The Difficulties of Dialogue and Disagreement image

The Difficulties of Dialogue and Disagreement

Grace and I have a love-hate relationship with ‘The Apprentice’. We went a long time without seeing it, because for a long time we did not have a TV. We then watched a season, nose to tail, and decided not to do so again, which we didn’t for a couple of years. But this season we have got sucked back in again. It is a kind of self-inflicted torture, utterly compelling, but only to be viewed with intense embarrassment and discomfort.

Of course, being able to create that kind of response in viewers is the mark of comic genius; not that the contestants in the show are trying to be comical. Invariably the most excruciating moments are those in the boardroom, when the contestants blather and brag, destroy and crumble. “Let me finish…” is probably the most frequently heard phrase in The Apprentice. It is not a phrase designed to facilitate conversation, but vocalise a personal – and unyielding – position.

A lot of the current debate in the church about sexuality bears more than a passing resemblance to an episode of The Apprentice. This was well illustrated in a post by Ian Paul about an event he attended recently. The title of the post summarises the issue well: ‘In dialogue with Steve Chalke?’ – note the question mark. As Sam Allberry later tweeted, ‘Conversation: exercise in which you listen to and agree with what I say.’

We have been critical of Steve Chalke’s stance on sexuality on this blog (while – like Cranmer – having the greatest admiration fro his prodigious gifts and phenomenal achievements), but I’m not wanting to use this as another opportunity to be so. I don’t blame Steve for hosting a ‘conversation’ which doesn’t feel like a conversation to those who disagree with him; just as I wouldn’t blame him for feeling that those of us who disagree with him are failing to dialogue. Arguably, what we are experiencing is more akin to what we see on The Apprentice: two entrenched positions fighting for victory, without any willingness to yield.

That it is like this shouldn’t surprise us. The theological arguments underpinning the assumption that sex should only happen within the context of marriage and that marriage, by definition, can only be between a man and a woman are well known, long established, and (to my mind) incontestable. Equally, the theological arguments for ‘faithful same-sex relationships’ have been thoroughly articulated. I suspect Steve understands my arguments as well as I understand his – this isn’t a question of understanding, it’s just that we disagree with one another!

To really enter dialogue, both parties would need to at least allow for the possibility that they have got things wrong, and I don’t think that is where we are. We understand one another’s positions, and disagree with them. This may not sit well with the po-mo paradigm that claims we should all just agree to disagree, because there isn’t really any fundamental truth to be found here, or with the hipster-evangelicalism that bemoans us all splitting into ‘tribes’ over such issues, but to me it seems a far more honest approach. Which isn’t to say that there shouldn’t or can’t be an on going discussion about the interpretation of biblical texts: I’m sure both Robert Gagnon and Matthew Vines have valuable contributions to make, but I’m not sure either of them are changing the minds of those who already understand what it is they believe and why they do so. (This excellent post on Living Out describes how these kinds of discussion might proceed – though for me this does leave the question of how we apply 1 Cor 5:9-11 looming large in the background. There is also the danger that in our desire to be affable we dignify ‘affirming’ arguments which are essentially risible.)

That said, none of us wants to look like a contestant on The Apprentice, yelling, ‘Let me finish!’ There is very little dignified or attractive about that. So the area where all sides of the arguments can probably enter a more genuine dialogue is the manner in which we speak about sexuality and to those who are gay. Doubtless, both the words used, and the tone of their use, by conservative commentators has been at times unkind, uninformed and harmful. We have had to be educated. For example, until I read Andrew Marin’s Love Is An Orientation I hadn’t appreciated how much more helpful it is to speak of people being gay rather than homosexual. Those kinds of adjustments in language are ones I’m happy to make, and I’ve observed the same kind of accommodation in my conservative friends. Also, I know there have been occasions when I have spoken publicly on these issues without sufficient care or demonstration of love, and have had to later apologise for this. Besides, the tone we use tends to shift when we are not dealing in abstracts, but standing face to face with someone in a same-sex relationship who we otherwise like and admire.

Because this area is so fraught, and because it is so easy to say something that might be interpreted as offensive, all of us who want to hold a traditional line on sexuality need to think hard about the things we say. Because of the difficulties involved it does appear that some churches are adopting a strategy of saying nothing. But for the reasons Andrew identified recently, this seems to me a short-sighted approach.

An ecclesiological strategy that emphasises only ‘love’ and offers no direct moral instruction in the realm of sexuality is in many ways very attractive, and there are good examples of where it is working – at least in terms of the numbers of attenders it can attract. The great weakness of this approach, however, is that it is far more likely to produce moralistic therapeutic deists than true disciples. It also seems somewhat hypocritical, to affirm something in private which one is not prepared to articulate in public.

At the present time it seems to me that it is those who support ‘faithful same-sex relationships’ who have the loudest voice and are the most vociferous in the ‘let me finish’ stakes – though I would say that, wouldn’t I. I don’t think the most appropriate response on the part of those of us who adhere to the consistent biblical view is silence, but neither is simply yelling back. I think we need to fight for the right language, and not simply allow words like ‘affirming’ to be co-opted by those with revisionist views, in the way those who support abortion co-opted ‘pro-choice’. I am affirming: of a sexual ethic that allows for human flourishing and biblical faithfulness to a degree not reflected in current revisionist arguments. I think we need to be very careful about the language we use, and should be quick to speak out against those who use cruel or ignorant language towards gay people. Yet I don’t think we should be so cowed by our linguistic sensitivities that we never use the kind of language that demonstrates just how flimsy many revisionist arguments are – sometimes a short piece of parody can illustrate a point rather more effectively than hundreds of pages of closely reasoned argument.

This is all terribly complex, painful and messy. None of us, on either side, are going to get it right all of the time, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. We need to talk, but sometimes we need to admit that we simply disagree, and there isn’t much space for further talk, as disagreeable as that sounds.

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