Friday, July 29, 2016

A Conversation Waiting to Happen

first written in 2008
The following excerpt comes from Oliver O'Donovan's A Conversation Waiting to Begin: The Churches and the Gay Controversy. It puts quite perfectly what has been my conviction about the similarly problematic gender roles debates in my home denomination, the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada (about which you can read more here). There's a vision of the church offered here which is as vital as the content of the controversy itself:

"On the one hand, obeying one's conscience is, apparently by definition, something it is always right to do. On the other hand, a mistaken conscience is, again by definition, a conscience that instructs you to do the wrong thing. So doing what a mistaken conscience tells you is to do right and wrong at the same time. 

There is a lesson to be learned from the deft way Aquinas, confronting this paradox of 'perplexity,' thrusts it aside. 'One can withdraw from the error,' he tells us [ST II-1.19 ad3]. Commentators have expressed bewilderment at this, for it is, of course, not an answer to the question, but an evasion. It does not tell us what to do when our conscience is mistaken; it tells us not to have a mistaken conscience... 

[Aquinas] means that there is something that the framing of the question has left out of account; the alternative is wrongly posed. It beguiles us into imagining a helpless innocent pathetically trapped between the devil of dutiful wrongdoing and the deep blue sea of guild-ridden right-doing. Moral reality is simply not like that. The perplexed actor always has a further recourse: she or he can reconsider....

Just as Thomas cuts the Gordian knot with the proposal, 'one can withdraw from the error,' so we [as churches] may suggest, 'one can address the disagreement.' 

Communion should not be broken, but that does not mean disagreement should be ignored. There are ways of addressing serious disagreements that affirm and renew communion by proven willingness and determination to resolve them. And the very attempt to reach a resolution transforms our experience of the disagreement. Disagreements ... are openings for those who share a common faith to explore and resolve important tensions within the context of communion.

This kind of proposal is, of course, easy to mishear. It can be taken to mean that parties to disagreements must be less than wholly convinced of their position, ready to make room for possible accommodation. When really serious issues are at stake ... urging the search for resolution can seem like an invitation to capitulate, to concede essential points before beginning. It can seem as though Scripture is deemed to be inconclusive and ambiguous, so that either side is free to concede the possible right of the other's interpretation. It can seem as though what is needed is an indefinite irresolution about everything important, in which there is no need for, and no possibility of, a decisive closure.

But all of that is a trick of the light. None of this is implied in the search for an agreement. The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church's authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape---a shape I presume will be compatible with some of the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how.

I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced. The only thing I have to think---and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject!---is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live.

Every approach to resolving disagreements may turn out to fail. In the end God may have so hardened our hearts that we can see no way through our difficulties and simply find ourselves apart God may in his judgment scatter a church that lacked the common will to search for its unity in the truth of the gospel. And then there may come a point at which this situation has to be given some kind of institutional expression. Nothing can exclude a priori the worst possibility that certain persons or groups, or even whole churches, may be declared to have left the communion of Jesus Christ. 

But it must be a declaration, a formal statement of what has obviously come to pass. It cannot be an act to produce a result. The problem with the notion of separation is its expressive, self-purifying character. It will not wait for God to purify his own church in his own time."


- Oliver O'Donovan, A Conversation Waiting to Begin (London:
SCM Press, 2009), 31-33, emphasis and paragraph spacing mine.

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