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On good disagreement and the future of the Church of England

Live in harmony with one another. ... If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:16,18).

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

[M]ake my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind (Philippians 2:2).

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God (2 Corinthians 6:14-16, all quotations from the NIV).

"Good disagreement" is becoming one of Archbishop Justin Welby's catchphrases. And it's a wonderful idea. The Church is full of bad disagreement. My previous blog post was about creation and evolution, and that is certainly an example. We simply do not make the effort to understand each other, let alone to love one another. Surely the first step we need to take on the road towards full agreement is to turn our bad disagreements into good disagreements.

Welby was interviewed on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday (13 July 2014), and the topic of "good disagreement" came up twice.

First (just after 30:30), speaking about the prospect of a schism in the Anglican Communion, Welby commented:

As Christians we believe that we are part of one family, we're joined inextricably not by our own choice but by the choice of God, by our common faith in Christ. Schism is awful. If it happens, it happens. But our calling is to love one another and to find ways of good disagreement in a world that is completely incapable of good disagreement.

This is surely the way forward. We have so much in common as Christians, and once we learn to recognise one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, then it will be much easier to work through our disagreements about lesser issues. Hopefully this will be the case with the issue of women bishops too. Speaking at the General Synod debate earlier this week, Welby said,

Today we can start on a challenging and adventur[ou]s journey to embrace a radical new way of being the church: good and loving disagreement amidst the seeking of truth in all our fallibility; a potential gift to a world driven by overconfident certainties into bitter and divisive conflict.

But the idea of "good disagreement" has a certain ambiguity to it.

Later in the interview with Andrew Marr (just after 33:45), Welby described some conversations he had had with Muslim leader Ibrahim Mogra:

there was absolutely no sense of conflict there — we disagreed. [AM: it was a proper conversation.] It was a proper, good disagreement.

The ambiguity is this: on the one hand, there is "good disagreement" between people who share the same fundamental convictions, but on the other hand, there is "good disagreement" between people who do not share the same fundamental convictions. So which kind of good disagreement are we aiming for in the Church?

Within in the Church, if we are to be recognizably the "temple of God", and recognizably a body of believers, rather than a mixed body of believers and unbelievers, then we must aim not for "good disagreement" about our fundamental convictions, but for complete unity on those matters. We must aim to be "like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind", and we must aim for nothing less. Of course, there will be differences, but those will be differences within the context of agreement about the essential elements of our faith.

But what if our "bad disagreements", even when they have become "good disagreements", turn out to be disagreements about the core aspects of our beliefs? What should we do then as a Church?

In those cases, "good disagreement" must become the kind of "good disagreement" that Justin Welby was able to have with Ibrahim Mogra. In our dealings with Muslims, we recognize — publicly — that we have fundamentally different understandings of God, Jesus and the world. We don't pretend that we are basically the same — though, of course, we will often work together on issues of common concern. But we follow Paul's exhortation to "live at peace with everyone", as far as it is possible to do so.

And that must be the way forward for us as a Church, if our disagreements, once we have explored them carefully, prove to be fundamental differences in how we understand God, Jesus and the world. We must — for the sake of the Church and for the sake of the world — try to go our separate ways — to live at peace with each other, but not to pretend, either to ourselves or to the world around, that we are basically the same. The Church shouldn't seek to model "good disagreement" in the sense of getting along in peace even though we disagree as much as it is humanly possible to disagree! We should model that kind of "good disagreement" in our dealings with those outside the Church. Inside the Church, we should be marked not by the quality of our disagreement, but by the quality of our agreement.

But is that even conceivable for the Church of England?

On the left we have England, and on the right we have the Church of England (not to scale).

England and the Church of England

You will notice that England is divided in two. The colours are not significant (I won't tell you which is which!), but it it supposed to represent Christians and non-Christians.

Now, where should we place the black circle?

Currently, I think the black circle is bang in the middle. What I mean is that, however you construe "Christian", there are lots of people in the Church of England who would, under that definition, be non-Christians.

So, from one perspective, Jesus came to rescue us from the punishment our sins deserved by dying in our place on the cross. A Christian is someone who receives Jesus' gift of eternal life, and a non-Christian is someone who doesn't think they need Jesus to rescue them.

But, from another perspective, Jesus came to show us the kind of love that breaks down all the petty divisions that permeate human society, and to teach us to accept each other as we are. Jesus came to rescue us from our hatred and to affirm us in who we are. Christians are people who have embraced Jesus' message of inclusivity, and non-Christians are people who think we need some kind of radical change before we are acceptable to God.

Both of those perspectives are represented within the Church of England. (I won't pretend to know the relative proportions. Honestly, I have no idea about that. The popular impression is that people are either "pro-gay" and "pro-women" or "anti-gay" and "anti-women". But there are plenty of people who are in favour of women bishops but hold to a traditional view on same-sex relationships, so the popular impression is extremely misleading.)

So, what are the options?

First, following from what I said above, we could aim for fundamental agreement within the Church as to what Jesus is all about. Then we would end up with one of the following:

England and the Church of England

In one case (pick a colour), this would mean a fundamental agreement that Jesus came to rescue us from the punishment that our sins deserved. It would make the Church very unpopular with the establishment. It would mean that the "liberals" in the Church would (voluntarily or otherwise) all leave, en masse.

In the other case (pick a colour), it would mean a fundamental agreement that Jesus came to show us true inclusivity. It would make the Church very popular with the establishment. It would mean that the "traditionalists" in the Church would (voluntarily or otherwise) all leave, en masse.

I find it very hard to imagine either of these possibilities happening. I can't see the central powers of the Church deliberately making it intolerable for either group to remain in the Church. First, there isn't the level of agreement necessary among the bishops or within the General Synod to allow this to happen. And second, the central powers are acutely aware of practical, financial considerations, and it would be almost suicidal (unassisted!) to take any steps that would send lots of bums off pews. And no local church really wants to leave the Church of England, not least because they would have to leave their buildings! As long as each local church can carry on pretty much as it pleases, and is able to basically ignore what goes on elsewhere, they are likely to be happy to stay. But it's not inconceivable that things could begin to tip in one direction or the other; indeed, I sincerely pray that they will — in the right direction!

Another option is for the Church to split in two:

England and the Church of England

No, it's not the face of a very colourful insect.

In this case, the two irreconcilable perspectives in the Church of England agree amicably to go their separate ways. This, I think, is what "good disagreement" about fundamental issues ought to look like in practice. No one is suggesting a merger between the Church of England and the Muslim Council of Britain. It is better that we remain as separate organisations, and seek to engage with each other and live peacefully side by side.

The trouble is that I can't see it happening. The whole institutional structure of the Church of England assumes that it is one institution for the whole country. The country is divided into two provinces, and 43 dioceses, each of which has one diocesan bishop, and each diocese is divided up into parishes, with every square inch of the country falling into one parish.

If the Church of England split in two (which would make Scottish independence look like a piece of cake, with tea, at the vicarage), then there is no conceivable way that either church would have a convincing claim to be a church for the whole country.

The final option is for things to remain pretty much as they are:

England and the Church of England

In this case, the Church of England as an institution would need to degenerate into a bland institutional husk, within which a diversity of fundamentally different perspectives are enabled to flourish.

Is this what "good disagreement" and "flourishing" will look like in practice?

I hope not. But I suspect it might be, though it does seem to be one of the features of Anglicanism, with its organic structure and its bishops, that this kind of breadth never feels even remotely comfortable.

Yes, let's turn our "bad disagreements" into "good disagreements". But let's not allow the process to stop there.

Lord of the church, we long for our uniting,
true to one calling, by one vision stirred;
one cross proclaiming and one creed reciting,
one in the truth of Jesus and his word.
So lead us on; till toil and trouble ended,
one church triumphant one new song shall sing,
to praise his glory, risen and ascended,
Christ over all, the everlasting King!

Timothy Dudley-Smith

Creation or evolution: do we have to keep getting nowhere?

It is with some reluctance that I turn to the topic of creation and evolution. It's something I've thought about a lot in years gone by, but I've tried to avoid it more recently. The whole debate is so polarised, and shows little sign of coming any nearer to a resolution, so I've allowed my interests to roam in different directions. But I'm preparing some talks on the early chapters of Genesis, so I feel I ought to make myself a bit more familiar with the way things currently stand.

In what follows, I'd like to focus on three exhibits, only one of which seems actually to be constructive in taking the church nearer to unity and maturity on the issue.

Creation or evolution: do we have to choose?Exhibit A is Denis Alexander's 2008 book, Creation or evolution: do we have to choose?. I read this not too long after it came out. It's well written and covers a lot of ground. The basic thrust of the book is that it is possible to be an evangelical Christian, believing the Bible to be the word of God, and still to accept the findings of modern science when it comes to the evolution of life, particularly human life (this position is known as theistic evolution or evolutionary creationism). A large chunk of the book is devoted to the scientific evidence, and the book provides a fascinating primer in the relatively young field of genomics: the study of DNA and the genome. The rest of the book is an attempt to reconcile biblical Christianity with the evolutionary narrative.

Alexander gives it a good shot, but I have to say that his synthesis is far from persuasive. It hinges largely on a sharp distinction being drawn between physical death and spiritual death, so that billions of years of physical death can give rise to life as we know it, after which God sends spiritual death into his very good creation as a punishment for human sin. The trouble is that the Bible simply doesn't make this distinction, and it leaves us puzzling over why Jesus' physical death should have anything to do with the problem of sin. The book also makes it clear that it is far from easy to reconcile the biblical account of Adam and Eve with the prevailing secular account of human origins.

However, my main problem with the book, at least in the context of this particular post, is its unwillingness to engage in constructive discussion on the issue. Where does Alexander direct me to find a good defence of the opposite point of view? Which creationist works does Alexander engage with? You will search in vain for any attempt to answer those questions — except for two brief mentions of Henry Morris. Not a single living creationist is named in the book. Alexander would clearly not deign to condescend to their level. 'Christians who make it their mission to attack evolution, in the mistaken assumption that it is anti-God, are embarrassing and bring the gospel into disrepute' (p. 352). (But, lo, is that a revised and enlarged second edition I see coming out in September? Perhaps there is room to be optimistic?)

Should Christians embrace evolution?So we move swiftly to Exhibit B, the 2009 book, Should Christians embrace evolution?, edited by Norman Nevin. I bought this book not long after it came out, but it suffered the fate of most of my books, and lingered on the bookshelf (well, various successive bookshelves) until last week. The book is a multi-author response to the biblical and scientific issues dealt with by Alexander. Highlights are an excellent chapter by Michael Reeves on the importance of believing in a historical Adam who fathered the whole human race (also available here), a wide-ranging (if slightly unstructured) chapter on the theological problems with the theistic evolution position by David Anderson (who has published other responses to Alexander's book, both shorter and longer, available here), and an illuminating chapter on genomics by Geoff Barnard (you can watch him speaking on the topic here).

But, apart from a few highlights, to be honest, I wish the book had lingered on the shelf for longer. It comes across as a hastily cobbled together response to Alexander's book. The chapters are mainly either off topic, or badly written, or both. But this is beside the point: the book doesn't give the impression that it was actually intended to be read at all. Rather, its mere existence is the point. Here is a book, published by respected evangelical publisher IVP, with multiple authors, some of whom you will have heard of, with four pages of glowing commendations, and with a foreword by none other than Wayne Grudem, one of the biggest names in Bible-centred evangelicalism. It's even got a shiny website. Clearly, without even needing to read a word, you should be able to glean that many prominent evangelicals say a big resounding 'No!' to Denis Alexander and his ilk.

Genesis 4 takes us from bad to worse, as Cain murders his brother and as Lamech boasts of his acts of vengeance. But there is a glimmer of hope in the final verse, as 'At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord' (ESV). Is there a glimmer of hope in this debate?

Darrel Falk and Todd Wood

I end this post with Exhibit C. This is an ongoing series of discussions between prominent evolutionary creationist Darrel Falk and prominent young-age creationist Todd Wood. Most of these conversations, facilitated by the Colossian Forum, have been taken taking place in private. But they went public a few months ago, in an event that you can listen to here (hat tip: Biblical Creation Ministries). It really is an excellent example of people of widely different perspectives coming together as brothers in Christ and seeking to understand each other.

Creation or evolution: do we have to keep getting nowhere? In keeping with the book titles mentioned above, my question also anticipates a negative answer. No, we don't have to keep getting nowhere. There is hope, and I am optimistic, that one day, before too long, it will not be so much a 'debate' about creation and evolution, with people taking 'sides', but a serious attempt by brothers and sisters in Christ to grapple together with these big questions, 'until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ' (Ephesians 4:13, ESV).

Morning Prayers

From the Book of Common Prayer:

O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom: Defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

O Lord, our heavenly Father, Almighty and everlasting God, who hast safely brought us to the beginning of this day: Defend us in the same with thy mighty power; and grant that this day we fall into no sin, neither run into any kind of danger; but that all our doings may be ordered by thy governance, to do always that is righteous in thy sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Creationist research in palaeontology

Leonard Brand is a biologist and palaeontologist. He's also a young-age creationist. He believes the world was deluged by a global flood just a few thousand years ago.

These slightly unconventional beliefs give him a slightly unconventional way of looking at things. He ends up noticing things that would be overlooked by conventional scientists, and he can countenance explanations that would seem absurd to other people.

As a consequence, he does some fascinating scientific research. And he publishes it in high-ranking secular peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Have a watch...

(Hat tip: Biblical Creation Ministries.)

Church history lectures

You can learn a huge amount by downloading lecture courses and listening to them while doing other bits and pieces. Specifically, over the space of several years, I've listened to three (double) courses in church history, which have been fascinating and really enjoyable. They were...

  • David Calhoun (Covenant Theological Seminary, St Louis, Missouri): Ancient & Medieval Church History and Reformation & Modern Church History. A comprehensive sampling of the whole of church history, with an emphasis on the Reformation, and with a devotional edge to the course.
  • Donald Fortson (Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina): History of Christianity I and History of Christianity II. Also very comprehensive, with a Reformation emphasis. Very helpful in understanding the roots of modern American evangelicalism.
  • Gerald Bray (Beeson Divinity School, Birmingham, Alabama). Church History I and Church History II. The lectures in these courses are less methodical than in the other courses, and don't cover as many different subjects. Sometimes Bray goes off on tangents, and sometimes the whole thing degenerates in fits of laughter. But there were many, many 'Ah!' moments when listening to these lectures. Bray manages to describe the events in such a way that it all makes so much sense.

Enjoy!

Jekyll with Prose

Jekyll is a beautifully lightweight alternative to the likes of WordPress. But the main disadvantage, for 'normal' users, is that you really need to be at least slightly geeky to get it to work. Even in order to edit the content on an existing site, you need to be comfortable managing text files (without Microsoft Word!), and, if you are hosting it (for free!) with GitHub Pages, you need to be competent with handling remote repositories. Not an insignificant hurdle, and the psychological barrier is very high compared with learning to use WordPress, even if that actual time taken to pick up the skills might well be shorter.

Enter Prose. Prose provides me with a friendly text editor in a web browser, and it handles the GitHub commits without me having to worry about it. This means that when I (a semi-geek) want to create a simple website for a Muggle to maintain and edit, there is a plausible alternative to WordPress. True, some geekery is still needed to change the appearance of the site, but simple edits to the content could be done by anyone.

I'm just trying it out at the moment... Let's see if it works...

(Not quite, but almost!)

(Update: editing files directly in GitHub would be a good alternative: let's see if this works...!)

David Powlison on being thankful

David Powlison is a Christian counsellor. In the video below he talks about gratitude as an antidote to grumbling, and about the pastoral value of the General Thanksgiving from the Book of Common Prayer, which begins as follows:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men. We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.

Dr. David Powlison - On "General Thanksgiving" from the Book of Common Prayer from CCEF on Vimeo.

(Hat tip: Jake Belder.)

Why and how do we celebrate the Lord's Supper?

Whether our tradition is 'liturgical' or 'non-liturgical', it's all too easy to simply go through the motions when sharing the Lord's Supper. Whether we are working from a written script, or from an unwritten script, it's perfectly possible to do what we always do, without thinking about what we are doing or why we are doing it.

I've appreciated the following video, from Michael Petty of St Peter's Anglican Church in Florida, walking us through their communion service. Like other churches in the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA), they appear to combine a vibrant evangelical faith with a rich, Anglican liturgical tradition, in a way that I find a little bit curious, but mostly very appealing. I'd love to see the two combined more readily in the Church of England. The focus of the video is very much on the words that are said: there is hardly anything about funny clothes, furniture or paraphernalia. So, assuming that you come from a tradition that uses words in celebrating the Lord's Supper, I think it should be relevant to you!

(For the record, there were a couple of elements of the video that I wasn't sure about — such as calling the table an 'altar', a prayer of epiclesis, and the idea that the bread and wine change in some way — but I don't think those detract too much. Also, while we're in these parentheses, it's worth noting that 'The Book of Common Prayer' refers to a different book on the other side of the Atlantic.)

Instructed Eucharist from St. Peter's Anglican Church on Vimeo.

Anglicanism

I was asked to write a one-sided essay on Anglicanism. Let me know if you think I succeeded!

Perhaps one of the most striking features of Anglicanism is its breadth. It is hard to think of any other church, denomination, communion or network of churches that contains within it such diversity. There are Anglican churches that are staunchly Protestant, or that are almost indistinguishable from Roman Catholic churches, or that are overflowing with charismatic renewal, or that adhere to all sorts of novel schools of theology, or that lie almost anywhere in between. Together, these churches constitute the Anglican Communion, a family of 38 provinces spread around the world, counting within its number an estimated 80 million Christians. What makes these churches ‘Anglican’ is their connection with the Church of England, which is both historic and continuing. The provinces are autonomous, but held together (somewhat precariously) by four ‘instruments of communion’: the Archbishop of Canterbury, and three consultative bodies or conferences.

But is that all that needs to be said? Does Anglicanism have only an organic nature, which may be stretched and remoulded without constraint? Or are there any normative characteristics of Anglicanism?

To be faithfully Anglican is, surely, at least to be Christian. But that only begs the question of what it means to be ‘Christian’. Is there unlimited room for disagreement on that point? I think not. One universal feature of Anglican churches is their episcopal form of government. Each ordained Anglican minister must be licensed to practise by his or her bishop, and must be willing to recognize that bishop’s oversight. This places limits to the level of disagreement over what it means to follow Jesus. It places severe strains on the fabric of the Communion if, for example, some bishops are not prepared to recognize other bishops as genuine disciples of Christ. Such strains are being felt at the moment regarding the place within the Anglican Communion of The Episcopal Church (TEC) in the USA. In the eyes of many Anglicans, this province has significantly departed from the faith, to the extent that a sizable part of the Anglican Communion now recognizes the new Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) in preference to TEC. It is difficult to imagine that this situation can continue for very many years, and it would seem that global Anglicanism is entering a period of significant re-formation.

The classic Anglican statement on the essentials for unity is the ‘Lambeth Quadrilateral’, which was adopted by the Lambeth Conference in 1888. As well as two principles related to the our common life together—the historic episcopate, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper—there are two principles related to the doctrine of the church. These are the Holy Scriptures ‘being the rule and ultimate standard of faith’ and the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, ‘as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith’.1 These principles are perhaps the best way of defining the limits of Anglicanism.

But, within those limits, Anglicanism does have certain characteristic features.2 There has, from 1549 until recent generations, been almost universal use of the Book of Common Prayer, and its influence is still evident, both liturgically and theologically. Anglican churches as a whole have a clear sense of continuity with the church throughout history, and a clear sense of connectedness with the present global church. And there does appear to be a clear, even stubborn, desire to remain together, and for Anglican churches to be broad enough to embrace all who genuinely seek to respond to the call of Christ.

1 Quoted by Paul Avis, The Anglican Understanding of the Church, SPCK, 2013, p. 75.

2 See Stephen Neill, Anglicanism, Penguin, 1960, p. 418–427.

Multi-site mega-churches and their bishops

Since reading Paul Avis on the Anglican understanding of the church, I've been pondering the idea that, in Anglican thinking, the basic unit of the church is not the local parish church, but is the diocese, with the bishop as the senior pastor. In other words, Anglican churches are really multi-site mega-churches, with each church covering a particular part of the country (a city with the surrounding region), and with that region divided into zones (or "parishes"), with each zone having its own elder or elders and its own weekly meeting(s). The only significant difference between the Anglican model and the modern version is that I'm not aware of Anglican dioceses live-streaming videos of their bishop preaching every week.

Anyway, Andrew Wilson picks up this idea in a much more snappy way over at Think Theology: Ignatius Meets the Multi-Site Gurus. Enjoy!