A YEAR of shared conversations on sexuality, held across the Church of England, and involving more than 700 people, concluded this week. The next conversations will take place at the York meeting of the General Synod in July. Madeleine Davies spoke to the last set of participants about their experience and expectations.
Andrew Cox, lay person (diocese of St Albans)
Coming from a conservative position it was helpful to be able to “look into the eyes”’ of those who held an opposing view and be able to see more of the person, experiences, and, often, pain that lay behind their view. I was also grateful to have the chance to present my views face to face, which helped those I disagreed with to recognise that the words I spoke, whilst hard to hear, were spoken from the heart and out of love.
My one regret, which I did express, was that none of the carefully designed programme was dedicated to opening the Bible together. As we are a church who believes in the authority of the scriptures I had hoped that listening to God’s Word would be a fundamental part of seeking to come to one mind on this issue. It really seems to me that this is key, as it is the truth of the scriptures that unites us. If we don’t wrestle to understand the truth together, what is it that will hold us together?
A curate (diocese of St Albans)
It was incredibly helpful on the level of person-to-person understanding, but, on the middle level of what the Church actually does about it, and the other level of how the Church engages with the world, I don’t think we made any progress. I thought there was unanimous agreement that the current state of play was not OK. The status quo isn’t honest, and there was frustration from both the conservative and progressive side.
There was an understanding from the more conservative side that where you have clergy breaking the rules . . . you have slightly divisive clergy advancing and changing the status quo against the instruction of the Church. . . However, it was clear from the experience of people on the progressive side that they had been encouraged by those in authority not to pay too much attention to these things. I feel I need to share that with my more conservative, church to reevaluate how we view the status quo: these peope not being manipulative and divisive, they are being encouraged to move forward by people who have the authority. Before we can make decisions on policy, on moving forward, we need to start by being a bit more honest.
The Rector of Steeple Aston, the Revd Marcus Green (diocese of Oxford)
I think when we learned most was when, informally, some of us were able to sit down over open Bibles and share how we understood the scriptures. Some of us felt that there wasn’t enough of that in the process; so we made more time for it. As an Evangelical, and as a gay man, I was always thrilled when I saw another Evangelical work hard to bring grace into the conversation, and sorry when I, or anyone else, missed the opportunity to do so. Grace is such a precious thing.
I understand my friends for whom this is a key issue, but, as an Evangelical . . . I was brought up in a place where you can tell the gospel from something not gospel, because the gospel is Jesus. We don’t split over things that are “Jesus and”, and so teaching on this, for me, is not a core issue. If it strengthens the Church, I welcome it. If it doesn’t change the Church, I don’t mind it. If it damages the Church, I regret it, because I love the Church. And I struggle to understand why we have made this central.
Helen King, lay person (diocese of Oxford)
I expected it to be exhausting and emotional. It was. I was afraid that it would be so difficult for some that they wouldn’t be able to cope. I can only speak for myself, but it felt so worthwhile being honest with others, and talking to people I’d otherwise never have met, that I just kept on. I was honest at all times. I’m a lay person, however, and I have less to lose.
The process was very intensive and very word-heavy: talking in groups around tables in the plenary room, talking in small groups, talking in threes, bringing back themes to the plenary, talking more over meals and in breaks. But there’s a reason why: these are “conversations”. I really benefited from the worship, which wasn’t word-heavy at all.The facilitators were excellent: they were very firm. I got on well with nearly all participants. There was true respect on both sides.
I was exposed to theological positions I had no idea were still held — at times, I was in shock that these positions were still held. When I left, I felt profoundly exhausted, with even less idea about how we are going to move forward.
Helen Harwood, lay person (diocese of Oxford)
I think that the process had been thought out very carefully. The only thing I would say is that it is difficult to know exactly how the different shared conversations will be fed out to the general church population. It would be good if the energy from these various events were somehow harnessed to help the Church move forward with this.
I became increasingly aware of the importance of providing protection for everybody. Even if someone disagrees with me, I want them to have a place in the Church, to be able to express that opinion without hearing that it will have repercussions for them.
I really feel it will be destructive for the Church if we split over this issue. Like when a country splits, you are still going to end up with some people who are on one side but don’t completely fit. We will be alienated from fellow-pilgrims. I am answerable to God, at the end of the day; so why not journey on together, and God will eventually be the final authority on this matter for us?
The Vicar of Wychwood, the Revd Kate Stacey (diocese of Oxford)
The process itself was very good. The facilitators created a safe space. There were a lot of people at either end of the spectrum who genuinely wanted to listen and learn, and a lot of that was characterised by grace and generosity to the other, and came out of genuinely wanting to hold together.
There were some people at either end of that spectrum where, sadly, it was more epitomised by pride and “I am right and I just have to convince you that you have to agree with me.” A lot of that seemed to be fuelled by either extreme believing that the other extreme held all the power, and even that the other extreme’s view was inevitable, and that made me quite sad, because it closed down quite a lot of conversation.
Apart from being utterly exhausted, I think that if those voices of grace can prevail, there is a very good chance of holding together. If the voices of pride prevail, I think there is no hope. I do think there is space for a mixed-economy approach. My advice to others attending in York is: Don’t come believing that any outcome is inevitable, because I genuinely do not think that it is.
The Rector of St Mary the Virgin, East Barnet, the Revd James Mustard (diocese of St Albans)
The question mark I was left with is, to what extent is this process actually going to inform the way in which the General Synod and the bishops forge a way forward? A little bit of me is slightly concerned, because there is no clear strategy by which these conversations are going to be fed upwards or outwards.
The focus of conversation was very internal. I tried to suggest that Christians are being globally genuinely persecuted on a larger scale than we’ve seen in many decades, and we need to make sure that these these conversations don’t over-estimate the hardship or anxiety that we feel. This is not first-order persecution or suffering. We need to be aware of the fact that, alongside Christians being persecuted, gay people are persecuted.
I am from the liberal catholic wing of the Church, and my PCC is a member of Inclusive Church. Although I recognise that the status quo is not ideal, and that it could be costly for some people, I would rather that we worked on holding the church together, and not embark on a movement towards a split. Look back 450 years, and Christians in England were burning each other at the stake for what they did or did not believe about the Eucharist. Yet, despite those deep and violent divisions, the Church managed to stick together, and still does, with a wide range of views. It seems to me that if we can accommodate such a range of views about the sacraments (and be enriched by that diversity), we can stick together on these issues, too.
Canon Chris Sugden, Secretary of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life (diocese of Oxford)
The Primates said in January that the problem with the Episcopal Church is that they acted on this without proper consultation with their Anglican Communion colleagues, and the Church of England might be in grave danger of doing exactly the same if we find that the July Synod comes along and there are no partner dioceses, especially representatives from Sudan, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya.
There is a powerful lesson to be learned from African Anglicans when faced with the issue of polygamy in the 1980s. Given the orthodox Anglican agreed teaching always and everywhere for 2000 years is that marriage is between a man and woman, and it was upheld in the Primates’ Meeting in January, it seems to me that any proposal that the House of Bishops brings forward must take that as a starting point.
Within that, there are people for whom that is a particular challenge. What is the nature of the pastoral accommodation that the Church can offer? That will be much more fruitful than arguing, fundamentally, shall we change the whole teaching of the Church? That is not going to get us anywhere.
The great lesson [of November 2012] is that you cannot bring to Synod a resolution which is not going to get a very significant body of support, and try to shoehorn it through by various synodical devices. It left an awful lot of blood on the floor.