Bishop Tom Wright, soon to assume his alter ego as N. T. Wright, academic at large, has a few things to say in his final presidential address to his Durham Synod. Please read the whole address - vintage Wright! Here are a few paragraphs that particularly caught my attention (with some pertinent words italicised by me):
"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 adiaphora itself, 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 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."