Friday, 1 May 2015

Reflections on the first Shared Conversations

There’s something slightly intimidating about walking into a room packed with forty seven Anglicans of varying age, dress and demeanour, leaning back casually in their chairs, flicking through their booklets and side-eyeing one another while pretending to sip water. Thus began the first of the Shared Conversations, the Church of England’s reconciliation initiative on the issue of homosexuality. I was there representing the under-40s for my diocese as a gay, evangelical church-worker.

It was the most intense three days of my life. This is my first warning for future participants: you will be knackered. Totally, utterly, exhaustively wiped out. You wouldn’t think talking would take so much energy - but I found myself falling into bed on the first day and blanking into a dead sleep by 9.30 pm. By the third day I was so emotionally drained that I almost cried as I clambered out of my nice hotel bed. Don’t be fooled: you might be going to a plush hotel, you may be super-comfortable talking about LGBT issues, but these conversations will be one of the most gruelling experiences of your life.

My second warning: you will be turned inside out. The reason for this is that the facilitators do a really good job. They took a room full of edgy Christians, used to drawing lines in the sand and manning the theological defences, and turned us into a humble, listening family, yearning for reconciliation. As we talked, we painfully lowered our own defences and exposed our most vulnerable selves; and we listened to others doing the same, witnessing and treasuring the gift of their own painful stories, holding their experiences with respect and empathy. There is nothing as emotionally exhausting as exposing your wounds to your enemy, as they peel back the skin and reveal their own.1

The best example I can think of this is my interaction with someone I’ll call X. X and I were in the same discussion group on Day 1. We’d somehow found ourselves in a random but perfectly mixed group of three pro-gay relationships, three against-gay relationships, and one undecided. The topic was scripture and we discussed it back and forth for a good 30 minutes. There was a genuine desire to get to the core of the issue and gradually, we peeled off layer after layer of personal experience until we were speaking honestly from the heart of our experience. Two of us were gay; obviously it was raw for us. It was just as raw for the three evangelicals who were opposed. They were kind, loving Christ followers: they wanted desperately to love and embrace and accept, but they were equally committed to the truth of scripture as they understood it, and they couldn’t compromise on that truth. After half an hour of painful discussion, X interrupted and said, “I’m sorry, but I have to say this. In 1 Corinthians 5 -” (her hands trembled as she held her Bible) “- it talks about a man sleeping with his father’s wife. They’re proud of their sexual relationship. Paul says, ‘Do not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral…Do not even eat with such people. Expel the wicked person from among you.’” She looked up painfully. “I’m sorry. But I don’t see how I can read this any other way.”

My heart was suddenly heavy, full of grief; my head was crying, don’t make me leave - not from outrage but because I was filled with a love for her, for the others, for these strangers who were my family; my heart broke over the tearing of this family. The only thing I could say was, “Sin matters. There may well be times when someone is keeping back a portion of their life from God, refusing to let Jesus in, sinning intentionally, when the church needs to act as a wake up call to them. But -” here my heart grew desperate, “I love Jesus. He’s the most important priority in my life. And I truly believe he’s okay with this. I might have got that all wrong - I might have misheard him, or blocked him out - and if he led me into celibacy, or healing, I'd have to follow him. But I truly believe he loves me as a gay person.“ I hesitated. “Can’t we be in communion together? Because - our hearts…they’re focused around the same person.”

We looked at each other and I could see she was feeling the same tearing. We said nothing more, and I didn’t know what she was thinking, whether she still felt gay people had to be removed from church.

That night, there was an opportunity to suggest discussion questions. X stood up and held up hers. It read: ’How can we be better at being family?’

* * *

Nobody, that I know, changed their views. X didn't, in that she still felt homosexuals were required to be celibate. Most people went to the Shared Conversations with a particular Biblical stance, and they left with the same one. What changed was people’s attitudes. We heard each other, and heard the pain and the integrity and the faith of the other, and by the time we left, we were family. It made the tearing more painful, in a way. Some still believed there was no other option but to split. The difference was that they had spent three days laughing, praying, talking and eating with the people they were going to split from: the loss became real.

Do I think the process was successful? It had its flaws. There wasn’t enough time to get into the nitty gritty of the Biblical texts, or to dig into the ‘issues behind the issues’: our approaches to scripture, what is sin, what is truth, what is salvation. The process was streamlined towards a conclusion of ‘good disagreement’; but there were many there who weren’t sure good disagreement was what we wanted. We hadn’t answered the question of exactly what we were disagreeing on; or whether that disagreement was something we could live with, or something which was so definitive that a split had to happen. In this way, the process was geared towards those of a more liberal standpoint - those who were more likely to agree that the church could coexist with different theologies.

There also weren’t enough traditional/conservative folk. The problem with the Bishop choosing who to send from the diocese was that his selection was limited to those he knew (meaning there was a disproportionate representation of those who sit on committees, synods, etc, and not enough ‘normal’ churchgoers), and that he didn’t necessarily know the theological approach of those he sent. I suspect, for example, the my Bishop put me forward with a vague idea that I was evangelical and therefore more likely to be conservative. It’s not his fault I happen to be one of the only evangelicals in Cornwall who is also a flag-waving, rainbow-wearing lesbian.

So was the process successful? The jury is still out on that one. Whether it will have any lasting impact on anybody other than the participants is doubtful. That will be largely down to the participants themselves: if they, changed by the experience, go back to their diocese with a renewed vision for engaging with the issue, that may well have an impact on their parishes and deaneries. It depends on their passion, and the support of their Bishops.

I’m not sure it matters. What it showed me was not a clever political resolution, but the heart of the church: a commitment to listening to, respecting and loving every view and every person in this tangled, messy, conflicted, wounded family. Someone wrote up on the board during a feedback session, 'Our dream is churches with different theologies recommending each other's pastoral care.' We are not a lumbering institution, but a body. We can't exist without each other. When one part is wounded, we are all wounded. If gay people leave the church, we will all suffer. If those opposed leave the church, we will all suffer. We need us all, the conservatives, the evangelicals, the gays, the catholics, the liberals, the charismatics, the fence-sitters, the confused, everyone.

So I'm encouraged. Yes, we get it wrong; yes, we argue and we shout and we hurt each other. But we also forgive, and listen, and strive to love even when it hurts like hell. So I leave you with the words another participant confided in me on the way to the lifts one night: “If this is what the church is like, we’ve got nothing to worry about.”

1. I know we're not 'enemies', but unfortunately that's often what it feels like, and psychologically, the terror is 'you're the person who has hurt me and who might at any time again wound me.'


  1. Terribly encouraging. Thank you.

  2. Very moving, and yes, ultimately encouraging.

  3. Thank you for this...I'm due to act as chaplain to some of the conversations, and was very anxious as to how it might feel for those involved. This gives me hope

  4. Good to know that the facilitators do 'a really good job'. A relief, in fact.

  5. I think you're very brave, Rose. From your comments, it becomes obvious how we are in desperate need of a modern hermeneutical understanding of the Bible passages and their relevance in today's enlightened world.

  6. Thank you from someone who is going into the conversations on 11th may. I really like; 'What it showed me was not a clever political resolution, but the heart of the church: a commitment to listening to, respecting and loving every view and every person in this tangled, messy, conflicted, wounded family.' Your account showed much tenderness and love which is truly what Jesus intended for us to be. Thank you,

  7. Many many thanks for sharing this. Its absolutely very useful.

    This is the second account of the SC I have read. Both sound positive but yet within both, I see emptiness. And the core of that emptiness is emphasized in what you wrote: "We hadn’t answered the question of exactly what we were disagreeing on; ..."

    This is worrying. It seems that the end result, going by these accounts, would be a fabricated outcome foistered on the Church by the all-knowing academical intelligentia who created this.

    Sorry, I am not being pessimistic here. But a conversation had by 50 - 60 people, not elected by popular vote, for a region a region of thousands; most of the 60 would possibly be the current decision-makers in committees and synod delegations and all that, to me, does not represent the Church. And that fear of facing 'our demons' is, and remains the pillar of our pain and schism The Church is protecting itself far too much.

    Quoting 1 Cor isnt bad but only when you think of who Jesus praised in the story of the 'Good Samaritans". Thats the discussion I had with an extremely evangelical, gay-opposing aunt last week who quoted the same along with Romans 1. But she did pause.

    This Conversation need to happen in the ordinary place where ordinary Church members are part of; and in a manner and fashion that are as simple as discussions instead of a stage-managed highly academic process that could alleniate a lot others.

    I have applied to participate in my Diocese but quite unsure I will be called up. Your account is helpful and has given insight to something I have all along not known what to expect.

    P.S. Apologies for this exceptionally long comment