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So, next stop for the Shared Conversations: General Synod in July, as discussed at the last meeting of GS. This will be the third stage, following the conversations in the House of Bishops and then the Regional conversations, in one of which I took part. Last week’s Church Times announced the imminent General Synod ones with the snappy headline “York Synod will close its doors to talk about sex”. What this seems to mean is simply that the campus will be closed; no press, no visitors observing proceedings. Simon Butler, the Prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of Canterbury, expressed the hope that “people will talk together over meals and in the bar, which is why the shared conversations worked so well regionally, as we had the time to engage with one another as people rather than as representatives of a particular party line.”
From my point of view, though, as someone who served on General Synod and who took part in the Regional Shared Conversations, it’s not easy here to apply ‘why the shared conversations worked so well regionally’. In no particular order:
Regional Shared Conversations happened on neutral territory – hotels and conference centres. While some people would have been to these venues before, many hadn’t. Holding the GS conversations at the usual venue, York University, means that those who were on Synod for the last quinquennium will be on familiar territory, even if those new to the Synod elected last year won’t be. The sense of place matters. If this venue is where you spoke on the losing side in a debate, where you had a disagreement with another member, where you were sitting at a meal and the others at your table ignored you, where your stalker turned up and terrified you and you had to be walked back to your room by a friendly and tough member of the House of Clergy, where you sneaked out of a debate to watch the tennis on TV with some bishops (yes, all of those happened to me at York) – these memories colour your response to what happens there.
Regional Shared Conversations were three-day events dedicated exclusively to this process. GS, however, is meeting from 8-12 July, a Friday to a Tuesday. The SC part will extend from Sunday lunchtime until the end. So this is very different from going away focused on the SC experience. There will be other synodical business before the focus shifts, and a change of gear needed.
While some people at RSCs knew each other, from being on diocesan synods or in various groups within the church, many knew only one or two people within their own diocese. But in GS, people know each other rather better – maybe simply from hearing someone speak in one of the two previous sessions of the lifetime of this synod, or from belonging to the same group, but this still constitutes a lot more knowledge of who people are and how they tick than was available at RSCs. For members who’ve been on GS for many years, that’s potentially a lot of knowledge of each other. It can be much easier to share your experience of sexuality with someone you’ll probably never see again. But on GS, not only may you know each other already, you’ll also be with those people for another four years of synodical meetings.
From what has already been said about the GS Shared Conversations, it’s clear that the format has been changed to take account of the much larger number of people involved. There will be formal presentations to the whole of synod. But at the heart of the event – the narrow point of the hourglass, as it was presented to us – there will still be that very personal, potentially very emotional, encounter between three or four individuals sharing their stories. Are these going to mix up the Houses of Bishops, Clergy and Laity? In the ‘group of three’ in the RSCs, I shared with two men, both clergy. It was fine; in fact, it was very helpful in thinking about the current dual standard. However, there were definitely some men there with whom I’d have felt reluctant to share aspects of my own experience. And would a clergy person want to share with a bishop, when perhaps in a few years the former would be meeting the latter on either side of a job interview table? What is said in these encounters may be confidential, and I would hope everyone respects that, but what is said can’t be unsaid, and it will be remembered.
I really hope that the process GS experiences is as powerful as what I went through, and leads to a similar awareness that nobody has a monopoly on pain here. However, as Cherry Vann, the Prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of York, wisely acknowledges in the Church Times article, regardless of the closed doors “there will be those who feel too vulnerable to share as openly as they might wish to”.
And that’s everybody’s loss.