Shared conversations on human sexuality

At the meeting of Depwade Deanery Synod in February 2016, Bishop Alan reported on his recent involvement in important work currently being undertaken in all the dioceses of the Church of England.

History

The Church of England is currently engaging in a series of facilitated ‘shared conversations’ taking place across the Church of England. They are part of the current nationwide discussions on the issue of human sexuality, which the Church has been addressing in a number of ways over the past ten years.

A commission examined the issues involved, and in 2013 produced the Pilling Report, which recommended

‘facilitated conversations’, across the Church of England and in dialogue with the Anglican Communion and other churches, so that Christians who disagree deeply about the meaning of scripture on questions of sexuality, and on the demands of living in holiness for gay and lesbian people, should understand each other’s concerns more clearly and seek to hear each other as authentic Christian disciples.

In 2013 the House of Bishops met for shared conversations, and then rolled out the format to involve representatives from all the dioceses in the process, guided by two key questions.

Two questions

1.How can we most effectively be a missionary church in a culture that has changed so radically in its attitudes to sexuality?

2.Given that it is now clear that there are very different views, strongly held, can we learn to disagree well?

Who?

The format adopted brought together 12 representatives from each diocese for a three-day meeting. In our region, 12 representatives from each of the dioceses of Norwich, Ely, and St Edmondsbury & Ipswich met together at Ditchingham. The 12 representatives were chosen to include a mix of ages, gender – including members of the LGBT community – lay and ordained, and to reflect the range of views across the diocese, i.e. both ends of the spectrum but also the broad middle. The conversations were led by team of facilitators under the leadership of a Northern Irish Baptist minister who is also a Canon of Coventry Cathedral and involved with the Coventry ministry for reconciliation.

How?

The ground rules were designed to create a safe space for the discussion of issues that were both difficult and very personal:

  • pay attention and listen carefully
  • when someone is speaking, don’t butt in or make contrary points
  • be sensitive
  • maintain an attitude of curiosity
  • ask questions (rather than make assertions)
  • aim to develop and understanding of one another, not to win an argument

After the event, ideas could be discussed, but there would be no report saying who said what. No final statement was to be issued – the aim was for all to enrich their understanding of one another.

The programme included:

  • exercises to encourage listening
  • exploration of the features of modern culture (availability of contraception, decriminalisation of homosexuality, growing influence of the human rights agenda, discrimination increasingly discouraged)
  • studies of different ways of approaching scripture (use a few key texts or take a much wider view? remain faithful to the past or attend to the leading of the Holy Spirit?)
  • work in very small groups (three or four) to listen to each other’s journeys – each person up to 15 mns (Bishop Alan found this part of the programme especially moving, and particularly mentioned listening to the painful experiences of one person in the group talking about being gay within the Church)
  • reflection on the interaction between scripture and experience

How can we move on?

In a reflection, participants explored how the future might look, given the range of views. Is the Church of England facing amicable divorce, or can we continue together, holding differences? Very few of those present would choose to split. So how can we disagree well as the church goes forward?

The Pilling Report invoked the concept of ‘pastoral accommodation’, which currently allows clergy in some circumstances to offer marriage and/or a blessing in church where one partner has been divorced. The Report did not propose any change in the church’s teaching on sexual conduct. Could there, however, be a pastoral accommodation that might enable clergy, with the approval of the local Church Council, to offer appropriate prayers and blessings to mark a faithful same-sex relationships, and/or to clergy who marry a same-sex-partner?

Where next in this diocese?

The group of representatives from the diocese will be meeting again in a few weeks to reflect on the shared conversations and on ways forward for the diocese. General Synod will be engaging in shared conversations in July, and the House of Bishops is due to meet in the autumn and to take decisions on ways to lead the church for the future.

Bishop Alan brought two thoughts to us from the shared conversations:

1.            He asks us to pray, and in particular for:

  • the July meeting of General Synod, which will be engaging the shared conversations process
  • decisions on what might happen in Norwich Diocese
  • the autumn meeting of the House of Bishops.

2.            He exhorts us always to see the face of Christ in the people with whom we disagree.

Resources

A pair of resource booklets for the shared conversations, Grace and Disagreement.


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