Last week I spent three days at the Church of England’s ‘Shared Conversations on Sexuality, Scripture and Mission’ (see my previous blog entry for more info). It was the regional conversation for the West Midlands so fifty or so delegates (lay and ordained) from Birmingham, Coventry, Hereford, Lichfield and Worcester dioceses gathered to talk and to listen together. Here are my reflections.
I arrived with some trepidation at Hothorpe Hall in Leicestershire (which is fabulous by the way) for the ‘Shared Conversations’. I’d already tried suggesting to my fellow traveller that we could just go to the seaside for three days, but we decided we might get into trouble… Near the main entrance of the Hall there was a plaque on a tree with a Martin Luther King quote: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”. I think that much of my anxiety has been rooted in a sense that talking about these issues might not be a great idea. It seems to me that the church has muddled along ok for years whilst mostly not talking about this stuff, and I was (am) concerned that we are opening a huge can of worms, which we won’t be able to close again. But over the three days of talking and listening to a wonderfully diverse range of people I have to acknowledge that this is not an issue we can stay silent about. For some it is an issue of identity, discrimination and justice. For others it is an issue of biblical authority. For many, these are not abstract discussions, but deeply personal reflections about their very lives. For all, it is profoundly important, as how we approach these issues says something about who we are as Christians and as a church.
As we began, the Coventry delegates mostly stuck close to one another. But after sharing our expectations and an ice-breaker about the importance of good communication, we were pushed out of our comfort zones and told to mix up. With every session we were grouped differently, giving us the opportunity to hear as many different voices as possible, but always accompanied by a skilled facilitator. My first moment of feeling really uncomfortable came early on. Groups had been dispatched to break-out rooms to consider approaches to scripture. We had been told very clearly that the idea of the talks was not to have a debate, and not to expect that anyone should change their mind on the issues. Rather, it was about really hearing and understanding different viewpoints. But in that session, I suddenly felt vulnerable, even attacked. It felt as though my viewpoint wasn’t considered valid by some, and they were trying to change my mind. I inevitably began to defend my position and tensions began to rise until the facilitator stepped in.
Reflecting afterwards on what had happened, I realised how much I wanted to change the minds of those I disagreed with. Really listening to people you disagree with, really hearing and understanding – without judgment or defence of your own position – is incredibly hard.
The most profound moment for me came right at the heart of the three days, and that was the sharing of personal stories. I found myself sat under a shady tree in dappled June sunlight with two men I had literally just met, being asked to share my personal journey of understanding around issues of human sexuality. I cannot and would not share the content of the conversation (we were rightly required to assent to strict protocols about confidentiality) but can say that our shared faith may well have been the only thing we had in common. I cannot begin to imagine any other circumstance in which the three of us might even meet, let alone bare our souls to one another – which is what we did. I was immensely moved by the level of honesty and vulnerability in the sharing. I was personally sad that there was little time to process how we were feeling about making ourselves so exposed, before we returned to the bigger group and I sensed my fellow storytellers closing the shutters on their personal lives. However, I cannot and will not forget their stories and they will make a difference to how I approach these issues.
On day three we began to look ahead and the mood became quite sombre as we tried to envisage possible futures for the Church of England. Sadly the word schism seemed to feature writ large. There was then a session entitled ‘How to disagree well…’ I’m sorry to say that I’m not sure we made much progress on how we might do that, and my fear is that some people have come away even more entrenched in their viewpoint than they were at the outset.
On a positive note, the timetable was spacious, with plenty of time for reflection, eating and drinking. Even though the mood in the sessions could be downbeat, there were also many stories of encouragement and deeper understanding. At mealtimes and in the bar, there was constant chatter and laughter, with people of opposing views happily eating and drinking with one another.
Looking at the whole three days, if there’s one thing I would have changed, I’d have liked us to have spent more time talking about how we feel, rather than just what we think. It was this approach, it seemed to me, that made a real difference in the discussions about women bishops, radically changing the tone of the debate.
Summing up, it seems impossible to imagine a way forward that all can agree on. Firstly then, it seems to me that we have to decide if we want to try and find a road we can travel together, even while holding deeply held, but very different understandings of scripture and mission. Secondly, we have to remember that we do not approach this issue from an equal footing. When we talk about ‘issues’ of sexuality, it can be all too easy to forget that we are talking about real people, leading real lives, which will be really impacted by any decisions made. Even choosing to take part in these conversations has been risky, even costly for some. And thirdly, and of course most importantly, we should remember that what we have in common is far greater than that which threatens to divide us. We all belong to Jesus Christ, there is no condemnation for those in him, and nothing can separate us from his love. My hope and prayer is that we can find a way to keep loving each other, as well as loving Christ.
We concluded our time together by sharing communion. For me, it was a powerful reminder that together we share the broken body of Christ, a symbol of our own fragility and brokenness, but also of the hope and healing and new life we can find through the immense love and grace of God.