All participants in the Shared Conversations on Human Sexuality agree to respect the St Michael’s Protocols and so not to disclose the identity of other participants or their comments.
This blog of my personal experience of one set of shared conversations this week respects these protocols. Further blogs from me may explore other aspects of the Church of England’s attempts to square the circle on human sexuality.
Shared Conversations at Hothorpe Hall
I set off for the Shared Conversations as part of the Coventry Diocese contingent with some scepticism about the effectiveness and cynicism about the motives of the process, and with a little apprehension, but also looking forward to three days away at Hothorpe Hall.
I think most people arriving at Hothorpe Hall did so with the same apprehension, unsure what the next three days would hold. Despite this there was the usual hum of expectation that one gets at all such gatherings before we first convened. The facilitators introduced themselves and put us at ease with the process and the situation, though some of us still had a healthy dose of cynicism and scepticism.
The first session took us through the programme and then introduced us to the St Michael’s House Protocols which are designed to create a safe place for those of differing views to engage together in constructive dialogue. This was fine but it did seem rather artificial when the facilitator pointed to each of the 50 or so people in the room individually asking them to declare “I consent” – there was no check made on how many people had crossed their fingers.
Session 2 was one of those games I loath where we had to describe a picture for someone else to draw a replica of. It was only at the end of the exercise that I was informed the abstract piece of art I thought I was describing was in fact a chair and lamp stand – when I turned the paper round 90 degrees it did become more obvious! My partner decided we must be psychic, such was the brilliance of my drawing in response to his instructions. I can’t remember the purpose of this exercise but I seem to remember it making sense at the time – I think it was something to do with assumptions, language and communication!
After lunch we discussed round our tables the significant changes in culture in recent years and the church’s response to it – the whole reason for our shared conversations. Generally it was a reasonable discussion apart from one person who seemed to equate every public expression of physical affection to be attributable to people being more openly gay – I pointed out that everyone shows more physical affection publicly today than they did 50 years ago, citing my father’s handshake when I was a child, to his hugging me in his latter years.
The second session in the afternoon saw us breaking into individual groups around the building where we were supposed to be looking at scripture in relation to human sexuality. There seemed to be plenty of assertions that “you can make scripture say what you want” which was then demonstrated by several people in the group and very little, if any, engagement with the texts. Many had not read the two essays on the biblical text which we had been supplied with in advance.
In my group it appeared to me that the general sense seemed to be that Jesus accepted everyone and that we didn’t need to consider His views on how they lived. Unconditional love appeared to mean “do what you like”. I doubt these statements are true representations of what people meant, but do illustrate how careful all of us need to be about how we express our opinions and how careful we need to be about how we may be heard. Just two of us in the group of 7 took a traditional understanding of scripture.
As an exercise there was good listening and I expressed my gratitude that despite my expounding traditional views, and contrary to my expectations, they had all listened to me and had not tried to put me down in any way. It was an eyeopener for one member of the group that I should have had such apprehensions, and they expressed their concern for that situation. I think we all felt it had been a good session but I’m not sure where it got us.
When meeting lots of new people in this context I have to confess it is very difficult for me not to try to work out more about people than they have yet shared, do they hold traditional views or liberal views? are they gay or straight? does their wedding ring mean they are married to a man or a woman?
I have personally experienced the negative spiritual consequences in the Anglican Church in another country following its acceptance of the place of practicing same-sex attracted priests and same-sex marriage, and I was moved today to have this confirmed to me.
The morning of day two was spent in conversations where we shared with 2 or 3 others how our understanding of human sexuality had developed through our own personal experience, teaching and other influences etc.
We were first divided into groups of 10 from which were to be formed three groups reflecting the broad cross section of views. In our group of 10 our facilitator invited us to self identify as conservative, revisionist or in the middle. I moved to the conservative side of the room and when I turned round most people were on the revisionist side with a couple in the middle. This did cause some amusement, but we clearly were not going to get three balanced groups!
The facilitator was at pains to ensure that I was OK and didn’t feel …. well I’m not sure what, vulnerable, isolated, outnumbered, ganged up on – anyway I was able to assure her I was fine with it. It did mean I got to share with three LGBTIQ folks (and there are even more letters!) but 6 others did not get to hear the conservative experience.
The experience of sharing quite deep and personal things was in fact very positive and wholesome. I appreciated the pain of people’s journeys and I was thanked for my gentleness in expressing the conservative viewpoint. I came away fond of the three I had shared with, respectful of their stories and just wondering how we can square this circle and uphold truth.
At the beginning of the afternoon session we were reminded this was not the place to debate the issues but rather to talk around them – these conversations are the only opportunity to so. So we set about drawing up a variety of options the church might take in relation to addressing issues of human sexuality, these ranged from doing nothing right through to facilitated schism! We then had to consider the likely consequences, good and bad, of each option.
The thoughts of each group were then shared with all the other groups and as I walked around reading every groups thoughts it was really quite depressing – the conclusions appeared to be along the lines of whatever option we choose some would be unhappy, hurt and leave the church. As I put it, any option will leave blood on the ground. We were then asked to consider what we individually would “need” for the decision taken to be satisfactory for us personally, and we all wrote down and shared our thoughts.
For what it’s worth my offering was: “I would need the church I am a member of, and my bishop, to uphold biblical truth in love (i.e. as traditionally understood)”.
Our final day was least satisfactory. The first session didn’t follow our programme and we were ‘t told why – it was some general feedback.
Our session after coffee was in Diocesan groups where we tried to decide what to do next in our diocese. The emotional temperature rose very quickly in our group as different suggestions were made which I did not feel reflected the spirit of previous exchanges. There was a sense that amongst our group we had not shared deeply, as we had with other people at the conference and that we were perhaps trying to run too fast. We then explored different options from having further facilitated sessions as a group to go deeper, to meetings with the bishop. We eventually agreed that we would each seek to report back to our bishop.
There was worship throughout the three days and we ended with communion, though maybe 30% did not stay for this, and then we went our separate ways.
For me it was overall a positive experience and I developed some meaningful relationships with some LGBTIQ people. But what is apparent to me, and reasonably predictable, is that this has not brought us any closer to a solution as positions are still firmly held on both sides, and people quickly revert to type.
Before we left I felt one person who spoke to me still had no understanding that on the traditional side it was not just about theory, but was also deeply personal and costly. Unfortunately facilitators cannot be present at every conversation where these issues are discussed!
Maybe the most positive thing to take from this experience has been the real depth of understanding and affection that some of us developed with those we profoundly disagree with, and the fact that I can have good friendships and robust disagreements with people I count as friends in my own diocese.
I remain sceptical, but maybe a little less cynical.