Updated: Jul 15, 2021
As a prime specimen of conservative evangelicalism within the Church of England I’m often put into a room with a classic liberal in the hope that we might have a conversation that will be interesting to those listening in. My most recent experience of this (for the benefit of some ordinands) has left me increasingly realizing the following:
1. The instinct of liberals is to minimize disagreement and want to stay together.
We were – inevitably – there to discuss the ongoing conversations within the Church of England around the ethics of same-sex sexual relationships and “equal marriage.” Now I recognize that there are many illiberal liberals who want to see the back of me and my kind as soon as possible. But my conversation partner was an old-fashioned, proper liberal who kept stressing that these were not a primary or salvation issues and that they saw no need for any structural differentiation to accompany any changes in doctrine and practice. We could park our disagreements over this issue and mutually flourish in a Church of England that allows some of its clergy to carry out same-sex marriages and others to refuse to. Surely we’ve learnt to live well with plenty of other disagreements over the years?
2. The instinct of conservatives is to maximize disagreement and want to split apart.
In turn, I surprised no-one by saying it would sadly feel impossible for a church that could not agree on something as central to the Gospel story as marriage and sex to continue as if nothing fundamental had changed. Changes in our understanding of Christian relationships would necessitate a change in our relationship as Christians. Some new structures would need to be constructed if novel, heretical, doctrine and practice around these experiences were introduced. In such circumstances there would be no way of avoiding some form of split – we just need to choose to do it well rather than let it happen chaotically.
3. Liberals in the Church of England need to recognise that we are not going to be able to stay together in the same way on sexuality.
The Church of England’s uncanny ability to live better together through centuries of “good disagreement” has led in its liberal wing to become complacent about our ability to handle “just a bit more.” They need to appreciate that debates around sexuality are not the introduction of women priests and bishops Mark II, with the same line up on both sides, but are instead something that will divide the church in much deeper ways, and along very different lines. When you’ve had conversations, as I have, with ordained women who will be resigning as priests if the Church changes her doctrine of marriage you would get this: many of my liberal friends don’t.
4. Conservatives in the Church of England need to recognise that it would not be good for us to split off entirely on the issue of sexuality.
We are better together. Annoyingly every conversation I have had with classic liberals has been good for me – exposing my blind spots and stretching my heart and mind. There is a lot we do agree on – liberalism in the Church of England today is not the creed-denying version of the past. So although some structural differentiation will be necessary a total split, an end to all forms of relating, should be avoided. Evangelicalism is at its worst when evangelicals fail to see the good in non-evangelicals and what their strengths (as well as weaknesses) have to teach and correct us.
I hope I keep being put in a room with classic liberals - with the aim of us having an interesting conversation. But I also pray that, as some form of split inevitably happens over our different understandings of sexuality, we find some newly ordered way of continuing to relate together in a Church of England, with new structures in which classic liberals and conservative evangelicals continue to have to interact.