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

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.

Read it all.


Posted in * Anglican - Episcopal, - Anglican: Commentary, Anglican Provinces, Church of England (CoE), CoE Bishops, Ecclesiology, Instruments of Unity, Lambeth 2008, Theology, Theology: Scripture

15 comments on “The Presidential Address of Bishop Tom Wright at Diocese of Durham's Synod

  1. RomeAnglican says:

    Tougher language about TEC follows, as well as a link (a StandFirm link!) to the recent pagan rites in Long Beach as illustrative of the state of the American Episcopal Church.

  2. driver8 says:

    Interestingly he is specifically critical of the language of first and second order issues that Bishop Michael Perham recently used to re-descriibe everything apart from the Nicene Creed as adiaphora.

  3. New Reformation Advocate says:

    Yes (#1), I’m glad +NT Wright pointed to the massive extent of the problems with TEC these days, that go so far beyond its advocacy of the anitbiblical pro-gay, relativist gospel, as illustrated by the syncretistic consecration service in LA.

    And I think he zeroed in appropriately on the key point, sharply distinguishing between the truly biblical idea of adiaphora found in Romans 14 and parallels, and the currently fashionable caricature of it that some folks call the gospel of inclusivity, or “tolerance” as an absolute value in and of itself. As +Wright rightly insists, determining what is adiaphora and what is not is most definitely not a matter of indifference itself. And in particular, as he aptly notes, it’s NOT a matter for local churches to decide for themselves.

    This splendid final address to the diocesan synod in Durham is vintage stuff from a master Bible teacher. And as usual, +Wright is right. Comparing his speech to that recently given by the liberal bishop of Glouscester makes the latter look very, very bad indeed. +Michael Perham comes off as merely trite, politically correct, and simply unbiblical.

    Has it been seven years already that +Wright has been Bishop of Durham? Or some may think, has it been only seven years? Either way, I’d say, with an allusion to Joseph laying up grain in Egypt for the famine to come, that these have been seven very good years for the CoE in Durham.

    Doubtless, +NT Wright will be sorely missed in Durham, and in the HoB of the CoE. But his astounding gifts as a peerless Bible teacher can benefit the whole Church so much that I’m personally glad he’s retiring and returning to academia so that he can continue to write more books and give more fabulous speeches like this one.

    David Handy+

  4. teatime says:

    FABULOUS address. Clear, pointed, and well-reasoned.+Durham succinctly yet expansively takes on many of the challenges facing Anglicans.

    I would only balk at his characterization of the unfortunate proceedings in Calif. as reflective of the American Church. The excesses and the far left margin, yes, but not of the entire church. If he saw a video of the Pentecost services at my parish, he would find it as far away spiritually from Long Beach as it is in distance. Btw, I love the anthem he quoted — we chant that at every baptism and confirmation in my parish while bells ring out.

  5. Ralph Webb says:

    This is, not surprisingly, a wonderful piece from +Wright.

  6. Ralph Webb says:

    I intended to add that he clearly defines what is adiaphora better in this address than any other thing that I can recall reading.

  7. New Reformation Advocate says:

    BTW, I hadn’t yet seen driver8’s comment (#2), when I independently (in #3) made the comparison with +Perham’s speech, to which +Wright was seemingly alluding (though he may well have had others in mind too). I think many people will connect the dots.

    This speech immediately reminded me of a crucial section in the famous Windsor Report of 2004. Ten paragraphs (#87-96) of that important document are devoted to the topic of adiaphora, but unfortunately, while they identify a key problem (how to recognize what’s adiaphora and what’s not), they don’t really propose any practical solution. It wouldn’t surprise me if +Wright had a large hand in writing those particular ten paragraphs.

    Some highlights by way of reminder:
    from #89: “[i]This does not mean, however, that either for Paul or for Anglican theology all things over which Christians in fact disagree are automatically to be placed into the category of ‘adiaphora.’ It has never been enough to say that we must celebrate or at least respect ‘difference’ without further ado. Not all ‘differences’ can be tolerated.[/i]”

    Later in #89, they go on:
    “[i]This question is frequently begged in current discussions, as for instance when people suggest without further argument, in relation to a particular controversial issue, that it should not be allowed to impair the Church’s unity…[/i]”

    and from #94: “[i]Thus the notion of ‘aduaphora’ is brought back into its close relationship with that of ‘subsidiarity,’ the principle that matters in the Church should be decided as close to the local level [b]as possible[/b].[/i]” (with my emphasis added)

    and later in #94,
    “[i]Once again, this poses the question: [b]how does one know[/b], and [b] who decides?[/b][/i]” (again, emphasis mine).

    Unfortunately, having raised that all-important question, the Windsor Report basically punts and fails to offer much guidance. It only suggests that heated controversy itself is a sufficient reason to refer hotly disputed matters to a higher level of authority.

    It’s discouraging that six years after the release of the Windsor Report, these vital matters on which so much depends still haven’t been clarified, and the confusion about how to identify what’s adiaphora and what’s not is as great as ever.

    Probably, in the end, it all comes down to the very pragmatic question, WHO gets to decide? And unfortunately, that immediately puts the spotlight on the Achilles Heel of Anglicanism, its lack of clear, universally accepted lines of ecclesiastical authority, especially beyond the provincial level (and often, even within provinces, where bishops or dioceses often do whatever seems right in their own eyes, ala Judges 21:25).

    David Handy+

  8. Ex-Anglican Sue says:

    May I beg your indulgence? The Pope’s address yesterday seems to cover the same ground, and come up with a solution:

    “The Son of God, dead and risen and returned to the Father, now breathes with untold energy the divine breath upon humanity, the Holy Spirit. And what does this new and powerful self-communication of God produce? Where there are divisions and estrangement he creates unity and understanding. The Spirit triggers a process of reunification of the divided and dispersed parts of the human family; persons, often reduced to individuals in competition or in conflict with each other, reached by the Spirit of Christ, open themselves to the experience of communion, can involve them to such an extent as to make of them a new organism, a new subject: the Church. This is the effect of God’s work: unity; thus unity is the sign of recognition, the “business card” of the Church in the course of her universal history. From the very beginning, from the day of Pentecost, she speaks all languages. The universal Church precedes the particular Churches, and the latter must always conform to the former according to a criterion of unity and universality. The Church never remains a prisoner within political, racial and cultural confines; she cannot be confused with states not with federations of states, because her unity is of a different type and aspires to transcend every human frontier.

    “From this, dear brothers, there derives a practical criterion of discernment for Christian life: When a person or a community, limits itself to its own way of thinking and acting, it is a sign that it has distanced itself from the Holy Spirit. The path of Christians and of the particular Churches must always confront itself with the path of the one and catholic Church, and harmonize with it. This does not mean that the unity created by the Holy Spirit is a kind of homogenization. On the contrary, that is rather the model of Babel, that is, the imposition of a culture of unity that we could call “technological.” The Bible, in fact, tells us (cf. Genesis 11:1-9) that in Babel everyone spoke the same language. At Pentecost, however, the Apostles speak different languages in such a way that everyone understands the message in his own tongue. The unity of the Spirit is manifested in the plurality of understanding. The Church is one and multiple by her nature, destined as she is to live among all nations, all peoples, and in the most diverse social contexts. She responds to her vocation to be a sign and instrument of unity of the human race (cf. “Lumen Gentium,” 1) only if she remains free from every state and every particular culture. Always and in every place the Church must truly be catholic and universal, the house of all in which each one can find a place.”

  9. driver8 says:

    Of course it was more or less the judgment of the Righter Trial – a view that has been criticized by the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission (IATDC) several times in the last decade. Of course for much of that time Bishop Wright was himself a member of the Doctrinal Commission.

  10. Hoskyns says:

    Sorry. Polished rhetoric and presentation, and 95% right is not bad. But he’s wrong on adiaphora. “One of those strict new rules is the complete relaxation of the regulations that would have kept Jews and Gentiles permanently separated.” If that really WERE the definition of adiaphora, then the church would need to embrace polygamy (because refusing to do so keeps Muslim and African cultures permanently separated) and of course gay marriage (because refusing to do so keeps Californians and others permanently separated). The fact is that Paul (in Romans 14 or elsewhere) gives not the slightest hint that food laws or circumcision etc. are “lifted” for Jews in Christ, merely that they are “non-mandatory” for Gentiles in Christ (as indeed they never did apply to Gentiles). In fact, Paul instructs the circumcised (i.e. self-identifying Jews) to live like Jews and not seek to get uncircumcised (in both Galatians 5 and 1 Corinthians 7). So no, I fear on this point NTW perpetuates the exegetical rot.

  11. Pageantmaster Ù† says:

    A well structured and helpful speech from the Anglican point of view with some helpful pointers for ecumenicism, and about the most helpful aid to understanding adiophora I have seen.

    There is a particularly helpful piece of guidance for us as we deal with the women bishops issue this summer:
    [blockquote]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.[/blockquote]
    and on TEC:
    [blockquote] 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.[/blockquote]

    Finally he deals with the issue of the Covenant:
    [blockquote] 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.[/blockquote]
    Of course three important matters need to be resolved in relation to the Covenant:
    1. The constitutional position of the oversight of the Covenant process. It is pretty clear that the JSC renamed the “Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion” with its inbuilt white liberal bias will not be acceptable to the majority of those likely to be interested in signing up to it. It would be unwise to try to bluff it out and better to take note of what was said in the Global South Singapore Communique.
    2. There is a crisis of confidence in the current instruments exacerbated by the manouevring over the ACC constitution. The GS meeting made it pretty clear that authority must be placed back with the legitimate instruments, and in particular the Primates’ Meeting to oversee the Covenant if it to have any chance of success.
    3. The renegade back office of the Communion, the ACO. The latest is that Canon Kearon is attending the Synod of the ACoC as a guest along with with Mrs Schori. Any Covenant will be pointless unless there is root and branch reform and dismantling of the ACO and its replacement with a secretariat that really represents the interests of the Communion rather than TEC/ACoC.

    I had the opportunity to thank Bishop Tom for his service to our church as a scholar-bishop today at a Fulcrum Seminar and to get signed my copy of his book ‘Virtue Reborn’ [in the US ‘After you believe: Why Christian character matters’] which he was talking about. Many of the themes of this diocesan address are also explored in his book and it was a fascinating look at the virtues or characteristics which become established in us and can be developed in us through the work of the Holy Spirit and the discipline the Spirit encourages us to develop and practice in our Christian lives. To what end? Well the improvement of our world and as part of the process by which the new heaven and new earth will come into being. I would recommend it.

  12. newcollegegrad says:

    It is entirely possible for the law to be lifted as a universal prescription and retained as a local discipline. Paul might not say that food laws are lifted for Jews, but Peter does in the Acts of the Apostles (10.9-29, 15.7-11). There is a real problem here that can’t be waved off just by saying the Gentile were never under the law anyway–can the Gentiles be included in the blessing God extends through Israel and Jesus (Acts 13, Romans 11) without living as Jews as some Jews contended (Acts 15.1-5)? Hence, the need for a council.

    If this relaxation is made possible by any principle of adiaphora, as Wright suggests, that does not mean any laws are relaxed anywhere. Even in the Council of Jerusalem, James determines from Peter’s testimony that certain things are allowed but this does not mean all things are allowed.

    The revelation God made to Peter is crucial. Neither the Acts of the Apostles nor N.T. Wright argue that concord between Jew and Gentile, in itself, is what drives the Council’s settlement. The general acceptance of polygamy is not a consequence of Wright’s reasoning.

  13. cseitz says:

    Acts 15 determines there is a ‘law for gentiles’ based upon the laws of Leviticus for the sojourner in the midst of Israel.

  14. MargaretG says:

    These are the points that Tom Wright made in a very early piece he wrote that covered explicitly the issue of why homosexual behaviour was not adiaphora. It was for a while on the website of the place he gave the speech at — but since has disappeared. I think I might have a hardcopy somewhere if it is of interest.

  15. cseitz says:

    The standard works on this (Acts 15’s use of Leviticus and Amos) are from Richard Bauckham and Markus Bockmuehl. In the western text of Acts the golden rule and ‘thou shalt do no murder’ appear instead of 2 levitical injunctions for the ‘sojouner in the midst,’ probably reflecting the parting of the ways, where table and house fellowship on the terms of Acts Jew and Gentile Christian has now changed. I have my own treatment in Figured Out (WJK, 2001).