I used to be on General Synod, and I keep up with national church stuff. I mention the former GS membership because it may go some way to explaining the latter, as the latter seems pretty unusual – I get the impression that most people at my parish church have no interest in GS at all, and we rarely mention it in public prayers or anywhere else. So, I knew the C of E was planning to defuse the tensions around discussions of human sexuality by arranging opportunities in every diocese (jointly with at least one other diocese) for people with very different views to meet those they never usually talk with, and come to some sense of whether there’s any way through the mess.
I started wondering, how are people going to be chosen for the Conversations, bearing in mind that we don’t all go around talking about our beliefs about sexuality, let alone our own experiences? I asked around. The answer that came back was that Bishops choose, based on recommendations from Archdeacons, who know about people through their contacts with the vicars in the archdeaconry. Hmm, I thought. Has my vicar any knowledge of the range of personal and professional experience I could contribute here? I think not. We talk about my job in general terms, but not about my research on gender and sexuality. In my diocese, there was also a call for people to offer themselves – but if people don’t read the diocesan paper, how would they know about it?
So, I didn’t wait for my vicar to tell the Archdeacon things the vicar didn’t even know (!), or for an ad I may miss seeing, but just wrote direct to my Bishop, who in due course sent me an official invitation to apply, on which I said quite a lot about myself, and then I received a formal invitation to be one of the diocesan reps.
And now I’m reading blog posts by others who’ve been through this, and feeling a mixture of excitement and fear. That’s probably healthy. The Conversations are an extraordinary opportunity to meet – really meet, not just say hello to – people Not Like Me. We all surround ourselves with like-minded people; of course we do. And in recent years, through working alongside Christians from very different churches to my own, I’ve come to respect those who disagree with me on how we use the Bible, what women’s role in the Church should be, etc etc. But this is a lot more personal, definitely challenging and I’m sure emotional and exhausting.
In so many ways, those who aren’t straight, especially if they are clergy, who have been selected are probably feeling a lot more fear than I am, as a safely-heterosexually-married white middle-aged lay woman. But in recent months we’ve seen the Archbishop of York stop a gay lay person from acting as a Reader once he married – so the status quo of a double standard for clergy and lay people has shifted in what I’d see as the wrong direction, not towards accepting committed relationships as good for people whether gay or straight, but towards further control of lay people’s sexual lives. And as I suddenly realised, here am I, married to a man who has been through a divorce, and there may be people in my Conversation who think my marriage should not have been in a church. That’s minor in the grand scheme of things, but it shows we are all vulnerable.
Well, there are months to go yet before I find out what I’ve let myself in for…!