The Church is Political: living with our disagreements
How can we love one another in the face of profound disagreement? I believe we can find the resources or practices within our Baptist politics, writes Andy Goodliff, who is delivering the 2022 Whitley Lecture
To talk about the church being political can be understood in different ways. It can mean the ways that the church engages in political issues and questions, for example, the important work of the Joint Public Issues Team. It can also be used as a way of describing how the church can resemble what we see in the politics of parliament, that is, the disagreement, division and hostility that emerges between parties.
In our own Baptist life, mirroring other church denominations, the on-going question of sexuality feels deeply political, with different positions and groupings seeking to initiate or resist change. Agendas are in play. Rules and policies are contested and competing visions or stories are marshalled around what it is to be truly Baptist. There is a sense from some that we should rise above politics, that politics is close to being a dirty word, or at least no word fit for the Christian life.
In my Whitley Lecture I argue that to be Christians, to be churches, is to be unavoidably political. I want to reclaim politics as something to be engaged with, rather than pretending it can be avoided. Politics is simply the name we give to the way we relate together as people who share something in common. It is the practices, following Luke Brethreton, that enable us to negotiate a shared life in the face of disagreement and differences, some of which can be, or can feel, inevitable and/or intractable. The question is not whether we should be political, but what kind of politics shall we inhabit and embody. To name our life as churches, Associations and Union as political is to free us to recognise that disagreement and differences are to be expected as we seek to follow in common the one we name Lord and Saviour.
Disagreements and differences are to be expected because we are human beings, all whom fall short of the glory of God. While the apostle Paul says we have, by the Holy Spirit, access to the mind of Christ, our minds are those that are being renewed. We know in part; one day we shall know in full. Attending to Christ, to the Bible and to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, this side of Christ’s return, will produce disagreement and difference. Most of the time this is something we live with, our politics allows us to maintain unity at little cost. There is an implicit sense that we feel that we are more alike than we are different, (although this is largely assumed and rarely tested). Where disagreement does emerge we do not see it as a dividing issue, but one in which we are able to practice a degree of tolerance.
However, disagreement and difference can sometimes be something that feels more difficult to tolerate. We are living in one of those times. How do we cope theologically with that disagreement, with that difference? This I suggest is a pressing question and has been since the church of the New Testament. How can we love one another in the face of profound disagreement?
I believe we can find the resources or practices within our Baptist politics. In my Whitley Lecture I highlight four elements to a Baptist politics, present in the Declaration of Principle that is the basis of our unity. These four elements are both a statement of belief and a set of practices with contain a call to be communities with a particular character. We might say that the Declaration of Principle has, what Ellen Charry has called, a pastoral (or practical) function.
First, we recognise the authority of Christ, which produces in us humility. Christ is Lord, we are not. Where we disagree, rather than lord our viewpoint over the other, we are called to practice a humility of speech; taking care with how we speak to one another.
Second, we recognise the liberty of the church to discern, what we call congregational government, which leads us to learn patience. We are patient in disagreement, believing in the possibility that listening, worshipping, and living alongside one another, can lead to place not yet seen. Patience of this kind will be costly and so it requires hope to accompany it, a hope that resides in Christ.
Third, we practice believers’ baptism, which instils in us habits of grace and forgiveness. In baptism, we acknowledge that we are recipients of Christ’s grace and forgiveness. Where we are in disagreement, how can we show grace to one another? In what ways can we honour each other? Where is forgiveness required?
And fourthly, we recognise the duty and joy of Christian witness, which calls us to the virtues of love and peace. Our disagreements almost always take place in public, and so how we handle them is a witness to the truthfulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is a demonstration of love; it is the making, or at the very least, the praying for peace (that surpasses all current understanding).
We disagree strongly. Our differences on some matters run deep. Reconciliation of these disagreements does not seem straightforwardly forthcoming. The question is: does our reconciliation that is visible in our confession of one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, enable us, or perhaps demand us, to remain a union even if that unity is under pressure? Do our politics, rooted in the virtues of humility, patience, grace, love, and peace — virtues witnessed in the life of Jesus — give hope that we can love one another with integrity without agreement on every issue?
The church is political. We are fallen and forgiven. We are a people on the way and in the fray (to borrow the title of Helen Dare’s helpful 2014 Whitley Lecture). We are places of conversation and conversion. We are learning to love God and to love neighbour.
Let me finish with a quote from Colin Gunton, one of my favourite theologians: ‘[The Spirit] liberates us, by bringing us into community: by enabling us to be with and for the brothers and sisters whom we do not ourselves choose.’
I pray that might be true of us who are Baptists.
For further reading see A Theology of Disagreement: New Testament Ethics for Ecclesial Conflicts by Christopher Landau (SCM, 2021).
Andy Goodliff has been the minister of Belle Vue Baptist Church, Southend-on-Sea since 2010. Andy is delivering this year's Whitley Lecture, entitled The Ruling Christ and the Witnessing Church.
For more details, visit our Whitley Lecture page.
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