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Plural Truth: The Prize of Infinite Value?

This is the second in a series of three blog posts, examining the concept of 'Plural Truth' in the light of what we have observed at the Lambeth Conference. This first looked at how 'Plural Truth' has impacted the Communion this week, the second looks at how it has developed over the last decade and the third will think about some of the possible implications for ministers of the gospel.

As long ago as 2014, the Archbishop of Canterbury, told the General Synod of the Church of England, specifically in reference to the Anglican Communion that,

“There is a prize, the quest for which it is worth almost anything to achieve. That prize is visible unity in Christ, despite functional diversity. It is a prize that is not only of infinite value but also requires enormous sacrifice and struggle to achieve. Yet, if we even get near it, we can at last speak with authority to a world where, over the last year, we have seen more than ever an incapacity to deal with difference and a desire to oversimplify the complex and diverse nature of human existence for no better reason than we cannot manage difference and dealing with the other.”

His goal was to retain at least the appearance of “visible unity,” whatever Provinces did “functionally.” In a Welby arch-episcopacy truth was always going to be sublimated to the need to “walk together”, do “good disagreement” and “mutual flourishing”, or at least being seen to do so.

At that same Synod, the legislation to admit women to the episcopate was passed. Whereas Archbishop Rowan Williams had dealt with the issue by open debate and voting, Archbishop Welby’s focus was on “facilitated discussions”, outside of the synodical process and the extra-synodical mechanism of a 'Declaration of “Five Guiding Principles'. The principles are right out of the Welby mould. They provide that; female bishops are bishops, and all clergy must acknowledge that, but at the same time there is a plurality of understanding in the Anglican Communion, which has to be provided for, so that all can flourish[1].

A year later, again at General Synod, the Archbishop of Canterbury, set out his oft-articulated view of discerning truth,

“That means we are called to work together with all those, in this country and around the world – all those – who are fellow members of the Church, baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity. Loving one another and working together is not a choice we are free to make or not to make. It is an obligation we are given…… Building together requires us to listen to discern the mind of Christ.”

To the archbishop, the mind of Christ is not found in Holy Scripture, but when, with the help of the help of the Holy Spirit, the “truth” emerges as all the baptised listen to each other. As such, plural truth and as many views as possible are the indispensable starting point, and from there listening to opposing views is what matters most. It is not surprising that the most likely outcome is that no agreed conclusion can be reached.

In his Letter to the Primates of 1st June 2017 (which largely concerned, “border-crossing”) he reflected on how the process had worked,

“I believe that the example of how we addressed the separate issue of the ordination of women to the episcopacy illustrates this; the Right Reverend Rod Thomas’ consecration as Bishop of Maidstone served to provide episcopal oversight for those who disagreed with the ordination of women to the episcopate. This clearly demonstrates how those with differing views still have their place within the Church of England, and are important in enabling the flourishing of the Church”.

What this explains is that the provision made for the orthodox was within, and a means of supporting, ongoing disagreement. While that may be an appropriate way of dealing with a secondary issue, it cannot be used for a matter of primary importance.

Just three months earlier, however, in February 2017, after Synod refused to “take note” of the House of Bishops, “Report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations”, he said,

“To deal with that disagreement and to find ways forward, we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church. This must be founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it; it must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual.

“We need to work together – not just the bishops but the whole Church, not excluding anyone – to move forward with confidence.

“The way forward needs to be about love, joy and celebration of our common humanity; of our creation in the image of God, of our belonging to Christ – all of us, without exception, without exclusion.”

Again, the way forward could only be found by the equal inclusion of all voices, however (ir)relevant, from a myriad of perspectives, however valid or otherwise.

Following this lead, the Scottish Episcopal Church used the same type of 'guiding principles' when they introduced a plurality of views about marriage into their Canons.

This week the Lambeth Conference has even seen the godhead described in a similar way, in the Call for Reconciliation, the 'Affirmation' states:

“We believe in God who is both three and one, who holds difference and unity in the heart of God’s being, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit....Our differences embodied in the Anglican Communion both challenge and deepen our experience of God in the other. As we join in God’s mission of reconciliation through Jesus and in the power of the Spirit, our differences are celebrated and redeemed, as we are made whole in the body of Christ. In that diverse whole, we more fully reflect the image of God.” [2]

It is therefore, unsurprising that in both his letter and his speech to the gathered bishops at the Lambeth Conference, the Archbishop of Canterbury appears to welcome, without limit of time, the plurality of views held in the Anglican Communion.

There is a prize and there is a cost. The prize may be visible unity. But once the Trinity becomes all about holding difference together and human sexuality is adiaphora, the cost is surely too high.


[1] The Five Guiding Principles

1. Now that legislation has been passed to enable women to become bishops the Church of England is fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to all, without reference to gender, and holds that those whom it has duly ordained and appointed to office are the true and lawful holders of the office which they occupy and thus deserve due respect and canonical obedience; 2. Anyone who ministers within the Church of England must be prepared to acknowledge that the Church of England has reached a clear decision on the matter; 3. Since it continues to share the historic episcopate with other Churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and those provinces of the Anglican Communion which continue to ordain only men as priests or bishops, the Church of England acknowledges that its own clear decision on ministry and gender is set within a broader process of discernment within the Anglican Communion and the whole Church of God; 4. Since those within the Church of England who, on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests continue to be within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion, the Church of England remains committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures; and 5. Pastoral and sacramental provision for the minority within the Church of England will be made without specifying a limit of time and in a way that maintains the highest possible degree of communion and contributes to mutual flourishing across the whole Church of England.

[2] For more information see the Anglican Futures blog "Being Reconciled to the True God"

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