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.