'No hidden agenda' behind sexuality conversations

12 September 2014

AP

Have and hold: the Revd Linda Hunsaker presides at the wedding of Vivian Boyack (left), aged 91, and Alice Dubes, 90, in Davenport, Iowa, US. Ms Boyack and Ms Dubes have been in a relationship for more than 70 years

Have and hold: the Revd Linda Hunsaker presides at the wedding of Vivian Boyack (left), aged 91, and Alice Dubes, 90, in Davenport, Iowa, US. Ms Boy...

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 Monday.

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."

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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 position."

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 but bad."

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".

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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 better."

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."

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