by the Rev. Canon Eric Beresford
Produced for the Ethics Task Group of the Faith, Worship, and Ministry Committee
February 2013

Disputes across the Anglican Communion concerning human sexuality have proved profoundly intractable and have threatened the very fabric of the communion. A number of initiatives have been taken to address both the ethical issues that divide us, and the experience of division. These initiatives include, amongst others, the Indaba processes adopted by Lambeth 2008, the continuing Indaba, the work of the Lambeth Commission on the Communion and the follow up work to its report, The Windsor Report, the work on the Anglican Covenant. A less widely publicized initiative was the Consultation of Bishops in Dialogue, which first met at the Anglican Communion Office in 2010, and has since met in Dar es Salaam (2011), Toronto (2012), and is planning to meet again in Cape Town (2013).

The Faith Worship and Ministry Committee is tasked with providing resources to support moral discernment and difficult ethical debates. In reflecting on how we might do this we came the conclusion that the work of Bishops’ Dialogue might offer one such resource. It seems to us that it offers valuable insights into the sorts of conversations that are helpful in the face of grave and potentially church dividing differences of theological conviction, moral insight, and pastoral practice. The following document is therefore designed to be a companion piece to the interviews posted on the Anglican Church of Canada’s website to encourage deeper reflection on the learnings of the Bishops’ Dialogue and stimulate further reflection on the types of discussion most likely to contribute to healthy and theologically robust ways of addressing difference in the life of the church.


The first and most obvious learning from the Dialogue is the importance of trust. No truly helpful ethical conversation in the life of the church can take place without it. In the case of the Dialogue the issue of trust appears both in the prior relationships within which the Dialogue was conceived and in the experience of nervous anxiety in those who were meeting their dialogue partners for the first time. It is also present in the experience reported in several of the interviews of the ways in which the dialogue was enriched as the trust grew. The enhanced trust grew out of the realization that all participants in the group were serious about their mission and ministry, that they all shared a sense of calling to mission in their particular context and were trying to be faithful to that call. It also grew as the participants realized that each of them was committed to finding ways to continue to move forward in communion with each other. This growing trust made possible ever increasing frankness as the discussions unfolded.


This leads to the second important factor in the success of the conversations and that is the importance of communication. Several of the participants reported their surprise as they gained new understanding of the missional contexts and motives of their dialogue partners. One of the participants noted that his perspective shifted as he realized that North American bishops had not been acting out of “defiance”, but rather out of a sense of the context for mission in which he served. Further, one North American bishop indicated that he had not foreseen the profundity of the impact of the actions of his diocese and would have been prepared to wait had he understood the impact of his actions in other contexts.

Attention to Context

Attention to context has been a critical element of the conversations in the dialogue and from the interviews seems to have had two results. In the first place attention to context has enabled the bishops to understand the differences that have emerged across the communion in a new way. One African bishop noted that difference was important even within the African context. What is acceptable in one culture is not acceptable in another. There is no one size fits all solution. This fits well with the profoundly incarnational character of Anglican self-understanding. The Church in Anglican thought is to reflect its character as part of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church by the way it adapts itself appropriately to its missional context. This commitment reaches back to the establishment and defense of the English Church in the Elizabethan era and is reflected in the Thirty Nine Articles.

It is not necessary that the Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word. (Article XXXIV)

At the same time we need to recognize that in our globalized context this experience of diversity can be increasingly challenging.

However, the focus on context in the Dialogue drew attention not just to difference, but also to commonality. While different churches have different liturgies, different pastoral practices, and even different moral commitments, the bishops began to recognize the degree to which all of these things are a reflection of a common commitment to mission refracted through the different contexts within which that mission is carried out. Part of what is at stake here is the recognition that the task of proclaiming the “faith once delivered to the saints” is an interpretive one. What does grace look like in this context. How does the church express the unchanging love of God in the changing realities of our social, cultural, and historical contexts? This recognition in the past has led to the realization that the church needs to be always reforming and always being reformed (reformata, semper reformanda). In the context of a global, interconnected communion we are being drawn to the recognition that this is going to involve diversity of practice across the communion and that this diversity is going to be uncomfortable. Yet the bishops suggest that this diversity is not something to be solved, but as far as possible something to be understood in the light of our commonalities in terms of mission and tradition, and in the light of the bonds of affection that join us and make us accountable to each other.

Understanding Motives

The conversation concerning commonalities and diversities in context led the bishops to recognize that the motives for action were not always those that get imputed in the heat of profound disagreement. Disagreement gives rise to mistrust and anxiety. The bishops reported that the dialogue offered a chance to re-evaluate such imputed motives. This observation links back to the earlier insights on the importance of trust as well as the comments on the question of context. In fact the motives for action are rarely simple or linear. We act because of the ways in which we respond to multiple pressures and resolve competing values. If moral debate is reduced to assertion and counter assertion this is all too easily lost. The complexity of our moral commitments as individuals and as communities is only really disclosed in relationship.

Commitment to Relationship

Statements about the importance of relationship for transforming moral conflict can be found in all of the interviews. References are made to the transformational character of encounter. When we are brought face to face with the other our understanding of them and of their actions is bound to change. Encounter undermines mistrust, and stereotyping. However such transformational relationships also involve as several bishops noted a commitment to the long haul. Only by being committed to being in relationship with each other over the long haul can we overcome the barriers to relationship and create the space for mutual understanding in ways that will inform our theological moral and pastoral debates and make them productive.

There were interesting observations about both formal and informal structures and how they support relationships involving genuine encounter. There was criticism of the debate formats particularly of the 1998 Lambeth Conference. There were observations about the inadequacy, even dysfunction, of the (relatively young) instruments of communion. Others were more hopeful about the capacities and effectiveness of formal structures. All agreed that they needed to be supplemented with informal structures. In the words of one bishop we need to be at table together, not just the Eucharist. Several bishops referred to the importance of sidebar conversations even at formal gatherings and indeed it was suggested that the dialogue grew out of such informal networks at Lambeth in 2008. Encounter and sustainable relationship in the midst of conflict require both formal and informal opportunities to build understanding and trust and reduce tension and conflict.

At the same time we need to remember that our relationships are shaped by our past histories with all their light and shade. One bishop came away from the Dar es Salaam gathering deeply aware of the stain of colonialism and slavery on the relationship between the churches of North America and the churches of Africa. In speaking of the relationships across the communion to the present another bishop noted what he saw as the unhelpfulness of the myth of a once unified Communion. Certainly we are now a Communion more conscious of our differences than we have ever been, but has the Communion ever been unified to the extent that some imply. As one bishop noted Christianity itself has been messy since its beginnings as can be seen in the differences between the Pauline and Petrine streams of Christianity. This raises the question of what needs to be resolved and what simply needs to be understood and accepted as part of the diversity embraced in God’s work of creation and redemption.

Focus on Understanding not Action

Another insight, which brought varied reaction from the bishops, was the need to focus on understanding rather than on decision or action. For some this was a source of frustration, but all recognized that it reflected an important moment in the history of the Communion and in the possibility of relationships across a Communion that ministers across such diverse cultural contexts. As one bishop put it, this is a Mary moment. Perhaps all of us need to remember that Jesus called this the better part. Another bishop noted that the attempt to impose action at the 1998 Lambeth conference had not resolved anything but merely added to the tensions. This observation would raise questions about what sorts of actions are helpful. As a historical observation the most constructive Lambeth motions are those that reflected an already emerged consensus rather than those that reflected an anxiety about the lack of consensus across the Communion. This would suggest that approaches less oppositional than resolution and debate might be the most constructive way of dealing with difficult conversations.

Debate v. Dialogue

An underlying theme of the interviews is a distinction between debate and dialogue as two different ways of proceeding in conflicted situations. The bishops constantly refer to the Dialogue as just that, and several contrast it with debate with its winners and losers. There is little attempt to reflect systematically on the difference between debate and dialogue in the interviews but we might observe several ways in which we might understand the difference. These distinctions should not be understood as simple oppositions but rather as differences of emphasis between two sets of discursive practices both of which are related to truth and both of which seek to disclose truth.

  • Debate emphasizes content. It is about distinguishing correct assertion from incorrect and excluding the latter. Dialogue emphasizes relationship. It is open to the possibility that apparent differences of content are really differences of language and perspective. It is open to the possibility that different approaches can co-exist if justified by the different missional contexts within which the gospel is proclaimed and lived. This is not to deny the importance of content. Content without context is abstract, but context without content lacks integrity.
  • Debate focuses on correctness. It is linked to an understanding of truth that sees truth as the correspondence between assertion and some external standard to which it must conform. Dialogue focuses on Insight and recognizes that there is an interpretive element to truth claims. It recognizes that the way we see the truth is shaped by our context. This is not some form of relativism. It is a recognition that there is no view from nowhere and that perspectives are an ineradicable element in the way we understand and interpret the cultural and social expression of the gospel.
  • Debate focuses attention on points of difference. This is why the history of ethics is a history of what Alasdair Macintyre calls an interminable debate between positions that are essentially irresolvable in their own terms. Dialogue focuses on points of connection. It recognizes that any real disagreement requires some underlying agreements and also that some apparent disagreements are only that and can be resolved once we understand the commonalities that lie behind our apparently different positions.
  • The purpose of dialogue is to understand and appreciate the positions of others not to change or correct them, which is the implied end of debate.
  • Debate focuses on facts. Dialogue focuses on meanings. In the area of theological and moral conversation both are important but the bishops discoveries in dialogue suggest that the latter are more often the source of difference and that dialogue is therefore more likely to be more fruitful.
  • The purpose of debate is to reach closure, to bring an end to difference and to choose resolution that will be agreed by all rational parties. Dialogue does not presume that this outcome is always possible but seeks to hold the space of conversation open as long as is necessary and possible.

All of this raises the question as to the types of discourse that are appropriate to different types of disagreement in different contexts. Given the observations above, I would suggest that debate is rarely helpful as a mode of discourse in difficult conversations in cross-cultural contexts. This means that dialogue is generally a more helpful form of discourse for communion level conversations. This reflects the experience of bishops in the Dialogue and of those who have participated in Indaba and continuing Indaba processes.

Debate does provide the sorts of clarity that are important in policy formation within particular jurisdictions, for example within provinces and dioceses. Even where debate might be helpful for decision, complex and divisive issues might be well served by use of more dialogical methods to deepen mutual understanding and uncover unexpected common ground prior to moving to parliamentary process and debate. Such a two-pronged approach can help to prepare the way for decision-making processes that are much less divisive and destructive of community. A recent example of such a process would be the process that led to the Discernment on Sexuality at the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada in 2010. After years of often rancorous and divisive debate a dialogical process allowed the synod to adopt a significant statement with overwhelming support in the synod.

The Consultation of Bishops in Dialogue is an attempt to rethink the way we engage in discussion with each other in the midst of difficult and potentially divisive conversations. This brief reflection clearly intends to commend the process. At the same time we need to recognize that the models of conversation it offers are extremely demanding process and that there are certain preconditions before such a conversation can even get underway. Rigorous and disciplined dialogue is not for the faint of heart.  It demands that we not only understand the other better but also that we are willing to learn to understand ourselves better. It also demands a capacity to live in the midst of complexity and diversity that not all find comfortable. Yet as one bishop said, in truth, this has been the character of Christianity since its origins. The coexistence of unity within diversity has been a characteristic of Anglicanism since its origins within the ambiguities of the Elizabethan Settlement, and as a practice of the wider church catholic goes back much further. It is surely once consequence of Cyprian’s insistence on “liberty within the bonds of affection.”