We already have a unity that we can celebrate

We explore the themes in the new book "Is kindness killing the church?" by former CTE President Rev Dr Hugh Osgood.

CTE’s Senior Communications Manager, Sarah Ball (SB), spoke to Hugh Osgood (HO)…

(SB) I often hear ecumenists saying that it’s important to ‘disagree well’. Do you think that ‘disagreeing well’ – with kindness – is dangerous?

(HO) Actually, I do think so. We can be desperately keen to rule things off, as if holding things in tension, saying that we don’t actually agree, can be a little bit embarrassing for us. I think that it would be good to keep the debate going rather than trying to rule off too quickly. We need to engage wholeheartedly but robustly.

(SB) You point out in the book that the church has always been really diverse and that we shouldn’t be afraid of this.

(HO) I think that’s true. and I think that the diversity we have should be absolutely brilliant. Listening to each other and coming to conclusions that are well-rounded, well-thought-through, that can stand the test of time is important. And if we don’t get there as quickly as we would like, we just need to be honest about it, saying that we haven’t reached there yet.

(SB) Human sexuality issues have been on everyone’s mind over the last few weeks…or years. It might seem that that’s an area where we could do with more kindness; rather than less.

(HO) Some of my Anglican friends have made just that point. And I understand that entirely. I’m not saying that kindness doesn’t have a place, but when we just are having a sort of polite kindness that stops engaging wholeheartedly in a robust way, I think that could be a problem. I would love to actually see people having effective discussions rather than just ‘soap-boxing’. That never gets us anywhere.

(SB) You talk about two sorts of unity in the book. You talk about the unity of the faith and the unity of the spirit. Can you unpack that a little?

(HO) I’m deliberately borrowing phrases that the apostle Paul used when he was writing to the Ephesians. He seems to be making the point that there is an underlying unity that we’ve been given. When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost and transformed people, they were all of one spirit. And that unity, which we have been given, we’re told to maintain in the bond of peace. Then a few verses later Paul is actually saying that we need to be working towards the unity of the faith, which to me sounds much more like getting agreement on theological issues. There’s an incident in the book of Acts where it talks about tensions coming up in the church in Antioch, setting it at odds with the church in Jerusalem. It was over issues to do with the Gentiles; did they need to embrace the Jewish law or not. And the interesting thing is that at that particular point they didn’t just say let’s agree to disagree. They felt that they needed to thrash it out rather than just go off in their separate directions. So I think there’s a really positive thing there about having an underlying sense of unity but being prepared to work hard on issues that can be contentious.

(SB) The structure of the book is really interesting with the sort of parallel first-century and contemporary churches. How did you come up with that idea?

(HO) It’s very difficult to find the right voice to say things, as you don’t want to come across as critical or judgmental. The things that Jesus said to the seven churches in Revelations were actually pretty harsh for five of them. If those churches applied Jesus’ prescription and came out the other side, what a voice their leaders would have. They would say you can work through your difficulties. I thought that would be a great positive voice to borrow. And I suppose I was cheating a little bit. I didn’t want to say “Thus says Hugh Osgood”, so I have written seven letters to churches today as if from those first-century leaders.

(SB) You suggest each of the letters from the Revelation church leaders should be read aloud. What do you think that gives?

(HO) When you’re reading something aloud, it gives you a sense that this doesn’t just apply to you personally.  And one thing I wanted to make sure of is that people weren’t feeling personally overburdened. The Revelation church leaders would have read out their letters and said we are all going to share the responsibility for enacting the contents.

(SB) So in the book’s imaginary town, we’ve got these seven different churches. What would you be encouraging them to do? Some theology together or more ‘faith in action’?

(HO) I definitely think that it’s a mix of both. It starts with appreciation. I’ve heard that we need to learn from one another. However, we often stop short of that and just end up learning about one another. If we can bring that learning from each other to a local level that would be good. I’d love to see more of that happening locally; the person in the pew being really positive about what’s going on with the church down the road. Let’s see some joint things happening, I think that would be fantastic.

Book for the official launch of Is kindness killing the church? on Thursday 2 March at 6pm at the CTE offices.

‘Is kindness killing the church’ is published by Malcolm Down publishing.