Know Your Enemies – Conflict in the Church

by the Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge

Jeremy Morris

Almost all the Church divisions and disagreements I can think of are essentially asymmetrical.  Take attitudes to homosexuality.  On one side, there are people who might well accept that some people are gay, by nature as it were, but who argue that sexual relationships ought to be, by divine command, restricted to married heterosexual couples.  For them, homosexual sex is essentially a moral matter, for it is a falling short of what God intends for us.  For others, on the contrary, our humanity consists in welcoming and affirming what God has made possible in human nature and society: to condemn homosexual sex is itself to fall short of God’s love for all.  These two positions may profess Christian faith and seem to be in disagreement about one, identifiable thing – homosexual sex – but their disagreement is asymmetrical: they disagree on different grounds, and for different reasons, and with different consequences, and they are unlikely ever to find any final reconciliation.

When moral and religious conflicts are asymmetrical, it is very difficult to see how there could ever be an end to the argument.  Of course, in practice one position might die in the course of time – practically what happened, for example, to arguments against evolution on this side of the Atlantic.  Is that what might happen to traditionalist arguments over sexuality?  Or one side might effectively crush the opposition – out-shout and out-publish it, defeat it in assembly, drive out its proponents from their positions, and so on.  Could that one day happen in the Church of England?  Neither outcome seems likely.  But what does not seem to be in prospect is some kind of unifying, transcending position – a position which all concerned will recognize and accept, so that their disagreements will come to be seen as minor or unimportant wrangles and their opposing positions will be drawn together and mutually affirmed in some all-encompassing synthesis.

That’s why the talk of ‘agreeing to disagree’ in the end can be a kind of illusion – if, that is, we think that simply saying that is enough to allow us all to live together in peace.  We can live together in courtesy, but there’s always an implicit and unresolved tension.  For those who oppose homosexual sex, it would be a fatal moral compromise.  And for those who do not, although they may think it is easy to welcome ‘in love’ those who oppose them on this matter, in practice what they are asking is that their opponents fail to carry through the natural conclusions of their moral disapproval.

So we ought to be clear that there is no united way forward on this, as perhaps on other conflicted issues.  All there can be – at least as a bare minimum – is a set of operational rules, or courtesies, by which we try to contain the explosive consequences of our own disagreements, and work together, despite our clear differences, in the hope that some greater wisdom might ultimately emerge, and we will eventually come to see our own and others’ views differently.  That has to be done out of utter conviction in the truth of the position we defend – in other words, it has to be done as we try to convince our opponents they are wrong –  but with the open and honest commitment to ‘know our enemies’ as best as we can.


The Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in this extract from an article posted by Jane Ozanne, a member of the Church of England General Synod, writes about the current conflict within the Church of England on what my colleague, Dr.Peter Carrell on his blog ‘Anglican Down Under’ calls: ‘That Topic’ – homosexuality.

Here in ACANZP (of which both Peter and myself are clerical representatives  – he in the position of a regional Archdeacon and Director of Theology House,  I, as an active but retired priest in the central city church of Saint Michael and All Angels, Christchurch) we  are about to investigate the ramification of our controversial  provincial church  ‘Motion 29’ at a specially convened one-day diocesan Synod.

Motion 29 – being debated by individual diocesan synods in ACANZP before the next  General Synod of our province – deals primarily with arguments surrounding the matter of whether – or not – our Church should undertake to provide a Service of Same-Sex Blessing for those couples in the Church who want to live together in a monogamously partnered relationship akin to that of heterosexual marriage. The Motion provides for both proponents and opponents of its provisions to be accommodated by provision for clergy to either opt in or out of actually presiding at officially approved S.S.B.s

The proposal in Motion 29, which has come before both diocesan synods and General Synod earlier – but which was referred for further study by a special Working Group which has now presented its findings and recommendations in a new substantive  motion – is now back in the hands of diocesan synods before being considered, once again, by the General Synod of our Church.

My own hope (and, I venture to suggest; the hope of many in our diocese and in our Church) is that this matter will finally be settled by the provision of a liturgy for the Blessing of Same-Sex Unions that will satisfy the needs of members of the Church who see this as the Church’s pastoral response to their situation.

That there is strong debate about this issue (see A.D.U., Peter Carrell’s blog for evidence) there can be little doubt. However, the remarks of  Dr Jeremy Morris in the above article may help those who are strongly opposed to  SSB in our diocese and in our Church to see that leaving the Church – if the issue is not settled according to their express opposition to the provisions of Motion 29 – may not be the best way of settling moral arguments about a relationship matter that society has already accepted as a lawful relationship, common to heterosexual marriage – that is both reasonable and acceptable in common law.

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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