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Disagreement and the Bible


This is a follow-up to my post on ‘Disagreement, conscience, and harm’. I argued there that people on both sides of the Church of England’s debates about same-sex marriage have ‘consciences … shaped by diligent engagement with Scripture’.

This claim can be read on two levels. On the first, it is obviously true. We see people on both sides reading their Bibles, talking about what they read, preaching on it, arguing about it, and writing books about it. These practices are pervasive. What sense would it make to doubt them?

At a second level, the claim is easy to doubt. People on the two sides come to such different conclusions about what the Bible says. How can that be, unless one side is failing to read well? Isn’t it more plausible that one side is allowing its conscience to be shaped by diligent engagement with the text, while the other is disguising by a superficial scriptural gloss a conscience formed in quite other ways?

I believe these doubts to be misplaced. They stem from underestimating how deep the differences in our ways of reading go, and so underestimating the challenges involved in reading the Bible together in the church. We need a better estimate of that depth if we are to find a way forward together.

This post is a revised and shortened version of a paper on ‘Disagreement and the Bible’ that I wrote for the LLF process in 2020. The original paper appears on the ‘LLF learning hub’ website.

1.   Disagreement about the Bible

Christians disagree about the Bible.

It might seem that these disagreements should be avoidable. We might suppose that, if only people would be serious about the Bible and its authority, we would all end up agreeing about much more. 

This underestimates the depth of Christian disagreements about the Bible, however. We don’t simply disagree about the meaning of particular passages, or about how different passages complement and qualify one another. We have different ways of imagining what the Bible is, and different ways of imagining our relationship to it. We have different ingrained habits, which lead us to notice and to respond to different features of the Bible, in different ways. We see different things when we turn to the Bible.

These differing ways of seeing have deep roots. They are much more than intellectual positions, or conclusions to arguments. They are rich imaginative ways of approaching and responding to the Bible. Each involves a web of habits, ideas, and feelings. Each is held in place by patterns of Christian life that have been built around it. Each is reinforced by a thousand different experiences of reading particular passages. Each is supported by a network of theological ideas.

Each is a world that people inhabit.

Most of the time, we are not aware of these supporting ideas, patterns of imagination, and habits. They are like reading glasses: when we read, we look not at them but through them. That can become a problem, however, when we disagree. I point you to the text, sure that if you look carefully you will see what I see. But you don’t see what I see, because you’re not looking through my glasses. You don’t notice the same things, or you don’t make of them what I expect you to.

It is true that, most of the time, when we turn to the text, we see the same words. But what we make of those words is shaped by our reading glasses in more ways than we realise. Those glasses shape the connotations of those words that we register, and the connections we see between them. They shape how we weave those words into our picture of what the Bible more widely says. They shape what we think are the obvious or the natural thing to do with those words.

I point you to the same words that I see, but you see them differently. You may well find what I say about those words – something that seems quite natural and obvious to me – artificial or forced. You might start thinking that I’m not really drawing what I say from those words. You might think that I am imposing on the Bible ideas drawn from elsewhere, or using the Bible as a prop to support my theories or prejudices.

In other words: we disagree about the Bible in ways that go deeper than our explicit arguments. We disagree in ways that involve differing patterns of habit, imagination and feeling in relation to the Bible – but we don’t often notice those patterns. And in such disagreements, we very easily start doubting the seriousness and even the integrity of those with whom we are arguing. Our arguments carry on at the level of claims about particular texts, but that is not the only, perhaps not even the main level at which we differ.

2.   Disagreement within the Bible

Let me illustrate this. I am going to describe one particular way of imagining, experiencing, and relating to the Bible. It is one that puts a particular emphasis on the tensions and disagreements within the Bible. It is one pair of reading glasses worn by some in the Church of England. I wear glasses something like this myself – and they lead me to see the text differently from the way that others in the church see it.

When I read the Bible, I hear a conversation between multiple voices, and the conversation is often unruly and fractious. I read Ezra, and hear a voice calling Israel to keep pure by avoiding intermarriage with foreigners; I turn to Ruth, and hear a voice telling the story of such an intermarriage, and its place in God’s purposes. I read Deuteronomy, and hear a voice insisting that blessing will follow obedience and suffering disobedience; I turn to Job, and hear a voice that breaks that link in pieces. I turn to James, and hear a voice questioning and qualifying the voice of Paul. I turn to the gospels, and find four voices, each later voice supplementing and challenging and rethinking what the earlier ones have said. And so on, and on, and on. The Bible as I read it is full of such tensions, arguments and outright disagreements.

This is not, for me, the conclusion of an argument. It is not a theory I hold on the basis of a list of examples that I could easily itemise. It goes deeper than that. When I look at the Bible, wearing the glasses that I wear, this disputatious collection of voices is simply there. It is obvious. It is hard for me to believe that other people don’t see it when they look where I am looking.

Attempts to harmonize all these voices strike me as forced. I hear other people saying that, somehow, all these voices contribute to one harmonious picture of God’s ways and God’s will, or that such a picture unfolds progressively over time. At quite a visceral level, such claims seem to me to be disrespectful of the text. They come across as attempts to press into a neat shape a text that is simply, and pervasively, more unruly than that. I think I can argue that case in specific instances, but I also know that my reaction is also prior to, and deeper than, such arguments. Given what I see the Bible to be, all such attempts at harmonization strike me as doing violence to it.

I am told, by some of those who see the Bible differently, that I am exaggerating the tensions that mark it. I am told that I am artificially stressing the differences between the voices present in the Bible in order to undermine its authority, or in order to justify ignoring its clear teaching. They respond to me as if focusing on these tensions were something I had chosen to do with the text, or a theory that I was proposing (or imposing). But it is not. It is just what I see when I turn to the text.

I am committed to following the way the words run, to doing justice to what the text actually says, to listening to it with an open mind and heart. And all of these, for me, have to mean attending to the Bible’s internal arguments and disagreements – the way that one voice interrupts, questions, qualifies, subverts, reworks, and contradicts another. To turn away from those things would, for me, mean turning away from the Bible itself.

In my turn, I am tempted to think that those who say they see harmony and coherence when they look at the Bible are the ones who are imposing their own expectations on it, rather than listening to what it says. I am tempted to think that they are the ones whose readings are artificial, and who are ignoring what it really says. It takes a real effort of imagination to put myself in the position of someone who doesn’t see what I see in the text – and I still think they are missing something vital. Even though I know that they think the same of me.

I know that some will think that my focus on the Bible’s internal disagreements is a way to undermine its authority or deny its nature as revelation. And yet, for me, receiving the Bible as God’s gift means learning to recognise, to do justice to, and to live with, its argumentative and complex nature. God has given us a multi-voiced and disputatious text, and our response should be governed by the nature of God’s gift.

Let me give a very brief sketch of how I, wearing the glasses I wear, imagine the process of reading this gift:

  1. It involves making judgments about which voices have priority. I will say more about how we do that in a moment, but for now I simply want to highlight the fact of it. It might, for instance, involve judging that the book of Ruth displays something deeper about God’s ways and purposes than does Ezra’s refusal of intermarriage. It might involve judging that Job shows us something that doesn’t simply qualify but deeply disrupts the picture painted in Deuteronomy – and that this disruption takes us deeper into the purposes of God.

  2. It never means abandoning the other voice in these arguments. We keep on reading Deuteronomy, for instance. We don’t settle into any pattern of reading which effectively cuts it out from the Bible. But that is because we learn, in part, by following how Deuteronomy speaks and then by hearing how its voice is challenged by Job. We learn by following, and dwelling with, the argument between the two, even if we do pick sides in the argument.

  3. We don’t make such judgments simply by picking the voice that we prefer. We make those judgments as people following Jesus, and joining in with the creative re-reading of the Bible that took place in his life and ministry. If we choose, say, Ruth over Ezra, it will be because Jesus helps us make sense of Ruth’s subversion of Ezra. Jesus helps us see it as grounded in the same reckless, boundary-crossing divine love that Jesus embodies. And it will be because Ruth’s subversion of Ezra helps us make sense of the story of Jesus. It helps us to see his willingness to cross the boundary between pure and impure, insider and outsider, as an echo of her story.

  4. Following Jesus does not, however, make all of those judgments obvious. Being disciples doesn’t allow us to settle down with one coherent reading of the Bible. Learning to follow Jesus itself means joining an ongoing and unresolved conversation about what discipleship demands. The New Testament already displays such an ongoing and unresolved conversation between many voices, and we are invited to join the argument.

3.   Disagreement about disagreement

I can imagine that, to some, the whole description that I have just offered will seem unnecessarily complicated and quite artificial. It will seem to rely on an exaggerated view of the Bible’s internal diversity, and to involve the reader in unconvincing mental gymnastics. It will seem to yield far too little stability. To me, however – someone who inhabits this way of imagining and experiencing the Bible – this approach flows naturally from what I see when I turn to the text. I find it compelling. I can’t help but think – can’t help but feel – that those who don’t read this way are missing something deep about the text that God has given us.

This is simply one illustration of the kinds of difference that shape our reading. It illustrates why argument about the Bible in the church so often feels frustrating. I can’t help but think that if others looked more attentively at the text, they would see what I see. Others can’t help but think that if I looked more attentively, I would see what they see.

We pursue our arguments by disputing the interpretation of particular texts, or by discussing particular claims that the Bible makes about itself – but those arguments don’t really get down to the deep level at which our disagreement lives. It lives in our guts as much as in our brains.

There is no neutral way of responding to this situation. People who inhabit different ways of relating to the Bible may well describe, assess, and respond to this situation of disagreement differently. Yet for someone who inhabits the kind of approach to the Bible set out in the previous section, the following approach makes sense.

  1. Acknowledge that these different approaches exist. Any approach that has proved habitable for large numbers of people over a long period of time, engaging intensely with the text of Scripture, is unlikely to be overcome by any knock-down argument. You may think there are obvious reasons why another approach should give way to yours, but your reasons are unlikely to be obvious to those who don’t share your patterns of imagination, feeling, and habit.

  2. Don’t settle for an easy pluralism, in which inhabitants of different approaches simply stop talking to one another. We should keep questioning one another, challenging one another, and holding one another to account – because we need to keep on learning. And even those with whom we disagree sharply, and whom we continue to think seriously mistaken, may have seen something in the text that we have missed, or be capable of interrupting, questioning and challenging us in ways that are fruitful. (Note, though, that this paragraph should be read in the light of the cautions expressed in my previous post about pressing people into harmful engagement.)

  3. Above all, keep Jesus at the centre of the conversation. Keep on coming back to the question of the pattern of reading that makes most sense for followers of Jesus – for people who are baptised into Jesus’ death and resurrection, and who celebrate his death and resurrection week by week in the eucharist. That determination is not going to provide any simple resolution to the disagreements between us, but it is what holds us together in a shared journey of learning. And if I have one suggestion for what might keep our ways of reading – deeply different though they are – recognisable to one another, it will be if we can see in them some form of this determination to read in Jesus’ company.

Disagreement, conscience, and harm


In the wake of our bishops’ proposals for ‘Prayers of Love and Faith’ for use in the blessing of same-sex couples, there has been a lot of talk in Church of England circles about conscience.

In the ‘Response from the Bishops of the Church of England’ to the Living in Love and Faith process, the bishops speak of those who ‘might not want to use any of the resources [i.e., the new prayers] on the basis of conscience’ (Overview, p. 2), or for whom ‘the Prayers of Love and Faith will go too far: your consciences and theological convictions will not allow you to use them’ (Full response, p. 3). They go on to speak of ‘the disagreement, in conscience, of those who believe [that the blessing of same-sex couples] compromises the Church’s inherited tradition and teaching’ (Full response, p. 4). Later, it becomes clear that consciences on both sides of the debate are in view, and the bishops speak of the church’s disagreements about same-sex relationships as an ‘area where convictions among us differ, and where it is important to create a generous space for one another’s consciences’ (Full response, pp. 6–7, my emphasis). (There is also another reference to conscience in the bishops’ discussion of celibacy, on p. 16, which is not so relevant for my purposes.)

The picture painted is of a church that will hold together people whose consciences pull them in sharply different directions. It is of a church providing a ‘generous space’ that does not require those pulled in either direction to act directly against their own conscience, but does require them to live and work alongside some whose teachings and practices they find unconscionable.

In this post, I ask both what positive sense we can make of such a ‘generous space’ in the life of the church, and what it might cost to hold that space open.

That question of cost will be central, and I am not talking about some emotionally rewarding meaning of the word, involving humble acceptance or heroic self-sacrifice. I am talking about the harm done by our words and deeds, including to vulnerable people. If we do hold together as a church across our conscientious differences, we should do so with our eyes wide open to these harms, and with a fierce determination to minimise them.

Opposed consciences

There are many shades of opinion across the Church of England about the blessing of same-sex couples, but for simplicity’s sake I will talk for much of this post as if there were simply two opposing sides.

Some Anglicans believe that the blessing of same-sex couples is what Scripture demands, such that to do anything less would be a refusal of God’s command. Others believe that obedience to Scripture demands that we refrain from such blessing, and that to go ahead would be contrary to God’s revealed will.

Saying this much ought not to be controversial. It ought to be so obvious as to be banal, but some readers may already be unconvinced. They may believe that only one side in this debate is really seeking to be obedient to Scripture, and that the other is obviously subordinating Scripture to some other principle or impulse, whether that be ‘cultural accommodation’, or homophobia, or something else.

For myself, I think it clear that there are people on both sides who are sincerely convinced that their approach is demanded of them by Scripture. That is not the same as saying that I think these people are all using Scripture well, or that I think their arguments valid. It is not the same as saying that there are no other factors – psychological, cultural, ideological – shaping their conclusions. I am not, at this point, offering any evaluation of the quality of argument on either side, or of the consequences to which they lead. I am simply saying that on both sides there are people who, standing where they stand and thinking as they think, believe that their stance is required of them by Scripture.

Take me, for instance. I am on the affirming side of this debate. I do not think that the planned Prayers of Love and Faith go far enough, and I long for the day when we can marry same-sex couples in church. This is not something that I believe despite what I read in Scripture. I believe that this is what we are required to do by the gospel of Jesus Christ, as that gospel is revealed to us in Scripture. That is my settled conviction.

People on the opposing side are perfectly entitled to refuse my claims. They may think I have been misled. They may find it hard to see how I can say what I have just said with integrity, or how I can carry on saying it after patient attention to all that Scripture has to say. They may think my arguments invalid. The fact remains: I believe this.

We can say more. People on both sides have paid careful attention to the words of Scripture, over long periods of time. Whether we have done so well or badly, whether we have come to plausible or implausible conclusions, it is a fact that we have paid this attention and that we continue to do so. And, more than that, we have done this reading prayerfully and thoughtfully. We have done it in the context of the church’s tradition of worship. We have done it in the light of belief in the same creeds. Our views have been formed though deliberation, conversation, and argument. Our views are, on both sides, shared by a substantial community of fellow Christians. And even after many years of serious argument, neither side has managed to persuade the other.

We can acknowledge all of this even if we think those who disagree with us thoroughly mistaken, their readings of Scripture unjustified, their views distorted by forces and factors alien to the gospel, their conclusions unsustainable. We can say it even if we think that there are strong arguments for our position, arguments that ought to be convincing to all people of good will and open mind. I am not making a claim about ‘good people on both sides’, nor a claim about the equal validity of different pathways, nor a claim that the views proclaimed on both sides are worthy of admiration or even respect. My claim is much more restricted.

Even this limited claim has important consequences, however. Were anyone to demand that I turn away a same-sex couple from blessing, they would be demanding that I disobey what, with settled, deep and tested conviction, I believe the God of Jesus Christ revealed to us in Scripture is calling us as a church to do. They would be demanding that I betray my conscience. And I recognise that if anyone were to demand that those on the other side of the debate offer such a blessing, they would be demanding of them a similar betrayal.

Freedom of conscience?

This is an important fact, but conscience is no trump card. The fact that people on both sides sincerely regard their position as a matter of conscience does not by itself mean that the church must adopt a settlement accommodating both sides.

As things stand in the Church of England, however, I do think that the creation of ‘a generous space for one another’s consciences’ is our only viable way forward together, for now. That is because we find ourselves, for now, in a situation in which

  • for people on both sides of this debate, their stance is a matter of conscience;
  • those consciences have, on both sides, been shaped by diligent engagement with Scripture (and with tradition and reason);
  • that engagement with Scripture, tradition, and reason has happened in the context of the worship and credal affirmations of the church;
  • it has been careful, prayerful, and thoughtful;
  • people on both sides believe that it has been done in the context of serious pastoral concern for all those affected by the discussion;
  • there is no realistic prospect that, with a bit more time, either side is going to persuade most people on the other;
  • the disagreement between these sides is not simply a matter of scattered individuals versus a broad consensus, but of substantial bodies of Christians on both sides; and
  • we are not yet as a church in a position where a broad consensus has emerged that, however deeply held it might be, one or other of these positions is simply unconscionable.

There is more to say about what one might call the recognisability of each side’s engagement with Scripture – about what it means to be able to make the claims above about diligence, faithfulness, and prayerfulness, when one believes that one’s opponents’ conclusions about Scripture are mistaken. I will return to that topic in another post soon.

Most of the bullet points above are saying, however, that when we talk about conscience in this context, we are not talking about just any deeply held conviction, but about convictions that have been formed in the way that Christian conscience is meant to be formed in our shared tradition.

It is, I think, because we are in a situation in which all these points are true – because we are faced with two substantial bodies within one community, exhibiting different but equally ingrained and well tested forms of conscience, both shaped by long, prayerful, worship-soaked engagement with Scripture – that a settlement which permits freedom of conscience on this matter is called for at present in the Church of England.

The case for such a settlement is made still stronger by the recognition that we are not, in fact, a church divided into two discrete camps. There remain many who stand somewhere in the middle. Their consciences, formed by their own long, prayerful, worship-soaked engagement with Scripture, do not pull them sharply in either direction, and they have not been persuaded that either side is proposing something unconscionable.

A mixed church

The last bullet point above – acknowledging that there is as yet no broad consensus that one stance or the other is simply unconscionable – is crucial.

We are not in a position in which there is one clear, well-formed understanding across the church of what the gospel demands, and then a small minority whose conscience has led them to reject that consensus. Were we in that position, we might draw guidance from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5. There, Paul tells the Corinthians ‘not to associate with sexually immoral persons’ (5.9), and even to exclude them for now from their fellowship (5.11, 13). ‘Do you not know’, he says, ‘that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch’ (5.6–7). He can give that instruction, however, only because he expects his addressees to recognise and accept his description of the people in question as ‘sexually immoral’. That is, he presumes a basic level of agreement, and then issues instructions about what should flow from that agreement when there are those who reject it.

We are in a different situation. There is, for us, no such basic agreement. Instead, we are in a situation in which substantial groups within the church are teaching different things – a situation much more like that described in 1 Corinthians 3. It is clear there that factions have arisen in the Corinthian church, beholden to leaders with different teachings. Paul does not take this situation lightly. Earlier, he has appealed to the Corinthians, ‘by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose’ (1.10). And he does not present the differing teachings that have arisen amongst the Corinthian factions simply as acceptable variations on the gospel. The differences include matters of truth and error, healthy and diseased growth. Some of what is being taught, he insists, is nothing but ‘wood, hay and straw’ (3.12) – and that does not just mean that these teachings are less robust than the gold, silver and precious stones with which others are building. There are teachings destined for destruction when God’s judgment is revealed against them on the last day. Then ‘the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done’ (3.13). In other words, some of the teachings that Paul sees in the Corinthian church are teachings against which God’s wrath will burn, teachings that will have no place in the kingdom of heaven.

Until the Day of the Lord, however, there can be no separation. It is this whole building – built at present of both straw and gold – of which Paul says, ‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?’ (3.16). And having just said that the teacher who builds with materials destined for destruction ‘will be saved, but only as through fire’ (3.15), Paul now says, ‘If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person’ (3.16–17). The one who destroys the temple of God is, it seems, not the one whose teaching is straw, but the one who by ‘jealousy and quarrelling’ (3.3) breaks the fellowship of God’s church.

In the Church of England, we are in a 1 Corinthians 3 situation. We are a church in which different teachers and different groups are building differently on the foundation laid in the gospel. Those differences are far from trivial: some are building with gold and silver, but some with materials destined for destruction. And yet we are in a situation in which, as things stand, the only way to remove the flammable material from our life together would be to divide the church down the middle, destroying the temple of God.

Facing harm

And yet, and yet – it is all too easy to say this glibly, and to let a rhetorical flourish in favour of unity drown out the real difficulty of what is being proposed.

If we do, as a church, opt for a settlement that permits freedom of conscience on this matter – permitting some to offer blessings to same-sex couples, and some to refuse – that should not be mistaken for easy tolerance, making space for cheerful coexistence.

Consider how it looks from my side. A central strand of my support for the affirming position comes from the harm I see being done to many LGBTQIA+ people by the church’s current teaching and practice. My desire to see the church develop new practice – and, as a bare minimum, to adopt these Prayers of Love and Faith – is rooted in my understanding of how the God of Jesus Christ witnessed to authoritatively in Scripture calls the church to respond to such suffering.

I am convinced of this, even though I know that those who disagree will interpret the evidence of harm differently, and will disagree sharply with the response that I claim is necessary.

This means, however, that permitting freedom of conscience on this question means two different things to me.

Positively, asking the church to permit the blessing of same-sex couples is not simply a matter of acknowledging a spectrum of permissible teaching. It is a matter of allowing a significant part of the church freedom to respond to a situation of suffering that, in all conscience, we find intolerable, and that we regard it as our gospel-driven, scripturally mandated calling to address. Freedom for us to follow our consciences here is freedom to repent of something we regard as a grave sin in the life of the church.

Negatively, however, freedom of conscience in this context also means freedom for those who take the opposing view. And so, from my point of view, allowing such freedom of conscience also means allowing the persistence of teachings and practices that I believe are sinful – teachings and practices that I believe do real harm.

When I say ‘harm’ here, I am talking about patterns of teaching and behaviour that drive people away from Jesus, and that do real psychological and physical damage. I am talking about patterns of teaching and behaviour that kill.

I also acknowledge that I am talking about forms of harm that do not threaten me personally. I am a straight, cis man in a heterosexual marriage, and the worst I have to face is people disagreeing with my opinions or getting cross about the work I do to advocate for them. The harm that I am talking about falls almost entirely on others, many of whom have already been asked to bear too much. I have no right to speak glibly about such harm, nor to minimise it in any way.

I do think that our current situation as a church calls for freedom of conscience on this matter. But I can’t regard that as anything more than a tragic, temporary necessity. And I say even this reluctantly because I will not be the one to bear the cost, and I’m not sure my voice should have much weight in arguments for or against it. I say what I say only because I think it may be the best we can currently do. I fear that, if we don’t do this, we will do something even worse.

I also acknowledge that many on the other side will think something that closely parallels this, except that their concern will be for the consequences of permitting freedom of conscience for the affirming side. They may think that the affirming position does real harm to people’s health, wellbeing, and perhaps eternal salvation. They may consider this a high price to pay for freedom of conscience, and if they accept such freedom it may well be with a reluctance that echoes my own.

Walking together?

To accept freedom of conscience in this area is not, then, the same as demanding that each of us accept the other’s conclusions or arguments. It is not the same as affirming that both sides are setting out acceptable and habitable versions of the Christian faith – two different but valid integrities. It is not the same as learning to see our differences as part of the wonderful diversity of God’s creation.

Each side might well continue believing that the other’s stance is not only mistaken, but contrary to God’s will. We may continue to believe that the other side’s teaching and practice does real harm, to them and to others, including to many who are vulnerable. We may continue to believe that such harm is unacceptable, and that it has no place in the kingdom of God.

To accept freedom of conscience in this area, therefore, does not require either side to give up the long effort to persuade the other. It does not involve either side giving up on the hope of securing a broad enough consensus in the church finally to rule the other side’s stance out of bounds. It does not mean that we have accepted this settlement as permanent.

And accepting freedom of conscience in this area must not mean that we stop looking for ways to keep people as safe as we can from the harm that may follow from this ‘generous space for one another’s consciences’. It makes it all the more urgent that we look for ways of keeping people safe, and of responding to ongoing harm with whatever protection and healing we can. That is the least we can do, if this ‘generous space for one another’s consciences’ is, for now, the best that we can do.

Walking away or staying put?

For some on both sides, the only way to stay safe from this harm, and the only way to keep others safe, will be to walk away. I don’t fault those LGBTQIA+ people and allies who find that they can no longer remain in the Church of England, and who for their own safety and flourishing find some other part of God’s church in which to rest. Walking away from the Church of England need not mean walking away from the church. It certainly need not mean walking away from Christ.

Neither, however, can I fault those who choose to stay. I am one of them. From where I currently stand, I don’t see that walking away would do much good. It would not stop conservative churches teaching what they teach and practicing what they practice. I suspect that it would, in fact, insulate that teaching and practice from further challenge, and help to cement it in place. It might make it harder for LGBTQIA+ people in those churches to find their way to help. It might force churches that have been muddling along somewhere in the middle of these debates, and that might have been edging in a more affirming direction, to retreat. It would, ultimately, renounce the hope that one day the Church of England as a whole will become affirming.

I recognise that many on the conservative side may have similar reasons for not walking away. They may hope that they can protect people from the error into which they believe those of us on the affirming side have fallen, and they may believe themselves called to continue fighting for the church as a whole to recognise the truth as they understand.

Other factors

There are two other things I want to say in this regard. The first is negative. It seems clear that, for the Church of England to break apart would be a damaging and painful process, likely to drag on for decades and to reverberate for longer. I believe it would be a process in which a lot of people would be harmed.

I say this only cautiously, however, because I certainly don’t want to suggest that the ongoing pain of LGBTQIA+ people in the church is a price worth paying for the avoidance of this other kind of pain. I am not proposing any such horrific bargain.

The second point is more positive. Those with whom I disagree are not defined solely by the respects in which I disagree with them – and I hope that they might be able to say the same of me and those with whom I agree. However deep our disagreements, there remain things we can learn from one another, gifts we can give and receive across the barriers between us, and areas in which we might be able to work fruitfully together.

Here again, however, I say this cautiously: I don’t think this is a good for which we should be willing to throw LGBTQIA+ people under the bus.

The points I am making here are therefore secondary. If we judge that walking together, despite our deep differences, is the best that we can do at present, including being the best we can currently do for the LGBTQIA+ people who are part of our church, then it is worth noting that such walking together might also make possible the avoidance of these other harms, and the realisation of these other goods.

I must, however, add a caveat even to these hedged-about claims. If we do pursue such a settlement, we must not continue to force LGBTQIA+ people into dialogue or engagement with those whose teaching and practice does them harm, as if that were a positive way of expressing our togetherness. If our remaining together does make possible some goods, our accessing of those goods will need to be negotiated around the need to protect the LGBTQIA+ members of our body. It must not be allowed to override that protection.

A broken church

My argument has, I know, become clotted, in a way that reflects a genuine difficulty to this subject matter. To be a church shaped by freedom of conscience of this kind is no simple thing. It is not a simple matter of celebrating our diversity and enjoying the rich fellowship that can be shared across our differences. It involves real danger of harm. It demands of us that we learn how to navigate around that danger as best we can. It involves negotiating a deep brokenness in the Body of Christ.

It is possible to talk about living with brokenness in a way that makes one sound rather noble. One can aestheticize it, as if it were like preferring the poetry of R.S. Thomas to that of Pam Ayres. And yet we are not talking about a willingness to endure an aesthetically astringent bleakness, but about persisting with a church that can do real harm to vulnerable people. We are talking about allowing that harm to continue, because we can’t yet see how to do less harm together.

Such a settlement may, at present, be the best that we can do. I believe that it is. None of us, however, should make peace with it, or face away from what it will cost. We are, for the time being, a broken church.

Power in the Church of England

Over the past two years, I have been part of a group organising webinars on the theme ‘Power in the Church of England’. It has been a joint project of the Michael Ramsey Centre for Anglican Studies at Durham University and the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. Videos of all eight webinars are available on our website. These blogposts are my own personal reflections, prompted by those presentations and the conversations that followed them – and also by papers and conversations at the recent conference on power hosted by the Society for the Study of Theology.

1.   Redefining power

‘Power’ is often taken to refer to a person’s capacity to influence others to bring about some desired outcome.

This definition conjures up a certain picture. We begin with an individual, who has some project in mind. We then widen the field of view, and see that this person is surrounded by others. We ask about the individual’s capacity to enlist these others in service of the project.

Once this definition has been given, the next step is often to set out the different ways in which the individual might succeed in enlisting these others – influencing, persuading, instructing, ordering, forcing and so on.

Before we get to this point, however, we already have a problem. This approach to power suggests that the basic subject matter is a person’s ability to get their own way. We may be interested in better and worse ways of exercising such power, but our basic picture of power will already be of

  1. an individual,
  2. a goal that this individual already has in mind, and
  3. other people, who appear in the picture only in ways framed by (1) and (2).

Let me suggest a different starting point. (This was prompted by a discussion at that SST conference, during which Emily Kempson posed the question of how our basic definition of power might need to change.)

  1. Instead of an individual’s project, I want to begin with the project of a whole community – to form a life together in the world.
  2. Instead of a goal that is already possessed, I want to begin with the idea that the members of this community don’t yet know all that they can become together.
  3. Instead of asking how one person can enlist others, I want to begin with the question of how all the people involved contribute to defining and pursuing their project.

If we want to think about power in the church, therefore, I think we should start with one central question: Who belongs in the process by which we are building a life together?

2.   Belonging 

The key word in this question is ‘belonging’. I use it to name something that goes beyond bare inclusion.

It refers to a certain kind of relationship between a community and an individual.

  • I belong in this community if I would be missed if I were not there.
  • I belong in this community if I make a difference to it, such that the community would be significantly different were I not there.
  • I belong in this community if not only my presence but the difference that I make to its life is acknowledged and welcomed.
  • I belong to this community if my presence and contribution shape not only how this community heads towards its goals, but also how this community identifies the goals it should pursue.
  • In short: I belong to this community if who ‘we’ are depends, in part, upon who ‘I’ am.

The Body of Christ

In the background here, I have in mind the Pauline image of the Body of Christ. In Ephesians 4:15–16, for instance, it is clear that the Body of Christ is supposed to ‘grow up in every way … into Christ’ and (which is to say the same thing) to engage in ‘building itself up in love’. It is equally clear that this is a process in which every ligament of the body has a part to play, each working in cooperation with all the others.

That should, I suggest, be the primary picture we have in mind when we ask questions about power in the church. Who belongs in the process by which we are, as a body, growing up together into Christ?

3.   Leadership is secondary

When we think about power in the church, we often default to thinking about leadership, or about processes and structures that resemble leadership. That is certainly not an irrelevant topic, but it should not be primary. It should not set the terms of our discussion.

We should instead begin with the whole Body of Christ in the midst of the world, with the processes by which all its members share in its building up in love and into Christ, and with the question of what it means truly to belong in that process of building up.

Within that context, leadership is a secondary reality.

We are engaged in building a life together in the world, and in principle all of us have a place in that process. The fundamental form of relationships into which we are called in this process is one of interdependence. We are supposed to depend upon one another, learn from one another, support one another, encourage one another, stand up for one another, receive from one another, and give to one another.

As we pursue this life of interdependence, there will be times and situations in which more asymmetrical relationships are needed. It may be proper, in a certain context or for a certain time, for there to be relationships in which one person is primarily giver and another primarily receiver, or one primarily teacher and another primarily learner. Those are, however, secondary realities, and they make sense only as ordered towards the primary reality of interdependence.

Leadership is one such secondary reality.

It makes sense, if it makes sense at all, only as ordered towards the primary reality of interdependence.

4.   Diagnosis

One thing that has struck me again and again as I have attended the ‘Power in the Church of England’ webinars is the importance, especially for people who, like me, occupy quite prominent positions, of asking questions about our own power. That is, it is important to ask about the factors that affect how much weight our voices are accorded in the deliberations of our churches.

  • Why do people take notice of me (to the extent that they do)?
  • What allows people to dismiss me (to the extent that they do)?
  • What do I do, say, think, or imagine that enables me to hear others’ voices (to the extent that I do)?
  • What do I do, say, think, or imagine that enables me to ignore others’ voices (to the extent that I do)?

These are simple questions to pose, but not to answer.

In my own case, I know that anything like a full answer is going to have to include reference to the positions I occupy, the expertise I have, the access I have to various different fora for speaking, the networks I am a part of, the cultural reference points I share with other people in influential positions in the church, my job title, my accent, my skin colour, my gender … and the list could go on. Diagnosis is a matter of noticing what makes a difference.

I have written about this in an earlier post on ‘Being Privileged’, trying to tease out some of the ways in which power works in my own case. I’ve no doubt I’m still not as attentive as I could and should be to the ways in which my own power works, but one of my hopes for the church is that we might, collectively, become better at noticing and acknowledging our own power, and the strange ways in which it works.

To set a low bar, it would be good for our discussions about power to reach the point at which it would be plainly ridiculous for any archbishop, any bishop, any member of the clergy – or any academic theologian who gets to sit on church commissions and committees – to think or say that they have no real power in the church.

Such diagnostic work is necessary, if we are asking who belongs in the process by which we are building a life together in the world. It is necessary if we are to understand what holds us back from interdependence – from being a community of belonging. And it is necessary if we are to understand how secondary realities like leadership relate to our primary calling as people baptised into that community of belonging.

5.   Positional Power

From discussions in various of the webinars, it has seemed to me that there is in Church of England a specific barrier to good diagnosis. We have a persistent twofold problem in the acknowledgment and assessment of power.

  1. There is a widespread reluctance to talk about positional power: the power that someone has by virtue of their office or position.
  2. There seems to be a widespread belief that questions posed by positional power can be answered in behavioural or cultural terms.

Let me explain. Consider, for instance, the asymmetric relationship between an ordinand and their sponsoring bishop. The bishop, simply by virtue of being the sponsoring bishop, has considerable power over the ordinand. They can say and do things that will make a sharp difference to the path the ordinand takes within the Body of Christ. They can say and do things that will do a great deal to determine where and how the ordinand’s voice is heard in the conversations of the church. This power unavoidably takes the form of ‘power over’, whether the bishop wants it to or not. That power is baked in, legally and procedurally, to the way in which our system of ordination works.

The first problem I mention above is our reluctance to talk about such positional power in the church (or our tendency only to talk about the forms of it exercise by other people, never the forms we exercise ourselves). We (understandably) want to focus on our primary calling to interdependence and mutuality. We let the secondary realities of asymmetry and positional power drift out of focus.

The second problem arises when we, as a church, do think about the dangers that come with such positional power (fundamentally, the danger that it will undercut or betray the primary realities of mutuality and interdependence). We have a tendency to think that the dangers of positional power can be overcome by behavioural and cultural means. A sponsoring bishop might, for instance, think that the approachability, friendliness, and humility evident in their behaviour, and the collegiality of the culture that they seek to cultivate, are enough to make their positional power safe, or even irrelevant.

They are not.

Note that I am not, here, saying that positional power is inherently wrong. I will, for instance, be sitting on an interview panel in a few weeks’ time. That position will inevitably give me (working with a small group of others) power over the candidates who are interviewed (the power to decide whether they get this particular job). That power will be sharply asymmetrical: they will not have the same power over me. I don’t think that fact is in itself a problem.

I am also not saying that behavioural and cultural responses to this fact are unnecessary or unimportant. Far from it! It will clearly be essential in that interview process, for instance, that I behave respectfully and attentively, and that the panel cultivates an appropriately open atmosphere.

What I am saying is that behavioural and cultural responses are not by themselves enough to mitigate the dangers inherent in positional power. Those dangers require structural thinking.

In the case of the bishop and the ordinand, for instance, as well as thinking about behaviour and culture, we need to think about structures of accountability. That means asking questions like these: In what ways can a bishop be held accountable for the things they say and do from this position of power? How can the ordinand access those processes so as to ensure the bishop is indeed held to account? How can those processes be designed so that they don’t automatically favour those holding the ‘power over’? And so on.

It is only by a combination of cultural/behavioural thinking and structural thinking that we’re going to get anywhere. To put it aphoristically:

  • Good culture isn’t enough to make bad structure safe.
  • Good structure will be ineffective without good culture.

6.   Trust and accountability

A couple of times in the webinars, questions of trust have come up. This makes good sense. It is hard to imagine how the community of belonging can come into being unless its members are able to trust one another. It is clear that any breakdown of mutual trust will eat away at our ability to become such a community.

Mutual trust, however, goes with the other forms of mutuality and interdependence that hold together the community of belonging. I trust you because we depend upon one another, learn from one another, give to and receive from one another.

When we deal with asymmetrical relationships, and especially with those generated by positional power, we need to think more carefully about the moorings of trust.

I’d like to suggest a rule of thumb here. If you have power over me, and if I need to trust your exercise of that power, my trust is going to depend upon the accountability that surrounds your power.

It may be appropriate that the asymmetry of our relationship exists. It may be appropriate that you have and exercise this positional power. It may be true that my trust is necessary for this relationship to work well. But I need to be able to see that this asymmetric relationship is held within a more fundamental pattern of interdependence and mutuality – and, specifically, that you remain even in your exercise of this power someone who depends upon others, who receives from others, and who learns from others.

My trust is not, after all, primarily in you. I know that you act, as I do, in ignorance. I know that you are, as I am, beset by clumsiness and derailed by circumstance. I know that you are, as I am, a sinner. If I am to trust you, it will ultimately be because I trust the one who is making you a part of his Body, who is drawing you into the weave of relationships that hold that Body together. And the one who is drawing you to himself in that way is also, at the very same time, the one who stands against you to the extent that you remain sinful, and who stands against the church as it presently exists, to the extent that it exists sinfully. The trust to which I am called is not, therefore, an uncomplicated acceptance of all that you say and do, nor an uncomplicated acceptance of all that the church permits and sustains.

My trust in you will be bound up with my trust in the processes by which I see that you can be challenged and held to account. My trust in those processes will be bound up with my trust in the community that can do that challenging and holding to account. My trust in that community will be bound up with my trust in the Spirit who can raise up prophetic voices to interrupt that community and call it to repentance, and in what I see of that community’s ability to hear and respond to such voices.

Trust is inevitably complicated in a fallen world. Let me, however, risk one simple rule of thumb: Do not expect to be trusted where you cannot be held to account.