WHEN the General Synod meets in July in York, much of the time will be taken up by Shared Conversations on human sexuality; and, on Monday afternoon, Synod members received a detailed presentation from David Porter, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Director for Reconciliation, and Sandra Cobbin, who runs the Transforming Church Conflict course for Bridge Builders. The two are facilitators of the Shared Conversations.
“We need to be clear about what we are talking about, and therefore I want to be clear about the question” at the heart of the conversations, Mr Porter said. “Given the significant changes to our culture regarding human sexuality, how should the Churches respond?”
He said that “No one is suggesting that the process we have engaged in is about achieving an agreement, or even a consensus. It is a space that has been created for conversation, for views to be expressed, for differences to be acknowledged, and for exploration to be given for how we live our diverse lives as Anglicans.”
He explained that the Shared Conversations in July would be the third circle of the conversations. The first had been at the House of Bishops, and the second was the regional conversations.
Ms Cobbin, commenting on the regional conversations, said that she had been “struck by the importance of timing in sessions, of space for reflections, and of the pace of sessions”, and that this had been taken into account when the July sessions had been planned.
But there would be a “different shape and structure” to the regional conversations because of the size of the Synod, and because “You are the decision-making body of the Church of England; and, although you are not making a decision in July, that is why you are convened together.”
She explained that the first session, on the Sunday afternoon, would look at the “story of our faith”, and the Synod would gather in small groups of three or four to share stories of their “personal journey of faith” with the others.
On the Sunday evening would be the first of two sessions looking at the Bible. “Understanding Scripture” would involve a panel of three people who approached the reading of scripture differently.
On the Monday morning, the Synod would again break into small groups “Reading Scripture Together”. The groups would include people of “different perspectives and approaches”.
On the Monday afternoon, the Synod would hear from a panel discussing “Changing Culture”. The panel would include people who interpreted the culture differently, and would include “young voices, inclusive voices, and traditional voices”.
On the Monday evening, the Synod will hear about “Communion Perspectives”, with “voices from around the world and ecumenical voices”. Finally, on the Tuesday morning, the Synod will talk about how to “walk forward together”.
“There may be some practical suggestions. There may be some process ideas. There may be some principles suggested. There may be some questions raised about which there is not at that moment answers. There may be hopes shared about ways in which this Synod expresses profound disagreement in a way that is a missional gift to the world.”
A “rhythm of worship” would be woven “throughout the process of Shared Conversations”, Ms Cobbin said.
Mr Porter described the process as a “facilitated space, not mediated space. . . Those who will work with you are there to help you have a conversation, not to mediate the differences between you. To ensure that voices are heard.
“We recognise that the two days you will spend in Shared Conversations in July are not part of your decision-making process. And as those who come to Synod may be expected to make decisions, and may be anticipating making decisions on these issues, we are, at one level, asking you to take one step back from that and to allow this space to be heard.”
He said that “not all conversations are about resolutions. It is about understanding, about recognition, about diversity of difference; it is about bonds and partners.”
Besides providing “a facilitated space, we are hoping also that it will be a safe space. . . A safe space does not mean that you won’t hear things you will find difficult, or even, at times, offensive. Safe space is really a space for all views to be engaged; for respectful engagement and accountable conduct; to engage with what has often been referred to as ‘good disagreement’.”
He said that, during the Shared Conversations in July, the Business committee had agreed that there would be no fringe meetings or exhibitions, to ensure that it was also a “guarded space”. He urged Synod members to prepare themselves for “Wimbledon withdrawal”, as the process would begin as the men’s final at Wimbledon got under way.
Responding to questions, he told Jayne Ozanne (Oxford) that the facilitators were “committed to making sure the panels reflect the diversity of Synod and the wider Church”.
Sam Margrave (Coventry) asked whether the discussions would look at the “wider context. . . We use the term human sexuality, and we really mean homosexuality.” In response, Mr Porter joked “How much time do we have?” The question was “not only focusing on human sexuality”.
Canon David Banting (Chelmsford) asked “in what way will the Bible be seriously discovered?” The C of E seemed to have “elevated story and experience”. Mr Porter denied this: the Shared Conversations in July include three sessions on scripture.
He told David Lamming (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) that “there will be no media presence” at the Shared Conversations. They were “private meetings of the Synod”.
Canon Mark Pilgrim (Bristol) asked for “a wide range of preparation material” to be made available. Canon Porter said that “many people are now producing materials”, and the Shared Conversations website would flag some up.
Elilot Swattridge (C of E Youth Council) asked how the conversations were “going to be framed in such a way that the Church doesn’t come across as homophobic”; and Debrah McIsaac (Salisbury) asked whether there would be a ban on social media.
Mr Porter replied that the “St Michael’s House protocols” would be used. Social-media use would not be banned, but people would be asked to restrict its use to reflect where they are rather than where other people were.