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.

9 Thoughts on “Disagreement, conscience, and harm

  1. Thank you for this.

  2. Mike Higton on June 26, 2023 at 6:49 pm said:

    Various friends commented on a draft version of this. This being a post on the LLF process there’s always a chance that the discussion will turn into a mud bath, so I won’t drag them into that by naming them here. I’m very grateful, though!

  3. Pingback: Disagreement, conscience, and harm – Mike Higton | Fulcrum Anglican

  4. Helen King on June 27, 2023 at 9:13 am said:

    Thanks, Mike, for this clear and realistic piece, not least for “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”.

  5. Michael G Cartwright on June 27, 2023 at 12:37 pm said:

    Thanks for the care with which you use words. As an outsider to the CofE and matters Anglican, I am grateful for such exemplars of discerning “comprehension” — an Anglican ideal that is hard won as your discursive practice illustrates. Especially for a broken church. Those of us who struggle on within the other religious houses (the United Methodist Church in my case) have much to learn from your witness as we contend with our own broken middle.

  6. Jeremy Pemberton on June 27, 2023 at 6:56 pm said:

    Thank you, Mike, for the patient and careful way you have unpicked some of our ways of speaking and thinking that carry great risks. I particularly value the reminder of the integrity of the conscientious positions held, even when I may feel those that oppose mine are deeply and even dangerously mistaken.
    I also recognise that I have, in a church that has done me harm, managed my engagement with those who hold opposing views very carefully. I left the Shared Conversations before the end, and could not attend the final Eucharist – it was an action of self-protection. And since then I have never risked engaging much in encounters which might question my right to exist or to minister, or which deny the reality and value of my most important relationship. So I warm to the idea of a church which would actually give me and my LGBT+ siblings in Christ some affirmation and protection. We are fairly tough, but it has been at a tremendous cost. Lives lost, faith lost, reputations trashed, vocations denied; there is a lot to protect, and a lot to recover.

  7. Pingback: Opinion – 28 June 2023 | Thinking Anglicans

  8. Thank you for your article, Mike.

    Is the approach adopted by the Scottish Episcopal Church sufficient for England as well? What I mean is, would it be reasonable and sufficient to say: ‘If a priest wishes to bless (later maybe marry) a gay or lesbian couple, then they should be allowed to… and if a priest does not believe that’s right, then they don’t have to.’

    Or are you saying that the Scottish approach – accommodation of plural consciences – would be insufficient for England, and there would need to be structural disassociation to a degree and a different episcopal oversight/’province’?

    What is different about England that would justify the different approach to the ‘live and let live’ approach in Scotland?

  9. Peter on June 28, 2023 at 1:32 pm said:

    I thought you might value a response from a conservative perspective. I think your response overall analysis is measured and certainly from the conservative position the time for repeating the same endless argument is passed.

    The issue from the conservative position is that walking together has ceased to be possible. Some form of walking apart as good neighbours is certainly not just possible but essential.

    We need a conservative and progressive alliance to insist the bishops accept they cannot continue as they are. New episcopal overnight will have to be established.

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