Negotiating difference, not with democracy but with Table Fellowship and Prayer

This letter from Charles Whitehouse from St. Andrew’s in Zürich sparked my attention. He writes in their magazine, ‘Sadly I have to inform you that it is time for me to relinquish the office of Reader in the Church of England. …I have for some while now been increasingly concerned at positions and policies adopted by the Church of England as an institution. These include, but are not limited to, the inability to make progress on the consecration of women bishops, the lack of understanding of homosexuality as part of God’s creation, and the institutionalised distrust inherent in the policy regarding prevention of child abuse. …I find myself unable to reconcile the positions held by the Church with the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth as I understand it… I do not think it can be right to hold office in an institution about whose positions I have such serious reservations.’

This letter attracted my attention because it is a stand on conscience, not for a so called ‘conservative’ position, but because of a so called ‘progressive’ position. I have not often seen that. I remember once, at Trinity College in Melbourne, the main theology lecturer said that until women were ordained as priests, he would not celebrate the Eucharist. That was an amazing act of solidarity

I also remember one woman who was heavily involved in the Movement for the Ordination of Women who just stopped going to Church because of the issue. She was a very devout person. She was a knowledgeable Christian, but could no longer stand the way the Church was, and went away until women were ordained..

I ask myself ‘Why is this stand so strange to me?’ I  think it is because the most common reaction that people have is to leave. They say ‘Oh, that Church of England! There is no place for me there! I’m not going any more.’ What is more, other people say  the same thing in advice. They say ‘Well, that is the institution we have, if you don’t like it, leave!’ But Charles Whitehouse has not left. He stays as a visible sign, both of his claim to membership of the Church, and of his distress at what the Church is at present.

As with those people who hold views which would be the opposite of Charles Whitehouse’s views, the difficulty lies in three questions for me. One of them is ‘What are the genuine limits to difference?’ and second ‘How do people who hold different views from one another stay in fellowship?’ And then given the first two questions ‘What is a way of making decisions that actually makes a decision but which holds within the fellowship those who come down on the losing side of it?’

I am reading a book about the Eucharist by Robert Hovda, which makes the point that the Church is not a democracy. He says ‘…there is much truth to be lost by casting the Church’s reform in terms of democracy….The aim should be what the Society of Friends (Quakers) call ‘the sense of the meeting’ rather than counting 51 per cent.’ As a way forward toward consensus he says that two things are ‘uniquely essential’. They are .’…common prayer and an acceptance of the judgement of the Gospel.’ He goes on ‘An atmosphere of prayer does not eliminate the possibility of differences of opinion, but it does situate the holders of these differences on the same level – sisters and brothers, sinners, loved by God, humble, open to one another, recognising their own limits. These are the kinds of feelings which enable a group to seek consensus decisions (which may not be unanimous but which will be quite different from majority vote conclusions) in a realistic and human way. Acceptance of the judgement of the Gospel, again, offers the ecclesial community (that) ..we have a norm superior to our opinions and that we are all in the same position with respect to that norm. (‘Strong Loving and Wise’ p12 -13).

This is not a bad place to start, and in both Geneva and Vevey I have seen the congregations hold special prayer times to help them come to terms with difference. But it does not stop people who have acted prayerfully, and to their mind, in accord with the Gospel form still not being able either to come to a consensus, or to stay in fellowship with one another  because of that difference.

Another author whom I know, Stephen Fowl, says that the key to living the norms of the Gospel is first and foremost table fellowship. He takes the case of the uncircumcised Gentiles who were at first considered outside the purposes of God. It was the meeting of real people around the meal (of the Eucharist) that created the knowledge and respect that enabled decisions to be made. Then a decision was not about a class of people but was about ‘Jim’ or ‘Bill’ whom we know and love! Stephen Fowl recommends that no one ought to be allowed to have an opinion about a group of people without first having had at least a number of dinner parties with members of that ‘class’ so that they become real people to us, instead of members of an unknown ‘them’. This is what the Archbishop of Canterbury tried to do with his indaba (conversation with deep listening) process as a way of trying to resolve differences in the Anglican Communion.

I have had it suggested to me that we ought here to make time, on a Saturday evening, for example, for evening prayer, so that we can prepare for the Eucharist on the coming Sunday. This is not yet a firm decision, but the reading of Charles Whitehouse’s letter has stimulated me enough to take this idea more seriously than I had before. Our inviting of everyone to fill in the feedback forms is an attempt to get the sense of the whole congregation about our experiment.

The other thing to say is that Christianity itself, and some movements within it show how the limits to difference are expressed. Both the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, and St. Paul went and preached about Jesus to their brothers and sisters. The difference that this meant to the already existing Judaism meant that they were rejected. So they said ‘We go to the Gentiles’. The Jewish Christians could not minister to the Gentiles and so sent Paul to do that work, while Peter and James attended to the Churches in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas also disagreed so much about taking Mark with them on their second journey that they parted. Acts 15:39 says ‘The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company.’

I am worried by the enslaving effects of too much individualism, so I think that there could be more sense of collective action and accountability these days, but we are in a time of  increasing fragmentation where the differences that do exist are getting beyond any one person or group’s ability to deal with or embrace. Maybe it is better for there to be two Anglican Churches, which recognise the intractability of these differences at the moment. I don’t know. Charles Whitehouse has made an interesting stance. The pain remains.

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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