Shared Conversations – grounds for optimism?

I’m an eternal optimist. Even when confronted with apparently intransigent and unmoving situations or when living through dark times, something inside me continues to believe that the future will eventually be transformed by the creative good – the divine energy of love. Faith might be a good word to describe my optimism!

My feelings about the Church of England, the House and College of Bishops, the Shared Conversations and their impact on LGBTI and straight people, have slowly morphed into an awareness that changes that we have longed for and campaigned for, some for many years, are beginning to emerge from the process.

Changing Attitude has long been critical of members of the House of Bishops for avoiding the truth that there are the most profound disagreements of theology and ecclesiology within the House. The language used by the bishops of Winchester and Manchester in the podcast discussion following last week’s College of Bishops meeting indicates that a real shift is taking place.

They talked of deep disagreements between us over how scripture is interpreted, and disagreed between themselves when discussing the Jerusalem Council in Acts. ‘Deep disagreement’ is a much stronger expression of their internal differences. They admitted that the bishops have a lot of work to do, learning how to disagree well, adding that they can do this together (seems they had an Ed Milliband moment). To my astonishment Bishop Tim Dakin spoke of the need to “talk with emotional intelligence.” Emotional intelligence has been core to my work in Changing Attitude. It’s an elusive idea, but when we bring emotional intelligence to bear on areas of disagreement, there is real hope for a creative, constructive outcome.

I detect signs of change in the ideas being floated about the desired outcome of the Shared Conversations. Changing Attitude had been concerned that the intention was to shut down any possibility of progress or change until the Conversations were concluded at the General Synod meeting in November 2016. Added to this was the impression that while mutual understanding was sought, the need for a resolution of the unjust treatment of LGBTI Christians was being avoided.

The message is changing. The conversations are intended to be about human sexuality in general – straight people are in the frame and the problematizing of LGBTI people should be avoided. All who faithfully seek to follow Christ in the church are included, ensuring LGBTI voices are heard as together we seek to discern the truth. I think these are the genuine ambitions of those organising the Conversations at the centre, and LGBTI people are included among the faithful seekers.

Other actions show that some bishops and archbishops want to impose outcomes now which do not reflect a genuine willingness to be open to the process. I refer of course to the disciplinary actions taken against the two priests known to have married. They are rightly challenging both bishop and archbishop. The Shared Conversations cannot be safe for LGBTI people if clergy (and potentially licensed lay people) risk being disciplined if they speak openly and truthfully. This dilemma has yet to be resolved.

But the intention of the Shared Conversations is moving towards managing the tensions between those holding different biblical and theological positions in the church rather than controlling and dealing with “the LGBTI problem.”

Other essential practical details are being raised by members of the Changing Attitude Facebook group and are yet to be resolved. Who participates in the Conversations? How will they be chosen? What resources will be made available? Will they be appropriate?

The process is imperfect – process is imperfect. But I am increasingly confident that the Shared Conversation process will, and already is, having a beneficial effect. There is movement and change afoot.

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