The shared (originally facilitated) conversations were one of the recommendations of the ‘Pilling Report’ on Human Sexuality published in November 2013. The Southeast contingent met at Ashburnham House, a Christian conference, study and retreat centre in East Sussex.
Of the 40 or so present there should have been a 50/50 split between men and women. I counted just 11 women. The requirement that 25% of participants should have been under 40 may just have been achieved. The balance of opinion across the diocesan delegation should have reflected the balance of views across the Dioceses. I was aware of probably no more than three or four committed conservative evangelicals and one conservative catholic. We also have to remember that some may have declined to be included because they believe that participation gave legitimacy to views they opposed. It was recommended that participants should be 50/50 ordained and lay. My impression, though, is that the ordained were in a slight majority.
Finally it was recommended that LBGTI people should be represented with two or three in each diocesan delegation. This was certainly achieved in Chichester and I would have said that at least 25% of the participants were Gay men, priests and lay. I also met and talked with a trans woman for the first time. However, there were, as far as I know, no Lesbian women participating (or they did not identify themselves as such). This seems to me to be a serious omission and to an extent undermines the process itself. As far as I know no one identified themselves as either bisexual or intersex. I do know that there was one lesbian woman at the Chichester pre meeting but she did not attend the conversations. There were unexplained absences from other dioceses.
There were 13 sessions over the three days, all of considerable length and intellectually challenging. These included optional sessions after supper which were used by individuals or groups to explore issues in more depth. I decided not to attend these as by the end of each day I had had enough though in retrospect it is clear that some were interesting and important.
The sessions were designed to be progressive, leading from a discussion of social changes, though our approach to scripture, personal journeys and what informs the different positions held. We were then invited to consider what the possible consequences were of a range of held positions within the church and possible ways forward, and what was required to ‘disagree well’. We ended with discussions on how we might carry on the conversations and next steps.
It was a matter of continuing concern to participants that there is no clear method by which the views and experiences of the participants in these or any other conversations can be conveyed elsewhere to inform both the Bishops and the General Synod. There is no mechanism, no reporting back process, no formal or informal gathering or written report. This issue was raised very early on and continued to be raised. It is no wonder that there was a degree of cynicism at all times
Before the event I had read a number of reports from others who have attended these conversations elsewhere across the country. The reports are very mixed and some were very worrying. Stories of the marginalisation and abuse of LBGTI people and their supporters were sufficiently alarming to make me wonder whether I wanted to put myself through such an ordeal. As it happened there was no need to worry. The atmosphere was immediately warm and inviting, people were very friendly and interested in each other. There was a buzz of conversation at breaks and mealtimes and everyone was very polite to each other.
However there were obvious tensions. One of these occurred when a participant tried to explain the homophobic attitude of the African Bishops and the church there in the light of historical events. This engendered an angry rebuff from another participant who pointed out that as much as anything it was the Christian Missionaries who took their Victorian view of homosexuality to Africa and that we ought to be encouraging them to review their stance rather than pandering to it.
It was also clear that the vast majority of those participating were looking for a much more generous response from the Church to its lgbti members. Those holding conservative views, while willing to have their beliefs challenged, seemed unwilling to countenance changing them. My encounters with these beliefs were limited, since there were so few participants obviously holding them. One of these said that while he had sat with those ‘suffering from same sex attraction’ (a phrase I challenged) to help them live according to the teachings of the Bible, he had never heard the opposing views of Lgbti people confidently expressed before. Another participant was asked what he would do if the Church changed its doctrine on marriage (something which he said would occur if the church was hospitable to a variety of views and practice), he said, baldly, that he would leave. I am not sure what one can do in the face of such absolutes.
The fear of change is deeply rooted and rests, not only on a change in the ‘doctrine of marriage’ but also on the idea that the Church will be forced by EU and Equalities legislation to accept civilly married priests and laity, something which was mentioned a number of times. There are also fears from this quarter that change will lead to splits and consequent legal disputes about assets and money.
For me personally there was one session that I found singularly unhelpful. We were asked to consider ‘How does scripture influence your approach to human sexuality?’ I argued that this question is the wrong way round and indeed encapsulates the whole problem with the Church’s approach to this subject. It makes ‘scripture’ the touchstone against which all human experience is measured and thus devalues the human experience itself. I believe that this is fundamentally wrong and that it has led the Church down the blind alley from which it is finding itself more and more difficult to extract itself. It also denies the three legged stool on which the Church of England is supposed to rely; ‘scripture, tradition and reason’, elevating the first over the others and leading to the current unbalance of the whole.
At the last session we were in Diocesan groups and were asked to ‘discuss our experiences and consider opportunities to carry forward the conversations’. All groups reported that the wanted to talk to their Bishops. We also agreed that we wanted to meet together again as Diocesan groups. Some Dioceses suggested that they should also meet their General Synod representatives. Finally there were suggestions that similar exercises might be undertaken in Dioceses, particularly with individuals recounting their stories and others to listen without interruption and without questioning. For some this was clearly a powerful experience which they felt others ought to have the opportunity to share.
I have no great hopes for the future. Any sort of ‘mixed economy’, the most hopeful outcome of the discussions where the same sort of accommodation for same-sex relationships, perhaps even marriage in church, as pertains to divorce at the moment, still seems remote in the face of the strident opposition of those a opposed to any accommodation to the majority view. In the light of what I have heard I do think that there will be a split of some sort. At least some of the conservative minority will be not able to live with the ‘mixed economy’. I think the ‘bluff’ of their threat to leave should be called since I suspect that it will be no more significant than the establishment of the Ordinariate. I also hope that Archbishop Justin’s calling of a Primates’ council in January will lead to a looser but more tolerant federation of churches and will end the looking over the shoulder to what the African churches say and do. But I am not hopeful.
The final Eucharist, attended by everyone, was celebrated by the Chaplain to the Conversations, one of the staff from the Centre for Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral. It was sad that our further divisions were apparent when four of those present did not receive the sacrament, presumably because the celebrant was a woman.