In the darkness of disagreement and dispute, there must be grace, peace and love. It is what ought to distinguish the differences and debate of Christians from the squabbles and wrangles of the world. Our argument ought to be respectful and understanding, not hateful or bickering. The world ought to be able to look at those who profess to follow Christ and say, with Tertullian, “See how they love one another!”
Sadly, that is not the experience of the Rev’d Canon Dr Alison Joyce, the new Rector of St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street. For 30 years she has been shining the light of gender equality in the Church of England – as a deacon in 1988, a priest in 1994, and now tipped for episcopal office.
The Telegraph reports that she has encountered opposition every step of the way, and that the hate mail she received “was always from Christians”. Jesus commands us to love one another: hate mail is inexcusable and utterly intolerable coming from Christians.
Unless, of course, it wasn’t hate mail at all; simply a robust but agreeable expression of theological disagreement or doctrinal discord, which the recipient calls “hate” or “phobic” because it’s easier to hurl vernacular proposition-blocking barbs than to engage with intelligent and thoughtful dialectic.
Consider the manifest view of the Rev’d Canon Dr Alison Joyce of traditionalists in the Church of England. Speaking of the ‘protections’ which have been incorporated into the new legislation for women bishop to accommodate those who, in all conscience, believe the Apostolic Succession was entrusted to and is reserved for faithful men, she says: “What concerns me most is when the Church sets up structures so that people never have to be ‘contaminated’ by any glimpse of women’s ministry at all. I find that deeply disturbing. We have to encounter each other.. It’s tiresome, but one hopes eventually they will learn to grow in love and grace.”
The Telegraph is right to find this candour “unusual”, noting that words and phrases such as “tiresome” and “deeply disturbing” may indeed dwell in the minds of some women deans, archdeacons and rectors when thinking of those oppose or reject their vocation, but such disparagement rarely crosses their lips. Indeed, it appears that Canon Joyce is perhaps the one who needs to grow in love and grace, for how will she ever again fellowship with who those believe exclusively in the male priesthood without them thinking that she finds their conversation tedious and their beliefs tiresome? How does her candour reflect anything of Archbishop Justin’s desire for holy disagreement within our ecclesial “federation of failure”? As he said in his recent Presidential Address to Synod:
Sufficiency is in loving those with whom we disagree. What may be necessary in the way of party politics, is not sufficient in what might be called the polity of the Church.
In this Church of England we must learn to hold in the right order our calling to be one and our calling to advance our own particular position and seek our own particular views to prevail in the Church generally, whether in England or around the world. We must speak the truth in love.
In practice that has to mean the discipline of meeting with those with whom we disagree and listening to each other carefully and lovingly. It means doing that as much as when we meet with those with whom we do agree, whether it is during sessions of General Synod or at other times. It means celebrating our salvation together and praying together to the God who is the sole source of our hope and future, together. It means that even when we feel a group is beyond the pale for its doctrine, or for its language about others or us, we must love. Love one another, love your neighbour, love your enemy. Who in the world is in none of those categories?
It is a strength of the Church of England that it is latitudinal in doctrine and diverse in praxis: a church that accommodates the secondary breadth of human variety founded upon immutable primary theology reflects something of the community of the Trinity: unity in diversity; a diversity of different ministerial functions. You may not agree with women deacons, priests or (arch)bishops, but please don’t send letters of hate to those who believe they are called to those ministries and are affirmed in their vocations. But, equally, those who support women (or who are women) in such ministries ought not to find traditionalist Anglicans or conservative theologians somehow recalcitrant or bigoted, which “tiresome” rather suggests. The legislative provisions designed to accommodate their consciences ought not to be judged “deeply disturbing”: they spring from Scripture and are grounded in 2000 years of Tradition; they are formulated out of the desire for mutual accommodation.
It is curious that Canon Joyce draws on the vocational similarities that may be found in journalism and Christianity: both are “about challenging and calling to account, defending the marginalised, and giving a voice to the voiceless,” she says. And it is undoubtedly true that both are tasked with speaking truth to power. But you cannot impose theological uniformity any more than you can coerce moral consensus in a post-Christian culture. Either a church accommodates the sacred right of individual conscience, or it distorts the truth of community and oppresses the Body of Christ to the point of bearing false witness. Invective, intimidation and contempt are as unacceptable as hate mail.
But no doubt a blog which seeks to be sensitive to the increasingly voiceless orthodox and marginalised traditionalists in the Church of England is “tiresome”, if not “deeply disturbing”.