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Beyond Agreeing to Disagree

Review by John C. Bauerschmidt

How can disagreement be good? This collection of essays by a number of Anglican writers, mostly members of the Church of England, raises this question at a time when disagreement seems to press very closely in the life of the church. Without attempting to resolve particular disputes, the collection addresses the issue of disagreement itself, from a variety of angles. The book includes a preface by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the essayists broadly represent the evangelical wing of Anglicanism.

Good Disagreement?
Grace and Truth in a Divided Church
Edited by Andrew Atherstone
and Andrew Goddard
Lion Hudson. Pp. xii + 227. £9.99

Though the book does not focus on particular issues, there is more than one reference to current disagreements, particularly the issue of the consecration of women as bishops in the Church of England, approved in 2014, as well as the formal conversations about sexuality that are proceeding in that church. Essays cite the global search for theological agreement through the Anglican Communion Covenant. Archbishop Welby’s background in reconciliation between conflicted parties, and his engagement of recent issues, are also noted. Discussion questions end each chapter. The overall impression is that the essays are intended to have immediate and practical implications for the divided church.

A first essay by the editors lays out the parameters for those that follow. No doubt, there is “bad disagreement” in the church: multiple past examples are well known from their legacy of destruction and acrimony. Andrew Atherstone and Andrew Goddard want to explore how to turn “bad disagreement” into “good disagreement,” without simply commending an “agreement to disagree” in all cases. Issues differ in importance. Agreeing to disagree in every disputed question discounts the possibility of seeking agreement in truth, while failing to discern the possibility that there are things that Christians can disagree about forsakes the possibility of fellowship across difference, and encourages division. For the editors, there are “foundational truths” in Christianity, and discerning what Christians must agree about and what they can afford to disagree about is a crucial question.

Atherstone and Goddard note that “good disagreement” can mean a number of things. For some it is an oxymoron, since disagreement is a result of the Fall, rooted in sin and ignorance. There will be no disagreement in heaven, and so there ought not to be any within the Church on earth. For others, “good disagreement” simply means the ability to disagree gracefully, seemingly about those things that are not foundational. Here the editors appeal to J.C. Ryle as an advocate of civil discourse among Christians. Then again, “good disagreement” can be deployed with a theological agenda that brings us back to an “agreement to disagree” about every contentious issue, in which each Christian’s truth is equal. God’s truth cannot be grasped, after all; and the diversity of human truth, no matter how contradictory, simply helps to complete the vast mosaic of what is true.

With this last agenda-driven understanding the editors are unsympathetic. Jesus’ ministry and the witness of the New Testament writers both point toward the need for grace and truth. “This freedom to disagree need not mean doctrinal pluralism and relativism in disguise” (p. 12). “Good disagreement” means different things in different contexts: in some, holding together in spite of differences; in others, walking apart with a blessing and not a curse. How this last occurs gracefully is itself a witness to the world.

The essays that follow deal with related themes. An essay by Ian Paul explores the New Testament concept of reconciliation: between individuals, as salvation, as the aim of Christian ministry, and as the goal of the cosmos. God’s will is central to reconciliation, and discerning God’s will in the Scriptures on any issue is important for Paul, as it is for Atherstone and Goddard. Paul also identifies several dynamics that flow from reconciliation, the most significant of which is the recognition that God’s reconciling action can actually become a cause of division itself, between those who accept what God has done and those who do not accept it or its terms. Here Paul cites the early New Testament disagreement about the admission of Gentiles to the church.

This theme continues in an essay by Michael Thompson, which recounts New Testament treatments of division and discipline. Restoration and unity are God’s purpose in Christ, but Thompson (like Paul) notes the divisive nature of the Christian proclamation. This essay is mostly concerned with a nuanced account of the New Testament witness to divisions among Christians. There are warnings against division, addressed both to those who cause dissension in the church and to those who separate because of it. There are circumstances in which Christians are exhorted to avoid false teachers, according to Thompson, but he notes that the emphasis in these cases is on the final judgment by God that cannot be anticipated. The purpose of discipline within the congregation is to avoid dissension and separation; in the New Testament there are examples of individuals being disciplined but no mention of the apostles excluding whole communities. For Thompson, discipline in this perspective is concerned with the health of the community and the restoration of the offender.

N.T. Wright’s essay on St. Paul comes the closest to directly addressing particular issues. Wright identifies the apostle’s concern for both unity and holiness, and asserts that the two belong together. Wright challenges again the notion of tolerance, in which issues of behavior are less important than Christian unity, and we can “agree to disagree.” For St. Paul, there are matters that are adiaphora, things indifferent, about which Christians can disagree, but for Wright matters of sexual ethics are not among them. Under the New Covenant the observances of the Law that divided Christians from Jews were set aside, under the heading of unity; but God’s intention in creation remained unchanged. “The new creation retrieves and fulfills the intention for the original creation, in which the coming together of heaven and earth is reflected in the coming together of male and female” (p. 71).

The resulting sexual ethic flowed from the creational and covenantal monotheism of Judaism that was not a matter of ritual observance dividing Gentile from Jew. It certainly did divide Gentiles and Jews in their observance or failure to observe the ethic, but here Gentiles were invited to embrace the ethic under the heading of holiness just as surely as Jews were called to put aside particular observances in the service of unity. Both Jews and Gentiles are invited into a single community in which the renewal of creation is available in the age of the Messiah. For Wright, this is not a matter of “bad” parts of the Law being abolished in contrast to “good” parts retained, but rather a contrast between parts of Torah that have done their work in forming the people of God, now put aside, and parts that can now be celebrated as being within reach for all, through Jesus and the Spirit.

The remaining essays deal with historical and practical issues. Ashley Null’s essay on the Reformation points to examples of “good disagreement” during this period, both between Roman Catholics and Protestants as well as within the Protestant ranks. Cranmer’s attempt to unify Christians around a common liturgy is cited as one attempt to deal with disagreement. Atherstone and Martin Davie write about “Ecumenical (Dis)agreements,” seeking approaches to engaging disagreement within the modern ecumenical movement. Toby Howarth changes this up with an essay on good disagreement between religions. Both essays commend straightforward engagement of contested issues rather than a premature pronouncement of agreement. Lis Goddard and Claire Hendry write together as ordained women who disagree on the subject of women’s leadership in the church, chronicling their efforts across the years to find areas of agreement and to seek understanding when they disagree. Tory Baucum offers a meditation on John 4, “Ministry in Samaria: Peacemaking at Truro Church,” with a view of disagreement and reconciliation straight from the trenches of the North American “church wars.” Stephen Ruttle, a barrister and mediator, writes a final essay that draws from his experience of mediation as an alternative to legal proceedings. This last gives a useful glimpse within the process, and reminds us that even agreement to engage in seeking mediation is agreement of a sort.

What’s missing from this volume is a fuller account of disagreement between Christians. By leaping from the New Testament to the Reformation it neglects many centuries of disagreement and contestation that were crucial for the development of Catholic Christianity and its ecclesiology. Of course, these disagreements can be filed by title; but there may also be lessons to learn in the disputes of the Early Church, especially for Anglicans.

The congeries of different disputes present in the North African Church in the third and fourth centuries is a case in point. Cyprian argued in a time of persecution that the bishops’ maintenance of unity with each other, in spite of differing practice in the re-admission of penitents to communion, pointed to the need for a corresponding tolerance of different practice in the re-admission of the lapsed to the fellowship of the Church. This dispute was picked up and cited by the Eames Commission back in 1989 as it threaded its way through the subject of women in the episcopate and the need to maintain unity.

But even closer to home is the dispute between Cyprian and Pope Stephen on the subject of the rebaptism of those baptized in heretical or schismatic groups. The Roman practice was to reconcile with the laying on of hands, while the North African custom was to rebaptize. Here the stakes were high; Cyprian argued forcefully that baptism outside the Church was no baptism at all. Yet even here, in a fundamental matter of Christian identity, Cyprian once again counseled the toleration of different practice among bishops.

What allowed Cyprian to make these arguments for tolerance was a theology that placed a high value on the uncompromised nature of the episcopate and on the communion of the bishops with each other. In the following century Augustine, in his dispute with the breakaway Donatists, moved an emphasis on communion among the churches into the foreground to argue for the restoration of unity between Catholics and Donatists. The Donatists, whose spiritual forbears had refused the ministry of bishops who had cooperated with the Roman authorities during the last great persecution, continued to stress the uncompromised episcopate. The two sides often seemed to be talking at cross-purposes.

This is a helpful collection of material coming at an opportune time. It rightly takes aim at an indiscriminate pluralism. Still, one misses acutely on such an occasion the magisterial and measured contributions of, say, the late Henry Chadwick to a discussion of this sort. Does he have successors? Anglicans need to remember our essentially Catholic ecclesiology and the wider framework of Christian history as we engage the issues before us.

The Rt. Rev. John C. Bauerschmidt is Bishop of Tennessee.


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