Can we agree to disagree on equality for gay people in the Church?

Good Disagreement is an incredibly costly road for those who have the courage to walk it

A wedding cake figurine of a couple made up of two men at  Gay Wedding show. REUTERS/Ian Hodgson/Files

A wedding cake figurine of a couple made up of two men at Gay Wedding show. REUTERS/Ian Hodgson/Files

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Take any contentious topic and one will always find deeply held views on all sides of the argument. Most of us are used to that, but when they threaten to tear the core fabric of something that is extremely dear to us – such as our church – we need to find a way of moving beyond our differences and embrace a higher aim.

In such cases, I would suggest that it is critical that we seek to understand each other more and as a result learn how to engage with each other with respect and love. This is “good disagreement”.

To be clear, the goal of good disagreement is never to try to change other people’s views; one can perhaps challenge them, but by definition people who hold opposing views are highly unlikely to alter them or admit their cherished beliefs are wrong.

One of the best examples of this is the question of whether the church should recognise and bless same-sex relationships.

So what can “success” look like, given that both sides firmly believe they are “right”? Simply put, it is about being able to articulate why someone believes what they do and the implications that their belief has on other Christians and on non-Christians around the world.

To do this authentically, we need to find a way to move beyond our pain, so that it does not become a barrier that stops us from journeying together. We need to find the courage and strength to engage with issues and topics that have enormous potential to wound and offend – this is why the church has found it easier to avoid this topic for so long.

Extremely moving

Good disagreement is an incredibly costly road for those who have the courage to walk it – and requires an abundance of grace, which I believe only God can provide.

To facilitate this, I created a Good Disagreement Facebook group in March 2015. It is designed to be a moderated space in which people can engage with each other on this difficult topic. More than 2,000 posts were made in the first two weeks alone before I instigated a “time out” period of prayer and reflection.

It proved controversial, revealing, painful and informative all in equal measure. People’s honesty, openness, trust and vulnerability – from all sides of the debate – were extremely moving.

It was, however, extraordinarily difficult to moderate. The golden rule I adopted was that no topic was off bounds and no view too extreme; however, it was the way in which those views were expressed that mattered.

Could someone say what they firmly believed (their perceived “truth”) with enough pastoral insight and sensitivity (ie “grace”) to show that they were aware that their comments might deeply hurt or offend someone?

Unbiased judge

Trying to be an unbiased judge in all this was often like having the sword of Damocles hanging overhead, particularly when offence was not intended but was unwittingly inflicted.

The key to successful good disagreement is, I believe, that we have to strive to see the Christ in each other before jumping to any wrong conclusions about that person’s intentions.

In particular, the predisposition of many to use of labels can frequently lead to unhelpful stereotypes. But with patience, effort and understanding, it is possible to make some progress for all concerned.

So is good disagreement worth pursuing? Absolutely, yes. I for one believe God wants us to find a way through this unholy mess regarding how the church should handle same-sex relationships.

I also believe that the only path is the Way of the Cross – which is one that leads through the horror and pain of crucifixion to a promise of a glorious new life for us, the church.

Greater insight

For it is the power of this resurrection that our church so desperately needs to witness to the world around us and one which we each need first to have experienced ourselves.

Once transformed I believe we will have greater insight and ability to know how to handle our differences, and therefore – together – seek a way forward.

Jayne Ozanne is a leading gay evangelical in the Church of England who works to ensure full inclusion of all LGBTI Christians at every level of church life. She addressed a fringe meeting at the Church of Ireland General Synod in Dublin last month

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