Another week has passed with painful and damaging arguments within the Church of England. The Church’s governing body, the General Synod, voted against ‘taking note’ of the Bishop’s recent report on sexuality. The report followed three years of ‘shared conversations’ about how the church views gay relationships.
The argument between influential blogger Ian Paul and the Prolocutor of Synod, Simon Butler, is a sad microcosm of the dispute. Butler, a gay clergyman, told Paul of his sexual orientation many years ago when they were at college together. Now in positions of influence on either side of the polarised stand-off, they have been trading public accusations and counter-accusations on social media.
It reminded me of the bitter dispute in the film Ben Hur between Judah and his former childhood friend Masala. Personal relationships, broken by conviction, ambition and tribal loyalty, have led to bitter enmity.
What is clear is that the whole church is diminished by such public conflict.
I have previously written on the need for honesty in these discussions because, alongside the disagreement, there has also been such widespread deceit. The accusations of lies add a bitter toxicity (and irony) to discussions about human and divine love.
After yet more talks and meetings, the Bishops have come up with a report which angered liberals and concerned many conservatives. The divides are deeper than ever and I believe are institutionally unbridgeable.
The myth of unity
Of course, everyone knows that the different denominations and traditions have different perspectives on all kinds of theological and pastoral matters. What makes the disputes in the C of E so painful is the denomination’s lingering ambition for national unity – or the pretence of national unity on this issue.
Anglican ecclesiology has ambitions beyond what is possible. It would be more honest to accept that much of the church believes one thing about gay relationships and another part of the church believes something else. Conformity to one approach will not be possible.
But I don’t believe that conformity on this issue has ever really existed. There have always been many, many gay clergy whatever the institution was decreeing from the centre. And many Bishops have been complicit in maintaining the deceit that has made it all worse.
The sexuality debates flow from fundamentally different theological traditions which have always deeply divided the C of E. Many conservative evangelical congregations have little to do with more liberal churches, despite them both having ‘Church of England’ on the noticeboard outside.
But the ambition for conformity on a matter like this leads to deeply unpleasant politics. Genuinely held convictions are fused with the desire to control resources in an unholy alliance.
There will be no winners from these conflicts. It will lead to many more years of bitterness with occasional Pyrrhic victory for one side or the other.
Unity in action
My dislike of a false myth of unity is because I have experienced such a different form of unity which can cross the divisions in the church. Being involved in initiatives which bring congregations together in local mission such as Love Streatham has been a fantastic experience. In my previous job with the Shaftesbury Society, I worked with similar initiatives in Bradford, Eastbourne, Leeds, Brighton, Southampton and many parts of London.
In my work now with West London Mission, I Chair the Westminster Churches Night Shelter which brings together 13 local churches (plus a synagogue) to help homeless people come off the streets. The generosity and enterprise shown by these vastly different churches shows the power of Christian unity.
Focus on outreach
A focus on outreach and mission helps our perspective. Often the local community are neither interested or understand the theological differences between the congregations. But they are interested when they see churches working together to make a difference they understand.
And it is not that theology is not important. But these forms of unity in action accept the kind of diversity that will always exist and allow people of different views to make a distinctive contribution.
And through working together on the frontline, they appreciate and understand each other better. Quite the opposite of how things have looked in the C of E this past week.