“Good Disagreement” – Is This Possible in The Church?

If we can’t make up, can we still kiss?

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“IT’S not exactly startling that we have disagreements. What I’m trying to do is not to get everyone to agree, because I don’t think we’re going to agree; it is to try to transform bad disagreement to good disagreement.”

So declared the Archbishop of Canterbury in a BBC interview (Hardtalk, BBC World News, January 2014), setting out his vision for the Church of England. The language of “good disagreement”, closely linked to “mutual flourishing” is a significant aspect of Archbishop Welby’s theological leadership. In a world and Church deeply divided, reconciliation is the crying need of our age. Disagreement is an indelible fact of life. Can it be transformed for good?

The new General Synod, elected this week, bears a large responsibility for shaping the tone of our debates in a divided Church. The last Synod did not always do well. Most notably, the painful arguments over the consecration of women bishops were often marked by odium theologicum— violent language, broken relationships, pride, suspicion, and grief — to the scandal of a watching world. We need to do better this time around.

“Good disagreement” provides excellent potential for a new way forward. But it also has the potential to mislead, because it means different things to different people. Some reject the whole idea as fundamentally flawed, arguing that “good disagreement” is an oxymoron, like “virtuous sin”. There will be diversity but no disagreements in heaven; so the Church should be known as a community where the truth is proclaimed and celebrated. To accept anything less as good, some argue, is sub-Christian.

Others embrace “good disagreement” as a universal panacea, the answer to all the Church’s ills and the way to harmonise contradictory voices. It lies at the heart of the Five Guiding Principles, which (almost miraculously) have held the Church of England together despite our disagreements over women bishops.

Some want the new General Synod to apply the same strategy to disagreements over marriage and sexuality. In Oxford diocese, for example, the Bishop’s staff-team have issued a call for every view on sexuality to be honoured and respected, as “bearing witness to different aspects of the truth which lies in Christ alone”.


BUT not every view held by a Christian is necessarily a legitimate Christian view. Some of our opinions may be plainly wrong and in need of correction. The Shared Conversations, in which the General Synod will soon take part, need to face up to this reality.

If “good disagreement” means embracing every opinion within the Church, then it leads only to doctrinal and moral pluralism, which is a recipe for disaster. Where would we be if Athanasius had not challenged Arianism at the Council of Nicaea? Or if Thomas Cranmer had simply gone with the flow? Or if Anglicans in South Africa had not fought against apartheid in the face of its defence by some Reformed denominations?

When a fundamental aspect of the gospel is at stake — such as the deity of Christ, salvation by grace alone, or the dignity and equality of every human being — it is wrong for Christians to “agree to disagree”. Good disagreement can too easily become an excuse for failing to do the hard theological work of wrestling together over the interpretation of scripture until we reach a common mind.

We need a different approach to “good disagreement”: a middle way between those who reject it outright and those who embrace it unthinkingly.


GOOD disagreement is best understood as “disagreeing with grace”, or “disagreeing Christianly”. In 17th- century England, a nation ravaged by Civil War, peacemakers in the Church coined the great ecumenical mottoIn necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas, which loosely translates as “in essentials unity, on doubtful matters freedom, in all things love”. This is “good disagreement” by another name.

In dubiis libertas is an important principle. When the Bible is clear in its teaching, the Church is not free to modify or reject it. But, sometimes, the Bible is not clear, or its application in our modern context is difficult, and there is legitimate room for debate among Christians. The key question is whether our disagreements are over matters of foundational importance for the Christian gospel and Christian discipleship.

This means, of course, that it is of critical importance to distinguish, in each case, between different areas of disagreement. The Second Vatican Council spoke of “an order or ‘hierarchy’ of truths”. Other theologians prefer to speak of “core doctrines” and adiaphora (matters indifferent); or of primary, secondary, and tertiary issues.

The Church often finds itself in a tangled mess when it fails to distinguish properly. To mistake non-essentials for essentials breeds needless division and separation; and to mistake essentials for non-essentials sacrifices the very gospel itself.

However deep our disagreement, we must always disagree graciously. A simple guide is Jesus’s Golden Rule — to act towards others as we would want them to act towards us (Matthew 7.12). Even when disagreement and conflict are at their height, the worst that someone can become is our enemy, and Jesus is clear how we should then respond (Matthew 5.43-44).

We need to take time to build personal relationships across divides, making ourselves vulnerable by sharing who we are — our lives, our loves, our losses. There we must seek what we have in common, not just focus on what divides.

When speaking or writing, we need to imagine that we are talking to a friend, face to face. Sadly, this is often forgotten, particularly online. That means not creating caricatures or straw men, but engaging respectfully with people’s real convictions and feelings. And we can only do that when we have listened deeply and sought to understand.


SOMETIMES, an outside mediator or facilitator can help. In all this we need the help of God, the great reconciler, by his Word and Spirit. Praying together, and listening to God speak by studying scripture is therefore essential as we seek the truth.

We must always ask “How do I embody the gospel of grace in this situation?” If that is our driving motivation, our disputes will be transformed by the Spirit. The first Bishop of Liverpool, J. C. Ryle, observed that nothing divided and kept Anglicans apart “so much as the common habit of getting hot, and calling names, and throwing mud, and casting dust in the air”. Good disagreement offers a nobler vision of “better-quality disagreement” that is imbued with grace.

One famous example of an attempt to pioneer “good disagreement” in practice is Truro Church, a large Charismatic congregation in Fairfax, near Washington, D. C. It is now part of the Anglican Church in North America, after an acrimonious separation from the Episcopal Church (News, 22 and 29 December 2006), and lost its property to the Episcopal diocese of Virginia in a lengthy court battle (News, 13 April 2012).

But Truro Church, led by its Rector, the Revd Dr Tory Baucum, is establishing a peacemaking and bridge-building ministry both inside and outside the church.

To begin with, Dr Baucum met the Episcopal Bishop of Virginia, the Rt Revd Shannon Johnston, each month, to pray, with no other agenda, followed by conversation over a beer. Gradually, the ice thawed, and, in Dr Baucum’s words, “adversaries became friends”.

Rather than throw Truro out of their old buildings, the Episcopal diocese currently allows them to remain there, rent-free.

Truro remains institutionally separate from the Episcopal Church, because the theological gulf is too wide; but they have sought to bring an end to personal animosities.


GOOD disagreement does not mean unity “purchased at the expense of distinctive truth, and built on the ruins of creeds and doctrines” (Ryle) or playing at “happy families”. It means facing up to the seriousness and depth of our disagreements, and the reality of our divisions.

These are sometimes so serious that we cannot carry on as we are. Archbishop Welby has called the Anglican Primates to Lambeth Palace next January, for a summit meeting about the future shape of the Anglican Communion. It is not yet divorce, one Lambeth source says, but “moving into separate bedrooms” (News, 18 September).

Serious and deep differences over fundamentals, or repeated patterns of bad behaviour, damage family relationships. As in a natural family facing such situations, our obligation is to work for reconciliation that involves repentance and changed behaviour. There will be no reconciliation in the Anglican Communion without repentance on all sides, no matter how much “family therapy” or how many Shared Conversations we attend.

In families, when reconciliation proves impossible, matters often get worse. Either people stick together in the same house, but the unresolved problems lead to relational breakdown and dysfunctionality; or family members storm out, get others to take their side, and destructive legal battles follow.

The parallels in Anglicanism are obvious.

“Good disagreement” speaks grace into these broken relationships. It may include some form of moving apart, or structural parting of ways, but in a manner that is as grace-filled as possible. It always keeps open the future possibility of restoring what has been lost or impaired.

Whether “good disagreement” means holding together or walking apart, the Church has a precious opportunity to witness to a watching world that bitter conflicts can be transformed for good when the gospel of grace takes centre stage.

The Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone is Latimer Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. The Revd Dr Andrew Goddard is Senior Research Fellow at the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, Cambridge. They are editors of Good Disagreement? Grace and truth in a divided Church, published today by Lion Hudson.


On the day (Feast of Saint Luke – 18 October, 2015) in Aotearoa/New Zealand, when we Kiwis learn of the ALL BLACKS Defeat of the FRENCH at Cardiff Arms Park in Wales; it behoves us – as part of the world-wide Anglican Communion – to study the wisdom here, provided by Andrew Atherstone and Andrew Goddard (the Two Andrews) in this article in this week’s Church Times.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, in the first paragrpah (high-lighted) in this article, is not against disagreement between provinces of the Anglican Communion – on matters, for instance, of gender and sexuality – but rather, that disagreements might really be considered to be a normal part of living together in unity. What Archbishop Justin would like, is for us to move from a context of ‘Bad disagreement’ into a climate of ‘Good disagreement’, which, though seemingly paradoxical in the circumstances, he believes in eminently possible.

Of course, a lot will depend on whether all parites can come to a common mind on the nature of the disagreements. Are they irreducibly doctrinal, for instance, or could they be reasonably considered to be adiaphoral – of a lesser order of importance?

There are some in the Church who believe that there is more at stake than just gender and sexuality. They have the idea that the new understandings of gender and sexuality that have been sought and embraced by certain provinces of the Communion are actually contrary to the will of God – as discerned by them in their interpretation of certain Bible passages.

On the other hand, those provinces that have already adapted their local Church polity to include Gay clergy and bishops, are equally convinced that the overall ethos of the New Testament emphasis on the primacy of love over law – especially after the example of Jesus, himself, who ‘ate with publicans and sinners’, and whose attitude towards sexual ‘sinners’ was a problem for the Scribes and the Pharisees – is a matter of Gospel integrity.   Also, there is the matter of modern understandings of gender and sexuality.

One suspects that the authors of this piece are from the conservative end of the spectrum, as becomes evident from the following passage of their article:

“Serious and deep differences over fundamentals, or repeated patterns of bad behaviour, damage family relationships. As in a natural family facing such situations, our obligation is to work for reconciliation that involves repentance and changed behaviour. There will be no reconciliation in the Anglican Communion without repentance on all sides, no matter how much “family therapy” or how many Shared Conversations we attend.”

The ‘Shared Coversations’ presently being undertaken in the Church of England, are meant ot foster a better understanding of the situation of homosexuals in the Church, which makes the last sentence of this latter paragraph seem obstructive of the initial aim of the Conversations. This leads one to think that the authors here are not hopeful of any return to Communion togetherness as a corporate body; but, one might ask; are they at all keen on any structural relationship that might be based on what the ABC has called  the ethos of ‘GOOD Disagreement’.

For this to happen, the radical conservatives (like Gafcon) might just have to be willing to ‘abide in union’ with a constituency in the Communion (Churches of the West) from whom they have already separated themselves by the self-declaration of independence in the ‘Jerusalem Statement’, which has defined them as uniquely ‘Orthodox Anglicans’ – as opposed to other Anglicans whom they currently consider to be heretical.

Whatever we mere mortals might consider to be the best outcome from the Primates’ Meeting called by the Archbishop of Canterbury to discuss such matters, there can be little doubt that there will need to be a sincere invocation of the Holy Spirit’s guidance by, and on behalf of,  both parties in the arguments – in order that, in the event of a formal division between the conservative and liberal Provinces of the Communion (already foreshadowed as a possibilty by the Archbishop of Canterbury) there may yet be forged a ‘Fellowship of Anglican Churches’ that could share the basic catholic and reformed characteristics that are held in common, as agreed to in the historic  Lambeth Quadrilateral.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand


About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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