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Women bishops: Hand-to-hand, or hand in hand?

21 June 2013

This coming General Synod (5-9 July), members will spend Saturday discussing women bishops in small groups. There will be no votes, no records, and no minutes. Alastair McKay describes the process.

I HAVE had little opportunity to witness the Church of England's General Synod in action, but last November I was able to watch an hour of the debate on the proposed legislation to enable women to be bishops.

I was left with the impression that all the speakers had already made up their minds. They were not really interested in listening to what those who had a different view had to say. This may be a common feature of such a parliamentary-style structure, but it did not seem particularly fruitful.

David Porter, the Archbishop of Canterbury's director for reconciliation, a new post, has proposed that, at its next meeting, the Synod take a day of its business time in small groups, engaging in facilitated dialogue. This would break the mould of the Synod's usual debating pattern, but how might it help? What might be the value of such an approach?

The purpose of such small-group dialogue is not to reach a decision, although it may usefully contribute to a decision-making process. Rather, such dialogue is about seeking a way to grow in understanding of one another. It opens up the possibility of exploring how each participant has arrived at a particular position, and why some things are important to him or her. It gives participants a chance to engage with one another's story. And it offers the prospect of real and deeper listening to one another.

IN MY experience, there are a number of factors that can help determine whether such a small-group dialogue process will work well. First is clarity of purpose, and having a process designed to fit that purpose.

Second is having a skilled facilitator who can maintain a calm presence in the face of others' anxiety. Key tasks will be establishing a safe environment, securing agreement about any ground rules and ensuring that they are kept to, and clearly signposting the different stages of the process.

The third factor is having a suitable space in which to meet, and enough time so that the dialogue process is not rushed.

Assuming that these conditions are met, what might one expect of a facilitated small-group dialogue? It is important not to think that anyone will change his or her position on the main issue. Instead, the aim to encourage participants to understand each other's positions, and grow in mutual respect as they do so. The key impact, then, is a humanising of those who are seen as "the enemy", or at least as opponents.

The knock-on impact is that, once people return to the formal decision-making debate, it will be much harder to stereotype and dismiss those with a different view, and much more likely that participants will exercise moderation in the language they use about others.

Thus, facilitated dialogue may not change the eventual decision, but it will change how people feel about it, and how they related to those who were once seen as their opponents.

THE value of such a dialogue has been experienced within the wider Anglican Communion through its use of the Indaba process, originally developed in Africa, and used at the last Lambeth Conference. The "Continuing Indaba" process is billed as "a journey of conversation to strengthen relationships for mission". This points to two key fruits of any effective dialogue process, that of journeying together and of building relationships.

As Christian disciples, we need to expect that we will disagree with one another. What becomes critical is how we disagree, whether we can stay in one another's company on the journey, and whether we can deepen our relationships with one another in the way that Jesus longed and prayed for, for his disciples.

Miroslav Volf, the Croatian theologian, writes: "God's reception of hostile humanity into divine communion is a model for how human beings should relate to the other." There is no better place for us to practise this welcome of others who are hostile towards us and our views than in the Church.

I pray that the facilitated dialogue in the General Synod will offer participants a taste of such a welcome of one another, and put them in touch with the heart of God.

Alastair McKay is executive director of Bridge Builders, a church mediation and training service. For more information, visit www.bb-ministries.org.uk.

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