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It’s time to make ‘good’ disagreement ‘loving’

by
28 May 2021

Christopher Landau proposes a more distinctively Christian way to handle conflicts in the Church

IN THE late 1990s, Peter Mandelson told a group of executives in Silicon Valley, California, that he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich — as long as they pay their taxes”. That phrase, “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”, seemed to epitomise for many the way in which, in government, the Labour Party had abandoned a core socialist element of its founding narrative.

My fear is that the Church is also “intensely relaxed” about sidelining something that should be of foundational importance: the way in which we approach our inevitable disagreements. The challenge is neatly outlined in some words of Jesus, spoken with clarity and simplicity in John 13.35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Christ himself identifies mutual love among members of the Church as the way in which those beyond it recognise his followers. Yet, the pursuit of mutual love apparently registers way down our contemporary list of priorities, particularly when we disagree in public.

 

THERE was a moment during the height of lockdown last year when various intra-Anglican spats were raging on Twitter. The Chancellor of Chichester Cathedral, Canon Daniel Inman, urged participants to step away from their screens: “My top-tip for Anglicans today: use the sunshine and go for a lovely long walk, look at the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, kick a tree, scream on a hilltop, let it all out.”

It was a moment that epitomised the problem that we face. We have stopped noticing the damaging impact of our public disagreements, reinforcing ecclesiastical silos rather than building unity in the one Body.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has spoken often of the need for “good disagreement”. I wish to encourage wider use of an alternative phrase that he has also used, although somewhat less often, which points to a distinctively Christian response.

In his foreword to Living Reconciliation (SPCK, 2014), Archbishop Welby writes: “We do not have the option, if we love one another in the way that Jesus instructs us, simply to ditch those with whom we disagree. You do not chuck out members of the family: you love them and seek their well-being, even when you argue. Good and loving disagreement is a potential gift to a world of bitter and divisive conflict.”

It is this reference to “loving disagreement” which might prompt something more fruitful among disagreeing Christians. While “good disagreement” risks being an end in itself, managing a problem rather than solving it, an appeal to loving disagreement surely evokes Jesus’s own summation of the law, where loving your neighbour is foundational.

The wider world might well think that to love anyone with whom one disagrees is ridiculous, and that loving disagreement is thus a contradiction in terms; but I wish to suggest that it is, in fact, a Kingdom-shaped oxymoron, pointing to the very love that should be a hallmark of the Christian life.

 

THE challenge for the Church is to recognise that this kind of charity really does begin at home: we are not merely called to love an anonymous foodbank user in our wider community, but also the member of our own parish congregation with whom we disagree profoundly about sexuality, or Brexit, or the Church’s response to lockdown.

In my doctoral research concerning New Testament ethics for disagreement, a key observation concerns whether we hope to exhibit the character of God in the way in which we disagree. In particular, does our disagreement tend towards what St Paul lists as fleshly acts in Galatians 5 (including rage, dissensions, factions, and envy), or will we seek to exhibit the fruits of the Spirit — including kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control?

Loving disagreement necessitates taking seriously that we belong on the same vine, are called to wash one another’s feet, and should seek to reflect the New Testament’s consistent call to pursue loving unity. We also need to recognise the power dynamics that exist between any two actors in a disagreement; but if their interaction is truly loving, then such differences need not prevent fruitful engagement.

This is not to promote unity at all costs — after all, Paul and St Barnabas parted company after their own sharp disagreement in Acts 15. When relationships become wholly unsustainable, or are even abusive, a clean break is necessary. My point is that, too often, in some contexts, we accept a seemingly inevitable downward spiral towards a split or schism rather than work to restore mutual trust and to repair fractures.

In these weeks after Pentecost, it is surely appropriate to consider how the Spirit might shape our moral responses to disagreement. “Christianly” is an ugly word, but a necessary one. Our challenge is to admit the damaging reality of our current approaches, and invite God to inspire something better in us. Then, I hope and pray, we might learn to disagree Christianly.


The Revd Dr Christopher Landau is Postgrads Pastor of St Aldate’s, Oxford. His new book,
A Theology of Disagreement: New Testament ethics for ecclesial conflicts, is published on Monday by SCM Press at £30 (Church Times Bookshop £24); 978-0-334-06045-1.

The HeartEdge Network is hosting an online book launch featuring Elaine Storkey, Joanna Collicutt, Selina Stone, David Ford, and Christopher Landau in conversation on Tuesday 8 June. Register here.

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