On 16-18 November, I was privileged to participate in the Regional Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality (RSC) involving the dioceses of Winchester, Salisbury and Portsmouth (the 9th of the 13 such conversations). As the Bishop of London is inviting those elected to General Synod I had expected to only watch the conversations from a distance and hear from those involved (both EGGS and Changing Attitude are posting reports). It was therefore a pleasant surprise to be asked as the extra-diocesan Lancelot Andrewes Canon of Winchester Cathedral to be part of their group. It was also – much to my surprise – rather nerve-wracking. Over nearly twenty years I’ve been involved in shaping, running, observing and participating in various forms of conversation around sexuality at educational institutions and at diocesan, national and international level where I observed the Continuing Indaba Process (Francis Bridger and I published some reflections on that in Anvil). Most recently I helped run the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) consultation day on Martin Davie’s book on recent biblical scholarship on sexuality. It is, though, some time since I was a participant and I was surprised at how unsettled I felt as the days approached. I cannot imagine how unnerving it must have been for those - especially those who identify as LGBTI or someone who experience same-sex attraction - who were “sexuality conversation virgins” (if that is not too inappropriate a term, I won’t even think about how I might be described given the history above!)
Those anxieties vanished almost immediately on arrival as we were introduced to the conversations in what felt a safe and secure environment and people who’d never met each other at my table joked as to whether men could only participate if they were named after an apostle and wondered whether there was a Judas present. That sense of safety continued to be the atmosphere for me and for everyone I spoke to, whatever their perspective on what we were discussing. Before proceeding further I should probably make clear that these are obviously very much personal reflections. Each person’s experience was unique not only because each of us comes from different histories and viewpoints but because the number of small group exercises in different groups means nobody had the same set of experiences as anyone else.
We were not a small group – I think there were 17 from Winchester, 11 from Portsmouth and 18 from Salisbury so 46 in total – but there seemed a pretty good gender balance and a fair range of ages from early 20s to retired with a good number of people younger (a lot younger) than me although there were I think no BAME Anglicans. As far as one could tell the proposed criteria for selection were reasonably well adhered to, unlike in some conversations, and certainly that seemed true of the Winchester group. That of course did not mean those there could be said to be a representative sample of church opinion or experience more widely (indeed some were specifically chosen so that minority experiences often ignored could be heard relatively safely without being too small a minority). Soon after arriving I was encouraged at seeing a number of friends including some who – the first of many reminders of the danger of making assumptions! – I thought might have decided against involvement because of doubts about how the RSC process has been set up.
The conversation ran from Session 1 at 11am on Monday to the end of the eucharist (following Session 13!) at 3pm on Wednesday taking us on a clearly structured journey together through a programme (this link is an earlier version – we had a new session in light of recent feedback) whose rationality was clearly explained.
In a way I’ve rarely experienced to the degree I did, it felt there was generally the right balance of a fixed structure and focus on task but with freedom to make our own conversation. As a result, it seemed people were led to understand the structure and generally were happy to work with and trust it. Safe space was also secured through the St Michael’s House Protocols and six facilitators, two of whom very skilfully guided the large plenaries. In my experience of small groups, the facilitators generally provided a strong, reassuring, usually silent, presence, engendering confidence and safety which enabled the group to create its own conversation with a range of voices heard respectfully. They were of course not perfect but when I had a concern and spoke to one of the facilitators it was received and responded to in an exemplary way.
A whole range of factors – the quality of participants and facilitators, the safety of the structure and the space, the opportunity to worship together, the quantity of food – meant that for me the 3 days were overwhelmingly a positive experience which I think achieved much good. God was clearly present and at work. It was undoubtedly among the best examples of any such conversation I’ve experienced – given what it said it was trying to do, it did this exceptionally well.
Alongside these positives about the experience there were though two significant process weaknesses. They were not primarily due to the team delivering the programme on the ground but more arising from a mix of the given structure and what we chose to do within that structure as participants.
Process Weakness 1: The place of Scripture
The Pilling report was clear that the process it recommended “should continue to involve profound reflection on the interpretation and application of Scripture”. In many ways this was certainly attempted and to some extent achieved. It was great that two small group sessions totalling over three hours had an explicit structured focus on the Bible. We discussed the helpful articles on Scripture by Ian Paul and Loveday Alexander in the resource material and our personal understanding of the relationship between Scripture and experience. The latter was a new session added in and something I am now even more convinced marks the most fundamental and perhaps unbridgeable underlying theological gap between most of those supporting and most of those resisting church approval of same-sex unions. However, although it opened up different styles of reading and ways of being shaped by Scripture, it was for me probably the least satisfying in terms of its form and content. This was perhaps because it had not been done before, is such a complex theological issue for which we had no prior resources, and many facilitators probably lacked theological training to grasp the key questions and issues.
However, in neither of these sessions or indeed anywhere else did we really study Scripture together. All this meant that at no point did I actually look (certainly closely or even I think at all) at specific passages of the Bible with others. There were standard Anglican services so a good amount of Scripture read and an optional lectio divina (which I hoped to get to but missed as I got caught in conversation over breakfast after the morning eucharist). One of the participants, not one who would naturally describe himself as an evangelical, brought the Bible front and centre by offering an opportunity to read and reflect on St Mark’s Passion Narrative on the second evening. But in the main programme we were never really encouraged by facilitators or the structure of the process to open the Bible and refer to it and look at it together. I’m not sure how it could be done but it was a shame there was not some sort of group Bible study, for example on how we are to live together (eg Ephesians 4 or Romans 12) and how that speaks into these conversations and debates. Alternatively we could have brainstormed on biblical passages which give us guidance on how to disagree well and then looked more closely at one or two of them. Of course, I and anyone else there could have suggested we reflect on Scripture at any point but I failed to do that and nobody else did it in any of my groups so we are all in that sense responsible if we experienced this as a failing.
Process Weakness 2 - The place of the wider church
The other monumental weakness for me was that while we spent a lot of time helpfully looking out at our culture and thinking about our relationship with it we hardly looked at all at the wider catholic church and in particular the Anglican Communion and our relationship with it. Their insights and the wisdom we can find in learning from their different cultures was thus absent. This is despite the fact that the Pilling Report is clear in its fourth recommendation about the process of which the RSC are the heart:
The Church of England should address the issue of same sex relationships in close dialogue with the wider Anglican Communion and other Churches, in parallel with its own facilitated conversations and on a similar timescale. (Paragraphs 323–5, 360, 366–8)
Its proposal which the RSC implements (then called “facilitated conversations”) was clear that:
Such a process of facilitated conversation for the Church of England should be developed alongside, and in partnership with the Continuing Indaba process within the Anglican Communion. Given the significance of the way the debate among Anglicans is shaped by their ecclesiology and the church’s current teaching, a wider ecumenical process would need very careful planning but might yield important fruits of understanding and respect for differing views (Para 360).
The “Grace and Disagreement” resources draw attention to the Communion’s importance, especially in Phil Groves’ contribution which stressed the need to combine the local and the global and stated that “the inclusion of link dioceses and the wider global voice – in line with the Church of England’s world mission policy – is vital” (p 67). My original understanding was that the RSC would have one of its sessions focussed on the Communion but that has I think never happened and I am only aware of one conversation so far having participants from further afield – from Virginia within The Episcopal Church.
This week we had Winchester which is partnered with at least 5 provinces (Uganda, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Myanmar), Salisbury, which has a longstanding and important link with the province of Sudan, and Portsmouth. I didn’t know about Portsmouth’s links but I discovered it is not only in relationship with the Church of Sweden (a Porvoo Lutheran church which now supports same-sex marriage) but also Portsmouth Deanery is partnered with Ho Diocese in Ghana, one of the 3 dioceses in the All-Africa Indaba which would therefore be familiar with and very able to enrich our RSC.
I learned this because on the second evening I decided to offer in the optional “discussion cluster” the chance to discuss together “What about the Anglican Communion?”. This was because there had only been the very occasional passing reference to the Communion over the two days, it clearly is an area of deep disagreement, and I knew that my reasonable amount of experience and knowledge of it was one reason I’d been invited to join the Winchester group. The takeup for the four “discussion clusters” offered was quite small – people were exhausted after a very full-on day and there was an England v France football match on in the bar! – but I was rather shocked that this subject got the smallest interest – only one person, from Portsmouth, who originally came from a different province of the Communion.
I think our having these conversations without any structured signalling of the Communion dimension and such apparent lack of interest and concern about the wider implications of what we might do after the RSCs is a major and fundamental problem of the current process with potentially very serious consequences. This was a great opportunity to raise awareness among participants of our Communion life, to learn from those different contexts and cultures, to consider what impact we would have on them, and to help them understand our context. It is as if – despite all that has happened and all the commitments we have made and our historic role within the Communion - we have in reality learned nothing from the failures of recent decades. At the moment our fellow Anglicans and other ecumenical partners are not as far as I can see part of our journey despite all we have said about them having to be and that is a very grave failing. If we become more affirming of same-sex relationships then many of them will not understand why and if we do not it may be in large part because our bishops and primates are aware of the difficulties that will cause within the Communion, but that painful reality was one which we did not even begin to talk about or put a human face to during the conversation.
It is important, having spent some time explaining these two structural weaknesses in the process, to stress again that the actual delivery of the structured programme was brilliant and the spirit of all participants was a constructive one even when difficult things had to be said or heard. What is even more important though than process is substance – how people were changed by the encounter. I cannot believe that anyone open to God came away unchanged by these three days whether through new experiences, Christian testimonies or insights or through being reminded of important truths about what it means to live as the body of Christ which we often forget especially when our experience of the body is one which is restricted to those like us.
This reflection, though it is only being posted two months later, was written immediately after the conversations and has not been revised (although events of last week highlight the importance of the concern about the Communion). I continue to reflect on the wealth of the experiences and insights with a focus on the unsettling, gracious gift of revelation, taken in various senses, and hope to be able to write up reflections on that at some point.