This week I have been part of the Church of England’s Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality. They have been set up by the bishops as a way of discussing rather than simply debating.
These conversations were recommended as part of the Pilling Report, which discussed the current range of views on these issues within the Church of England.They are going on over the next year and are bringing together 10-12 people (with a range of backgrounds) per diocese from 2 to 5 dioceses at a time to go through a facilitated series of conversations under the general topic of “Given the significant changes in our culture in relation to human sexuality, how should the church respond?” Although the breadth of this was touched upon over the three days, we did spend most of the time discussing responses to homosexuality. This is both presupposed by the process and unsurprising given the Church of England’s current problems with this. So, these are my reflections.
When I received the bishop’s email inviting me to be one of Derby Diocese’s participants on the regional conversation my first reaction was “Oh no!” This is a deeply contentious issue and spending three days talking about it didn’t exactly appeal…
Given my reluctance, I’m especially impressed that people chose to come who were affected by it more personally. It was brave of those LGBT Christians and also, I think, brave of those conservative evangelicals who came. Both groups knew they were going to be something of a minority and likely to be challenged. Of course, as was rightly pointed out, the first group brought themselves and the second their strongly-held opinions. It wasn’t equal, but it would have been considerably less helpful if either group had stayed away.
Unfortunately, Reform have called on their members not to participate, which reduced the numbers of conservative evangelicals participating, particularly amongst the clergy (the Church of England has disputed Reform’s reasoning). Instead, a couple of the dioceses sent an ’empty chair’ to symbolise this. There were different views on whether this was a good idea or a form of special pleading, but personally I thought it was a helpful reminder of who wasn’t present (not least, because they will be present when this moves from a conversation to a debate at Synod).
We spent three days talking about different aspects of this huge debate. This wouldn’t have been possible without the excellent facilitators and the use of the St Michael’s House protocols, which encourage people to make the conversations as safe as possible, by respecting one another, thinking carefully about the use of language and by only sharing what we gained in a suitably anonymous and respectful way.
To get this up and running we spent what I found to be a rather frustrating couple of sessions discussing the protocols and how we use language. I do understand, however, that this is important and, sadly, people didn’t always think carefully enough about their use of language. I’m glad to say that in many instances this was challenged by the facilitators, who also (appropriately) supported participants when they challenged other participants’ use of language. Alongside this, there were also some very encouraging examples of people disagreeing gracefully and respectfully.
We thought about how social attitudes to sex in general and homosexuality in particular have changed over the last hundred years.
We discussed our approaches to the Bible in small groups with people with a range of opinions. These were informed by two of the essays in the Grace and Disagreement booklet that informed the conversations. Some people found one or the other of these helpful and accurately reflected their positions, while there was also criticism for the lack of range of views reflected. (The Pilling Report includes a few different views which I thought helpfully extended the range). I was unsurprised that I disagreed with significant parts of both of them! The thing that I found most worrying was in the conservative paper which ended with a statement that this wasn’t an issue that we could disagree on, but rather an issue that affected salvation.
This was a point of view that was also held by many of the conservative evangelicals who were part of the discussions. This, of course, raises the stakes considerably. For most of us, the approach of the fourth paper, with some sort of agreement to disagree, was seen as a good way forward. For some, this wasn’t seen as going far enough. But, of course, any sort of change isn’t really an option if you believe that this affects people’s salvation. It’s something that needs a lot more debate and work.
We shared our personal journeys, some of which were deeply moving. This was followed by the whole group being asked to state what things were essential to us as we moved forward. This was the point that the gulf between the different points of view was shown. It was essential for some people that there was no change in the doctrine of marriage, that the impact on the Anglican Communion be acknowledged, that things changed so that some people didn’t have to leave and so on. There was also a widespread desire that we can more clearly demonstrate God’s love and fulfil the mission that he has called us to. There were also calls for us to seek to live with our differences, not least to demonstrate God’s love.
On the final day we were asked to reflect on how we felt about the conversations and then to gather in our diocesan groups to talk about what (if anything) we felt it right to do next. As our bishop has already asked us to meet with him to reflect on the process I, for one, hope that this will be the start of a continuing process rather than the end.
This was an intensive experience, which was tiring, frustrating, and sometimes painful (particularly for LGBT individuals). But, I think that it is a much better model for ‘disagreeing well’ than previous approaches. It’s one that I hope will bear fruit on this issue and will be used when appropriate in the future.