Rediscovering “Good Disagreement”

by the Right Revd Dr David Walker, Bishop of Manchester


Back in my days as a vicar, some time in the mid 1990s, we had a very good piece of mission work going on in my parish. Ten years or so later a term was coined and popularised for such activities: they were to be called Fresh Expressions of Church. Bestowing a name, as a parent on a child, or as a researcher identifying a new phenomenon or object, doesn’t only reflect identity, it helps establish it. If the term Fresh Expression had been around at the time, we would have understood better what our activity was about, and maybe how to help it grow and develop to its maximum potential. And I could more easily have fended off the occasional church council member who grumbled that all these people didn’t seem to be coming along to the traditional Sunday morning services.

Naming things matters. And at the moment one of the key new names on the Church of England block is “good disagreement”. Its birthplace can be found in the process of Shared Conversations that lies at the heart of the C of E’s attempts to respond to the deeply divided views around LGBT Christians and their place in the church. It’s a useful term to identify that there can be a meaningful (perhaps even transformative) outcome to a conflict that does not involve either one side winning or the achievement of a largely agreed compromise. Yet a name that applies to only one specific circumstance carries an inevitable weakness. If good disagreement is only defined in relation to sexuality, then our attempts to develop it as a concept, even for use in that specific case, will be limited. Can we take the notion away from its origins and nurture it in ways that will give it strength, perhaps by finding examples of where, like my 1990s parish, we can discover we’ve already been doing it, before the name was invented?

Over the last three or so years I’ve done quite a few rounds of media interviews on the topics of migration and refugees. The subjects are emotive, and after every set of TV and radio appearances I could guarantee a little wave of angry, and often abusive, emails. Quite early on, resisting the temptation to make a sharp or witty response, and avoiding the desire simply to bin them, I decided that any that had a name and address to respond to, and that managed to include at least one point of view amid the abuse, would get a courteous reply that attempted to engage with their viewpoint. What happened next surprised me. In up to half the cases I then got a second email, almost always deeply apologetic for the tone of the first. My views on the subject matter didn’t change hugely, but they became better informed and more understanding of why people might with integrity differ from me. It was clear that in many cases their perceptions of me had also changed significantly, because I’d taken the time to respond. And their views too were becoming more reasoned and reflected.

What I am contending is that even such a limited process as this goes beyond a simple combination of courtesy and agreement to differ. What was happening was that me and my correspondents were ceasing to be ciphers for our views and attitudes, and becoming real human beings to each other. A very basic level of relationship was being forged. Relationship lies at the heart of our Christian Faith. The Father sent his son rather than a rule book, and sent him that we might have a life changing and life building relationship with him here and now. Our doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that relationship is central to God’s own self. Good disagreement, whatever the topic, is in its essence relational. It represents the conclusion of a process in which the other has been met as a fellow human being and Christian, even if we might still think that they hold views incompatible with both our sense of the canon of scripture and the trajectory of God’s Kingdom.

Applying that to this January’s meeting of Anglican Primates convinces me that it was precisely the depth of relationship, forged by the efforts of Archbishop Justin in visiting each of them in their own provinces, sustained by worshipping and loving together at Canterbury, and upheld by those surrounding them in prayer, that enabled all bar one of them not just to remain through the process but to make an explicit commitment to continue in fellowship. It seems to be what has happened for a large majority of participants at the regional Conversations. The immediate challenge is how to incorporate that relation building process into the July General Synod, recognising that what is possible in smaller groups becomes much more complex in large gatherings. But the wider challenge is, I believe, to develop an understanding of what Good Disagreement means which can take us far beyond the presenting problem within whose crucible the term was forged.

This entry was posted in Bishop of Manchester, Human Sexuality. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Rediscovering “Good Disagreement”

  1. iks1647 says:

    Good disagreement is a term coined by the powerful, those who control the status quo. It’s a spurious term such as the ones politicians use to pretend we’re all in it together and to to mask the deep injustices on which society is built. Good disagreement masks the hurt done to LGBTI people for centuries by the Church and society, and continues to deny them recognition as children of God and basic human rights. You can no more have good disagreement between the homophobic traditionalists who would deny them than you can between the poor and the wealthy who exploit them, or the racist and person of colour.

  2. Good disagreement would seem to me to be an excellent way forward providing that all parties are equal – all have equal rights and responsibilities and all can make informed choices about their own lives.

    If this isn’t the case (and here it isn’t) then the good disagreement paradigm merely promotes a status quo in which some suffer. Here it very clearly promotes a situation where LGBT people are treated less well than straight people within the church.

    The good disagreement paradigm is hugely unhelpful to those of us who are actually gay. It promotes injustice. It replaces people angrily telling others that they are sinners with people smiling and telling them that they are sinners. In many ways, that feels worse as it requires LGBT people to concede that being hated/disliked/disapproved of is acceptable.

    It isn’t.

    Senior clerics arguing in favour of good disagreement are legitimising homophobia.

    • Hilary Cotton says:

      Kevin – thanks for putting into words some of my reservations about the use of the term ‘good disagreement’. In the same way that women were asked to be ‘gracious’ towards those who had difficulty with their ordination, I am alert to this being used as a way of keeping LGBTI voices quiet, or at least subdued.

      I think ‘good disagreement’ can be wrestled towards between individuals and possibly small groups who spend a good deal of time together, but it is not something the whole Church can claim to aspire to. All that does, I think, is allow the status quo to continue to hold power (cf the HofB Declaration on women’s ordination).
      Hilary Cotton

  3. Katy Staples says:

    The problem is about inequality : inequality of life experience. For some they are disagreeing over a principle or an issue. For others it is an ontological issue : it is who they are.

  4. Dear Bishop David – you’re right – naming things does matter.

    Could you confirm whether or not you support Issues in Human Sexuality as the doctrinal position of the C of E? Also, do you agree that same-sex couples should be able to be married in church?

  5. Francis Spufford says:

    But, Kelvin Holdsworth, they do think you’re sinners; and there are quite a lot of them in the Church of England; and it’s their minds that need changing. That’s the problem.

    What you are essentially saying here is that you won’t talk to them unless they will agree, in advance, to take you at your valuation, because: justice. I don’t see how that’s a strategy for change.

  6. Martin Reynold says:

    You have no chance of getting a straight answer to straight questions in that crowd, Kelvin.
    The fatal disease often misdiagnosed as “collegiality” renders them dumb and blind, unable to see or mention the crematorium doors …. It was ever thus, especially with the “nice” folk.

    • I suspect so. Bishops often seem to me to muddle up conformity and collegiality in this area.

      But if it is the case that there are no answers then what we are being offered is Good Acquiescence rather than Good Disagreement.

      But let us give Bishop David the benefit of the doubt. He surely doesn’t think he can put up posts and not engage in the comments. These are reasonable questions to ask him.

  7. Actually, the point I’m making is that if Bishop David can’t articulate one way or another whether he is supportive of gay relationships then there isn’t really any possibility of Good Disagreement.

    The simple question I’m asking is whether he, Bishop David, believes that what you Francis have asserted. Does he think same-sex marriage is or is not a sin?

    I don’t think it is unreasonable a question to ask.

  8. Rev David says:

    Actually the question is, simply, whether same-sex sex is a sin.

    If you see a type of sexual relationship as sinful, then you will not recognise it as marriage however much the individuals love each other (eg adultery, bigamy, close adult relatives, abusive relationships, etc).

    So is same-sex sinful or is it God’s Will? How do you decide?

    • DOC says:

      Bp David is spot on. If same-sex sex is sinful, then the issue cannot be dealt with by seeking ‘good agreement’.
      How do you decide if it is? The Anglican way is primarily by reference to Scripture, taking appropriate account of Tradition and Reason. And if we do this, we can hardly avoid answering the question with a ‘yes’.

  9. Kate Phizackerley says:

    Actually His Grace is making an assumption that sex rather than love is the essence of marriage, which follows from the traditional view that marriage is really about procreation. If we instead take the view that love is the essence of marriage then the question of whether same sex marriage should be supported is independent of the question of same-sex sex.

    Genesis 3 teaches us that opposite-sex sex is a consequence of the Fall of Man. To then elevate opposite-sex sex to be the litmus test for marriage seems to me bizarre in the extreme. Good disagreement is one thing but when it becomes intractable with people of faith on both sides doesn’t that suggest that the situation has arisen because the wrong questions are being debated?

  10. DOC says:

    “Genesis 3 teaches us that opposite-sex sex is a consequence of the Fall of Man.” No, rather it’s a combination of Genesis 1 and 2, rather than 3, which gives us the foundation for opposite-sex marriage – before the Fall. Gen 1:27 says that God made them ‘male and female’ and 2:24 is the famous ‘leaving and cleaving’ passage. When Jesus was asked his view on the divorce debate between two rabbinic schools – whether divorce was permissible for ‘any cause’ or only in the case of sexual sin – he sided with the conservative view, giving a combined quotation from Gen 1 and 2: “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” For Jesus, the architecture of marriage was about a man and a woman becoming one flesh. I don’t think there can be any disagreement – whether good or bad – about this.

  11. Kate Phizackerley says:

    Genesis 3.16: “Your desire will be for your husband…”

    Prior to that there is no indication of sexual attraction (or sexual orientation) with no shame in nakedness until Adam and Eve had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge. Prior to that the emphasis was on woman as a companion to man, not as his sexual partner. If you (DOC) wish to read Genesis as suggesting marriage should only be between a man and a woman then the inescapable conclusion is that the marriage should be celibate because all sex was a result of the fall. The alternative view is that the fall robbed a woman of her ability to sexually desire another woman (and a man a man). Both interpretations are possible – take your pick. But it is clear that a woman’s sexual attraction for a man was caused by the fall of man.

  12. DOC says:

    “… all sex was a result of the fall.”
    I’m sorry, Kate, but do you really think that the text in Gen.2 means that a man will “leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife” but not ‘have sex’ with her (as we say)? The sexual relationship between husband and wife surely originated before the Fall, not after. Can we not agree on that? You are denying the well-established teaching that marriage is a ‘creation’ ordinance.

    [BTW, I see I mistakenly referred to ‘good agreement’ in my first post, when of course it should have been ‘good disagreement’.]

  13. Kate Phizackerley says:

    Genesis 3 is clear that one of the punishments imposed upon Eve / women is that she / they would desire their husband. I don’t feel your reading of Genesis explains that because you have women already desiring men, and only men, in Genesis 2 so the punishment is then no change. So no, we don’t agree.

    For me, Scripture supports any marriage based on love regardless of the sex of the parties. Just as increasingly some directors favour colour-blind (ie race -blind) casting for movies and plays, if a Christian is marrying for love should not their choice of partner be sex-blind?

    • Rev Dave says:

      So, Kate, you think that sex is part of the curse (Genesis 3)?!!
      That’s the opposite of what I usually hear from liberals – the usual line is that sex is something good that the church is wrong to deny to gay people.

      BTW I don’t think even conservatives think there is anything wrong with people of the same sex loving, caring and being committed to each other… After all Jesus told us to love everyone as we love ourselves?

    • DOC says:

      I’m afraid we’ll have to remain disagreed as to whether heterosexual attraction comes into the story in Gen 2 or 3, Kate.
      “…if a Christian is marrying for love should not their choice of partner be sex-blind?” No, it comes back to Bp David’s point – if the behaviour is considered sinful, the question of love is irrelevant. There are some categories of people that we are not allowed to marry – we can both agree on that, I think. A line has to be drawn somewhere, otherwise there will be chaos. It’s a matter of where we draw the line.
      Race-blind is in a different category from sex-blind. A mixed-race marriage is entirely in keeping with what marriage is (eg consummation does not depend on race). Same-sex marriage requires radical redefinition of what marriage is (eg how do the parties know whether it has been consummated or not?). It’s not just like the Oscars – you can’t come back next year with the problem solved.

  14. David Walker says:

    Thanks all for your comments so far.

    I agree with Francis, that requiring anyone to accept the other’s position as a prior condition for conversation won’t get us anywhere. With that in mind, I will resist Kelvin’s encouragement to declare myself as at one pole or other of the issue. Moreover the essence of my argument is that the particular conversation take place within relationship. I would be denying my own thesis to let myself be drawn into a protagonist position outside of relationship.

    I take very seriously the concerns that “good disagreement”, in a context where there is not an equality of power, might become yet another tool by which the strong maintain their control of the conversation and its outcomes. My suspicion is that this is probably true of every model, construct or term we might turn to in seeking to handle deeply contentious issues. And that perhaps “good disagreement” might be less corrupted than the other options. It’s worth trying to work it up a bit more and see if that is the case. But if others feel there are specific aspects of this term that make it more at risk of being a tool of oppression than others, let’s have a conversation about that.

    Katy helpfully distinguishes between positions that are a matter of “principle or issue” and those that are part of our life story, our “ontology”. Good disagreement between people who simply hold different views (however deeply they hold them) is not the same as between people whose very self identity (and their being with God?) is challenged by the opposing stance. There is an important issue here about how complex societies handle self identity alongside other elements in the mix. In particular we are never far away from what I first read in a book by Rowan Williams over thirty years ago, the tyranny of “competitive victimhood”, which has bedevilled many political conflicts of our age. In this particular subject, I know both theological liberals and conservatives who do not self identify as heterosexual, and for whom this is a matter of identity not simply principle.

    Alternative exegeses of Genesis 3 are interesting, but not to the point of my article. I will leave those who wish to continue to discuss them to do so without my interference.

    Thanks for taking the time to contribute.


  15. Kate Phizackerley says:

    Rev Dave, the important thing to grasp I think is that Scripture can be read more than one way and nobody should try to impose their reading on others who in good conscience read it differently. That I think is the purpose of this new site.

    It is not even clear that things are black and white in the way that many conservatives and liberals both suggest. Jesus said it was best not to marry but if that was too hard then marriage was not sinful. The whole debate whether things are, or are not, sinful misses such complexities.

  16. Rev David says:

    Dear Kate, it is possible to read the Bible to support all sorts of things that we would both agree are wrong.
    But I don’t think it is possible to read the Bible as canonical Scripture and understand it to mean that same sex marriage is God’s Will. And I’ve read most of the theological and biblical interpretations published in recent years.
    If you are willing to look at this on depth Dr Martin Davie has reviewed most publications since 2003 here :

  17. Kate Phizackerley says:

    Then try which gives one reasoned view. I agree it is not perfect but it is better than anything I have read in support of the status quo.

    For me Galatians 3:28 outlines the three key challenges facing the church over the centuries. Neither Jew nor Gentile embraces everything about race and the traditions people are born into. Slave nor free is everything about social class. The third aspect of the circumstances of our birth is neither male and female. That wil be as hard as the other two challenges have been.

  18. Martin Reynolds says:

    Comments not published.
    How can we have such a thing as Good Disagreement when you not willing to publish views that are not in accord with those supported in this article?
    Such deafness means there can be no “Good Disagreement”.

  19. jayneozanne says:

    I’m not aware of any comments not being published Martin Reynolds. However if they are rude or offensive they will of course be removed – as that is the nature of Good Disagreement.

  20. Martin Reynolds says:

    I am so sorry.
    The lost comment was part of an exchange with the Provost of Glasgow.
    In part it lamented that we start these conversations, as always, with both hands tied behind our back and impaled on centuries of Church advocacy that saw us imprisoned, tortured and cruelly murdered.
    We are expected to be silent about gay partnered bishops rebuking clerics who seek the married state, we are supposed to be grateful to the bishops who in private say they are supporting us while in public they are silent (or worse) and we are called to understand the theology and social context that inspires bishops to call for us to be criminalised and executed.
    It is hard not to laugh out loud when I read jayneozanne write “rude or offensive”. The only reason these conversations can take place is because the Church operates under a cloak of protection, beyond which the doctrine the Church protects is unlawful and the special committee of bishops set up to ensure we are punished uniformly when we marry would be seen as beyond rude and beyond offensive.
    And let me be clear. I have not found such duplicity or double dealing amongst the bishops of my own bench, nor in my dealing with Scotland. It seems to me to be a special breed of thing, an infection, Welsh bishops seem to catch it when they cross Offa’s Dyke.
    Back in 2003 I was impressed by the then Primus of the Southern Cone who told me that there was no hope even for proper conversation amongst Primates on this issue.
    “We do not even have a common language that allows us to share our views” he said.
    You will forgive me jayneozanne if I struggle, even today, to find a common language and share a scintilla of the principles even with those who claim the “middle ground” in the English Church.

  21. Martin Reynolds says:

    I have just read the letter from the Archbishop of Nigeria.
    It seems this lack of a common language persists.

Leave a Reply to Kate Phizackerley Cancel reply