“Good Disagreement?” – Book Review 3

“Good Disagreement?  Grace and Truth in a Divided Church”, edited by Andrew Atherstone and Andrew Goddard, was published last year by Lion Hudson.  It consists of a series of chapters by different people (including Ian Paul, formerly of St John’s, whose blog Psephizo.com I have frequently recommended) on how Christians have dealt with and continue to deal with disagreement, from the New Testament to the present day.

Some of the chapters are quite technical in terms of either exegesis of Biblical text, or the minutiae of Reformation dialogues, and probably no one will find all of them equally intriguing, but the topic is covered thoroughly.

Nonetheless, there is a pachyderm in the pages.  Wikipedia defines the expression “elephant in the room” as follows: a question, problem, solution, or controversial issue which is obvious to everyone who knows about the situation, but which is deliberately ignored because to do otherwise would cause great embarrassment, or trigger arguments or is simply taboo

It appears obvious (to me) that the reason for this book is the debate/battle that started some time ago in the Christian church generally, and in particular in the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, and the Anglican Communion, about homosexuality.  This battle is not going away.  Is same-sex marriage marriage?  Can we ordain practising homosexuals to the priesthood and make them bishops?  Does teaching about Christian discipleship have to include telling gay people to live celibate?

This book (foreword by the Archbishop of Canterbury!) is fairly plainly intended, and intended by people at the top of the hierarchy, to help Anglicans, in particular, in the addressing of these thorny issues.  And yet I think I am right in saying that the words “homosexuality”, “same-sex” and “gay” do not occur once in the book.

We all know that’s what it’s about, but nobody says so.  And I think it works, and works well.  On this occasion the elephant is not ignored, but not mentioned.  The book can helpfully address HOW to look at conflict, and its insights will be useful for other issues in the future, as well as encouraging us to be gracious to each other now.  Even though one of the writers is from a denomination that split on the issue, and he is writing about friendship with his opposite number in the (original) local church, none of the writers in this book directly express an opinion on same-sex issues.  (A few drop tiny hints as to what their approach might be.)

It is argued, convincingly I think, that “disagreeing with grace”, “good disagreement”, “disagreeing well”, or however you want to describe it, are not the same thing as “agreeing to differ”.  Dealing with important and immediate issues it may be impossible to agree to differ.  The authors of these chapters do not have a magic bullet as to solve the resulting problems.

But over and over again they reiterate the need to keep talking, keep befriending, keep loving; and this is, alas, less obvious than it may seem.

They are not afraid to point out the aggressiveness of the language used of opponents in the New Testament, and also by other saints.  (There is apparently a whole website devoted to insults by Martin Luther.)  A chapter by Ashly Null shows the attempts in 16th century Europe to put together a theology of the Eucharist that all Reformed leaders could agree on, and the possible compromises this entailed, and its ultimate failure.  Null praises the attempts.  In a later chapter on ecumenism generally, Andrew Atherstone and Martin Davie quote the basis of faith of the World Council of Churches… and also John Stott’s complaint about its “lowest common denominator” approach.  Several early chapters are devoted to the Bible – Ian Paul writes on the meaning of “reconciliation” in the NT, Michael B Thompson on the judging-false-teachers passages, and Tom Wright on Paul’s attitude to what does or does not matter.

Despite the fact that I assume the book was commissioned because of its relevance for Anglicans generally (and the involvement of Justin Welby, Archbishop of all sectors of the C of E) it is very plainly written by evangelicals, and intended to be read by them.  A very high view is taken of Scripture throughout – it seems to be taken for granted that if the Bible is clear on a point, this is decisive, but we should be aware that people differ on what it means, and how it should be read.  This means that nobody stands up for the false teachers condemned by Peter and Jude, and asks why the NT assumes automatically that their motives are the worst possible.  There is no scope here for someone who says “Even if the Bible says this, it is wrong”, which is still a Christian view, within limits, and one highly relevant to the pachyderm.

One of the most interesting chapters, although perhaps a little repetitive, is the one by Lis Goddard and Clare Hendry (incidentally the only female-authored chapter).  Lis and Clare are both in Christian leadership, but while one is a priest, the other is a deacon who believes that a woman can only exercise leadership, and preach, under the overall leadership of a man.  They wrote a book together on this issue, each accepting that the other’s view was based on (her reading of) the Bible.  They write honestly of their experience of writing together, the difficulty and pain, but also the necessity of doing this – of not simply arguing, throwing missiles at the opponent’s castle, but engaging in love.

For me, the two passages I want to remember come first from Thompson’s chapter, when he comments on passages about causing division.  (I had not really associated 1 Cor 3:17 with division before, but I think this is my error.)  “They are a warning both to those who innovate at the expense of church unity, with a claim of being ‘prophetic’; and to those who lead others away from the church in response to such innovations”; and secondly, from the Goddard/Hendry chapter.  Goddard talks about our ponderings in general when she says, “We have too often seen people stuck… on, in the words of a friend, ‘insipid self-reflection’, which they called theology.  True, solid, good theological reflection never stops with reflection, or with ‘me’, but is always challenged by God, by Scripture.”  To which a meandering blogger can only reply, “ouch.”

I think this book contains many useful summaries, especially in the Biblical chapters, and also moving stories.  Not many people will want to buy or read it through, perhaps, but if anyone would like to borrow it, I can lend them my copy!

Love from the PPI Blogger

PS.  As I am not getting any less busy, I am considering cutting down the blog to once a week.  Any thoughts on whether you prefer to read on Tuesday or Friday??


1 Comment
  • Clint Redwood

    8th April 2016 at 5:28 pm Reply

    This book is already on my Kindle, and awaiting time to read it. It sounds like an essential requirement for all Christians in today’s world. Nothing makes us more irrelevant to the outside world than to be seen to demonstrate the opposite of love and grace to one another.

    Perhaps keep both days but reduce the quantity of content on one of them?

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