Apart from the attenuated version which General Synod members are going to be put through in July, the Shared Conversations are over. This £300K exercise has brought together groups of dioceses and their representatives for three-day residential meetings to allow people from all sides of the church to talk, and more importantly to listen to those who hold differing views about matters relating to human sexuality (code in the C of E for same-sex relationships).
The Conversations were never intended to be part of a structured process moving towards change. No conversation reported into anything else. The views expressed were never gathered, the preponderance of views this way or that were not measured, even anonymously. While I am sure that there will be a generalised report of the whole exercise given to the Archbishops, and possibly to their Council, that report will not include any attempt to assess the content of the conversations.
So, for policy makers in the Church of England, by which I mean members of the General Synod, the exercise will have given them no help at all in understanding where the views of the active members of our church are in relation to the controversial question in hand. Of course, pastoral theology, doctrinal decisions and choices about the limits of eccleiological divergence compatible with unity are not made by polling the membership, but it does seem extraordinary to me that at no point in this whole extended attempt by the Church of England to “manage” the gay question has anyone thought it would be helpful to ask members of the Church to give their views.
Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University has done some polling and then repeated it. The results were greeted with howls of protest by those who don’t like what they show (Linda herself is a bete noir of conservative commentators). Which was that, however you may pick at the methodology or the framing of the questions, the same enquiries, repeated at a distance of some years, reveal that the percentage of church members who are now supportive of gay relationships, and indeed, same-sex marriage has increased rapidly. I think it would have been good if some of the £300K of the Conversations budget had been put into some polling or focus group work – with the results published openly.
The Shared Conversations were not intended to be all that happened in trying to get the Church to have grown up conversations about sexuality. It was hoped that dioceses would do things on their own account. Some have – Norwich has produced its own resources for parish consumption. From the LGBT side of the church, it is a disappointment that those resources did not include a contribution from an LGBT Christian, but they did have a conservative evangelical who is opposed to accommodating LGBT people and their relationships within the teaching and practice of our church.
That complaint, by the way, could be repeated about the preparatory matter for the Shared Conversations themselves. The LGBT Anglican Coalition, an umbrella group of all the LGBT organisations in our church, had asked if they could be involved in the preparation of the materials; they were told that they would be, and then they weren’t.
Initiatives like those in Norwich have, as far as I have been able to tell, been the exception rather than the rule. Many dioceses do not appear to have followed up the whole experience which was only available to a small number of people in each diocese. Certainly the diocese in which I live, Southwell and Nottingham, has not even sustained the life of the previous group that was talking locally. This means that since May of last year, when the diocesan representatives went to their Shared Conversation, nothing has been done in the way of a diocesan initiative to sustain interest and engagement in this matter.
Anecdotal evidence through published reports of those attending the Conversations have, without breaking the rules of confidentiality established for those conferences, consistently reported that participants favouring a more inclusive church, which would permit laity and clergy to be in same-sex relationships without making intrusive enquiries or requirements about their being celibate were clearly in the majority. Many supported finding a way to make a diversity of opinion and practice to be held at parish level. No one has reported any pro-gay delegates wanting to see those opposed to supporting gay relationships being forced to celebrate same-sex marriages or preside at services of blessing after civil marriages or civil partnership ceremonies.
Everyone also reported a clear and vocal minority of those strongly opposed to any relaxation of the church’s present teaching as expressed in the Higton motion 1987, Issues in Human Sexuality 1991, and subsequent teaching and guidance (Men and Women in Marriage 2013, the Bishop’s Pastoral Guidance 2014 etc). These were almost without exception conservative evangelicals. What they also seemed to display was a kind of zero sum game attitude over this matter. The message that many report was that for these people, the matter is so important that any relaxation of the church’s teaching or discipline would result in them feeling that they had to leave. Reform advised its members not to take part in the Conversations precisely because it felt that in even countenancing Conversations that could envisage a different future to adherence to the present teaching the Church of England had gone a concessionary step too far.
Forcing people to leave is not very Anglican. We haven’t done it since 1662. Claiming that you are being forced to leave is a powerful weapon for any group in our church to deploy. But we have acted to move over matters that we thought it was right to proceed with and people have left – the ordination of women is the most recent and significant example. What was different in the whole period leading up to decisions being taken to proceed with the ordination of women was that there was a free and open debate in the church, with bishops who did not agree with the then polity of the church declaring openly their desire to see a change.
Currently, with the exception of the Bishop of Buckingham, no bishop has expressed any substantial view over the question of same-sex relationships at all in the last two years. Questions about same sex marriage have been studiously avoided. There are two reasons usually given for this rather bizarre collective elective mutism. The first is that the bishops didn’t want to influence unhelpfully the Shared Conversations. This assumes that just because they tell us what they think, one way or the other, a lot of people are going to agree automatically with them. This is a mistake.
Bishops haven’t perhaps fully grasped the impact of social media upon opinion forming and sharing. Their authority has undoubtedly been diluted by the internet, and social media have only weakened it further. Anything they say can be examined and commented upon by anybody. Those who take an interest in the things they say can all communicate with each other and can debate and discuss episcopal pronouncements with anyone else who interested to do so. Bishops who engage with this world are fairly rare – Alan Wilson, Pete Broadbent, Nick Baines are three who spring to mind. I would contend that now that the Shared Conversations have come to an end it is high time that the bishops stopped their artificial purdah, and also agreed among themselves that they should give a lead in engaging in the conversations that are going on all around them, and that in this engagement they should represent their true views, with their uncertainties and concerns.
Which brings me to the second reason for episcopal silence: bishops say that they are unwilling to speak openly about these things because they are called to be a focus of unity. But this presupposes that there is a united church which they are leading. And there isn’t. If bishops simply say nothing and appear to support a status quo based on a 1987 motion and a series of discussion and guidance documents that have come out since then it is now very clear that they are not where a significant minority or even, possibly, a majority of their faithful are on this issue. Certainly, for the LGBT minority in the church, who are living with the impact of an institutionally homophobic organisation (by which I mean one that actually harms LGBT people) they are, in their silence, and in the way that they ignore us, about as far from being a focus of unity as they could be. Now, they may not care about this. But my point is simply this – that to pretend that they are a focus of unity when they say nothing is simply nonsense. So they might as well start talking – and preferably talking to us and with us all.
The last thing I want to say about these Conversations is this. There were a refreshing number of people at my conversation who were completely open about their sexuality – gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered. From the reports I have read it was the same elsewhere. We live in a world where, for the most part, it is safe to be yourself, and where your sexuality is simply not an issue. In work, in obtaining services, in travelling, in getting representation, it is not only not a matter of significance, but we are also protected by the law from people discriminating against us. So when some of us go to a church event we don’t think about not being open about who we are. We just aren’t afraid about being ourselves. Sadly, there are too many who still are.
In the Conversations the early sessions were rather a lot about how we could make the event a safe space. So there clearly is a sense in which sexuality and being open about your sexuality in church is still for some people a very worrying thing. Two thoughts about that. First of all, it is worrying because you can still, legally, be discriminated against. So in the world of church there are still a lot of closeted people. None more so than bishops. It is understood that there are a not insignificant number of gay and now, perhaps, lesbian bishops. Not one of them is open about their sexuality. And that is the case whether or not they are in favour of changing the church’s doctrine and policy or, indeed, if they want to retain the policy as it stands. This matters because it is hard to think that progress can be made on this matter when fear and secrecy loom so large. How can love prevail?
Secondly, we need to let the light in on this matter because everyone has things to contribute as themselves. If some bishops have a story to tell of a celibacy they have felt obliged to embrace because of their sexuality and how they have managed dealing with loneliness, then we all need to hear it. Conversely, if some have had (or have) partners then it is only going to help us all if they tell us why they have decided for themselves that this is a godly way to order their lives. Again, if some have denied themselves the expression of their sexuality to the extent that they have pushed themselves to marry someone of the opposite gender in an attempt to be faithful, and have sought happiness that way; then if that has worked for them and they propose that it is what everyone should do we need to hear about it.
My contention is that the business of theologising over a matter as intimate and as significant to people as this cannot be done bloodlessly. Who we are and what we are makes a huge difference. The bishops understand this enough to have set up the Conversations so that theologising could be embodied by real people owning their own realities. Surely they understand that what is true for the laos includes them as well? It is the privilege of all the baptised to be themselves before God – bishops included. And it is the business of all of us to receive one another as Christ has received us.
Now it is their turn. The politics of fear and silence are sterile. We need to hear from those who thought up the Shared Conversations. They need to start sharing themselves. The Shared Conversations are over – there is not longer any excuse for avoiding engagement. The business of real conversing is only just about to begin.