THERE is no "hidden agenda" behind the shared conversations on
sexuality that begin this week, the Church of
England's Director of Mission and Public Affairs said on
In a recording published on the Church of England website,
Dr Malcolm Brown spoke of a desire to ensure that "some of
the fears that are not certainly intended to be substantiated are
dispelled. There's a lot of anxiety around about what may lie
behind these conversations, about hidden agendas and things like
that. I hope we have unpacked that sufficiently . . . to show that
isn't the case."
Canon David Porter, the Archbishop of Canterbury's Director for
Reconciliation, charged with overseeing the conversations, said:
"It is what it says on the tin. It's a process of shared
conversation. It's about creating space that they can feel a
certain amount of confidence because someone is there helping hold
the ring, so that all voices will be heard; that people will be
able to engage with each other in a respectful way, to come and
talk about the change that we see in the culture around us in
relation to questions of human sexuality, and the diversity that
exists within the Church, about how we should respond as people of
faith to that . . .
"It's not sitting down talking about texts, talking about the
Pilling report. It's not necessarily sitting down arguing over the
Scriptures, although I'm sure a certain amount of Biblical
discourse wil take place. It's about saying to busy leaders, as
with all the Church, 'Let's just take a breath, step back, create
the space, and talk.'"
The ideal outcome, he said, would be "That people will be able
to articulate, with a measure of empathy, the views of others that
they don't agree with, that allows them therefore to see in their
relationships with them that they also are seeking to be faithful
to the tradition of the Church, the teaching of Scripture, and the
calling of Christ in our mission to the world. And that we develop
that rapport, that capacity to disagree well, that means that, when
we get to the process which is beyond the shared conversations,
when decisions will have to be made, because you can't leave it in
this space forever, the way that we approach the making of those
decisions is done in a way that honours the fact that we are
brothers and sisters in Christ, and even though we disagree, we are
going to do that in a way that reflects that reality as much as the
reality of our convictions on these issues."
Canon Porter stressed that the conversations were different to
those conducted to resolve the impasse over the women-bishops
legislation, where there was "a goal in mind because the Church had
expressed its overwhelming mind. . . What that process showed is
that sitting around talking in a different context that isn't in
the debating forum or legislative forum does change the game. We
are using the lesson of that but not with the same goal in mind. We
are not facilitating this towards an outcome. We are facilitating
it towards a shaping of the relationship."
Dr Brown said that the materials provided for the conversations
were "modestly academic" and were designed to show participants
that "some of the things that they may not have been exposed to
before are actually quite serious arguments." Scholars had been
approached who were "able to present their case in a way that at
least those who disagree with it can at least see the sense of.
These are scholars who do not try to overclaim. They are aware of
the stronger and the weaker arguments in support of their
He suggested that the conversations could enable the Church to
offer the world "a different model of how you conduct rancorous
debate". He drew a parallel with the issue of fracking, where
"there's almost no space for rational discussion", and suggested
that, in many areas of public life, the level of debate had
degenerated into "I'm right you must therefore not just be wrong
Canon Porter concluded: "By and large, a lot of people will not
change their view and their understanding, but they may change as
people and how they hold that view in relation to the other."
The College of Bishops is meeting for three days, starting on
Monday, to pilot the shared conversations. They are working in
small groups with facilitators, to pilot a process that will then
be carried out in 12 regional groups.
The conversations were the chief recommendation of the report
produced by the working group on human sexuality last year (News, 29
November), which referred to "entrenched divisions". Warning
that these had become an "increasing scandal to many" and a
"massive missiological challenge", it recommended a two-year
listening process. The conversations should explore, among other
things, "the extent to which different disciplines on sexual
conduct should be required of bishops, clergy, and laity".
A statement from the Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Steven Croft,
setting out the roadmap (News, 4
July), said that there was "no expectation of achieving any
consensus - in either direction - in the foreseeable future".
Last Monday, Changing Attitude (CA) published a letter sent to
the bishops urging them to change policy and practice. A change in
attitude and practice had already taken place, it argued, citing
the marriage of lesbian and gay clergy and lay people and the
blessing of civil partnerships by some bishops, who declined to ask
whether the couples were celibate.
The Director of Changing Attitude England, the Revd Colin
Coward, said: "There is a noticeable increase in despair and
depression among LGBTI clergy. Partnered clergy are unwilling to
marry and those in civil partnerships are reluctant to convert
their CP to marriage, fearing hostile action from their bishop.
LGBTI clergy conclude that they will never be able to move to a new
post if they marry and that there is effectively no future for them
in the Church of England. Potential ordinands are dissuaded from
pursuing a vocation."
Within hours, Anglican Mainstream issued a reply, arguing that
the bishops had "no authority" to make the changes demanded by CA,
which was guilty of "capitulation to the world and its ideologies
and philosophies founded on rejection of God and his word".
On Tuesday, the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent,
said: "It won't be an easy conversation - more difficult than that
on women bishops - but we are absolutely going with this. . . It is
clear that the facilitated conversations over women bishops did
make a difference in terms of helping people understand each other
He was, however, "not optimistic about the outcomes. Archbishop
Justin has broached the concept of 'good disagreement'. I don't
think we know what that might look like. There is a huge polarity
between those who want the C of E to hold to its historic
understanding of marriage - and not to change its canonical and
liturgical formulae - and those who want the C of E to embrace
total equal treatment, expressed in a change in relation to
doctrine, marriage, and pastoral practice. Some are looking for a
'two integrities' approach - personally, I can't see the Church
holding together on that kind of basis."