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UK >

Talk nicely or else, Synod members are counselled ahead of sex talks

by Madeleine Davies and Hattie Williams

Posted: 17 Jun 2016 @ 17:05


Click to enlarge

Locals: part of the monument in York Minster to Sir Henry Bellasis and his wife, Ursula


Locals: part of the monument in York Minster to Sir Henry Bellasis and his wife, Ursula

GUIDANCE on emotional intelligence is being issued to members of the General Synod on the eve of “revolutionary” conversations on sexuality, with a warning that addressing this issue has resulted in a “fracture” in every other mainstream Church.

“Shared conversations” — open-ended, structured discussions — on sexuality are due to take place behind closed doors after the conclusion of the General Synod in York next month. Briefing the press on Friday, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s chief of staff, David Porter, who has led the shared-conversations programme, said that its success would not be measured on whether or not it prevents a fracture but on “how we fracture. . .

“Every major church that has sought to address this issue has fractured in a major way. We have taken a different road to try to ameliorate that: a relational road.”

Advice for synod members (a short document called Grace and dialogue: shared conversations on difficult issues) includes advice to avoid: “jumping on answers you don’t like”, and suggests that participants “refuse to give up on anyone, no matter how unpleasant, opinionated, or difficult you find them”.

It also asks members to consider their body language, including avoiding looking bored.

Mr Porter said that one of the aims of the conversations was to raise participants’ “capabilities around emotional intelligence”. The conversations are expected to create an atmosphere unlike that in the debating chamber, where the Synod’s business is formally conducted. The guidance sets out the difference between “debate” and “dialogue”, defining the former as one which “encourages people to listen in order to find flaws and refute arguments”.

The gathering in York will mark the culmination of more than a year of regional shared conversations, which have involved more than 1300 participants across the dioceses (News, 11 March). The guidance to Synod members describes this as a “small revolution” that has “enabled us to talk with each other in a way that we may never have before about the challenges posed by human sexuality”.

Mr Porter said on Friday that he could not think of any other Church that had achieved this level of “mass participation” in discussion of a difficult issue.

The conversations taking place in York will be “based on but not the same as” these conversations, Mr Porter said. Members will join small groups of no more than 20 people representing all three Houses of bishops, clergy, and laity. There will also be “cultural” representation from outside of Synod, including members of the LGBT community. There will be no speeches, presentations, or pre-prepared material — “only honest, open, and moderated conversation in a safe space”.

The conversations will be closed to all but those participating. The secretary-general of the General Synod, William Nye, denied that this constituted “a process of retreat or going private. . . Sometimes you do public things and sometimes you do things for yourselves.” Mr Porter said that the approach reflected Jesus’s instruction to those who disagreed: “You go to your brother and talk about it. . . only after that do you take it to the wider Church.”

Members would be “free to share their experiences of the conversations in the same way as the regional conversations, provided that they do not expose or break the confidentiality of others in the conversation”. Leading clergy in the General Synod have defended the decision to hold the conversations behind closed doors, citing the need to create safety and trust (News, 13 May).

Mr Porter has always been frank about the potential for the Church to split. He has expressed fears that as many as 20 per cent of the Church of England may become disaffected and leave (News 30 January, 2015). But on Friday he spoke of the calibre of the “immensely gifted” people facilitating the conversations — Anglicans who have worked in the UN, Cabinet Office and EU — and their track record in “helping all sorts of groups and organisations sit and talk together around deeply difficult things.”

The Church was not “unusual” in having to have such a discussion, he said, and must not “get consumed with the narcissism of our own conflict”.

The conversations will not give rise to any report or decision. Mr Nye said that it would be “artificial” to produce a timetable on next steps.


THE formal business of Synod will be conducted in under two days. Friday evening will see members debate a report on nurturing and discerning senior leaders — the programme previously referred to as the “talent pool” in Lord Green’s report on training future church leaders (News, 12 December, 2014).

The overarching vision and narrative of the Renewal and Reform mission programme will be debated on Saturday afternoon. A paper written by Mr Nye lists some of the “serious and deep-rooted challenges” facing the Church, including not only declining numbers but “institutional inertias”. It goes on to say that, “as God is faithful there is nothing to fear”.

The intention, the paper reiterates, is to “reverse the decline of the Church of England so that we become a growing Church, in every region and for every generation”. The export of lessons learned in London to other parts of the country, through church planting, was one of the sources for hope, Mr Nye told the briefing.

The Synod will also consider whether to put into effect two private members’ motions which were passed at the previous Synod sessions in February. The first, an amendment to Canon B8 contained in a consultation paper from the House of Bishops, could permit the clergy to “depart on a general basis” from wearing robes or vestments for Sunday services.

The second, an amendment to Canon B38, would permit ministers to carry out the normal rite of burial for those who taken their own life. the chief legal advisor of the C of E, Stephen Slack said: “The minister is not meant to use the normal burial service for those who have taken their own life; however, we know that in practice that is not likely to happen, so this is just about bringing the legal requirements in line with pastoral reality: a special service has never been approved by the Synod or the Bishop.”

The simplification and clarification of “unnecessary, out of date, or burdensome” canon law will feature strongly in the Saturday session, Mr Slack, said. This will include ecclesiastical jurisdiction on the care of churches, and C of E pensions.

“Simplifying the legislative process itself will enable the church legislation to be repealed and amended more quickly and easily, which at the moment can only be done by the Synod passing the measure,” he said.

The Synod will also hear updates on the implementation of the Safeguarding Clergy Discipline Measure 2003.

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