“So, what were the General Synod Shared Conversations like?” I’ve been asked that several times, but only now, with a week’s distance, can I attempt to reflect on how it went, what it means, and (big question) What Might Happen Next…
It was an intense experience. The object of the exercise was to reflect together on the question: Given the significant changes in our culture in relation to human sexuality, how should the Church respond? And our York programme (spread over three days) was the third and final part of a programme that has involved the College of Bishops and a number of regional shared conversation events. Altogether, some 1300 people have taken part. (If all this is new to you, then you might like to look at the official Shared Conversations website – click here). Despite publicised threats of a boycott, we were given to understand that fewer than a dozen people opted out at York.
How was it all done?
First things first.There are around 400 people involved, so we worked in ‘small groups’ – around 20 per group, each with a professional facilitator. Canon David Porter headed up a very experienced team, which gave me confidence that this was not going to be a tram smash. They led, encouraged (and occasionally reproved) us well.
David has ‘form’ with Synod: he successfully led the process that got us through the ‘women Bishops’ maze in 2013 – I wrote about it here – so those of us who were around in the last Synod knew roughly what to expect. This time, we were in small groups for about half the programme, the other half being informative plenary sessions back in the Central Hall. And there were free evenings – unknown in normal Synod timetables, but vital for resting the brain and/or talking informally with others.
We operated under a strict set of house rules, the St Michael’s Protocol. They are like a Christian version of the famous Chatham House Rule (there is only one, apparently), and cover non-disclosure of who said what, together with how we treat one another in the discussions. (Read the Protocol here). So my reflections will be impressionistic, and if you want to know who said what to whom, tough luck.
Big group, small groups…
The timetable (you can read it here) inserted plenaries into the group work. I’m not going to say who addressed the plenaries, but they covered:
- testimony: accounts of their personal faith journeys from people of Christian faith with differing experiences of handling their own sexuality in a church setting. They were predominantly young, and all were impressive in their commitment and explanation of why they take the position that they do.
- theology: short presentations from serious theologians with different understandings of what Scripture has to say
- church and culture: further personal accounts of how our culture has changed in the past twenty years or so, and how this has affected various people within church life and leadership
- the world context: speakers from Africa, Asia and North America on the worldwide Anglican Communion’s varying understandings of human sexuality
My group had 21 members. we met in a horrible echoey room next to a noisy kitchen. But the commitment was there to make it work. There was time in threes, in sixes and as a whole group. My triplet included someone I didn’t know at all, and someone else who I know from Synod membership, and who on other issues I would tend to disagree with. So we had lots to talk about.
In my group, I learned…
There was some pretty deep conversation; some surprises, some emotion. But two things I can share, I think.
- There were no ‘campaigners’ for a traditional view or a ‘liberal/inclusive’ view in the group. I don’t think that was fixed by the organisers. It may just demonstrate that we are not as polarised as everyone thinks we are! But I felt slightly disappointed: having prepared myself for engaging with both ‘sides’ it was disconcerting to find that – although there were people more ‘traditional’ and more ‘liberal’ than me – nobody was banging a drum for their cause. (I can now see that this was actually rather useful, because it highlit the fact that pretty well everyone is slightly confused, and pretty well everyone (in our group) was ready to listen without shouting.)
- It felt to me as if we were attempting to discuss this in a vacuum, as if the Church of England’s trials were the only show in town. So we talked about ourselves, our families, and churches we know. But actually, there is a lot going on elsewhere. These ‘noises off’ include:
- the United Reformed Church’s decision this month to permit same-sex marriages in church (read more here…)
- the Methodist Church’s decision this month to ‘revisit’ its position on same-sex marriage (Read more here…)
- the Scottish Episcopal Church’s decision last month to rewrite its official description of marriage to remove references to ‘man and woman’ (read more here…) UPDATE: see Kevin Holdsworth’s clarification in “comments” below
- The Anglican Church of Canada’s mis-counted vote on the subject last week (read more here…)
- There are legal cases in the offing in respect of individual clergy who have been denied licences.
And that, of course, is just in the Christian community. Again and again we were brought up against the fact that while traditional church teaching has not moved, society has. Our stance on homosexuality is cited as a major missional block, especially among young people.
Its been said over and over again that there are no planned outcomes from this process.
- there are no draft revisions of the Canons, or motions about same-sex marriage, or anything of the sort in view.
- there are no agreed statements – other than a brief official note which you can read here
- there is no ‘reporting back’ to anyone.
The official “what happens next” is that the Bishops, when they meet in the autumn – and they have planned an extended meeting – will take counsel on what, if anything, happens now. (The Bishops were spread evenly round the groups, so all of them will have heard what was being said, and been in the vulnerable position of sharing their own views and stories, like the rest of us).
Outside the groups, and while chatting in the bar, some pressure points for the Bishops’ autumn meeting emerged:
- The mood of many congregations and clergy, and the government’s lock-out of the C of E from conducting same-sex marriages mean that we are not going to move to marrying same-sex couples in church any time soon. The Bishops may need to make that clear, which will not go down well with some, and will make others rejoice.
- There is a howling fudge going on in respect of our Church and same-sex relationships. The way in which clergy are treated is different to the way other church members are treated. Clergy may enter into chaste civil partnerships; and not into same-sex marriages. Lay people are not so restricted. The position of licensed lay ministers (such as Readers) is ambiguous. This will only get worse. The Bishops may need to indicate whether they are prepared to make some kind of ‘pastoral accommodation’ in some of these cases. This will not go down well with some, and will make others rejoice.
- Despite recent statements making all the right noises about welcoming LGBTI people into the life of our parishes, their experience very often is not one of being welcomed. There is a scale moving from ‘rejection’ though to ‘toleration’, then to ‘welcome’ and finally to ‘inclusion’. Our groups heard something of that from people whose church experiences were in different points on that scale.There is a mismatch between what is pronounced and what actually happens. The Bishops need to remind us all of that. This will not go down well with some, and will make others rejoice.
For me, the biggest outcome is that everyone (apart from those who stayed away) realised that General Synod can work without agendas and resolutions. And if we are ever to make progress on the human sexuality issue, then we must not expect a motion or a working party from the Bishops: we need to spend more time in our threes and sixes and small groups, just hearing how it is for each other, and setting that against our biblical material, our prayers and our understanding of real life.
So probably the Business Committee are going to have to look at finding time for more of this way of working. General Synod must retain its legislative role: but its deliberations could be less starchy on subject like this.
In the meantime…
If you want to get a good view of where the Church of England is on this matter, the Shared Conversations website has a good list of reading resources here (scroll down the page)
She said “you don’t understand what I said” a line from She said, from the Beatles 1966 album Revolver. The next line is “I said “No, no,no you’re wrong”. The kind of conversation we hope to avoid in this matter….