Dialogue and Difference

by Martyn Percy

from Signs of the Times, No. 21 - Apr 2006

It is something of truism to assert that elections - whether in Europe or North America - must now be won on the centre ground. In Britain, this is something that is recognised in Blair's revolution of the Labour Party in the mid 1990s, and is now being attempted by David Cameron with, it has to be said, a slightly more truculent Conservative Party. And to some extent, the same can be said of ecclesiology. Most denominations function at their optimum when they find central, common ground on which to negotiate their differences.

Of course, the trouble with such sentiments is deciding on what the central ground is; figuring out what to do with divisive issues (and people); and then understanding and practising how to live with differences that cannot easily be resolved. Add to this recipe the fact that ecclesial identity, like politics, can shift easily and quickly, and one can begin to see how complex it is to try and maintain unity and truth in a body that expresses a considerable diversity of belief. So when a spokesperson for the Archbishop of Canterbury states that 'there may be some difficult days ahead', you don't need a degree in ecclesiastical understatement to comprehend how testing and complex the future might be for the worldwide Anglican Communion.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has an unenviable task in trying to hold together some hotly held competing convictions. For example, liberals may call on him to support the choice of an openly gay bishop, partly to confirm the identity of the church as being relevant and inclusive. Conservatives may want the Archbishop to offer unequivocal condemnation, claiming that a gay bishop is a departure from all scriptural and ecclesial norms. It is a no-win situation for the leader of global Anglicanism.

Leading the Church of England, it is often said, is like trying to herd cats. Precocious and un-biddable creatures, dioceses and congregations roam where they please. The job of leading the Anglican Communion then, is, therefore, many times worse. The Episcopal Church in America will go one way; Anglicans in Sydney and Nigeria will go another.

So can Anglicanism survive the deep and divisive arguments that seem to have rocked it for more than a quarter of a century? Women priests, women bishops, liturgical reform and gay bishops have all threatened splits and schism. So what is it that holds the church together in the midst of such public disagreement? And assuming there are some virtues, instruments or habits that provide the necessary social and ecclesial glue, can such things be appealed to again in the midst of the current divisions centred on sexuality? It remains to be seen, but three observations come to mind.

First, Anglicanism has a rich, distinctive and historic theological tradition, being rooted in both Catholicism and Protestantism. These theological roots condition its liturgy, ecclesiology and missiology. At the same time, Anglican identity is (rather like Christianity) a contested concept. Classically, it is the quintessential via media. The genius of Anglicanism is that it has not resolved its identity. It is broad yet particular; synodical, yet Episcopal; Protestant, but also Catholic. One might say that all of the main crises in Anglican identity stem from one party or another trying to resolve its innate ambiguity.

Second, the complexity of Anglicanism is mirrored within its structures. For example, it has at least four distinct instruments of unity: the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Consultative Council, the Lambeth Conference, and the regular meetings of the Primates. But this means that authority within the Communion is broadly and peculiarly dispersed. Culturally and theologically, Anglicanism tends to be a mediating and accommodating ecclesiology rather than imposing and authoritative. The Archbishop of Canterbury does not wield any kind of putative papal power. Globally, each Anglican province has its own distinct history, flavour, and sense of purpose and mission - yet still within the broad framework of a world-wide 'family' of churches.

Third, Anglicanism has tended to conduct its theological debates through a trilateral of scripture, tradition and reason. It has managed, for the most part, to retain its poise within this framework, which has created space for differences to emerge, but without losing sight of mutual recognition and fostering relatively peaceful co-existence. Over the past century, with the emergence of post-colonial and modern societies, the trilateral has increasingly been understood as a quadrilateral that has had to take account of context and culture. For example, the concession to 'culture' might allow some conservative Anglicans to make allowances for polygamous practices in African churches - or at least turn a blind eye. Similarly, many American Anglicans think that the concession to culture should be similarly extended theologically, and to thinking differently about gay and lesbian people.

This recipe ought to be good enough to guarantee continuity of identity and existence for Anglicanism. But somehow, at the moment, it seems strangely inadequate. Is it the case, to paraphrase Yeats, that 'things fall apart; the centre cannot hold... the ceremony of innocence is drowned. The best lack all conviction, [and] the worst are full of passionate intensity'? To be sure, there are many reasons why the Anglican Communion (or federation?) faces so many problems at present. But one of the main ones must surely be that Anglicanism has forgotten that it was, first and foremost, a complex and well-mannered community in which differences and ambiguities remained unresolved. Indeed, these were its very foundations.

Yet in spite of and because of this, it flourished. It prospered as a church because it was possible to belong to a broad community of belief in which some liberty of conscience and practice was respected, but there was enough morphological similarity to foster homogeneity. It was, in short, a community of civilised disagreement - and an agreeable one at that. And far from hampering itself as a body, its example invited the world to take note. You can belong to one another without always seeing eye to eye; and you can witness like this too, because God is always bigger than 'my' church.

This raises some potentially important issues for a body like the MCU. In the future, is it to be a campaigning body that promotes strong and clear kingdom values and (liberal) theological ideas; but does so, as it were, from the wings? Or would it be more usefully engaged as a part of a growing conversation involving several diverse theological perspectives, that sought to debate and dialogue within the centre of Anglican polity? The advantage of the latter is that the centre is traditionally a point of convergence. But the disadvantage is that this strategy is simultaneously a place of risk and compromise.

Yet it is in precisely these kinds of locations that authentic forms of communion are often borne. It is here that the yearning for victory is sometimes superseded - transformed, as it were, into a deeper desire for peace and reconciliation. It is here that denominations can find both the pain and the value of difference. And it is in such places that denominations start to become attractive to those beyond them, because they can see that their own perspectives, identity and difference can actually be genuinely incorporated, rather than simply confirmed - or perhaps worse, excluded and out-narrated.

The question for liberal-minded Anglicans, is, I suppose, one of tactics. But the tactics adopted need to be true to the spirit of liberalism. If liberals basically regard themselves as being 'right' (and therefore others 'wrong'), and are on a mission to persuade the rest of the church to repent of its naiveté and fundamentalism, then they can stay safely in the wings, and be content with learning to shout louder at key points in the ever-unfolding drama of ecclesial praxis. But if liberals are true to their spiritual and theological roots, they will want to gather somewhere in the centre, and listen as well as speak. They will want a genuine dialogue about difference, and respectful encounters with otherness and that which is alien.

This may, of course, mean questioning the traditional borders, boundaries and caricatures that allow ecclesial parties to retain their identity. For example, liberals can sometimes be guilty of possessing a sense of self-righteousness, because they perceive themselves to be open, and their opposites 'closed'. But ecclesial and theological maps in the twenty-first century look a little different to those of the post-war era. It is no good trying to (re-) fight yesterday's battles as though they were today's. Many of the familiar and traditional maps that give comfort and energy to those in the wings may need to be redrawn, if bodies like the MCU are to have an active role in ecclesial peace-making, not simply campaigning.

For example, when one considers the diversity of belief and practice in contemporary Evangelicalism, it becomes obvious that what is now needed from a body like the MCU is dialogue, not simplistic rebuttals. Two recent editions of ReSource (the successor publication for ARM - Anglicans in Renewal Ministry) contain the following articles: 'Seeing is Believing' (meditating with the Emmaus paintings of Caravaggio); an article commending the Lecto Divina (from the Abbot of Worth Abbey); new ways of evangelising students (an article on Fusion - a 'postmodern fresh expression' of church); and new ways of telling the Christian story (an article which calls upon Christians to drop (or translate) 'antiquated' Evangelical rhetoric such as 'sin', 'repent', 'hell', 'conversion', and then suggests alternatives for these terms ('change', 'principle', 'separation', etc). The same article states that if the church continues to use 'old' terminology like this, 'it might as well be speaking in Latin' (the mention of the Lecto Divina is, ironically, missed). What ReSource demonstrates (and it is not atypical) is just how broad Evangelicalism has become in recent years. Very few readers of any Christian tradition would fail to be engaged by its contents, and none would be offended.

So the arguments that currently disturb the soul of Anglican polity probably need to become calmer than they have been thus far. And there is a role for a body like the MCU to play in this - cultivating an accent of reassurance that rightly sits alongside that of disturbance. Only when the intense heat of the argument begins to cool can Anglicanism recover its poise and start talking and listening rather than shouting. Anglicanism, at its best, is like the English weather: an essentially temperate affair. It is often cloudy, but with some sunny intervals - and the occasional outburst of rain. It is seldom born from a climate of extremes. And it needs to rediscover its radical centre ground. 'Radical'? Yes, radical. Because the place where difference and dialogue happens is the place not of decisions, but of encounter and learning. If the church can risk such deep conversations, it may find that it recovers a centricity that embodies diversity, but can at the same time, truly speak of unity.

Revd Canon Prof Martyn Percy is Principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon.