I’m not sure what I expected but nothing could have prepared me for the Shared Conversations held in Cheshire between 2nd – 4th September. The conversations and this reflection are governed by the St Michael’s Protocol so that no names or affiliations are provided.
The joining information showed that we would have a tight and intense schedule. As others have commented it is a draining experience because of the intensity. I can see why our physical needs were taken care of by our being in a very comfortable well organised hotel. This left us free to concentrate on our discussions.
I was surprised at how nervous I felt when I arrived. I was literally shaking with trepidation. However as I began to chat with others my trepidation soon began to dissipate. It was a bit like a form of waiting to “come out” – possibly for all of us. I felt I was tip-toeing around people wondering if they would stop smiling at me when they found out my theological standpoint. We were all being terribly polite!
Experienced facilitators led us CARE-fully through the programme.
We began with the broadest view looking at our world, society and culture. We then narrowed down and focussed on our church and personal situations/viewpoints. I was surprised that I was not feeling the hurtful stuff that happens when strong theological positions are defended. I was also surprised by the level of loving hospitality shown when were in a group of three sharing our stories. We shared how we had come to our present position and viewpoint. Hospitality was demonstrated by the quality of listening without discussion or comment. Through this I experienced a graced conversation.
The session that followed this really jarred as people seemed to jump back into their theological trenches. That was a shame as it had felt that we were on neutral ground, almost like no man’s land between the trenches. We had been brought out to encounter the other and I and others were seeking fresh understanding but that was all too brief. It all soon began to feel depressingly predictable.
An extra evening session was provided by representatives from the Episcopal Church in the USA, the Diocese of Virginia. I was grateful for this session and encouraged by what they had to share of their experience. They encouraged we Church of England members to make the most of the opportunity we had been given. I wish there was some way of bringing their story to General Synod.
On the final day we spent time in our Diocesan groups. We had time to reflect and bring our suggestions for what we wanted to do as a result of our conversations. It was heartening that there was a genuine desire to continue the conversations we had begun. A report will be fed back to our Diocese and hopefully some sort of sharing from this event can be given at Diocesan Synod and perhaps Deaneries and parishes too. Although I am not quite sure how such sharing could be structured. It needs time and CARE.
I had expected a much more rigorous condemnation and hurtful attitude from those of a different theological view. I must have been blessed by the groups I was with as that did not happen, though I am aware that some felt bullied and wounded.
It was hard to trust enough to let go of old wounds and share afresh. I did feel vulnerable. The conversations definitely need careful and prayerful preparation and facilitation. I appreciated the experienced help given by the facilitators to groups I was in.
One thing kept coming to me as I approached the conversations and during the three days. “Trust God” and “Do not be afraid”. And I am sure that this is a message for the whole church. After all God is with us. Even so it was sometimes difficult to sit with some whose views were drastically different from my own. I had to work hard to remain open to listening to them.
I was disappointed that there seemed to be a desire to leap to a conclusion or a destination and that a number there only appeared to see a future where there was a split in the church. It was as if they were already exploring that possibility. From my point of view I knew we would not be reaching a clear outcome. The conversations are continuing in other Diocesan groups and this process was never to bring the church to a decision or a given destination.
The positive for me was the opportunity for sharing across Diocesan boundaries, so broadening my own limited vision. I hope I made some new friends and at least I didn’t feel I made enemies, even though I felt vulnerable and open to attack.
I still seek greater understanding of the different viewpoints on human sexuality. I am hopeful that this may grow as long as our group does find a way to continue the conversations.
I am praying that somehow the Church will find a way to give more members the opportunity for the sort of graced conversations I had. I am also praying for the official conversations that are still to happen in a number of Dioceses.
I think I must be a fairly positive and hopeful sort of person. My overall sense after reflecting on this time is one of cautious hopefulness.
I know that this process is frustratingly slow for many but at least the Church has the opportunity to grow in fellowship and understanding through the conversations. Challenging it may be, but it has to be important to keep talking rather than turning our backs on one another.