A few weeks ago I received a letter from my Bishop. It was inviting me to take part in Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality. In one sentence, a group of people – lay and clergy – from every diocese in the Church of England are being invited to meet together to talk about – well to talk about scripture, mission and human sexuality…
The first thing I did was say ‘yes’. I made a little resolution with myself at the beginning of this year to say yes to any interesting opportunities that come my way, even if they are scary or uncomfortable. So it had to be yes.
Secondly, I started wondering why I had been asked. Having had a look at the categories of people that should be represented from each diocese, I’m assuming I’m there because I’m on General Synod. I have never discussed anything to do with human sexuality with my Bishop – in fact my prudish, privately-minded self tends to avoid discussion on the subject in any forum – so I don’t see how he could possibly know my views on same sex relationships (which let’s be honest – is what is at the heart of these discussions) or as I’m unmarried, even whether I’m straight or gay.
Thirdly, I figured that if I’m there as a General Synod rep, then it’s only reasonable that I write about it. All of us participating in the process are free to talk about it, but not to disclose the names of other people taking part – that’s up to them. So here is my attempt to explain what it’s all about, and how I’m feeling about it just six weeks before the event itself.
Why hold these shared conversations?
The idea for the Church of England to hold shared conversations on human sexuality was borne out of what we learned through the way we (finally) approached the Women Bishops debate. It was only after those of opposing views sat and actually talked to each other (sharing honestly and openly not so much our views as our feelings) that a new way forward began to emerge from the ashes of the earlier measure that didn’t pass. I doubt our conversations changed anyone’s mind, but they did change the tone of the debate. People of all views spoke with more care and respect. It was as if we all remembered the power of our words to wound. In the final debate on Women Bishops I was deeply moved by the graciousness shown on all sides, and the courage of some who were prepared to vote ‘yes’ for the greater good, even though they profoundly disagreed with what they were voting for.
Issues around human sexuality have been lurking around in the background at General Synod for some time now. Two private members motions have been sat on the sidelines, waiting to be brought into play, since before I was even elected onto Synod. Both of these motions have over 130 signatures supporting them.
The first wants the Synod to affirm ‘the public doctrine of Christian marriage, between a man and a woman, as set out in the Book of Common Prayer, as the only basis for engagement with public policy on marriage and family life.’
The second wants to allow churches or chapels to be used for registering civil partnerships. It’s worth noting that the second motion was submitted before same sex marriage was legalised, so I can’t imagine it will be long before someone submits a motion calling for all marriages to be allowed to take place in churches and chapels.
In July 2011 the House of Bishops commissioned a report on all matters relating to human sexuality – the so called ‘Pilling Report’. It was published in November 2013, but already seemed out of date, making little mention of same sex marriage. It seems that the church is struggling to keep up with the rapid cultural shifts on these issues.
My feeling is that General Synod has been trying to put off talking about it for as long as possible – an approach I’m hugely sympathetic to. But now that we’ve got women and men as Bishops, it is getter ever harder to keep this issue on the backburner. And so the idea is to get us talking to one another privately, before debating publically, in the hope that we may be able show the same level of grace and respect from the outset on these issues that we only managed at the end with Women Bishops.
It’s not all plain sailing though. I am deeply saddened that members of the conservative evangelical organisation Reform are not participating in the conversations. When their Chair and soon to be Bishop, Prebendary Rod Thomas was asked why not, he replied that ‘We’re questioning the premise on which the discussions take place. We would like to see people exploring more clearly what the bible has to say and then drawing conclusions from that, rather than approaching it in other ways.’ He is however encouraging participation in the General Synod debates. It is my feeling that these debates will be much the lesser for their absence from the conversations designed to help inform our discussions.
So just what will these shared conversations look like?
A group of about eight people are selected from each diocese in the Church of England, representing a range of opinions and ideally including at least one LGBT participant and one person under forty. They will go away together for a couple of days and sit and talk about human sexuality. We will share our own views, our own experience, from our own context. The key question we will be reflecting on is ‘Given the significant changes in our culture in relation to human sexuality, how should the Church respond?’ If you want to know more about how it will all work, then I suggest you visit www.sharedconversations.org which provides much more detail.
The talks are held regionally so several dioceses will be grouped together. There will be neutral observers on hand to guide and help us, but it has been made clear that there is no expected outcome. We are just there to share and to listen.
I’ll be honest with you. I am deeply apprehensive about the whole thing. I do not relish the prospect of talking about sex or of talking with people who profoundly disagree with me. But not talking is never a solution to deep rooted differences, and a vacuum of communication can so easily lead to hurt, anger and schism. And so we need to talk. And so I will go and try my best to listen with respect and share openly, and trust that others do the same.