When the delegation from the Diocese of Chichester attended the national Shared Conversations on Human Sexuality they came away with a whole variety of feelings, thoughts and views, not at all unanimous. But on one thing there was agreement: there should be some way to continue the conversation.
And the diocese listened. And so it was that I found myself invited to a Friday evening and full Saturday of conversations in a (beautiful new) primary school for the follow up.
Those of us who have been around the Church of England for a while know that it’s asset rich and cash poor. So one doesn’t go to these things expecting lavish provision. It’s all the more impressive, therefore, that not only had he diocese hired two of the senior facilitators involved in the design of the national process, we were also treated to beautiful food provided by excellent local caterers. Thank you to thank Archdeacon Martin Lloyd Williams and his PA, Marc Sacher, for their organisation.
It’s important to understand what we were there to do, which was to figure out how to disagree well.
When he inaugurated this process in General Synod, Archbishop Justin was clear that he doesn’t expect conversations to result in some new agreement about how the church should treat same sex couples who wish to marry, and clergy among them. Peter Ould, from the opposite side of the argument, has blogged powerfully to the effect that neither those who see the Bible as clearly demanding celibacy of those who are same sex attracted; or those who would like to marry them at the altar using the rite in Common Worship, believe this is adiaphora, a second order issue about which Christians might disagree. Broadly, I agree with Peter about this. I’ve been through a time of thinking that this was a second order issue and now I don’t think it is.
We were together for a Friday evening and the whole of Saturday.
On Friday evening, we had dinner together, introduced someone else at the table to the wider group as an ice-breaker and were invited to sign the St Michael’s House Protocols under which our conversations were had.
That’s why, in this post, I’m not going to identify anyone who was present, attribute views to anyone else, share anyone else’s story or the substance of what they said.
Driving home from a delicious dinner, three things struck me:
First, although I had made some guesses, I had no idea of the views of anyone else in the group on the issues we were discussing the following day. Typing it now that seems obvious but it is perhaps a measure of how entrenched and stereotypical the politics of this has become that my working assumption is often that if x worships at a particular church, or trained for ordination at a particular college, they will hold a particular view.
As it turned out, one of my fears, that no-one with conservative views would attend, was unfounded and we had a wide spread of views in the group.
Second, it struck me as profoundly sad and shameful that in order to create a safe space for these conversations to be had, we needed facilitators whose backgrounds included truth & reconciliation work bringing together loyalist and nationalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, men who had once literally tried to kill each other.
Third, I realised how frightened I was of what might happen the following day – of how I might feel if others tore into my views; of what we might say to each other. And I’m a lay straight white Oxbridge educated male. So God knows (note: no irony) how I would feel if I had more at stake, as clergy or layworker, or their partner or spouse.
I didn’t sleep brilliantly.
Saturday began with a time of silence, after which we met in small groups to share something of our own stories and what had brought us to the views we now hold. For me, at least, that silence was a profoundly powerful time. I had forty minutes alone with God to decide what I would say – the account I would give of the hope that is in me. And I felt the weight of doing so very heavily.
In my group we all told very different stories. We were all very open with one another which is, of course, a fairly profoundly un-English thing. And we re-discovered how powerful it is to listen to someone without interrupting.
We then brought our reflections on what we had heard back into a larger group.
After lunch we repeated that pattern, this time sharing a passage of scripture which each of us had brought along and which said something to us about issues of human sexuality.
Finally we had a plenary session.
So what do I think? Well I’m still working and praying it through, which is why this has taken ages to write and is rather stumbling.
I was certainly jolted out of my party-political allegiance, to the progressives, into a more mature place. The truth that, wherever two or three gather together, the church is, was profoundly true of the whole gathering and has recalled me again, and powerfully, to the truth that Christianity is not a club for the like-minded.
I was struck by the shallowness of the intellectual resources that all of us brought to bear. Here was a group of churchgoers committed enough to give up their weekend to undergo this process together. But our level of theological and scriptural insight wouldn’t have won us any Sunday school prizes. On one level that doesn’t matter at all. Faith isn’t an intellectual or a competitive thing. On another level it matters profoundly. We are attempting to form a mind on issues of doctrine, sacraments and conduct – to decide what we think God asks of those He [sic] calls as laity, clergy, partners or spouses.
It’s made me think that we need, even more urgently, to devote resources to equipping lay people to understand the history, doctrine and spirituality, and the scripture, that is at the core of our faith. We need to get used to thinking together, and to bringing theological resources to bear on our thinking.
Above all I am torn. On the one hand I feel the force of the old chestnut that there’s more that unites us than divides us. That’s certainly true.
But that’s easy for me to say, because no-one is asking me to be celibate when I don’t feel called to be celibate, or to tell half truths in a discernment process, or to change my lifestyle to fit the expectations of my congregation. And all around me were people having to do all of those things to follow the path that they believe they must.
And I’m conscious of a new kind of hurt; just as raw. It’s the hurt of those with conservative views who are used to reasoning rationally, verbally and sometimes literally from the pages of scripture. I feel now, in a way that I didn’t before, the pain that they bear as they hear people like me attempt to shift the ground underneath them by founding theological arguments on concepts like the right ordering of desire – which build on the fathers and not on scriptural texts alone. I know now, in a way I didn’t before, how scary it is for them to see the shift to more accepting views of sexuality and gender in the church. My caricature conservative evangelical has died, and I see him now as the voodoo doll he was.
My own theological views are unchanged. I believe that the full inclusion of gay, lesbian and transgender people in every area of the life of the church on equal terms is a gospel imperative. I don’t think that’s an accommodation to the forces of the age. I think it’s an outworking of the combination of unconditional compassion and demanding ascetical channelling of desire that Jesus asks of His church.
As I was mulling all this stuff, a friend who is a committed atheist shared the photograph at the head of this post on his blog. It’s a piece of art from the Burning Man festival and it encapsulates how I’ve been left feeling – how I now see the church. We are failed, broken adults hunched away from each other. Only our inner children are still trying to connect.Yet the two adults are resting against each other – to a degree dependent. And the sky behind is still radiant with the glory of God, who broods over our chaos now as he did at the very beginning of creation. Is it a dawn or a sunset? How long, O God, how long?