth deserved concentrated attention and debate; (3) not all theological issues were equally important; and (4) personal interaction to build trust and respect was essential.

Atherstone and Martin Davie look at modern ecumenical dialogue, but they overlook the key concept of “differentiated consensus” in recent ecumenical method, whereby convergence is sought by carefully distinguishing points of agreement and disagreement and moving from that to what can be said together — a method that bore fruit in the Lutheran-Roman Catholic “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” (1999).

Toby Howarth’s contribution on inter-religious dialogue, grounded in personal and communal interaction within civil society, has much practical wisdom to offer.

Christians engaged in controversy have often dipped their pens in vitriol. To disagree graciously would be a major step forward. But Anglicans need to move beyond “good disagreement” to find ways to narrow the gap — theological, emotional, and relational — on the way to deeper convergence on those points where it is possible. “Differentiated consensus” can be a useful tool. But for that to happen, we need to be willing to talk.


The Revd Dr Paul Avis is a Chaplain to the Queen, visiting professor in theology at the University of Exeter, and editor-in-chief of Ecclesiology.

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