Why disagreement is not good

Jul 10, 2014 by

by Martin Davie:

In the new edition of his biography of Archbishop Justin Welby, Andrew Atherstone draws the following contrast between the approaches of Archbishop Welby and his predecessor:

Rowan Williams spent most of his archepiscopate seeking areas of core theological agreement around which Anglicans could coalesce, most notably in the failed Anglican Covenant. Welby’s project is different: not the pursuit of theological agreement but learning to live with theological disagreement.

In this quotation Atherstone has put his finger on the heart of Archbishop Welby’s approach to the challenges facing the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion. Rather than trying to get everyone to agree on issues such as women bishops or same-sex relationships the Archbishop is concerned instead with getting people to disagree well with each other, what he has called ‘good disagreement.’

The phrase ‘good disagreement’ is one that the Archbishop has used on several occasions and it has also been used by the Church of England’s House of Bishops, most recently in a statement about the facilitated conversations on issues of  human sexuality that are due to take place across the Church of England in the next couple of years.  This statement said that one of the objectives of these conversations is ‘to clarify the implications of what it means for the Church of England to live with what the Archbishop of Canterbury has called ‘good disagreement’ on these issues.’

Unfortunately, neither the Archbishop of Canterbury, nor the House of Bishops, nor anyone else, has produced a clear definition of what is meant by ‘good definition’ and no understanding of the term has ever been agreed by the Church of England.  This is a problem because you cannot begin to think about whether good disagreement is a sensible idea unless and until you know what this term means.  In this blog post I want to suggest that whole idea of ‘good disagreement’ is radically misconceived and that what we should be talking about instead is how to handle disagreement, which is in itself necessarily a bad thing, in the best way possible as part of our calling as Christians to be a community of truth.

To begin to think about this topic the first thing we have to be clear about is that ‘disagreement’ is not the same as ‘diversity’. To disagree is to have different convictions about how things are or should be.  Thus there is a disagreement between those who think that unaccompanied psalmody is the only permissible form of music in church and those who think that other forms of hymnody can be equally legitimate.  Diversity, on the other hand, just means difference.  Thus there could be a church that had total agreement that there should be a variety of different styles of music in use in its services. That would be diversity but not disagreement.

The second thing I think we need to be clear about is that disagreement is a result of our fallen condition.  God knows the truth about all things.  This is what is meant when Job 28:24 tells us that God ‘looks to the ends of the earth and sees everything under heaven’ and Hebrews 4:13 declares ‘before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.’  As creatures made in God’s image human beings are also created to know the truth.  We can see this in the account of creation in Genesis in which we are told that ‘the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name’ (Genesis 2:19).  What is described here is an act of truthful discernment. Adam is not just arbitrarily assigning names to the birds and the animals, he is discerning truthfully what they are.  Like God he knows the true nature, ‘the name,’ of things.

If all human beings engaged in this kind of truthful discernment all of the time then there would never be any disagreement between them. We would all know the truth and we would all agree about the truth. Tragically, however, the result of the big lie told by the devil and accepted by the first human beings (Genesis 3) is that we have lost the ability to always see things as they really are and to always be honest about what we do see.  It is for that reason that human beings disagree.

Fortunately, God has provided a remedy for this situation. Jesus is truth incarnate (John 14:6 ‘I am the truth’) and he has come to restore our ability to know the truth.  In John 8:31-32 Jesus declares ‘if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’  This comes about through the work of the Holy Spirit who is sent by Jesus to ‘guide you into all the truth’ (John 16:13).  Like the whole of our re-creation through Jesus, our ability to discern the truth is a work in progress. At the moment ‘our knowledge is imperfect’ (1 Corinthians 13:9) but in heaven we shall understand fully in the same way that we ourselves are fully understood by God (1 Corinthians 13:12). As C S Lewis puts it in his book The Great Divorce, human beings are created with an innate desire for truth and this desire will one day be satisfied. God will bring us to a place where we can taste truth ‘like honey and be embraced by it like a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched’

What all this means is that the term ‘good disagreement’ is an oxymoron like ‘virtuous sin’. Disagreement can never in itself be good. We disagree because in our fallen condition we either don’t know the truth, or are unwilling to accept it when it is presented to us. The vocation of the Church is therefore not to practice ‘good disagreement.’ The vocation of the Church is to be a community where as far as possible disagreement does not exist because truth is known, accepted and celebrated.

The saints in glory presumably already fully practice this vocation. However, as already noted, those of us who are still on earth remain imperfect in knowledge and therefore don’t have a full knowledge of the truth. We are also still sinful and therefore unwilling to accept the truth when it challenges what we want to believe, makes us look bad, or involves having to admit we were wrong. For these reasons the potential for disagreement will always be present in the Church and we have to think about how to handle it in the best way possible. This means that while we can never sensibly talk about ‘good disagreement’ it does make sense to talk about better and worse ways of handling disagreement.

We have to begin by recognizing that our own knowledge of the truth and willingness to accept is limited. We therefore always need to be willing to accept correction from those with whom we disagree and change what we think or do providing that we  that our reason for change is a greater perception of truth and not just a desire to please someone else or achieve some advantage for ourselves.

We also have to recognize that those with whom we disagree are people. This means that the prohibitions in the sixth and ninth commandments (Exodus 20: 13 and 16) apply. As the paraphrase of the commandments in the Prayer Book Catechism tells us, these commandments tell us that we are ‘to hurt nobody by word nor deed’, ‘to bear no malice in my heart’ and to keep our tongue ‘from evil-speaking, lying and slandering.’ However strongly we disagree with people, and however much this may lead us to want to attack them in word or deed, the commandments still apply and so we may not do so. We may legitimately criticize their beliefs or actions, but we may not attack them as people, but should instead pray that God will deliver them from error.

Finally we need to understand that the command to ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18/Matthew 19:19) means that as far as we can we are called to lead people into truth and protect them from error.  If we know that someone is in error, particularly when that error is about something serious, and especially when it has to do with their obedience to God, we cannot simply shrug our shoulders and say ‘Ok, go your own way then.’  That would be failure of love. Human beings are made not to live in error, but to live in the truth, and if we can help this to happen then we have an inescapable obligation to do so.

Equally, in so far as we able to do so we have an obligation to protect people from error. That is to say, when there are people who know the truth, but may potentially be tempted to depart from it we must do our best to prevent this happening. This is a particularly important part of the vocation of church leaders. That is what St Paul was getting at when he told the Ephesian elders at Miletus

‘Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.’ (Acts 20:28)

Caring for the flock means seeking to prevent the sheep being led astray.

In the light of all this I suggest that Archbishop Welby and the House of Bishops should expunge the term ‘good disagreement’ from their vocabulary. They should talk instead about the importance of the Church of England being a truthful community, a community which aims at agreement in the truth and in which those with leadership roles take seriously their responsibility to encourage this search for truth and, as far as possible, to protect the faithful from error.

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