For some people, it’s a momentary experience that changes the way they see things, for others it’s a long, gradual process. For me, it was just under three days spent at the Shared Conversations that made me see the Church’s situation around sexuality differently.
Just a few months before I accepted an invitation to participate in the Yorkshire Region Shared Conversation, I was minded to concede they were a stalling tactic by the Church’s leaders, a pointless exercise and a risky venture for LGBT+ people to take part in. When I finally decided I would go, I thought that I would engage as much as I could, but if nothing else, I would just take advantage of it as a jolly: staying in a nice hotel with nice food, meeting new people and sharing worship. Selfish, maybe, but self-preserving, too.
I arrived to a coffee lounge mostly full of strangers, yet they shared many of the reservations I had and more besides. Still, it was a convivial and friendly introduction. After an introductory session and lunch, the atmosphere soon turned more serious, when the facilitators summed up the social and historical context of our Conversations, setting out how the Church of England has responded to social change around sexuality.
During the Conversations, I found that the usual labels did not apply to most participants. Some did indeed identify themselves using the terms we are familiar with: liberal, evangelical, and so forth. As I listened to most participants, however, the picture revealed itself to be much more nuanced, with a spectrum of views around sexuality, partnership, marriage, and the extent the church should endorse these or not.
At several points during the Conversations, we were invited to reflect on our own journeys. I felt privileged to hear stories from several participants’ lives, which were often moving. Participating in these exercises made me realise I couldn’t separate my faith journey from understanding my sexuality and identity. Through these sessions, it became apparent to me, however, that change was travelling in only one direction: people’s views were changing towards greater acceptance of LGBT+ people in the church and the imperative to celebrate committed same-sex relationships in a sacramental way.
On both the evenings of the Conversations, we were given the opportunity to devise and attend self-directed discussions on topics of our own choosing. For me it was here where I learned the most about scripture, about other people and about my own perspective.
There has been concern expressed on social media about “empty chairs”, where during some sessions an empty chair was placed in the room as a reminder of the views not represented in the group. During the Conversations, I did my best to point out it wasn’t just conservative views that were not represented at the Conversations. Besides this, while we were often in small groups of six or seven, I think the “empty chair” was a useful reminder that people held views other than our own, which placed our small group discussion in the closed room in a wider context.
There were a few participants who quite openly talked about splitting from the Church. To them, any further endorsement of same-sex relationships by the Church of England will cause their congregations to break off. It wasn’t the first time I had heard this, but it was actually refreshing in how matter-of-fact and openly the possibility of splitting was referred to, instead of the timid and euphemistic way notions of “unity” are dealt with in a lot of church-political discourse.
The process isn’t perfect; I did (and still do) have some concerns. There is no consistent or official process to follow up on the Conversations and the immediate legacy will vary by diocese. Participants were “hand-picked” by their diocesan bishops: one diocese in the Yorkshire region distributed the names of their participants a few days before, but mine didn’t. There were also no out trans or genderqueer people at the Conversations I attended, nor did I meet any self-supporting clergy. I accept that the risks of participating are greater for some groups than others, namely clergy with same-sex partners. This situation is not helped when senior clergy from each of the represented dioceses are taking part. It remains to be seen if and how any of these issues will be addressed.
Despite all my concerns, I valued the Shared Conversations as a process of beginning a more honest dialogue, with a particular emphasis on fostering deep listening. My view on inclusion hasn’t changed – I want to see a generous and just church welcoming all, including LGBT+ people and affirming same-gender marriages. My impression was that while the majority of participants supported some sort of recognition for same-sex partnerships, it was only a minority present at the Conversations who shared my particular view about the Church recognising same-sex marriage. Yet from this, I feel that spending time with other participants gave me a more realistic view of where the Church of England is as a whole on the issue. Engaging with people’s differing view points gave me hope that enough members of the Church genuinely do want to learn and understand more.
Between the participants, we maintained profound differences on many issues, not just around sexuality, yet we still shared a love of God and His Word. This shared faith, almost without us realising, kindled a sense of community over those few days away. In the end, it was more than a jolly and I am certain my experiences at the Shared Conversations will continue to shape my perspective for some time.