Disagreeing well: Women priests and flying bishops

Recently we have heard a lot about ‘disagreeing well’. This is in relation to the shared conversations, and the debate in general, about sexuality. It is important to disagree well. It is important, not just because we shouldn’t be trying to hurt our fellow Christians (or our fellow humans, for that matter) who disagree with us; or because we need to preserve unity at all costs (which maybe we do, maybe we don’t); but also because we may just be wrong. Humility demands that we recognise that. Even in my most dearly held beliefs, I may be wrong. Totally, completely 180 degrees facing the wrong way wrong.

How do I know this? Well, I have been wrong in the past. I have misinterpreted situations. I have told myself that I have thought things through rationally, without emotion, and reached a position based on the facts.

And then my views have changed. I have seen through myself.

That doesn’t worry me. As Roger Scruton has said, changing your mind is proof that you’ve got one. And I may be wrong now. No doubt I will change my mind again on some things.

And I don’t think I am unique here. Or even unusual.

So let’s look at a situation in the past where the Church of England has attempted to disagree well: the ordination of Women to the Priesthood.

In 1993, after the November 1992 General Synod vote on the Ordination of Women, I went to a meeting at which the then Bishop of London, Dr David Hope, spoke. He outlined what became the London Plan, with the Bishop of Fulham providing Episcopal Oversight of parishes who could not accept women priests. This was taken up nationally, with the Act of Synod that established Provincial Episcopal Visitors, or ‘Flying Bishops’, as they came to be known. Dr Hope’s point was that the General Synod decision to proceed with the ordination of women to the priesthood could only be provisional for as long as it was contested. Thus both the pro-women priest people and the anti-women priest positions had equal integrity. There where, as he suggested, two integrities in the Church of England. At some point the ordination of women would either be received by the Church at large, or rejected. At that point, the matter could be said to be settled.

Now this caused, and continued to cause, a lot of hurt. It is hurtful to women who are priests to have their ministry rejected in some places. It is hurtful to those who hold to what they believe in all sincerity to be the Apostolic faith to have their church taken from them (as they see it). We should not minimise the sense of hurt on either side. And that pain continues, a quarter of a decade later.

But what causes that pain? I would suggest that, to a great extent, it is the lack of charity on either side. When and if charity does exist, the pain is minimised. It is not the disagreement itself which causes the pain, but the lack of charity. It is when disagreeing well breaks down.

I hope the ministry of women who are priests and bishops will be universally received before too long. I think we are on the way there. But it may take a long time, maybe a century, before it is fully received.

And so it is with human sexuality. Much of the pain can be avoided if we accept that those with whom we disagree don’t wish us ill. Their motives are not wicked. They may even be right, and we may be wrong (it is not impossible). We need to disagree well. Righteous anger is all very well, but self-righteous anger is never necessary. In my humble opinion.

The New Asceticism: Sexuality, Gender and the Quest for God, by Sarah Coakley (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)

Sarah Coakley is Norris-Hulse professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge and a canon of Ely Cathedral. This book is a collection of essays which have previously appeared elsewhere, and are now ‘lightly revised’. The overarching theme is gender and sexuality – neuralgic issues for Anglicans and other Christians. But I suppose that, unlike Roman Catholics, who, at least officially, bury their heads in the sand about them (which is no cure for neuralgia!), Anglicans are able to have a reasonably mature and sensible debate.

The great thing abbot Professor Coakley’s book is that she takes all strands of Anglican opinion seriously, but is beholden to none of them. Rather she seeks a creative way of cutting through the debates, finding a via media – not so much in terms of a simple midway position between extremes, nor even in terms of a dialectic in the Hegelian sense, using thesis and antithesis to create synthesis 9though there is some of that), but in using new approaches to inject new life into tired old debates. She succeeds marvellously, and I cannot praise this book too much.

Arranged in five chapters – the five original essays – with a substantial introduction, Professor Coakley moves effortlessly and impressively from Gregory of Nyssa to von Balthasar.  A primary aim is to recover the concept of desire. Professor Coakley wants us to understand sexual desire as being really about God and our desire for Him. This enables us to see sex, and God in different tones to those in which Freud painted them. Ultimately it is liberating.

We tend, from our human perspective, to judge that things in heaven are live things on earth. Thus we think of the relationship between Christ and the Church as being ‘like’ a marriage, or the relationship within the Trinity as being ‘like’ human friendship and love. But of course we have this exactly the wrong way around. It is the things of God which are the ultimate realities, and the things of the earth which are ‘like’ them. And it is from the perspective of human marriage being ‘like’ the relationship between Christ and the Church that one must consider the ideas of gender and priesthood. It is from the reality of human desire, sexual or otherwise, being like the inner life of the Trinity that one must consider human sexuality.

Professor Coakley’s strongly Patristic and Trinitarian theology invites us to look in new ways at the causes of the Church’s neuralgia, ways which are theocentric; when too often we look at God in ways which are anthropocentric.

I would like to consider each of the chapters of this book in a separate reflection, as it has so much to say on seemingly incidental matters, such as orientation (in the literal sense – facing east) in prayer. I commend the book to you most heartily. It is Anglican theology at its very best.