Shared Conversations on Sexuality, Scripture and Mission

What a forbidding title for something so basic! For me, frankly, it conjures up images of frowning, desiccated, black-gowned old men, to say nothing of furtive experimental fumblings behind the bike shed.

But let us be serious. These issues about sexuality are a serious nuisance. Is it OK to be LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex)? What is sex for anyway? When is it OK? Does it matter? These issues are divisive. They set us against each other, even when we pretend they don’t and wish they wouldn’t. They drive people away from the Church (and, arguably, from Christ) in droves, or put them off coming in the first place. Those who do come pay, in many cases, cautious lip service at best. They drive away lay people; they drive away people who might want to be priests too. And the really devilish thing is that it is almost impossible for us to even talk about it in any constructive way, yet alone agree what to do.

Our leaders in June 2014 (General Synod Document GS Misc 1083, §4) gloomily but pragmatically observed that ‘There is no expectation of achieving any consensus – in either direction – in the foreseeable future’. However, they did set out a plan (also in that document). It had the title above. It was planned to continue until just after the General Synod of 2016.

That General Synod ended on Saturday 9th July 2016. The basic idea was to set up a series of structured ‘conversations’ on the topic, carefully facilitated by professional facilitators so as to prevent hard feelings from taking over and sabotaging them. The idea was to enable people with very different viewpoints, and sometimes very strong feelings, to meet and talk. In particular, to talk to each other instead of at each other: that is, to communicate rather than to dominate, or attempt to dominate.

The somewhat mustard-sized seed was planted, and the plan has been executed. Those interested can read up further on the results, two years on, at the official C of E website here. There are other comments and blogs on the web as well – particularly useful for anyone suffering from low blood pressure. With a bit of luck, get it up again in no time.

Has it done any good? Yes, I think so. They were not exactly heavily publicised (why not?), but I heard about them, and rather nervously volunteered to go to one, in May this year.

And so I found myself arriving in Eastbourne one Friday afternoon, to meet a bunch of total strangers at, with a touch of ironic pathos, the Bishop Bell Church of England School, now converting to an academy and being re-named St Catherine’s College. Eastbourne is most genteel, with clean white Victorian buildings, an immaculate promenade and pier, and moderate middle-class amusements. How different from Brighton: no saucy postcards, no bling, no obvious gay bars (or people, come to that), and very much, somehow, ‘no sex please, we’re British’. I wondered what I was letting myself in for. I had dutifully read up a couple of rather heavy theological articles, somewhat irritated at what felt like an attempt to blind me with science and Greek terminology. As it happens I have a classical education, but it felt both elitist and exclusionary in this context.

I knew nobody there – neither an advantage nor a disadvantage. I began to relax when it became clear the facilitators knew their job. My main problem was the idea of actually talking about my own life experience – family, upbringing, influences – which had informed my views. Some people find it easier to share and to trust than others, and I am at the cautious end of that spectrum. Too little information obviously made conversation pointless; too much (and, without going into details, there was more than enough available) would leave me feeling very exposed and vulnerable. The ‘St Michael Protocols’ are a great reassurance here. Basically, everyone explicitly promises everyone else not to abuse personal information and, specifically, to keep identities anonymous. It’s carefully thought out, and it works. The facilitators are careful to advise self-protection as well. As a result it is not necessary to disclose any more than is within one’s “comfort zone” in the particular circumstances.

Small groups of 3 – 5 people were then selected, with an eye to mixing up the ‘liberals/radicals’ and ‘conservatives/traditionalists’. The details are not important now. The results, however, were very satisfactory. I do not think anyone’s views were metamorphosed instantly. But it gets harder to generalise or dehumanise others after meeting on this footing. And a much subtler process is enabled. It did change my views, though I am not sure even now in what direction. More importantly, in created a reduction of hostility and fear. In Christian jargon, it can be said that there were discernible fruits of the Holy Spirit: that group of people left with a far greater degree of mutual understanding and mutual compassion than when they arrived, and as far as I could tell that was true of all of us. And you know what? I enjoyed it.

Is it worthwhile? I have no doubt that it is. On 12th July 2016, the official Church of England website issued what is at first sight a rather bland, boring and cautiously worded press release “Statement following conclusion of Shared Conversations Process”. You can find it there at the Church of England website if interested.

But these issues cannot be left to Church leaders to resolve without the help of ordinary folk. Church leaders are human. God made them that way – in, it is written, God’s own image. We all know, though we are usually too polite to say so, that it is human nature for them to compete, however discreetly, for support, power and resources to advance their respective views and agendas. They do it, as best they can, for us and for the world. But we at the grassroots have far less at stake, which makes it easier. The more we do of this at micro level, the sooner things will change for the better at macro level. It is much to be hoped that the Church organisations can find time and resources to encourage these or similar initiatives in future.

Andrew Walker