Synod’s Shared Conversations

Through a mixture of rain and shine, cool breezes and muggy stillness, General Synod spent three days engaged in ‘Shared Conversations’ about the Church and sexuality, the final event in a two-year process of conversations involving representatives from dioceses meeting to do the same around the country. Feedback from previous events had been somewhat mixed, and for me (and I think a good number of others) this also proved to be like the proverbial curate’s egg.

There were very good moments, and some genuinely helpful results of the process of listening to different views. The final plenary session on Tuesday morning brought together interesting insights from the different small groups, and gave a sense that progress had been made. In our groups of 20 or so, we had spent time in threes talking about our journeys of faith and how they related to the question of sexuality, and then looked at some scriptures together, and for me this was the high point. I was with one person who has similar views to me, and another who took a very different position, but both were fascinating people with some profound insights whom I found very stimulating to be with. Here was a glimpse of what a genuinely good process could look like, and we all felt frustrated that we could not spend more time together in discussion.

The plenary sessions on Monday afternoon were a more mixed affair, one basic problem being that there was just too much input in one go which made it very difficult to process and was very tiring. The first of these three involved listening to the experience of four same-sex attracted young people and their experiences, and it was deeply moving and challenging. I felt we should have simply sat for a while or had a break without saying anything; the pain and the trauma which was shared deserved more space and time for us to live with. The young people came from two organisations which I have been informed I am not supposed to name as part of the St Michael’s protocols. One of the organisations says clearly that it believes it is important to work within the church’s current teaching; the other seeks to prioritise the creation of safe space. Although representation from these organisations was not the main issue, it is not completely irrelevant that the two groups were not equally represented. Two of the four had painful stories about church leaders and members responding to them in insensitive, crass and damaging ways; the other two had found Christians responding to them positively and helpfully, without a hint of condemnation or judgementalism, which itself highlights one of the paradoxes around this issue.

The middle session, exploring issues of changing culture, was the best for me. There was a proper representation of different views, and the juxtaposition of contrasting approaches set out clearly what is at stake and what our options are. There is always here a temptation to listening for confirmation of one’s own view in such a range of speakers, and I am always wanting to find out how those who disagree with me viewed the speaker who agrees with me; it is all very well having my views confirmed, but is the position at all engaging and persuasive for others? I think it was significant that the clearest believer in the Church’s current teaching was viewed positively by many who disagreed with him—and this was helped by that person’s acknowledgement of the presence of virtue in the lives and relationships of people living in same-sex sexual partnerships, even though this person did not believe this was a holy way of life in line with God’s intention.

The last of these three sessions was far less helpful and far more problematic. A leader from Africa explained that, if the Church changed its teaching, many churches in Africa would need to severe the links with their ‘older brother’—but he did not give a compelling explanation of this conviction other than that this was the teaching Westerners themselves had brought in the 1930s. There must be many more compelling advocates of the theological position of these churches, and it was unhelpful that we were not offered a better explanation. A leader from the US said that the clash was between leaders, and at the grassroots people were actually working together well, which was a rather unconvincing account of the position in TEC where the church has been taking congregations to court about the ownership of property. The two other speakers also advocated that we could learn to live together, so there was a strong sense of the process leaning into a ‘live and let live’ approach, without exploring the possibility that this question might not be one of the adiaphora. The breezy bonhomie of the chair of this group didn’t really fit.

The worst plenary session of all was the first one, and it was very telling that what many view as the most important theological question—what does Scripture say and how should we make sense of it—was the one most badly misjudged. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to describe it as an absolute travesty of process. There were three speakers, one of whom supports the current teaching position of the Church, the other two arguing for change. The first person stayed within the brief, and spoke for seven to eight minutes; the second appeared to ignore the brief and spoke for 17 minutes, without intervention from the chair; the third spoke for 12 minutes. So we were offered 8 minutes on the Church’s current and historic teaching, and 29 minutes on why this was wrong. And the dynamic of putting the ‘orthodox’ position first meant that, as in all such debates, the advantage is handed to the others. Added to that, the first speaker, whilst eminently qualified in other ways, was not a biblical scholar, whilst the next one advocating change was. There was no voice from a Catholic perspective, engaging with the reception of Scripture within the tradition, and the ‘orthodox’ view was repeatedly labelled not as the Church’s teaching, but as ‘conservative’.

Even worse than that was the content of the second and third presentations, and the way the format prevented proper interrogation of the claims made. It was claimed that the givenness of sexual orientation is the settled view of Western culture, when it is contested both within and outside the church, is not supported by social-scientific research, and has been abandoned as a basis of argument in secular LGBT+ debate. It was claimed that all the texts in the NT referring to same-sex activity are in the context of porneia, ‘bad sex’, which was either commercial or abusive—which is a basic factual error. It was claimed that St Paul ‘could not have known of stable same-sex relations’ which is not supported by the historical facts. And it was claimed that same-sex relationships were the ‘eschatological fulfilment of Christian marriage’ since they involved loving commitment without procreation. It was not even acknowledged that many in the chamber would find that a deeply offensive assertion, quite apart from its implausibility. But the format of the presentation precluded proper exploration of these authoritative claims. It felt to me like a serious power play, and I felt I had been subject to an abuse of expert power.

All this was made worse when one of the key organisers, having picked up some negative feedback on this, stood up near the end of the day to tell us (in essence) that if you thought this first session was unbalanced, then you were wrong. It confirmed a basic lack of understanding of the concerns raised by those responsible for the process—concerns not of some extreme group at one end of the spectrum, but concerns of those who simply believe in the Church’s current teaching position. Yet again, throughout the whole day, it appeared to be impossible to find someone who would simply speak to affirm the current position, and who was presented not as being at one end of the spectrum, but as being a regular, orthodox Anglican. It is hardly a coincidence that (in the forthcoming Church Times article) all those pressing for a change in the Church’s teaching thought that it was very fair, and that we had heard the biblical arguments. It wasn’t, and we didn’t. After two years of planning, the ‘orthodox’ speakers were only finalised in the previous week. This confirms some of the suspicions of the ‘conservatives’ who stayed away, but I think it was a mistake not to be there, as their presence could have helped us in this.

This was exacerbated for me by the facilitation in groups. Several times we were reprimanded for actually trying to discuss the issues involved, and understand what each other believed and why, and what the differences were. We were not supposed to be discussing this, but only talking about how we might talk about it. When questions were raised about the process itself, this was clearly out of bounds, and our facilitator responded by using emotional language—’I am disappointed…I am sad.’ The fundamental problem here was the underlying approach—that there are no right answers, and no given positions, and so what is needed is a juxtaposition of different views so that mutual respect can emerge. This might be just right for a position of political conflict, where there is no ‘objective’ position which can act as a reference point. But how can this be right in a context where the Church itself already has a committed position, one that has the weight of history behind it, and a position which, in theory, all the clergy and the bishops have themselves signed up to believing, supporting and teaching. Any group which included clergy in same-sex marriages would need to face the asymmetry that they have in their midst people who are disregarding the teaching position of the Church, and that cannot be an insignificant factor in shaping the debate. That is not a reason to avoid listening to the whole range of views. But it is a reason for thinking that we are not working with a tabula rasa, where we are simply doing theology de novo as if there is not a deep and broad theological legacy to wrestle with.

It is not immediately clear where we go from here. There was a sense of frustration in our group that this could have been an opportunity to serious engage with the issues; many of us had been engaged in discussion on this and others issues with people with whom we disagreed, and we did not need to be infantilised by being told to ‘hold things’. (If I hear anyone comment ‘What I hear your saying…’ in the next few days, I won’t be held responsible for my actions…!) It was clear that small group discussion is essential to any future engagement; an old-style Synod debate will take us back to a binary win/lose position. I have a question about whether Synod is genuinely competent to debate and decide on this issue; we were not all elected on the basis of our theological competence; a group of 500 is the worst place to discuss such things; and it seems to me to be usurping the role of episcopal leadership. So we will need to look to the House of Bishops to propose a way forward of which Synod will need to have good understanding and to which Synod will need to give its assent.

If there is a change either in the doctrine of marriage or of the significant pastoral 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. But whatever happens, if those managing the process do not demonstrate a much better understanding of and engagement with those who actually believe in what the bishops currently teach then there will be trouble ahead.

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463 thoughts on “Synod’s Shared Conversations”

  1. Things I’ve learned from this discussion (other than how difficult it is to navigate multiple threads where the same point turns up on more than one, and where it’s not always clear who is asking what of whom):

    * Making the same arguments using the same evidence will go on for a while yet

    * The Shared Conversations approach rightly discerned that the same-sex marriage question is fiercely fought because it hinges on the key issue of how we read the Bible. But it also hinges on other key and rarely discussed issues. Some people major on The World as Bad: others look at it with the belief that they’ll see there God’s work going before us

    * Some people are more interested in analyzing individual verses of the Bible:: others look to the big picture it paints of God

    * Some of the former group seem to think it’s sufficient to stop at the King James Bible. Others don’t.

    * It’s hard to talk to people who already know what the answer is. Here, I’d share the point that I was strongly opposed to the ordination of women for some years, and had a ‘conversion experience’ which turned me into a supporter. But until that happened, arguments from scripture, reason or experience left me cold

    * There’s a view around that ‘change’ in how we understand sexual relationships and identities only happened in the last 60 years or so. That’s based on not knowing our own history as a church, let alone our wider history

    * Those who work on the Bible would benefit from knowing more about ancient Mediterranean cultures. For my own blog, I feel a post on ‘Temple prostitution for Christians’ coming on, as some of the commenters here seem unaware of recent scholarship on ancient religions

    • ‘The Shared Conversations approach rightly discerned that the same-sex marriage question is fiercely fought because it hinges on the key issue of how we read the Bible. But it also hinges on other key and rarely discussed issues.’

      We didn’t need the SCs to tell us this! The question is why these issues were not what the SCs were *about*. Rather than being about ‘good disagreement’ – somewhat predetermining a major question wouldn’t you say.

      Also, I don’t know anyone who isn’t interested in the ‘big picture’ the Bible paints of God – the distinction you are looking for, I think, is with those who think that that big picture doesn’t have to be consistent with everything that scripture says (the ‘individual verses’ you refer to).

      Incidentally, when people dispute in public with someone who knows what they think on a matter the main aim is not really to convince the other person (though you can always hope) but to allow those who are listening in who don’t know what they think to have some basis on which to make up their own minds. That’s why rehearsing even well-worn arguments is always worthwhile in such contexts.

      • Ian

        ‘Incidentally, when people dispute in public with someone who knows what they think on a matter the main aim is not really to convince the other person (though you can always hope) but to allow those who are listening in who don’t know what they think to have some basis on which to make up their own minds. That’s why rehearsing even well-worn arguments is always worthwhile in such contexts’.

        This comment by Will is very true. I have long argued, on Fulcrum and now here, that the best way to debate and disagree on disputed points of Christian truth is by a debate/disagreement on the internet open to all, with Bishops, Scholars, Theologians and Lay contributing, where the strongest arguments from all sides can be set out and challenged. The debate on Fulcrum about the ordination of women went some way towards that ideal. This thread has been better. The House of Bishops should be encouraged to adopt this approach as the next step. After such an open, deeply felt exchange of views that we have seen here it would be………I don’t know what adjective to choose…..perhaps I’ll settle for ‘sad’….if the House of Bishops met behind closed doors and came up with something for the next Synod to debate.

    • Helen

      ‘Some people major on The World as Bad: others look at it with the belief that they’ll see there God’s work going before us’.
      I don’t fully understand this sentence. In my view, as you may have gathered from other posts, one of the big divisions is between those who believe that we are all born with a corrupt nature and facing the just legal condemnation and holy wrath of God and those, who, whatever they believe about God and Man and sin, don’t believe that. But those in the first group also believe that God sent his Son into the world to save sinners, that God and Christ sincerely and genuinely invite all to submit to Christ in repentance, faith, love, fear and obedience, and they see that great salvation being worked out in their own lives and in the lives of others.

      I support Will’s point about the Bible’s ‘Big Picture’. The Bible nowhere says ‘This is the Big Picture’. The Big Picture can only be built up from individual verses and passages, understood in context and, where there are disputed understandings, put together in the ‘best fit’. It is an iterative process: individual verses to Big Picture; test and if necessary correct the Big Picture by the individual verses.

      Phil Almond

    • Dear Helen,

      This is off subject but relevant to your comment.

      I am lucky enough to have been able to get a copy of 17th century Critica Sacra from Hay on Wye. Critica Sacra was printed in 1639 and is a dictionary of koine greek to “Elizabethan english”. When it was the anniversary of the AV / KJV in 2011 one of the local churches had my copy in their exhibition. I suggested the option of displaying the word “Diakonos” (english transliteration) or “Gune” (ditto). They diplayed the page showing Gune which reveals that the translators knew that the koine greek meant both woman and wife and you had to get the decision as to which it meant from the context. (A double hermeneutic is needed to get the 17th century understanding of wife being different to the 21st century understanding).

      Women in the NT are often referred to as Diakonos. This is what Critica Sacra says.
      Diakonos: Minister, often. The Greek word signifieth a Minister, or Deacon. It is a title of Office, Service, or Administration, given somethimes to Christ, Rom.15.8. sometimes to Magistrates, Rom 13.4. yea sometimes to Women, Rom 16.1. 1 Tim.5.9 sometimes to a special calling, or sort of Church-officers, Phil.1.1. 1 Tim 3.8,12. to the Stewards of the Church-treasure, and those which took care for the poore, Acts 6.2.5. sometimes to the Ministers of the Gospel, 1 Cor.3.5, both ordinary and extraodinary: to Paul, Col. 1.23, 25. 2 Cor.2, 6. Timothy, 1 Tim.4.6, Judas, Acts 1. 15, 17. Epaphras, Col, 1.7. sometimes to every worshipper of Christ, Joh. 12.26.

      The Biblical references are the norm for each entry in Critica Sacra.
      What is revealed is that the actual meaning, although Minister, is subject to some interpretation even in 1611. (The reference to Judas from Acts 1:15-17 is intriguing and is presumably about him having been treasurer).

      • Thanks very much for the reference, Clive. I note that anyone who has access to a university library can also get various editions of the Critica Sacra from Early English Books Online. Although a trip to Hay on Wye may be even more fun!

  2. Ian,

    An administrative suggestion: in the event of of long threads of this kind occuring again, is it possible to label each post with a consecutive number with perhaps direct linking?

    So for example when referrring to what has been said, one could write

    “in post # it was said by X that etc.”

    Might be easier to follow all the arguments!

    • Thank you, Ian, for your original post and for hosting the subsequent discussion. By now. other accounts of the Synod’s Shared Conversations have appeared but nowhere else have I seen such a lengthy and careful discussion as this. I am, I suppose, what some people are pleased to call a ‘revisionist’ though it is a label that I would reject and my position is closer to that of Penelope, Helen King and Andrew Godsall rather than that of most of the people who have posted. To use a shorthand, my reading pisition is closer to that of Loveday Alexander, with whose position I know Ian has issues. None the less, I have found the discussion most illuminating and has helped to clarify my ideas.I do think, however, that too many false binaries are being set up such as liberal vs conservative when in actual fact people’s positions are on a spectrum

      I have not attended any shared conversations but I recognise from attending management training sessions when I was a working academic the kind of touchy-feely psychobabble which is designed to make people feel good rather than achieving anything concrete. I sympathise with those who feel that the process has been manipulative and ultimately frustrating. To some extent the process is a reflection of the anti-intellectualism which has gripped English (I use the term advisedly) public life. I think Phil Almond is right and there does need to be a sustained public discussion of the theological issues and that differences have to be confronted and debated respectfully but I am not clear where the necessary leadership would come from in the current bench of bishops. However, no on-line discussion will be worthwhile if participants are not prepared to do some preliminary reading. I was disappointed to hear that some participants in the Diocesan Shared Conversations hadn’t read the helpful essays in the supporting material, one of which was wmitten by Ian. One of the strengths of this discussion here is that most of the people posting have read a number of key works – or expressed a desire to do so. Thankyou

      • Daniel
        Thank you for your email supporting my suggestion for the process, although it seems we would disagree about the issue. I think it would be helpful if a structured summary of this thread could be done, fairly setting out the arguments and counter-arguments for all points of view. Of course this is complicated by the fact that there are different views about the Bible and its authority. A summary of arguments and counter-arguments of posts that assume that the Bible is true, concentrating on what is a correct understanding of the text, would be a more manageable aim. If my argument about the significance of male-female creation asymmetry were to be included, this summary would have to include the disagreement about 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 which was so significant in the ordination of women disagreement.
        Phil Almond

      • Thank you Daniel. I wasn’t at any of the Shared Conversations but I have heard people on both ‘sides’ complain that the process was flawed and that, at times, it felt manipulative. I have also heard much praise for David Porter’s team of facilitators. I think over an ‘issue’ such as this, when feelings run high (as the comments on Ian’s blog demonstrate) sensitive facilitation is both necessary and difficult.
        As for the anti-intellectualism which you discern (and which has showed up recently in another area in the public’s disdain of expertise), it is undoubtedly widespread in contemporary society. However, one comment which was made to me by a participant in one of the regional Shared Conversations is that people hadn’t read Ian’s and Loveday’s essays because they found them too academic. Now, amongst academics, I find both Ian and Loveday clear and easy to read, but I suppose that just shows my ‘privilege’. It had not occurred to me that the material might be too difficult for some of the participants to engage with and I wonder if this shows how smug and middles class the CofE can be when it engages with ‘ordinary’ (yes, I know, a horrid term) people. Perhaps more effort might have been put into providing accessible material.

        • Helen. yes I agree with you about the need for sensitive faciitation and by all accounts David Porter’s team did an excellent job.

          I am in two minds about the issue of difficulty and your use of the word ‘privilege’. Like you, I am an academic (albeit retired) and found Ian and Loveday’s contributions straightforward to read. I can see that they may have seemed difficult to some and I take your point about the need to provide accessible material. On the other hand, the issues we are discussing are complex and I wouldn’t want them to be oversimplified. There is a reluctance to press people to handle difficult material and I think that this in part lies behind the process used in the Shared Conversations. Similarly, I am uneasy about the word ‘privilege’ as it is used since so often a kind of guilt about this can lead to a ‘dunbing down’ or at worst being patronising. My experience is that if approached in the right way, it is possible to make complex ideas accessible – teaching critical theory has taught me this. I do feel that if people are going to particpate in such events as the Shared Conversations, they should be prepared to do some homework. By all accounts, Synod members were inundated with material. to read in advacne of the meeting.

          I think at bottom the church has neglected its teaching function. I saw a suggestion that churches might use the Shared Converations Collection of Essays as basis for discussion within a parsh group which is an interesting thought. All that said, I do understand what you say about the CofE ‘s tendency to be smug and middle class.

          • Thanks, Daniel, but I’m Penelope! I agree that people being asked to participate in such an undertaking should be prepared to do some homework. And I do agree that the church has neglected it’s teaching function. But I do still think that there’s a lot of unacknowledged privilege around. Look at the Leaders’ guide for The Pilgrim course. It’s full of terms like pedagogy. Enough to put off some would be leaders of small groups I would think!

  3. Ian,

    Could you not put all of this in a Grove Booklet….

    “Feeling Good about Shared Conversations – what works for you”

    as a title perhaps?

    • Penelope and Andrew Godsall
      In case you want to continue our exchanges (its OK with me if you dont) I have replied to Penelope (July 18, 2016 at 9:08 am) and Andrew (July 15 2.44 pm and July 17 9.42 pm) at appropriate points on the thread.
      Phil Almond


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