The Presidential Address of Bishop Tom Wright at Diocese of Durham’s Synod

The Presidential Address of Bishop Tom Wright at Diocese of Durham’s Synod
Some of you, older synodical hands than I, have seen bishops come and go over a long period, and no doubt you tick them off one by one in your mind, perhaps even carving another notch on the end of the pew. But for me this is a strange moment, and also sad. This isn’t the moment for farewells; we shall come to that in July. But this will be my last Diocesan Synod, and I want to pay grateful tribute to those who have faithfully carried the administrative work of the Diocese over the last seven years, not least the Diocesan Secretary and his colleagues in the office, the successive Chairs of the Houses of Clergy and Laity, and the DBF and especially its Chair, and to you in Synod past and present. Our new Diocesan Annual Report speaks powerfully, in its style and presentation as well as its content, of the energy and clarity upon which we now can call, so that even in financially challenging circumstances we can hold our heads up and do a cheerful and professional job. My deep gratitude to all those involved. I shall say more ‘thank-you’s on another occasion.

But today, as we reflect on synodical business in particular, there is one theme which I see as urgently necessary. I chose Romans 14 as our reading for this morning’s worship to set the stage for this, and I’d be grateful if we could turn back to it now. Paul’s treatment of what we call adiaphora, here and in 1 Corinthians, struck me afresh during my sabbatical last autumn, both in terms of what Paul himself was doing and in terms of our church life today. When we come to the farewell service in July I intend to take Romans 15 as my text; but the road to Romans 15 passes through Romans 14. These issues remain fundamental and pressing, especially for those engaged in synodical debate about our common life.

The word adiaphora means, literally, ‘not-different things’, or ‘things that don’t make a difference’. And the question of adiaphora can be posed, as I have often posed it, like this: granted that there are many differences between us, how can we tell which differences make a difference and which ones don’t? How do you know? Who decides? How can you tell the difference between differences which make a difference and differences which don’t make a difference?

This question lies, to begin with, at the heart of all our ecumenical questing. Since I have found ecumenical relations to be an important feature of these last seven years, it’s worth spelling it out. How do we tell the difference between ourselves and, say, the Roman Catholics on the one hand or the newer Free Churches on the other, and many others besides? How do we know, if we do, that those differences ‘make a difference’ in terms (for instance) of our not being able to share the Eucharist together? Gone, or almost gone, are the days when different Christian groups would believe, and preach, that those who didn’t belong to their way of being Christian were on the broad road to Hell. Why then can’t we share all aspects of our common life? Which differences make a difference, how do you tell, and who says? When I heard Roman Catholic bishops declare, in Rome in October 2008, that Baptism and the Bible are the two great ecumenical instruments, I found myself wondering whether, if we really explored those starting-points, we might find that our remaining differences turned out to make less of a difference than we had previously supposed. This is close to the question the Archbishop of Canterbury raised in his lecture in Rome last November: granted we share so much, starting with belief in the same Triune God, might we not recognise some of our remaining disagreements as not primary, as mere surface tensions above a deep and now recognisable Christian unity?

That, of course, is a characteristically Anglican position, and it’s worth reminding ourselves of how it came about. Despite the usual sneer that England got a new Church because Henry VIII wanted a new wife, the indigenous reform movement in these islands predated the rise of Ann Boleyn by several years. And those early English reformers had already figured out that to succeed they would need – dare we say? – a coalition, in which the various English followers of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and the rest would agree to differ on some things – notably the mode of the presence of the Lord in the Eucharist – in order to advance their main agenda. They thus introduced back into western Christianity the principle of adiaphora which had I think been lost sight of in earlier generations. Differences on the theology of Eucharistic presence, they said, don’t make a difference. But other things did: justification by faith, the Bible in the vernacular, the uniqueness of the death of Jesus. For these they were prepared to die, and did, often horribly.

The principle of adiaphora was itself, in fact, a matter of life and death. The doctrine that some things are adipahora, and some aren’t, is not itself adiaphora. The decision as to which things make a difference and which do not is itself a decision which makes a huge difference. Some of the early English Reformers claimed explicitly that they were dying precisely for the principle of adiaphoraitself, for the right to disagree on certain points (not on everything). That for which you will give your life is hardly something which doesn’t make a difference.

All this might seem somewhat remote, but in fact it’s anything but. One of the main focal points of my ministry these last seven years, locally, nationally and internationally, and one of the main challenges facing General Synod this summer and hereafter, is the question of discerning how the doctrine of adiaphora ought to play out, not least ecumenically. Most of us are signed up in principle to doing together everything which we are not forced to do apart, but not all of us are clear which things are which. Those of you who worship in ecumenical projects will know the problem: what do Anglicans do when it’s a Methodist minister presiding at the Lord’s Table? Or, to come at the same issue from a different angle: if it’s all right for an Anglican to receive Communion in a Roman Catholic church when on holiday in the wilds of Europe, why isn’t it all right in the church round the corner? And discussions of that sort regularly move across other bits of ground, too: could Roman Catholics ever get to the point where they were prepared to say that, say, the Papal dogmas, or the Marian dogmas, were adiaphora – that is, things that some people might sign up to while others held back? And would most Protestants, including most Anglicans, be happy with that kind of concession even if it could be granted? Or would many of us not insist that it was vital, and not adiaphora at all, to deny the Roman dogmas about the Pope and about the Mother of Jesus? Please note, I am not commenting on those dogmas here; merely pointing out, in line with what the Archbishop said six months ago, that the question needs to be raised in these terms if we are to see clearly where we are. And where we aren’t.

So what does St Paul say on all this? ‘Welcome those who are weak in the faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions.’ The questions he is dealing with have to do with food and drink and special holy days. Well, of course they do: he is addressing several house-churches in Rome, some of which are Jewish by background and others not. Some Jewish Christians – not all – insisted on still keeping the kosher laws, which in a pagan city often meant staying vegetarian. Some insisted on keeping the Sabbath. These laws marked out the Jewish people against their pagan neighbours. Must they then mark out Jewish Christians against their Gentile Christian neighbours, as the Galatian agitators had insisted? Absolutely not, declares Paul. Such things are adiaphora: you are not to make a difference over them, indeed not to wrangle about them. You are to respect one another’s position. Romans 14.7: we do not live to ourselves or die to ourselves; we live and die to the Lord. We shall all stand before the judgment seat of God, where each one will be accountable. And he goes on in the second half of the chapter to draw the conclusion: however ‘strong’ you are in faith, you must not put a stumbling-block in front of someone else who has a tender conscience. This is central to the New Testament vision of church life: in matters that are contentious, we make demands on one another’s charity and patience, but not on one another’s conscience. Romans 14, alongside 1 Corinthians 8, 9 and 10, deserves careful detailed study for which this is not the place. I hope you will all study it carefully in the coming days. It it is remarkably relevant to the way we do business together in churches and Synods.

And also internationally. We have for years in the Anglican Communion operated a tacit rule of agreeing to differ about many things but trying not to do or say things which will cause other Anglicans to stumble. The Lambeth Conference has been the main instrument of this process: broad agreement can be reached on major issues while the provinces retain autonomy in their own lives. Thus, for instance, the Lambeth Conference agreed that it was all right to admit children to Communion prior to Confirmation, which then opened up the question for any individual Province to discuss, as most now have. Our own General Synod repeated Lambeth’s point, so the issue was then passed down to dioceses. Our own Diocese in turn agreed, so the issue has now become a matter for individual parishes. That is a model of how you discern that something is adiaphora, and how you deal with the issue once that has been decided, respecting consciences all the way through. It highlights again this key point: the question of whether a particular issue is adiaphora or not cannot itself be adiaphora. It wouldn’t have done for the Parish of St-Muddy-by-the-Sea to decide independently that the question of unconfirmed children receiving Communion was adiaphora and then proceeding to take its own decision without reference to its diocese, its province, or the whole Communion.

This is the point which emerges with great clarity from St Paul. He is not at all advocating what we today call ‘tolerance’ – a loose, flabby laissez-faire approach which shrugs its shoulders and says ‘just do your own thing’. His aim is not the creation of several different communities each going its own way, but of one single Body of Christ. In that single family, practices that would divide Christians from one another on ethnic grounds are to be treated as adiaphora, however vital and mandatory they may have been for the Jewish people – not least Paul himself in his Pharisaic past! – prior to the coming of the Messiah. At the same time, that same goal – the creation and maintenance of the one Body of Christ – demands new standards of life to which all must conform, in relation to which pagans in particular will experience a considerable moral challenge. These new standards, spelt out in letter after letter, are not adiaphora. They – I am thinking of patience and practical love, of purity both in speech and in sexual behaviour – may not be as central as the Trinity or the Atonement, but they remain mandatory.

Here then is the point, which meets us on page after page in Paul: the move from something being mandatory to that same thing being non-mandatory (e.g. circumcision), from something being prohibited to that same thing being permitted for those who wish (e.g. eating pork), from something being essential to something being trivial – that move is not itself trivial. It is of the utmost importance. It is essential for Paul that the Jewish food-laws, like circumcision and Sabbath-keeping, are non-mandatory for those in Christ—or, to put it the other way round, that the Jewish prohibitions against eating pork and so on are now lifted. And he explains, again and again, why this particular shift has happened. It isn’t, despite centuries of misrepresentation, that Judaism was a religion of harsh and difficult laws and Christianity was all about getting rid of moral rules and regulations. It is, rather, that God has in Jesus Christ created a single family composed of people from every ethnic background. There are strict new rules for this family, because this family is the new humanity, the re-creation of the human race, the new Genesis; but one of those strict new rules is the complete relaxation of the regulations that would have kept Jews and Gentiles permanently separated. So, to repeat: the question of which things are adiaphora and which things are not, what is essential and what is trivial, is not itself a matter of indifference. It is vital; it is theologically rooted; it has nothing to do with an easy-going tolerance, let alone the assimilation of the church to its surrounding culture, and everything to do with the new humanity which has come into being in the Messiah, Jesus. This is the point we urgently need to grasp in relation to several pressing issues.


All this means that this question, which differences make a difference and which don’t, cannot itself be decided locally. This is where the principle of adiaphora meets the principle of ‘subsidiarity’, which proposes that matters should be decided at the most local level possible. Changing the time of Evensong from 6 to 6.30 on Sundays in summer may seem an earth-shattering move for those involved, but actually it’s up to the local parish to decide; you don’t call in the Area Dean, let alone the Archdeacon or the Bishop, and you certainly don’t put it on the agenda for the Lambeth Conference. But if you want to stop reading the Bible in public worship, and instead to read the lessons from the Koran or the Bahagavad-Gita, you are not at liberty to claim, locally, that this is adiaphora and you can get on with it.


All this applies rather obviously to two major issues we currently face: that of women bishops in our own Church of England, and that of the actions of the American Episcopal Church in relation to the worldwide Anglican Communion. But before we get to those questions we need to address another point in more general terms. I have heard it said recently that we have to distinguish between first-order issues and second-order issues, and that the first are things we must all agree on while the second are things on which we can agree to differ. That is fine as far as it goes, and sounds very like what I’ve been saying. But it is sometimes applied further as follows: the first-order issues are the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection, the Spirit, and so on – the basic facts of our faith. Then the second-order issues have to do with the way we live it out. We can, it is said, insist on the first but be flexible on the second.

And at this point I have to demur. We cannot be flexible on the commands to be kind, patient, generous, gentle and forgiving. We cannot be flexible on the prohibitions on murder, theft and adultery. These do not seem to me to be in the same rank as the Trinity and the Resurrection, but that doesn’t mean they are open for negotiation. Some things at least, it seems, may not be absolutely first-order but are nevertheless not flexible. Perhaps, at the risk of increasing complexity – but then all human life is complex – we need to think in terms of first, second and third order matters, or possibly fourth and fifth as well. And again the point is this: we cannot assume that this or that issue belongs at the ‘flexible’ end of the scale, so that by appealing to the existence of such a scale we can thereby locate a particular issue at one point on it. As I said before, the proposal that something hitherto mandatory is now optional, or that something hitherto prohibited is now permitted, or that something previously important is now trivial, is not itself trivial. Just because Christians have agreed to differ on one matter – say, on the mode of Eucharistic presence, or on whether Christians can fight in the army – that doesn’t mean we can agree to differ on any other topic that happens to come up. Each case has to be argued on its merits.

And I wish I thought that arguing cases on their merits was our strong suit just now. In fact, as the debates of the last decade have shown with worrying clarity, we are not very good at it at all. The postmodern malaise has eaten into us deeply, so that instead of real debate we have the exchange of prejudice, and instead of speaking of evidence, arguments and conclusions we speak of attitudes, feelings and aspirations. This generates a culture of victimhood where squeals of pain do duty for patient and reasoned discourse, and the creation of safe enclaves takes precedence over the hard and demanding disciplines of sustaining the whole Body of Christ. We are then at the mercy of those who say we must go with the spirit of the age and those who instinctively resist such a move, neither of which constitutes a good theological argument. We are, in short, not in a good place.

It therefore doesn’t surprise me that the discussion over women bishops has run into such difficulty. As you know, I have argued strongly and scripturally for the propriety of ordaining women to each order of ministry; my colours have been nailed to that mast for a long time. And I have argued, again and again, in line with successive Lambeth resolutions, that this is something the whole church has said it can live with but need not impose on everyone – though I am very well aware of the particular problem this poses. In other words, this has not been an innovation, carried out by rogue provinces who declare on their own local authority that this is adiaphora and can therefore be decided by them alone. It has been debated and decided by the whole church meeting in solemn conclave. That doesn’t, of course, make it any easier when the decision is passed down from Lambeth to Canterbury and York, which is where we now are. But it does tell us that the church as a whole has said that this matter is adiaphora: that it ought not to be something over which the church needs to divide.

I know, very well, that for some the issue is that Lambeth cannot decide such a thing while Rome, and perhaps also Constantinople, remains uninvolved. The obvious reply is that while Rome still officially treats Anglican orders as ‘absolutely null and utterly void’ it is hard to give them a veto on what we do with those orders, and that if we went that route we should have to return to the celibate priesthood and embrace the Papal dogmas. These are just as mandatory in Rome as male-only ordination, and I don’t know of a sustained argument as to why Anglicans who insist that only when Rome changes will we be allowed to do the same should be allowed to disagree with Rome on these other points. If there is an implicit hierarchy of truths there, I have yet to hear it articulated. However, like many bishops who are in principle committed to the ordination of women to the episcopate I do not think I have yet seen the scheme which would enable us to proceed as one body, without further and deepening division, without straining one another’s consciences. All ministry, according to St Paul, is given to serve the unity of the church, not to divide it. That is especially true of the ministry of Bishops. I hope and pray we will be able to square that circle, and I would rather get the right answer in two or three years’ time than the wrong one tomorrow. I really do believe that ordaining women is the right thing to do; but St Paul’s insistence on how adiaphora works prohibits me from forcing it on those who in conscience are not ready for it. And the answer here, I believe, is a proper theological argument, which we have not yet had. The Rochester report has never been properly discussed.


My hope and plea, then, is that this summer in General Synod, and in the months that follow whatever happens there, we will observe restraint and patience with one another, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. As followers of Jesus, invoking his Spirit at Pentecost, we should expect to have demands made on our charity, our forgiveness and our patience; not on our conscience. That is the key to how adiaphora works in the church.


And that, too, is why recent events in America are placing an ever greater strain on the Anglican Communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury is, I believe, in the process of writing a pastoral letter to all the churches, and I don’t want to pre-empt what he will say. But the point is this. Unlike the situation with children and Communion; unlike the situation with the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate; in the case of sexual relations outside the marriage of a man and a woman, the church as a whole, in all its global meetings not least the Lambeth Conference, has solidly and consistently reaffirmed the clear and unambiguous teaching of the New Testament. But the substantive issue isn’t the point here. The point is that the Church as a whole has never declared these matters to be adiaphora. This isn’t something a Bishop, a parish, a diocese, or a province can declare on its own authority. You can’t simply say that you have decided that this is something we can all agree to differ on. Nobody can just ‘declare’ that. The step from mandatory to optional can never itself be a local option, and the Church as a whole has declared that the case for that step has not been made. By all means let us have the debate. But, as before, it must be a proper theological debate, not a postmodern exchange of prejudices.

Actually, if you want to know about the present state of the church in America you ought to watch the video of last Saturday’s service in Los Angeles, which is readily available on the web. ( problems, shall we say, are not about one issue only. But my point for today is this. In November the newly elected General Synod will be asked to approve the Anglican Covenant, which has been through a long and thorough process of drafting, debate, redrafting, polishing and refining. Synod will be asked to send the Covenant to the Dioceses for approval, and all being well it should be with you, the Synod of this Diocese, by the end of the year, and you will be asked to think wisely and clearly about it. No doubt it isn’t perfect. But it is designed, not (as some have suggested) to close down debate or squash people into a corner, but precisely to create the appropriate space for appropriate debate in which issues of all sorts can be handled without pre-emptive strikes on the one hand or closed-minded defensiveness on the other. The Covenant is designed to recognise and work with the principle of adiaphora; and that requires that it should create a framework within which the church can be the church even as it wrestles with difficult issues, and through which the church can be united even as it is battered by forces that threaten to tear it apart. Some of the voices raised against the Covenant today are, in my judgment, voices raised against the biblical vision of how unity is accomplished and sustained, the vision which enables us to discern what is adiaphora and what is not. I hope and pray that this diocese at least will appreciate where the real issues lie, and think and live wisely and cheerfully in relation to them.

We sang earlier, ‘Anoint and cheer our soiled face/ with the abundance of thy grace’: the great invocation of the Spirit by one of my great predecessors. John Cosin faced a different set of problems from ours, but I think he would have recognised the shape of the questions we struggle with: how to be comprehensive without compromise, how to be Spirit-led without being schismatic. That will be my continuing prayer for you, for this Diocese, and for the whole Church of England and the Anglican Communion. As tomorrow we celebrate the feast of Pentecost, let us pray, in Cosin’s words: ‘Keep far our foes, give peace at home; where thou art guide no ill can come.’ And, in words that, refreshingly, anchor us right back to our first-order moorings:

Teach us to know the Father, Son, and Thee of both to be but one;

That through the ages all along, this may be our endless song:

Praise to thine eternal merit; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.


Diocese of Durham: Diocesan Synod, May 21 2010

Presidential Address: The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd N. T. Wright, DD     



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