Can we see each other properly? And can we stay together? These are challenging questions which have come to the fore for me this week.
All of us who took part in the regional Shared Conversations signed up – literally signed – the St Michael’s House Protocols, which set the parameters for the safe space in which we talked. I found this was a very solemn moment. For me, it marked the point at which it all became very serious indeed.
As well as committing us to protecting the identities of others in our Conversation, looking for shared interests, separating people from the problem, actively listening to others, and telling our stories, the Protocols encourage us where possible to share our knowledge and understanding from taking part. I see this blog as part of that; so far it’s had over 3000 views. I also offered to speak to my deanery synod, an offer that was welcomed, and earlier this week I spoke to an evening event in my parish, open to anyone in our team ministry.
Talking in the parish
Many of those who came along to this event were members of a particular home group where the leader had encouraged them to read one of my earliest posts as part of their reflections on ways of reading the Bible. Others were individuals who, I know, have found the blog interesting. I kept the event deliberately ‘safe’, opening with a description of what the Shared Conversations were for, and what had happened at the one I attended. I then did an exercise based on the one I described in ‘Fruit or Chocolate?’ to illustrate the point that people take up a position in a debate, or embrace a label, for very different and often unpredictable reasons. After that, we had a discussion.
I found the event very interesting, and I’ve had positive feedback. In keeping with the spirit of the Protocols I won’t say anything about individuals. But, generalizing from the evening and from comments from one of those attending about how they hadn’t found much interest in it from those in their church, a couple of points became clear.
Seeing the invisible
First, in many pretty standard parishes of the C of E, our response to LGBT+ people and in particular to same-sex couples, married or in civil partnership, just isn’t thought worth discussing. Not because of any negative reactions, not from any theological position, but just because such people aren’t visible to us. It’s ‘not our problem’. And maybe that’s why there are still people in our parishes who, despite various newspapers featuring the Shared Conversations, have never heard of this process. Of course, when it comes to couples seeking to have their union blessed, the known opposition of the C of E means that they’re not likely to come near their parish church in this particular situation.
Yet many people are aware of LGBT+ people in their families or among their friends. Others, interestingly, aren’t, and say they don’t know anyone like this. Some of us see: others don’t. And this brings me to my second observation. I no longer believe in ‘gaydar’, that firm sense that someone ‘must be’ gay, but I’m still surprised that the undoubted presence of gay people in our congregations somehow isn’t seen by everyone.
Those who came to the event this week were interested to hear things they didn’t know about the C of E, for example the rules about clergy not being allowed to be in same-sex relationships. This made me wonder why we don’t all know this already. They wanted to reflect further on what we mean by ‘sexuality’; how far are our identities fixed, and how flexible are they? As we fall in love with a person because of who that person is, can we fall in love with someone of the same sex when we identify as heterosexual – and vice versa? It’s great that the current debates have made it possible for Christians to think about these questions.
On the Big Question, will the C of E find a way to hold together or will it split, I found surprising one of the articles on the Shared Conversations in Christian Today earlier this week. The journalist presents the SCs as a ‘desperate programme’ to hold the church together – but something which has been going on in every diocese over the course of a full year doesn’t meet my definition of ‘desperation’. He interviewed separately two of my fellow Shared Conversationalists from Oxford diocese, Jayne Ozanne and Andrew Symes, and despite their very different views on LGBT+ issues both are quoted as saying that they think a split is inevitable.
While I appreciate Jayne’s “Quite frankly I do not want to be breaking bread with someone who thinks I am going to hell”, in the C of E nobody with access to transport has to put herself in that situation. There’s a long history of people moving to the next parish along, whether that’s set off by a new vicar, a change to the pattern of services, the presence or absence of a choir, or reordering of the building. As I said at the parish event this week, I came away from the Shared Conversations feeling strongly that I didn’t want to lose my fellowship with some of the lovely people I’d met who disagree with me completely and passionately on the inclusion of LGBT+ people, both those with ‘same-sex orientation’ and those in full relationships.
There are people in the C of E who still won’t accept the ministry of women priests, the authority of women bishops, or women of any kind preaching. I wouldn’t flourish in a church where this was the norm. Yet when I’m volunteering as a Street Pastor, I work in teams including members from churches where women are not given authority to lead. Is the current issue really so different? Is a similar accommodation possible?