There is much talk in the Church of England about walking together.
I have spent most of my life living together with other people. I grew up as one of four siblings, then over the next 13 years, before getting married, I lodged with four different couples or families, spent three years as an undergraduate in college accommodation, lived in three shared houses as a postgraduate student, and spent almost two years in a two-bedroom flat, which I lived in on my own for around a month before someone else started lodging with me.
Living together with others during that period was a good experience, on the whole. Of course, there were challenges, but these were deeply formative for me. I’m sure I would be even harder to live now with if I had spent my twenties living on my own!
As you can imagine, there was a lot of variety in terms of how much I shared life in common with the people I was living with. Sometimes we shared a lot in common. But there were times when we were living together, but going nowhere together. During these times, our ‘common life’ consisted of nothing more than considerate use of communal areas, the occasional conversation in the kitchen, and the monthly divvying up of the phone bill.
Contrast this, if you like, with a hypothetical pre-industrial household. Here, living together means labouring together. The members of the household have a common purpose, not just internally, but in relation to the outside world. Each member of the household has a particular role, in order to support the family trade.
What about the Church of England?
The Church of England is governed through its General Synod. The word ‘synod’ comes from two Greek words, syn (‘with’) and hodos (‘way’), which brings to mind the idea of ‘walking together’.
But what if different parish churches in the Church of England are going in opposing directions? If two people are walking together (in opposite directions), then the only way they can remain together is if they are walking together, but going nowhere together. In other words, it is only possible if they are standing still.
What is our vision for the Church of England? Is it for it to be sufficiently capacious that different churches can pursue radically different visions within its structures? That seems to be what many people are aiming for. Considerate use of communal areas, and the occasional conversation in the kitchen: is that what it means to be ‘the church’? We are the Church of England, and that means we have shared access to the Church of England’s vast wealth, occasional trips to the Cathedral, a common and ever-expanding library of liturgical resources, pooled central resources, and a common commitment to best practice in terms of governance and safeguarding.
If that is what it means to be the Church of England, then, to be frank, we might as well not bother. Such an institution is not a ‘church’ in any meaningful sense. To be a ‘church’ is more than a commitment to living together but going nowhere together: it means labouring together with a common purpose.
Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. …
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind (Philippians 1:27-28a; 2:1-2, NIV).
Why, then, are so many people committed to walking together, but going nowhere together? (‘Good disagreement’ is an alternative name for this: see my previous post on the topic from seven – yes, seven – years ago.)
The video features Ed Shaw and Bishop Nicholas Chamberlain, who hold opposing views on sexuality. They find they have shared experiences of being gay, and common interests in terms of poetry and films. Their conversations have helped them to understand each other. But they still acknowledge that their disagreements are profound. However, Bishop Jan McFarlane then concludes by saying:
we’re baptized members of the church, we’re brothers and sisters in Christ, we’re one family. That means we’re going to disagree over things, but we have to find a way to disagree and yet continue walking together.
Why would someone say this? Why settle for disagreement, when Scripture calls us again and again to agree?
I can think of two reasons.
One is that people have simply given up. Our disagreements are so deep that we simply don’t believe that agreement is achievable. If we’re never going to agree, then let’s find a way of coexisting under the same roof: living our separate lives, while sharing various things in common.
The other reason people might settle for disagreement rather than agreement is that it is the first step towards another goal. If your goal is for the Church of England to believe something different to what it currently believes, then the only realistic route to that goal is first to allow a diversity of views, and then at some point in the future to disallow the current official view. So, if you want the Church of England to become a fully ‘affirming’ church, then the first step is to allow a mixture of ‘affirming’ and ‘non-affirming’, and then in due course the ‘non-affirming’ view can be ruled out as ‘harmful’ and ‘intolerant’.
I don’t think that anyone honestly thinks that ‘good disagreement’ is what God ultimately wants for us.
A new General Synod has just been elected within the Church of England. I think the greatest danger Synod will face in relation to the disagreements within the church is the temptation to go for the cop-out option of walking together (in opposite directions). If we are going to walk together, meaningfully, then we need to walk together, with a common purpose, and that means we need to agree, rather than disagree.
Good disagreement might be less unpleasant than what we have at the moment. But it would be catastrophic for the Church of England.
(See my previous post on ‘good disagreement’ for a more nuanced discussion of when it might or might not be appropriate.)