Stephen Cottrell: Disagree as siblings not enemies?

Mon, 10/07/2023 - 19:47 -- James Oakley
Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York

In his presidential address to the July 2023 General Synod, Stephen Cottrell appealed to members of the Synod to debate and disagree not as enemies, but as siblings.

At one level, there is much to commend this. Not just within the Christian church, much is to be gained if we learn to listen carefully as we debate, if we assume those we disagree with are not the enemy but those with whom we should seek to find common cause. It's possible to hear everything someone says through a "hermeneutic of suspicion", where we impute the worst possible meaning and motive to everything they say. That rarely leads anything forwards. A charitable hermeneutic is always worth exploring: What if this person meant and intended the very best possible meaning and intention, out of the range of things they may have meant to say?

If that's true in general, how much more at a gathering of Christians to govern a Christian denomination. Indeed, his remarks are part of an address that took the Lord's Prayer as its basis. Christians are those who unite around calling God "Father", and the prayer is contains very little "me" but prefers the word "our".

Let's briefly digress to talk about God as Father

As an aside, the press has picked up on his saying that the language of God the Father is difficult for many to hear. Some reports had him arguing that we should reinvent God to avoid that language. His defenders point out that he is defending the Lord's Prayer so not seeking to dismantle it.

Here's what he says:

“For if this God to whom we pray is ‘Father’ – and, yes, I know the word ‘father’ is problematic for those whose experience of earthly fathers has been destructive and abusive, and for all of us who have laboured rather too much from an oppressively, patriarchal grip on life – then those of us who say this prayer together, whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, even if we determinedly face away from each other, only turning round in order to put a knife in the back of the person standing behind us, are sisters and brothers, family members, the household of God.”

It seems to me that he is deliberately ambiguous. He notes that some will find the language difficult. But he never follows that up with saying that this is how God has revealed himself so we must use the language God has taught us. He simply notes the difficulty and then moves on to say what follows, without commenting whether he himself shares this sense of difficulty. I'm sure he knew the press would pick up on this, but he also ensured he could deny saying anything to overturn the language of God as Father.

While we're on this, let's note that the statement about God being Father is what grammarians call the protasis of a conditional sentence. His sentence is that if we pray to God as Father then it follows that our fellow Christians are brothers and sisters. The entire premise of his address therefore falls apart if God is not Father. Because if God is not to be addressed as Father, then there is no basis to identify fellow Christians as brothers and sisters, and so all that he builds on that no longer applies.

Maybe he did mean to dismantle traditional language about God. But if he did, or if he meant to cast doubts, he loses the right to appeal to the Synod as a family. Or maybe he didn't. But if he didn't, he didn't take the opportunity to make clear that we respect God's wishes as to how we address him. He was ambiguous, but on very thin ice in the process.

Back to the Point: Brothers and Sisters

So, he appeals to the Synod to debate and disagree, not as enemies but as siblings.

Here is what he actually said:

“Therefore, let this recognition of our belonging to each other also shape, not just the conversations we have, but the way we have them. We are not talking to strangers, and certainly not opponents, but sisters and brothers to whom we are and should be deeply committed.

“These sessions will deal with a number of crucially important matters on governance, the development of LLF, safeguarding. On a number of issues we find ourselves in a challenging place. We will need to critique one another, and we will need to listen to one another. Let us do it as those who long to demonstrate the self-giving reciprocity of love that we see in Christ, as those who belong to each other.”

It's so simple, it's hard to disagree with. But as I read this, and read the media summaries of what he said, I felt distinctly uneasy. So I sought to put my finger on what was out of alignment, hence this blog post.

Before we're all swept along, with Synod members seeing each other as brothers and sisters, let's notice the two problems here

Two Religions

The first problem is that he assumes that all those on General Synod are siblings. That they are brothers and sisters in Christ.

Please do not mishear me. I am not calling any individual member of General Synod an unbeliever. I know very few members of Synod, and those I know are genuine believers in our Lord Jesus Christ. That's generally how we've met each other. I'm not fit to pass comment on the majority whom I don't know personally. Even if I did know them personally, I cannot see into the soul of another human being, and Jesus told us what we are not the ones to judge others. No, there are general comments to make, but please don't mishear that as commenting on individuals.

But we do need to be clear on what is at stake in the matters under debate. At stake is nothing less than the heart of the Christian gospel: the Lordship of Jesus, exercised through his word, as he calls each and every one of us to repent or our sins in order to find life in his name through grace alone. Jesus gives none of us a free pass; he doesn't declare that certain sins don't matter and are excluded from the call to repent. The apostle Paul taught clearly in 1 Corinthians 6 that certain sins, practised publicly and without repentance, exclude a person from the kingdom of God.

In 1923, J Gresham Machen published a brilliant short book entitled Christianity and Liberalism. In it, he argues that there are two completely distinctive religions at work. There is the historic religion called Christianity, which worships and follows the Jesus of Nazareth we meet in the Scriptures. And there is liberalism, which uses the same categories and language as Christianity, but teaches something completely different. He then sets to compare and contrast those two different religions. How are they different in their approach to doctrine, the natures of God and man, the Bible, Jesus Christ, how we are saved, and what we mean by the church.

It is quite brilliant, and as you read it extremely contemporary.

“The purpose of this book is not to decide the religious issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself. Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time; there are many who prefer to fight their intellectual battles in what Dr. Francis L. Patton has aptly called a 'condition of low visibility.' Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding. May it not discourage contribution to mission boards? May it not hinder the progress of consolidation, and produce a poor showing in columns of Church statistics? But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from 'controversial' matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life.

“In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight. In the sphere of religion, in particular, the present time is a time of conflict; the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology. This modern non-redemptive religion is called 'modernism' or 'liberalism.' Both names are unsatisfactory; the latter, in particular, is question-begging. The movement designated as 'liberalism' is regarded as 'liberal' only by its friends; to its opponents it seems to involve a narrow ignoring of many relevant facts.”

Or a bit further on he says:

“The difference between those two views is the difference between two totally diverse religions. It is high time that this issue should be faced; it is high time that the misleading use of traditional phrases should be abandoned and men should speak their full mind. Shall we accept the Jesus of the New Testament as our Saviour, or shall we reject Him with the liberal Church?”

The debates on sexuality at General Synod are really whether the authority of Scripture or natural religion will predominate, which is exactly what Machen is analysing.

That means that those debating do not do so as brothers and sisters. They don't need to relate as enemies, either, there is scope for graciousness. But these are two different religions debating with each other. They may both use words like "Jesus", "God", "human being", "love", "salvation", "freedom", "respect", but they mean completely different things by those words. To adapt a phrase used to joke about the differences between Britain and the United States of America, these are two religions divided by a common language.

That's the first problem: It obscures the scale of the debate and the size of the problem

What Outcome?

The second problem is that casting the debate in this way prejudices the outcome. Let's ask the question: What does he hope to achieve by asking that members debate as siblings not as enemies?

Maybe he just means that people should smile, shouldn't heckle, should stick to the 3 minute time limit imposed by the chair, not say things that are unkind, and so on. If that's all he means, then fine.

But that is not the sum total of the difference you get if people treat each other in this way. Very few people are going to change their mind as a result of the speeches made in the debating chamber. So people will come out of the York session thinking that marriage should be unambiguously between one man and one woman, others that we should bless same sex unions contracted outside the church, others that the church should contract those marriages as well.

At that point, if you come away resolved that the people on the other side of the debate are brothers and sisters, you're agreeing to treat them as fellow Christians. You're committing yourself, before the debate opens, to saying that you may disagree with their view, but you will respect their view as a legitimate Christian view.

As I argued 6 and a half years ago (this has been going on a very long time, hasn't it?), this is actually what the whole debate is about. The debate is cast as one about whether same-sex marriage is something the church should bless. But in actual fact, the debate is really about whether difference of opinion on this matter is something the church should tolerate, or whether we need to be unambiguous and say clearly which view is right. The Church of England, the House of Bishops, and the evangelicals on General Synod, all need to decide this: Is human sexuality a topic where we can agree to differ?

The Church of England, the whole Living in Love and Faith exercise, has been engineered to lead to an outcome of plurality, of there being different views that may coexist and be held with equal integrity. Churches and their clergy can opt in, or opt out, of whatever comes next. These things are secondary.

Suddenly, the Archbishop of York's opening address looks less like the irenic, hard to disagree with, opening gambit that it sounds. Because he's asking the members of Synod to commit to seeing those on both sides of the debate as genuine Christian believers, followers of the Lord Jesus. He's setting the scene by asking people to debate in a way that will make it almost necessary to see all the others in the room as genuine Christians. He's quietly gaming the debate before it starts, making it almost impossible to end up saying that the issues are absolutely essential and primary, and a plurality of views cannot be tolerated.

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