Shared Conversations: a snapshot of the C of E, and a pointer to the future?

Mar 8, 2016 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

When I agreed to take part in the 13th regional “Shared Conversation” on sexuality, the Church and culture, in the extended weekend just finished, I had a few goals in mind. One, for as long as I hold a licence as an ordained clergyman in the Church of England, I want to respectfully participate in at least some of its formal events and structures. Two, I wanted to be one of the minority representing the voice of the historic, confessing position on theology and ethics at the discussions. And three, although I have always believed the premise of these conversations to be flawed, I think that to participate in them gives an opportunity to do a bit of sociological research, a kind of amateur evaluation study of the Church by means of a snapshot or a rapid appraisal in the form of an intense three day immersion in a sample of 50 widely diverse members and leaders of the organisation.

Before the meeting we were asked to read some literature prepared for the Conversations, most significantly the material prepared by Phil Groves, the head of the ‘Continuing Indaba’ project of the Anglican Communion office, and endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. This gives a definite steer in terms of defining the church’s task in relation to dealing with the disagreements over sexuality – not to find a resolution by coming to a common mind or majority view about what is true or false doctrine or right/wrong behaviour, but by acknowledging deep disagreement, recognizing the authentic Christian faith in those with whom we disagree, ensuring that the way we disagree is ‘good’, loving and respectful, and demonstrating through our reconciliation across divisions the Gospel of peace for a needy world. Martin Davie has written previously about the Phil Groves documents and why they are inadequate as a basis for authentic Gospel ministry and may even run counter to it; and here; I have also written briefly here.

The meeting, which took place in the comfortable environment of High Leigh conference centre, began with welcomes (including a message by video from David Porter, the leader of the programme), and then careful explanation by the team of facilitators of the protocols on how to listen and speak respectfully, and how to report to the outside world in ways that maintain confidentiality. We had some initial exercises which functioned as icebreakers, and also to teach the difficulties of clear communication when two people don’t see something in the same way.

This for me put its finger on a key problem which was to show itself more clearly as the event progressed. When we are engaged in sharing our faith with people outside the church, we need to be aware of how ourselves and our message can be easily misunderstood or lost because of a lack of shared reference points – so clarity, repetition, and finding at least some common starting points are essential. When Christians talk to one another this should not be the case – we should share the same worldview based on faith as defined by the Scriptures. I have experienced this many times in fellowship with Christians from different cultures and languages. However if different constructions of reality have been allowed to develop in parallel as part of the same church, then when people from these different tracks come together in conversation, not only is communication very difficult because of a lack of shared reference points, but we very quickly discover that our differences are not just about sexuality but many other theological elements of the Christian faith.

We got into the main issue through a sharing of ideas on our tables on the topic “what changes have taken place in our society around issues of sexuality”? Different opinions started to surface here, on whether the increased liberalization over the past 60 years has been good for the society and the church or not. Table groups recorded thoughts on newsprint sheets which were explained in plenary and stuck on the walls. This brief survey of the context in which we live was then put to one side as we began the process of exploring our own, and others’, journeys in terms of how we understand sexuality in relation to Christian faith. The groups were self-selecting. I had never met any of the participants in my group previously. We were asked to locate ourselves on a spectrum as to our theological and ethical position with regard to homosexual practice. In my group I was one of two on the ‘traditional’ side, with seven identifying as ‘affirming’.

In our group of nine we had a discussion on “how does Scripture influence your approach to sexuality?” One of the central ‘rules’ which was gently but firmly and consistently enforced by the facilitators was that at all times we were to preface a statement by “in my view”, or “for me…”. We could not for example say “the Bible says…” or “Jesus teaches that…”, or “the church has always believed…” – because it was assumed that in this discussion there are no truths, just different and equally valid interpretations and viewpoints.

So when I gave a 3 minute overview of the Bible’s teaching on marriage from Genesis 1 and 2 through to Revelation 21, including the positive affirmations of marriage in Proverbs and the Song of Songs, the Gospels and epistles, and the warnings against deviations, or “sexual immorality” in Old and New Testaments, and when my fellow traditionalist opened his Bible at Matthew 19, these views were respectfully received as part of our personal journey and one of many valid perspectives found in the church. Similarly, I listened respectfully to what to my mind were woefully poor and erroneous understandings of the Bible and Christian tradition in justifying support for same sex relationships, or in some cases cheerful admission that “for me personally the Bible is a bit of a closed book, but really all you need is love”. That’s not to say that there were no useful insights offered (which one would experience with any varied gathering of human beings of whatever faith), but it was difficult to reach any kind of useful conclusions when we not only had very different views but also widely varying levels of theological education and basic bible knowledge. The point of course was not to debate the topic (in the sense of establishing what is true or false) but to appreciate the person sitting opposite you; not to judge his or her ideas but to affirm his being and make an emotional connection despite difference. I think I got that right?

I gather that in some other groups more of the participants were better equipped for proper theological discussion. There are those who argue for acceptance and celebration of same sex unions taking full account of what Scripture says, as well as those who might say “I don’t know the theology, but can’t we all live together in peace?” Overall, although there was a session set aside for the role of Scripture, there was a general unwillingness from those advocating a change in the Church’s teaching in my group, and it seemed in the meeting as a whole, to open the Bible and engage with specific passages.

The second day began with a very useful exercise: 40 minutes of individual time to gather together thoughts on my personal journey regarding sexuality and faith, as preparation for uninterrupted sharing in groups of three. This is obviously the time of greatest vulnerability, where there is no facilitator present. One person might say he believes same sex relationships to be included in various sexual thoughts and behaviours that are sinful (even if personally tempted by them); another might identify as gay and be in a relationship, or be outraged at the perceived ‘exclusion’ of gay people in the church. I came away from that session feeling that I had successfully communicated my story, listened carefully to others, and got to know people better. According to the architects of the process, I shouldn’t be looking for resolution in the form of a decision being made about whose story is more authentically Christian, or what the church should be definitively teaching about sexuality. Rather the process itself, consisting of me sitting down, sharing personal testimonies with others from a very different perspective, and not coming to blows but greater understanding and empathy, is like a sacrament, a sign of reconciliation in a broken world. I think I get that, but I don’t agree that this is the biblical Gospel.

In fact, listening to some of the stories, I think its fair to say I listened in vain for the theme of repentance from sin and salvation in Christ. There were accounts of moving from brokenness and low self esteem (attributed, in some cases, to the church’s teaching on sin) to self justification and a feeling of being accepted by God in a self-determined identity. In one open discussion with a different group, I heard knowledgeable insights from secular psychology and/or human rights forming the basis of thinking about sexuality in a way which sat in dismissive judgement on the Bible as historically interpreted. I heard many times an assumption that progressive evolution in social attitudes culminating in women Bishops and gay marriage reflects the agenda of the Holy Spirit.

In response to the question “what if I’m wrong?”, I said that if it could be proved beyond doubt that my traditional understanding of sexuality and marriage was completely false, then I would have to revisit my entire understanding of the Christian faith based on my interpretation of Scripture. Everything would be cast into doubt: my concept of God, Christ, salvation, who I am as a human being and the meaning and purpose of life. If all I was left with was the vague sense that God loved me, I would first conclude that I had better things to do on Sunday than go to church. This was met with complete astonishment by some of my liberal interlocutors.

At one point I asked “can we at least agree that the Church should be teaching positively about marriage?” To this more than one person in the group responded that while for some people marriage is a positive experience, for many it isn’t, so the church should simply affirm whatever decisions people have made regarding their sexuality and lifestyles, and offer care and welcome without any sense of judgment about what is more authentically Christian.

Sunday afternoon included a discussion which outlined the potential futures of the C of E. Our group identified several possible scenarios, including:

  1. A clear statement and consistent application of the traditional position, with careful attention to pastoral care of same sex attracted people.
  2. A continuation of the current situation, officially traditional, with increased inconsistency in how the teaching is applied or ignored.
  3. Permission given to celebrate and bless same sex relationships at local level, following clear majority approval from PCC or other body.
  4. Solemnising of same sex marriages across the C of E, with a conscience clause for clergy and/or PCC’s to opt out.
  5. Same sex marriage as a right in every church, with no opt out.

Since not even the most vocal revisionist argued publicly for 5, we spent some time looking at the pros and cons of 1, 3 and 4, versions of which will most probably be presented to General Synod February 2017 in the form of motions. It was quite clear that the majority of the people present assumed that 1 and 2 were the least likely outcomes, although of course this was not necessarily a representative group, nor does it have any decision making influence.

On the final day, before the reflections on how we felt about the experience and how (if) we wanted to take the process forward locally, there was another important session. We were encouraged to look realistically at whether ‘good disagreement’ means remaining in the same church, committed to continued engagement despite the continued tensions and gulfs in viewpoints, or whether it might be better to have some sort of managed separation, walking apart in sadness and with respect, continuing to cooperate closely in areas of common concern, but operating in different ecclesial structures to reflect very different understandings of faith, Gospel, ethics and mission. It was pointed out more than once in plenary that each person’s view of this depends as much on their personality and ecclesiology as it does on their view of sexual ethics. Of course some of the groupings in the Church who are under-represented in these Conversations have essentially been operating within a third paradigm: the C of E continues as it is without any formal ‘split’, but in practice the evangelical networks continue their fruitful focus on teaching and mission, maintaining only minimal contact with the institutional structures, and none at all with the wider church. This arrangement may change if the church formally approves same sex relationships.

Has the use of time been worthwhile? Certainly the facilitators ensured that all the discussions were kept temperate: I was not accused of bigotry, and was even told by one participant that I am a nicer person than he imagined. Has it told us anything about the C of E that we don’t already know? Lots of clergy and lay people are revisionist in their understanding yet love the institution of the church, but it may be that such people are more likely to want to come to an event like this, which may not be representative of the C of E as a whole. The next stage will see members of General Synod go through a similar process in July.

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