MEMBERS of the General Synod praised the Shared Conversations on sexuality as they emerged from more than two days of these private talks in York.
The culmination of a two-year process involving more than 1300 members of the Church, the conversations were designed to map out a “relational road” forward, on an issue viewed as divisive (News, 24 June).
A statement issued by Church House, Westminster, at the close of the talks on Tuesday, said: “Throughout these conversations, deep convictions have been shared and profound differences better understood. . . It is our hope that what has been learned through the relationships developed will inform the way the Church conducts whatever further formal discussions may be necessary in the future. It is our prayer that the manner in which we express our different views and deep disagreements will bear witness to Jesus who calls us to love as he has loved us.”
In comments to Synod members at the end, the Archbishop of Canterbury said: “At the heart of it is to come back to the fact that together we seek to serve the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead and in whom there is never despair, there is never defeat; there is always hope, there is always overcoming; there is always eventual triumph, holiness, goodness and grace.
“That is for me what I always come back to when it all seems overwhelming. Thank you so much for your participation. Let us go in confidence — confident in the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.”
After emerging from the conversations, Synod members gave their impression of them.
The Revd Dr Sarah Brush (Worcester), assistant curate of Halas
Before we started, I worried I would struggle to disagree well if someone expressed a view I find difficult to accept. I wondered how well I’d listen respectfully when the words I heard seemed not respectful towards other people.
Had we talked about the subject in the Synod chamber in the usual oppositional debate, it would have been intense. However, the Shared Conversations were a radically different experience to the timed speeches in a full Synod chamber. Instead, our small-group conversations were guided by mutual protocols which enabled deep listening and dialogue.
We were able to walk alongside each other, share our own stories of faith, and listen to the stories of others. We explored scripture together, and listened to the experience of theologians, young same-sex-attracted Christians, and guests from the wider Anglican Communion.
I was conscious of particular pain for some members of Synod. For some participants, it was a personal lived experience under discussion. For others with deep convictions, it was difficult hearing views so different from their own.
Personally, I was blessed to deepen relationships with fellow Synod members not just through the conversations themselves, but through reflecting on our shared experience, at mealtimes and over drinks. I have hope for the future of our walking together as a Church as we balance the moral convictions of some with the pastoral need of others; and also a hope for the future of Synod itself that it may grow from this relational experience and continue the conversation rather than rely solely on a style of debate which can cause division and hurt.
The Prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of Canterbury, Canon Simon Butler (Southwark), Vicar of St Mary’s, Battersea
It’s difficult to summarise such a rich and full diet of input, conversation and dialogue so soon after they have finished. But I thought that the level of relationship and openness of Synod members was immeasurably enriched by the time we spent together. Leaving them, I feel tired but hopeful. David Porter, the speakers, and his team did an outstanding job.
Mary Durlacher (Chelmsford)
Those who hold a very high view of . . . the authority of scripture were concerned that the sheer amount and intensity of emotion and feelings would dictate change or lead one down a process of change, and I think trying to establish a clarity as to what the outcome of all this would be was not obvious, but David Porter was helpful and gave assurances in so far as he could.
There are strong currents at work, and we were just keen that the lobby who shouts the loudest on whatever angle should not unbalance the careful agreements that have been reached as to the authority of scripture.
It is a very rushed programme, in a sense, covering a great deal, and if half the object is to listen . . . I think that was really honoured, and we came out of it with a much better understanding of different perspectives.
I hope [the Bishops] will take their time and not be pressured by the demands of action and stridency of views. I feel that perhaps the voice of scripture was perhaps not listened to enough.
Integrity was really respected and a very good understanding was reached.
[What is decided] must be honouring to the Body of Christ, not just in terms of the global witness of the Anglican Communion . . . but also in terms of the history. . . There is a great history of revising and checking and tweaking doctrine, and there is a limit as to how much one can go away from apostolic teaching and how foundational it is. It is entirely valid to review it, think about it, but not necessarily change it.
The Revd Andrew Foreshew-Cain (London), Vicar of St Mary with All Souls’, Kilburn, and St James’s, West Hampstead
I experienced them as being remarkably more positive than I had expected them to be. Certainly, in the groups I was in there was a real willingness to listen to each other. I came away with the strong sense that Synod is ready for change.
I thought that I would experience much stronger negativity towards me as a gay man and towards the possibility of the Church accommodating the gay community within its life. Actually, what I experienced and heard was a recognition that the current stance of the Church is untenable.
It’s very clear that we are no longer talking about making accommodation for gay people, but that there is a majority view, and what we are seeking to do is keep in those for whom it is difficult. . . This isn’t about us being given crumbs from the table, but the seating arrangements of the table being changed. I hope we can continue walking together.
We had some very significant input on scripture and its use . . . A lot of us were saying we take scripture very seriously and it does not belong to any one part of the Church it belongs to all of us.
The Dean of St Paul’s, the Very Revd David Ison (Southern Deans)
Hearing most of the issues from invited people on the platform before discussing them in a small group brought home to me both the size of the challenge facing the Church, and the desire of Synod members to meet that challenge constructively and together.
The process has left me convinced that, whether or not the Church changes its practice in response to the introduction of same-sex marriage in British society, we need to respond positively and as soon as we can to those who feel alienated by the Church’s current practice.
Susie Leafe (Truro)
I, along with nine others, stayed on site with the Archbishops’ permission but did not participate in the formal conversations. Others left before the conversations began. It was great to be able to talk freely and without a predetermined agenda with all those who wished to speak with us. Many valuable and memorable conversations were had with good grace shown by all concerned.
I was unable to participate in the formal process because of the underlying assumption that all views expressed were equally Christian and that we were working our way towards “walking forward together”. True unity is seen in a shared understanding of the revealed truth and in godly living.
“The final statement expressed the hope that, “the manner in which we express our different views and deep disagreements will bear witness to Jesus who calls us to love as he has loved us.”
For that hope to be realised, the Church, in “whatever further formal discussions may be necessary in the future”, must submit its disagreements to the authority of the Bible rather than pursue the oxymoron of “good disagreement”. Anything else will fail to bear a faithful witness to the love of Christ.”
The Revd Christopher Newlands (Blackburn), Vicar of St Mary, with St John, and St Anne, Lancaster
Some 450 General Synod members left York after a remarkable 48 hours in which all the usual features of Synod life were abandoned and replaced with a very different style of working. Synod members from all three Houses of Bishops, Clergy, and Laity were invited to “dress down” (clerical dress was discouraged), and a set of clear protocols was proposed and adopted, designed to allow people to speak freely, openly, and honestly — and from their own experience, without fear of being quoted or named on social media or in any other way.
When we gathered in our assigned smaller groups — 23 groups of around 20 members — we were further sub-divided into groups of three, with whom we were invited to share our personal journey of faith, but not before we had 30 minutes to reflect in silence about what we might choose to share.
It was a conversation which enabled relationships to develop, based on trust and mutual responsibility. We listened to each other carefully and heard of the different struggles which people were facing around this issue. We each shared a passage from the Bible which spoke to us about human sexuality, and we listened to invited speakers, theologians, representatives from the wider Anglican Communion, young people, and those with life stories to share, all of which made a profound impact. We sought to reflect prayerfully, on all we had received from each other, and from the guests who spoke with us.
Many felt that this was a real change in the way Synod members related to each other, and the discussions seemed to focus on people rather than “issues”, and they were richer and kinder for all that. If General Synod can hold to that relational manner of working rather than the adversarial parliamentary model, there can be real hope for a future Church of England in which all are welcomed, affirmed, and loved as valued fellow-members of the Body of Christ.
Jayne Ozanne (Oxford)
I was very impressed with the way in which the conversations were framed and conducted. The input sessions were excellent and gave a fair representation of the wide range of differing views. From a personal perspective, although I found the second day quite harrowing, I was very grateful for the kindness and care that the majority of my fellow Synod members showed me and others directly affected by these discussions. My hope is that we can take this new relational approach that transcends our tribal divisions forward into the future.
The Revd Dr Ian Paul (Southwell & Nottingham), Hon. Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham, and Archbishops’ Council member
The Shared Conversations process bore a striking resemblance to the proverbial curate’s egg. On the positive side, it finished well, with some helpful observations shared together as a whole Synod. It was helpful to have exposure to the range of views, and one of the sessions did that particularly well. I heard of a number of ‘liberals’ learning about the ‘traditional’ view in ways they had not previously. In my experience, ‘traditionalists’ have done more reading about the ‘liberal’ view than vice versa; so that was important.
Many people found the small-group time, where we discussed our faith journeys and understanding of scripture in threes, very valuable. I was with two fascinating people, and we would like to have spent more time together.
On the less positive side, there were elements of the process that were badly misjudged. The section on the biblical issues was badly skewed, and felt to many ‘traditionalists’ like a power play. This was just made all the worse when one of the organisers told us that, if we thought that, we were wrong, and he was right. It confirmed a basic lack of understanding of the concerns by those responsible for the process.
The afternoon which involved a series of plenary sessions offered too much input in one go, and, though some was interesting and profoundly moving, it was too much together. In groups, our facilitator kept preventing us discussing issues we were all interested in, telling us we should be talking about how we talk together rather than getting on to the substantive issues. Most were frustrated by this, and it felt somewhat infantilising.
A statement has been issued, but it appears as though there will be no spokesperson from the Church of England available to media to discuss this, which I think is a major failure of communication.
It is not immediately clear where we go from here. A Synod debate will take us back to a binary win/lose position. If there is a change either in the doctrine of marriage or of accommodation beyond what we already have (in terms of the differing standards for laity in Issues and the concession on civil partnerships for clergy), then I think this will lead to a serious division and possibly a split in the Church. There was a strong consensus that that was what we all wanted to avoid.
Mark Russell (Sheffield), Chief Executive of Church Army, Archbishops’ Council member
I found it a really good couple of days. There was a very high level of engagement, real respect, loads of grace, lots of listening, and I think I certainly was exposed to lots of very different viewpoint.
It felt like a forthcoming dentist appointment: I knew it was good to do, I knew it was important to do, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. I thought it would be fairly painful. It wasn’t all of those things. . . It was brilliantly facilitated. I emerged hopeful. Whatever, I hope we find a better way for the Church of England to be a safer place for LGBTI people. That is my big prayer.
The Prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of York, the Archdeacon of Rochdale, the Ven. Cherry Vann (Manchester)
I appreciated the space and time given for both sharing and listening. I very much valued the deepening of relationships that I experienced with those with whom I shared. I found it humbling to be trusted with other people’s personal stories, and I very much hope that similar times of deeper sharing can be woven into the way we do Synod.