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Is ‘Good Disagreement‘ Really Possible?


(Photo: Shutterstock)

By Catherine Sider Hamilton

“Thy word is a lantern unto my feet, and a light upon my path” (Ps 119: 105).


THESE WORDS from Psalm 119 are luminous with the love of God and of his word – because in his word God’s love for us is known. It is these words that come to me again and again as I seek to discern the times. The Diocese of Toronto (my own diocese) has, in the past 15 months, elected and consecrated a “partnered gay bishop,” introduced in December 2017 same-sex marriage rites in defiance of the Anglican Church of Canada’s Canon XXI on Marriage and issued a “Statement of Pastoral Commitment to Diverse Theological Positions.” This Statement is  intended to address and validate those first two actions and provide terms on which life in the diocese may proceed.

In the midst of this, two by-words have emerged: “diversity” and “good disagreement.” The Primate explicitly commended “good disagreement” in an article in the Anglican Journal (, but it is a call that has been heard on both sides of the Atlantic ( and “conservatives” and “liberals” alike have taken up the call. Both “conservatives” and “liberals,” it would seem, also greeted the Archbishop of Toronto’s call to “honour theological diversity” with approval.

The words of the psalmist echo in my ear, however, and I am uneasy. Here are three reasons why.

In the first place, the commitment to good disagreement and diversity misrepresents the situation on the ground. The Diocese of Toronto has elected and consecrated a bishop who, quite obviously, has taught and held something contrary to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Anglican Church of Canada in the past five years – in violation of the constitutions and canons governing episcopal elections. This is not good disagreement. It is proceeding in disregard for the rules of the game. It is at least bad sportsmanship; in Christian terms, it is disobedience.

Catherine Sider Hamilton (Photo: Sue Careless)

Nor does this act honour diversity. Like the introduction of same-sex marriage rites, it preempts the processes of the church, processes by which the church seeks to hear the voices of its people. The marriage canon has not in fact been changed. A second vote is required, and it is surely self-contradictory in us who appeal to the movement of the Spirit at our synods to claim that we can know and act upon the outcome of the synodical vote before it happens. There is no good disagreement here, but a refusal to wait and listen to the voice of the gathered church. Far from honouring diversity, the introduction of new marriage rites by episcopal fiat rides roughshod over the voices of the people of the church in order to impose the bishop’s own voice.

One of the problems with the call to disagree well and to honour diversity is that this is not what the church is in fact doing. Our actions belie our words.

And so the words are dangerous. “Honour” is a good word. So, often, is “diversity” and “good disagreement.” But these good words ought not to blind us to the lie they are telling in this context. Disregard for the processes and people of the church is not good disagreement. There is nothing of honour in these acts of disobedience. These acts do not seek to protect diversity, but to impose a particular way.

There is a second problem with the call to honour diversity. It must fail. For the diocese cannot,  in fact, honour all positions. Among the voices in the diocese of Toronto is the voice that says that Christian marriage is not amenable to diverse descriptions. This voice says that marriage is not a construction of an individual’s self-perception and desires. It is something that precedes me and my identity and my desires, something given in the beginning of the world, woven into it, warp and woof, and its purposes serve not myself alone but the flourishing of all of creation. Marriage is something taken up, when the whole creation can no longer see the glory of God for the pall that has fallen over its eyes, taken up into the body of Christ and lifted up to God again in his pierced hands to be for a whole creation a sign of this world’s real redemption. Marriage is a mystery given to us by God, for the sake of the world, in the union of man and woman. Marriage is a gift given in a particular form for a particular end; alter the form and it is not marriage. This is the voice of the Bible and the marriage canon and the teaching of the Church around the world, but even if it were not the voice that speaks with the authority of scripture and reason and tradition, it is a voice of this diocese.

Yet it is inadmissible. There is no room for this voice in the call to diversity, because it does not agree that the form of marriage is diverse. I cannot “honour” a diversity of theological positions on marriage because I believe this diversity to be untrue and therefore harmful. I believe that this diversity with regard to marriage, far from being good and honourable, leads our people away from the knowledge and love of God and from our own flourishing.

What we are enacting here is not good disagreement but what Lesslie Newbigin calls the great reversal of the Copernican revolution: “It is a move away from a centre outside itself to the self as the only centre,…the move which converts theology into anthropology, the move about which perhaps the final word was spoken by Feuerbach who saw that the ‘God’ so conceived was simply the blown-up image of the self, thrown up against the sky. It is the final triumph of the self over reality…It is the authentic product of a consumer society.” (Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989], 169).

And this brings me to the third and greatest of the problems with diversity and good disagreement. The call in this diocese is not to respect the diversity of the people among us. (In fact it tramples on the voice of the people.) The call is to honour “diverse theological positions.” But we are a people who honour God. In the matter of God, not all theological positions are honourable – able to be honoured. Arianism was not honourable; in denying Christ’s divinity it denied also the divine condescension, the self-emptying of Christ and so the depth of the love of God in Christ for this lost and suffering world. Docetism, which reverses Arianism to something of the same effect, was not honourable. Modalism, Pelagianism, Sabellianism, Gnosticism – in which sexual licence and the diminishment of women flourished as the individual soul, freed from the encumbrances of physical nature, rose heavenward – all of these came to be seen as un-honourable: distortions of the good news of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Not all theological positions are equal, and not all are honour-able, and we are called to work and pray and fight together to follow the path that is honourable, faithful and true. “It is not easy to challenge the reigning plausibility structure,” Newbigin says. “It is much easier to conform.” Much easier to buy into the consumerist call for diversity in all things rather than to insist that in some things there is a truth and it matters. Whatever good disagreement might be, it is not to allow for all beliefs and claims a place. That is the free-market take-over of the Church. It is based in an economy without God.

Good disagreement is, perhaps, the honest, difficult, and (if need be) costly conflict that recognizes that there is an arbiter, and He is God. “Thy word is a light upon my path.” There is a truth and a way and a life, and his name is Jesus Christ. All views are not honourable, and we do not belong to ourselves alone. We have been bought for a price.

Paul called the Christian life an agōn. It was a contest that he, like many of those who first loved Jesus Christ, fought to the death. In this moment, we are not being asked to die – not even close. But we are asked to have the courage of the fight. Paul did not say, “I have honoured diverse theological positions.” He said, in the end, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7).   TAP

Dr. Catherine Sider Hamilton is Priest-in-Charge at St Matthews, Riverdale, and Assistant Professor of New Testament and Greek, Wycliffe College, Toronto.

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