Shared Conversations – Talking in Circles

Getting together with fifty or so other people, only a few of whom you already know, to talk about sex and religion for three days is, frankly, not something that any sane person would really want to do. We did it because the Church of England has decided the way forward over the issue of LGBTiQ people and their lives and relationships is to hold a series of these conversations, drawing together teams of people from regional diocesan groupings. Ours was the East Midlands Conversation, and brought together participants from the Dioceses of Peterborough, Lincoln, Southwell & Nottingham, Leicester, and Derby.

We met at Hothorpe Hall, a conference centre in the rolling, leafy countryside of south Leicestershire. The programme for these days is packed; the first day starts at 10:30am when you arrive, and ends at nine at night, the second day is nine to nine, and the last day starts at nine and ends as you leave at four in the afternoon. There is an extra hour’s break after lunch on the second day, but that is the only concession to down time.

What is more significant than the simple amount of time spent conversing is the encouragement to do so with as many different people as possible. Given the Church’s confusion and dysfunction over the question of sexuality, and the heat and fervour with which opposing views are held, the Conversation was, and is, an important opportunity to do this talking. It felt like a significant responsibility to be there, and therefore to have as much engagement as possible with others, and particularly those with whom one did not agree, seemed to me to be part of that responsibility. The intensity of the experience is certainly exhausting.

Professional mediators led the work. They took us through a process of agreeing to work to protocols to make people feel as safe as they could, while acknowledging that the Church of England is not a safe place for LGBTiQ people. No one commented on the massive irony either of having to have to do so much work at the beginning of the process to try and make people feel safe at a church conference, nor of the fact that, frankly, for all their considerable expertise, the mediators couldn’t make it really safe.

The mediators’ work is also committed to making sure that all voices in the conversations got a fair hearing, and to helping us all use language in a way that helped us find maximum clarity of understanding and encouraged us towards seeing the best in others and their positions. We were encouraged to use our words to build bridges for meeting and understanding. What they could not do, and which was not part of their task, was to offer any critique of the power relations within the Church, nor of the way in which LGBTiQ people are situated and treated.

Much of these days was spent with people in small groups talking in a circle. The fruit of those discussions was written on strips of paper and pinned up for comment and explanation at plenary groups when all were together. Some sessions, particularly those where people shared their own stories of their understanding and experience of sexuality, were done in still smaller groups of three people. In the evenings after dinner, members of the conversations themselves offered opportunities to talk and listen on topics of their own devising related to the overall theme. When the official programme ended after night prayer the bar was busy until late with many further conversations, grave and gay, going on until after last orders.

A good deal of time in our Conversation was taken up with giving attention to the difficulties of conservative evangelicals. Two sheets of paper each bearing the legend “Empty Chair” represented two people who had been invited to come and who had declined. We were led to understand that this was because they were part of the conservative evangelical constituency of their diocese, and Reform, the conservative evangelical body, had discouraged its members from taking part. Opinions varied as to the significance of the “Empty Chairs”: some felt that if they couldn’t be bothered to turn up then they rather forfeited the right to have any attention at all paid to their views, others felt that it was helpful to have their absence symbolically before us.

What was clear was that there were enough articulate conservative evangelicals there to make clear that they were opposed to any change of any kind in the church’s traditional teaching. Some were explicit in their understanding that this was a matter of first order importance; that to change any element of this would be an attempt to redefine sin, to subvert the plain teaching of Scripture, to attempt to bless what God has not blessed, and that LGBT relationships were sinful, harmful and threatened peoples’ salvation.

Change of any kind would probably mean that they would feel that they had to leave the Church of England. Some of them anticipated that this may well happen, and one of them said that the Conversation had made him think it was now more likely.

My observation is that, with one very notable exception, they were not very assiduous in taking advantage of the opportunity to talk to those who took a very different view, and certainly I could discern no interest in learning about or enquiring after the lives and experiences of the LGBTiQ participants. But then, that they had come despite Reform’s encouragement to boycott the talks was perhaps as much as could reasonably be expected of them.

There were plenty of other people who claimed the title of evangelical. The common thread that they seemed to share was that, whatever their own position over gay relationships, they did not all regard this as a first issue order, and it was, therefore, something over which some negotiation with others was possible. It was apparent that evangelicals have a lot of work to do among themselves, though there is the risk that any evangelical who declares themselves to be more inclusive in this matter may find that they have been excluded and are no longer a “true” evangelical. But I am not an evangelical and it is a matter for them.

While the formal programme was well-structured and mediated, I had the impression that perhaps the most interesting conversations were those that originated in the offers made by participants themselves. There was certainly a buzz in the bar on both evenings after those events.

There was, of course, a range of views as great as the number of participants. Some of those perspectives were articulated more confidently, and some people, I suspect, were finding that they were thinking about some of this stuff for the first time. One person described themselves as “battle-hardened”, and the participants who have had anything to do with the debates going on in the church for the last several decades will understand what that feels like. But, for the sake of the future of the Church that we all are part of, there was an attempt on the part of most to use language with care and sensitivity to the feelings and views of others, and to give time and attention to those for whom this was perhaps their first attempt to talk openly and in depth about these matters, and whose own views were not well-formed. It was disappointing to me that some people did not seem to realise or care that the language they used trampled over other people’s lives.

The views at either end of the spectrum were more obvious because more clearly-defined, and perhaps because those who inhabit those positions know well what they are defending. But, as one participant reminded us, that it is not simply a matter of strongly-held opinions. For the conservative evangelicals bring their views – but the LGBTiQ participants brought not just views or opinions, but themselves.

And herein, for me, lies the problem. Some people who have been to these conversations have written of how they have found them to be powerful experiences of encounter, particularly in one to one conversations at depth with others, and have come away with real hope for the future. While I had some good conversations, and met some nice people, I did not enjoy the experience at all. I found it to be demeaning and infuriating.

I knew what I was signing up to, and it entirely lived up to what I expected, so I make no complaint about the process. The mediation was excellent, and the organisers encouraged us to take care of ourselves, and, on their part, were solicitous of our welfare. I also understand the politics of the process, that this is a very extended timeline, and that it is unclear what, if anything, will be done at the end of all the regional conversations and the conversation in which the new General Synod will take part. I rather suspect that the Conservative Evangelicals will be much more interested in this summer’s elections to that Synod – electors to General Synod should question candidates carefully and in detail about their attitudes to human sexuality and the church’s position.

I have invested no hope in the Conversations changing anything at all in the glacial timeline of the Church of England’s attitudes to me and those like me. It is the case that these Conversations have no explicit intended outcomes, nor is there any reporting structure beyond the Conversations themselves. Some, who found this Conversation particularly helpful, will hope that similar meetings will happen at a diocesan level. I think there would be something to be said for that happening; but it will take significant will and money on the part of dioceses to do it. How many will have that?

One of the answers to that question depends upon bishops. I was actually very glad indeed that there was episcopal representation in our Conversation. For me, the presence of more than one bishop participating as delegates, just like everyone else, was one of the significant positives of the experience. However, my understanding is that the number of bishops participating in all these Conversations may not be very high. If they have not taken part, is there going to be the will, and the leadership and the finance, to cascade the process out into dioceses?

I entered the Conversation within a very particular personal context. It has made me very aware of the church world and its politics outside the Conversations. It means I can’t just suspend my disbelief and “accentuate the positive”. What I found over the three days was that I got progressively more and more distressed and angry about the positions I heard articulated and what they meant for the attitude to others that they therefore expressed. I found that my salvation, my standing as a Christian, my vocation, my marriage, my ministry, my motives, my integrity, were all, sometimes explicitly and sometimes more implicitly, questioned or denied. It felt like the things I held most dear were trampled over by people who had no knowledge and little understanding or curiosity about me. In the course of the conversations our mediators had encouraged everyone to try and see that the stories that we shared were a precious gift, holy ground, to be treated with the greatest respect. It was the point at which I realised that my and others’ holy ground was so summarily dismissed by some of the participants that my ability to endure the Conversation started to fail.

I don’t think I have ever before decided not to go to a Eucharist that ends a conference. I had participated fully, and much that was personal and precious had been shared and heard by me and the people I was with. I would have loved to have brought all that and shared that with all the people I had been with over those days as we were fed by the Lord and united in the Spirit. But I was so angered by how I felt I and others were viewed and spoken about that I knew in conscience I was not in a state to receive communion with the community of the Conversation. I left before that service and went home to my husband.