We were assured from the start of these regional conversations that there was ‘no planned outcome’ and that this fact might be frustrating to some people who want to see a ‘point’ to them. I will admit I am one of those people in the ‘frustrated’ camp. I have been waiting for and willing the Church to change its stance towards LGBTI people for a very long time and have instead seen no real change whatsoever in theology or treatment of LGBTI folk since the 1990s. In addition, there is now a new hard-line approach to same-sex marriage, which has led to clergy being disciplined for marrying and potential ordinands who are married (like me) blocked from putting themselves forward. This backwards attitude exists despite the fact that a growing majority of church-goers disagree with the current line.
I just can’t accept that the ‘no planned outcome’ spiel is really true though. Why on earth would the Church spend so much money (about fifty of us were put up in a very nice hotel for three days with full board) on this ‘shared conversations’ process if they wished nothing whatsoever to come of it? At the very least they are doing this to create space for ‘good disagreement’ (as they put it) and reconciliation through encounter, in order that something can eventually be done to accommodate the growing number of people who want the Church to change, without alienating those who don’t.
All of that aside, my personal experience of the East Midlands Shared Conversations was at times encouraging, at times frustrating and at times very stressful. I met people who were thinking more broadly about gender and sexuality and with whom I had some really exciting and interesting discussions. Most of the people I met, whether straight or not, were supportive of same-sex relationships. I also had moments of genuinely ‘good disagreement’ with people whose views I oppose wholeheartedly. However, I (and others like me) also had to put up with some very offensive comments.
The offensive things said to me and other LGBTI people throughout the three days included the expressions ‘gay lifestyle’ and ‘rampant homosexuality’, and some had their very salvation repeatedly called into question. At one point I had a conversation over lunch with a man who tried to deny my Christianity, saying ‘Where is the proof of the fruits of the Spirit in you? Do you speak in tongues?’, to which I replied, ‘There is nowhere in the Bible where it says you have to speak in tongues to be a Christian and you can’t just invent some hierarchy of Christians based on whether or not people speak in tongues!’ He then said ‘Well what about self-control? Do you have self-control with your sexuality?’ and I replied ‘That is not an issue for me. I have shown a lot of self-control, though, coming here and speaking to the kinds of people who have hurt me enormously throughout my life!’ He softened after that and took on a more conciliatory tone.
The most upsetting thing that was said to me personally was said by yet another conservative evangelical man (I only came across one woman who would fit the description ‘conservative evangelical’). We were talking in small groups about how we as a Church might take things forward. I said that (aside from my own wish to see people like me able to go forward for ordination and my hope that some priests might be allowed to at least perform same-sex marriage blessings in the future) the single most important issue for me was an urgent one: I wanted to see an end to people dying because of the Church’s attitudes. I explained that people suffer mental health problems, harm themselves, and sometimes kill themselves in this country, (without mentioning those who are killed by others in certain countries, egged on by the churches there). Suddenly, this conservative evangelical man turned on me defensively and said ‘Well, my worry is that people are being harmed by being in same-sex relationships. I have seen people in my Church who have come to me and they are damaged because they’ve been in a same-sex relationship.’ At this comment, I saw red and said to him fairly angrily (but without raising my voice): ‘That is just not true is it? It is just not true.’ The mediator had to calm us down.
Later on, I spoke to the same mediator outside of the group. She asked me if I was OK and I said that I wasn’t really, because the man in the group had implied that my relationship is inherently harmful to me because it is a same-sex relationship. I told her how offensive that is. She said to me ‘I’m not sure that’s what he meant’, to which I asked politely ‘What do you think he meant?’ She couldn’t answer that and promised to ask him what he meant when she saw him. To her credit, she did ask him, and came back to me to report that what I had thought he meant was indeed what he had meant. I then spoke to the head mediator, in charge of the whole process, and she said she would educate her mediators better in what language and inferences were and were not acceptable in group work. I honestly hope she will and that people in the next round of conversations won’t have to listen to that kind of thing again.
The conservative evangelicals I met were not all so disrespectful and offensive however. At one point, in the very last session, I had a stimulating and friendly chat with a conservative evangelical vicar and a young (progressive) evangelical woman. As I would describe myself as an anglo-catholic mystic (or something like that!), this was a conversation with two people from really quite different backgrounds from my own, and with very different churchmanship from me. And it was one of the loveliest moments of the three days. Just before that chat, the conservative evangelical man had heard me repeat to the large plenary group some of the things I had heard over the course of the three days. He came up to me and apologised to me for the offensive things which had been said to me by others with his views and asked if he could give me a hug!
All in all, at the end of the three days, I felt exhausted but pleased that I had been there and had had a chance to have my story and ideas heard- by lay people, clergy and two bishops. One bishop there had a good long conversation with me and said that he wanted to ‘affirm [me] as a person’.
I don’t want to throw anyone out of the Church because they do not share my approach to theology and faith. However, I also do not think it is right or fair for the Church to continue to ignore the growing number of people who disagree with the current stance. My hope (and I do still have hope, which is why I’m still in the Church!) is that there won’t be ‘no outcome’ from these conversations. I hope that the reconciliation and ‘good disagreement’ nurtured in the conversations will lay the foundations for a more pluralistic approach, in which some Anglicans will be allowed to approach things in one way and others in a different way (similar to the Church’s unsatisfactory but pragmatic approach on re-marriage after divorce and women bishops).
We will all have to be mature and expansive enough in our faith to accept that not everyone in the Church will agree with us, but as long as there is at least a pluralistic approach, LGBTI people will not feel like we are being constantly rejected and bashed over the head by the Church. Maybe then at least LGBTI people will stop dying (in this country anyway).