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Sexuality tensions threaten to undermine C of E's 'shared conversations'

30 January 2015


SHARP divisions over sexuality mean that as many as 20 per cent of the Church of England may become disaffected, it emerged last week.

As the Church prepares to begin its "shared conversations", a formal process aimed at reconciling Anglicans with differing views on sexuality, it is being acknowledged that the fundamental nature of the division, rooted in different understandings of scripture, identity, and obedience, is likely to prove too much for those at both ends of the spectrum to agree to differ.

The difficulty appears to have been acknowledged by David Porter, the Archbishop of Canterbury's director for reconciliation, according to a Changing Attitude blog published last week.

The blog on the liberal site was later taken down, but its contents have been re-posted by Anglican Mainstream, at the conservative Evangelical end of the spectrum.

The Church Times has seen the booklet prepared for the conversations. It says that separation is "far from a foregone conclusion". It acknowledges that Anglicanism has a history of "tolerance and capaciousness" and mentions the possibility that "we find ways to articulate a shared vocation so that the deeply held differences about sexuality become less important than the desire to work together for the sake of witness".

On the other hand, it also mentions that there have been, in history, "unsustainable" tensions, such as those that led to the departure of those who formed the Methodist Church. It suggests that it is possible for people to leave to join another Church "with the affirmation and love of those they leave behind".

The question, it suggests, is "whether the current differences around human sexuality are of the kind which can be accepted as legitimate within the Church, or whether it is impossible for some to remain in the same Church as others whose views are so different as to imply, as they see it, a radically different faith".

The Church's leadership has spoken publicly, and frankly, about the extent of the division over sexuality. In November, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that, within the Communion, "our divisions may be too much to manage." He has acknowledged that, to some, the Church's position on sexuality was "akin to racism", while others feared that, were it to change, it would be guilty of "apostasy".

It is widely acknowledged that there exists a great deal of anxiety at both ends of a polarised debate. Conservative Evangelicals fear being branded as bigoted if they honestly share their theological convictions about same-sex relationships.

In October last year, the conservative group Reform called on its members not to participate in the conversation. It warned that the process was "deeply flawed" and that they would be asked to "accept a redefinition of what will and will not lead to salvation - as though there could be two gospels, equally valid".

Changing Attitude is supportive of the conversations, but has expressed several concerns about the process, and is warning those who participate that they do so at their own risk.

"Those who are ordained, especially those who are in a relationship or a civil partnership or married, need to think very, very carefully before they take part, and certainly before they reveal anything about their personal life," the director of Changing Attitude, the Revd Colin Coward, said on Tuesday.

"They risk finding themselves in a conversation with a conservative bishop who might choose to take action against them, or in the presence of lay and ordained people who might choose to take action under the CDM [Clergy Discipline Measure]. Nothing can be done to protect people in those circumstances."

Efforts are being made to quell some of these concerns. All participants will be expected to observe the St Michael's House protocol, created at Coventry Cathedral, where Mr Porter, overseeing the conversations, is director of reconciliation.

A key principle is that information shared in the conversations should not be used to the disadvantage of a participant outside of the conversations. This would act, effectively, as an amnesty. It is understood that the Bishops have signed up to this protocol. The conversations will be run by professional, external faciliators with experience in conducting conversations at the highest levels of government.

Shared conversations took part in the College of Bishops in September, exposing some of the challenges involved: it is understood that some of those present did not engage fully in the exercises. The two days allowed proved inadequate, and the regional conversations will now take place over three days, with two overnight stays.

Division among the Bishops is nothing new. It is now being reported that 22 abstained from the vote on the pastoral statement on same-sex marriage last February.

Who is taking part?

Each of the 13 regional conversations will involve 50 people, chosen by the bishops of the three dioceses represented. Each must include equal numbers of clergy and laity; equal numbers of men and women; 25 per cent under 40 years; and at least two "representatives of LGBTI views" from each diocese. No list of participants will be published, but they will be encouraged to "cascade" information. Where they wish to do so, this can be through talking to the press. They must do so, however, within the bounds of the Protocol, which precludes attribution. There will be a public fringe event at the General Synod next month, on 12 February.

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