The Dangling Conversation(s) *

General Synod, Thursday 12 February. The headlines of the day, for me, were miles away from the preceding two days. A packed lunch time fringe meeting (I mean the room was full, not that there were lots of sandwich boxes) heard for the first time lots of details about how the Shared Conversations on human sexuality were going to work. I’ll come back to that later.

Cheerful worship, sober work

Photo - gallery view

A view from the gallery

The Synod Communion service, as ever, first thing in the morning, was profoundly moving. Hymn buffs enjoyed the mix of a Lutheran Chorale-style hymn (Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness) and My Jesus, my Saviour. The Synod chamber is a funny place to worship in, but gentle traffic control meant that the administration of Communion was not the usual irreverent-but-holy melée. I happened to be in a seat where I could watch the signers who interpret for the deaf Anglicans. Watching her sign the hymns was like watching a mini-ballet – hand-signs, mouthing the words and whole-body movement blended into one graceful flow.

That was a big help as we had a slightly heavy morning. There was a big safeguarding debate. Mostly it was about the technicalities of how to write into the legislation the systems we need to ensure clergy, churchwardens and others in responsibility in parishes can be safely held to account when things go wrong.

And after that, a debate to update funeral legislation to permit the burial of those who have taken their own life. You didn’t know it was illegal? Well it is, though the law is almost universally ignored. We heard some heart-rending personal stories from Synod members whose families, parishes and lives have been affected by suicide. We also heard of the very deep pastoral concern at the heart of the Church of England, to do the right thing for families and to respect the dead, while regretting their choice.

Breaking News!

The lunchtime fringe meeting on the Shared Conversations project was packed out, and for the first time we had publicly available hard information about the project. The aim is to set up some ‘safe space’ conversations for participants from every diocese to hear and speak about people’s understanding of their Christian faith and sexuality. Notably, of course, how Christians understand and respond to same-sex relationships. The full title is Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality. Funny how the “S” and “M” words keep getting left out and people concentrate on the sex bit…

David Porter heads up the Archbishops’ Reconciliation Ministry from Coventry Cathedral. He opened proceedings at about 1.30 and after house notices and introductions, his first statement was that the Shared Conversations website is now up and running. Your correspondent immediately went looking for it (you can get it here) and tweeted the news at 1.37 p.m.). And beat the Church Times to it by four minutes (1.41 p.m.)! So you read it here first, so to speak.

The website gives a lot of detail that up until half past one today had not been in the public domain. Anyone involved in the process (or who has opinions about it) will do well to look at it.

My interest in that I am involved in assisting my own Bishop, who has to invite ten people from the diocese to take part. Our ten will be meeting with ten more people each from Exeter, Truro, Bristol and Gloucester dioceses at the end of April. We are the guinea-pigs pioneers, so it was really useful to meet the Coventry team and join up the dots in what has been a rather ‘make it up as we go along’ exercise up until now.

New readers start here.

Archbishop Justin

Archbishop Justin

The Shared Conversations are an initiative of the Archbishop of Canterbury, building on the way in which outside facilitators were able to help Synod deal with the very difficult discussions about women bishops. In that case we got from disaster two years ago (see previous blogs) to the consecration of Bishop Libby Lane last month. So the object on sexuality is to try and help people of very different views and experiences to talk to each other – and to listen, too. David Porter used the word ‘toxic’ several times: we have toxic debates, there is toxic bad behaviours amongst ‘opposing views’ and it is profoundly un-Christian. So..

  • the Conversations are not debates; they will not make decision
  • they should not be described as ‘facilitated conversations’ – that presupposes an outcome; they are just what they say on the tin – shared conversations
  • they aim to create a safe space where people can hear others views in a context of worship and prayer, and with some heavyweight progessional facilitators holding the ring.
  • he believes that those who participate may not change their views – but they will be changed

In answer to careful questioning about whether people’s personal disclosures will put them in a difficult position, he explained that the ‘house rules’ would be the ‘St Michael’s House Protocols’ (an extra-strong version of the Chatham House rule): people may not use information gained at the event to disadvantage someone else. Read the Protocols here.

If you are seriously interested in this, you should look at the Grace and Disagreement textbooks (maybe better described as handbooks) which will be key resources for participants to read. See them here.

Some key bullet points.

  • Participants will not be identified by dioceses or the central teams. Some may choose to disclose that they are involved – that is their choice.
  • Facilitators will not be there to look for an outcome. It is about learning how we can live together when we disagree.
  • There will be shared worship, storytelling, and the opportunity for very small subgroups of 2 or 3.
  • Invitations will be extended to partner dioceses to send someone, recognising that this may be problematic
  • Finance is largely from the Church Commissioners, who are putting up £300,000 to cover professional facilitators and accommodation. Dioceses are expected to fund participants’ food costs (say £1000 per diocese) and travel .

One of David Porter’s key messages is that we we should expect casualties – some of the events will ‘crash and burn’ – that’s what happens when you take risks in in real life. He hinted that the College of Bishops mini-version did not go well.

When it’s over

Afterwards the professional facilitators will write a reflective report which will be published – but it will not quote people or attribute opinions. House of Bishops and Synod-wise, his plan is that in July 2016 there will be two whole days of small group work (subject of course to a new Business Committee saying ‘Yes’. But if he can charm £300K out of the Commissioners, the Business Committee ought to be a pushover…)

There is evident hope that the experience of the 600 or so participants nationwide will cascade out – he wants participants to help others have their own shared conversations in (say) Deaneries or dioceses. But there is obviously an issue about people identifying themselves if cascading is going to happen. He hopes most will be willing to say ‘I was there, this is what I learned and this is how I could help you think about it.’

Asked what would be seen as a criterion for success, he said that if you understand what others believe and can articulate that understanding, even while holding on to what you believe,that would be success (my précis of his words). We have to learn to be robust and stand by our principles, but show that as followers of Jesus we can deal with that without the toxicity.

That is seriously a big ask. But it might just happen.

The remains of the day

I wasn’t in the chamber as much as I might have been, as I had two meetings with the Church Commissioners (always useful to see people when in London, much better than emails). So I missed the whole baptismal texts debate (they got through unscathed), but did (almost) take part in the Rural Mission and Ministry debate.

There is a really good Report (GS Misc 1092 read it here) about the successes and pressures of rural ministry and misison. One of the quirks of Synod debating is that you don’t know who the Chair will call to speak. In this case, no less than three of us from Bath and Wells had put our names down to speak about different aspects. So once the Bishop of Bath & Wells had been called, the Archdeacon of Bath and I had no chance! And so it transpired, and I went home with my speech notes (about pressures on rural clergy) un-shared with the world.


Tea room photo

The Synod tea-room: a place for chatting or catching up on email

So that was the February 2015 General Synod. Remarkable for:

  1. the time given to non-formal sessions
  2. the seriously significant reform and renewal programme that has been initiated
  3. a degree of grumpiness among ordinary members that (2) was pushed on them without them having much say.
  4. oh, and the Green Report: much spoken of, never discussed. (Hold the front page: Friday saw a defensive statement being issued by Church House complimenting his work. Read it here)

Ah well, we are episcopally led and synodically governed… Lets see what happens when we go to York in July for the last group of sessions of this Synod. Elections are in the air (and not just 6 May – Synod elections happen in September).

PS: electronics takes over

If you’ve got this far you’ll have noticed that Twitter and all that social media stuff are now an established part of the Synod scene.

  • There’s an official twitter feed 
  • A lot of members tweet comments (often with a smattering of wit and in-jokes) by just using the hashtag #synod (though this is also used by other churches’ synods in other countries, so it can be full of surprises.
  • More and more members use tablets to access papers, rather than lug bags full of documents around. This is heavily encouraged by the Business Committee, as a money-saving idea (less postage, less printing).
Full paper trays in York, July 2014

Full paper trays in York

Empty trays in London, February 2015

Empty trays in London

For the first time ever, I noticed that the members trays (receptacles for lobbying material – mail, booklets, flyers, etc) were completely ignored for the whole of the sessions. At York last July, as the photo shows, there was paper a-plenty. But this week in London – they remained stubbornly empty all the time. Sign of the times – now we get junk email instead of junk paper!

* The Dangling Conversation Simon and Garfunkel, 1966. Not very well-known, but rather lovely in a sad way. You can hear it here (but you’ll have to skip the ads)

This entry was posted in 2015: February - London, General Synod and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Dangling Conversation(s) *

  1. Jean Hole says:

    Thank you so much for your very informative and readable blogs. I recently attended a funeral service for a man who had committed suicide and wrote the poem attached afterwards. I am not sure of the theology but this is what I felt. Best wishes Jean Hole

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