When I first set up a blog (about five or six years ago), I did so in order to be able to reflect at greater length and more widely, than was then possible on Facebook, which used to impose a word limit on posts. I only blogged for a while, but have recently been thinking again that I want to be able to do that reflection, and engage in a conversation.
The catalyst for actually getting round to resurrecting the blog has been the Shared Conversations on Scripture and Sexuality in which General Synod engaged earlier this week. I took part in the northern regional conversation, now over twelve months ago, and found the experience to be interesting, positive, and encouraging in a way that I simply had not anticipated. However, I was extremely anxious about the Synod circle of conversation – it felt as though it had a different weight to it.
Nor was the programme the same: in the regional conversation, it was nearly all conversation, and we weren’t in the same group for the whole time. At Synod, we were split into groups of around twenty, and stayed in those groups (and there were bishops in them). There was also plenary input, in the form of four different panels focusing variously on interpretations of Scripture, the experience of young LGBTI people in the church, changing cultures, and the wider Anglican Communion.
At the end of the couple of days I was absolutely exhausted, but now – from a remove of four days and with the help of a bit of sleep – I wanted to continue the conversation by sharing some of my key reflections:
(1) I found the quality of the conversation and listening to be really good. People were open, we made ourselves vulnerable, and there seemed to be a real effort to hear and understand the experiences and perspectives of others.
(2) It felt very different being at Synod but not as Synod. Primarily, I loved that there were no fringe displays, or meetings, or media. I’ve been on Synod fringe stalls in the past, and usually go to a fair few fringe meetings during the mealtimes (so while Synod was in session Friday afternoon – Saturday night I went to four meetings), but it felt very much more spacious without them. It was lovely just to be able to sit and talk with people, to talk with people who aren’t necessarily interested in the same issues or belong to the same groupings. It would, I think, be really great if in every group of sessions we could have at least one day where there were no fringe meetings. It would be good to help us get to know one another better and build relationships right across the church.
(3) It is clear from comment both during and after the event that we received the panel input differently. Particularly there has been some debate about the balance of perspectives on the Scripture panel. I can understand those frustrations, even if I don’t necessarily share the analysis of that panel. What did frustrate me greatly about that panel was the lack of opportunity for the contributors to engage properly with one another. Also, each speaker had suggested a passage for our reflection, but then there was no opportunity for us to reflect on those passages. I would really have valued the opportunity to engage deeply with those texts with people whose perspectives differ from my own. For future conversations, I think an approach such as that used in Scriptural Reasoning might help us with some of these difficult texts.
(4) My concerns about the panel input were slightly different, possibly reflecting my different interests and church tradition: we seemed to leap straight from the pages of Scripture (however read) to present experience, with no reflection at all on historical perspectives about marriage and sexuality, no consideration of tradition, and most seriously given that we are Anglicans, no discussion of liturgy. In Anglican thought, liturgy gives expression to our theology, and so we need to engage with that too. We need to consider what is implied by the changing marriage services from the 1662 BCP, through the 1928 Prayer Book, the ASB, and Common Worship. It matters that we reflect on how our liturgy and doctrine inform and shape one another. We did not do that at all. Neither did we really hear any Catholic voices in the plenaries.
My second (and related) concern was the complete lack of ecumenical perspectives in the plenary discussion: anyone could have been forgiven for thinking that there had not been the Synod on the Family, that the URC had not just come to a conclusion about the question of equal marriage, and that similar discussions are not presently happening amongst our Methodist covenant partners.
(5) As in the regional conversation, so too in this one, I was left with some questions about underlying assumptions concerning the nature of gender, and how those assumptions shape the conversation. We did not hear the voices of trans, or questioning, or intersex Christians particularly. In both my group of twenty, and in the plenary conversation at the end, there were a number of comments about the need to reach answers that were not binary – so not being faced with a question with a simple either/or, yes/no answer, and also, I think, continuing the conversation in more nuanced ways, with a deeper appreciation of gender theory. It is all just so very much more complex, as the smaller group conversations demonstrated.
We can all critique the process, and I know I’m not alone in a slight anxiety that we can elevate process over content with lots of positive outcomes, but that sooner or later we still need to deal with the difficult and divisive content. I hope that the process will enable to do that thing better. I found the conversations a privilege – we tread on sacred ground as we hear others say to us “Here I am before God”, and it is amazing and humbling to be entrusted with those stories. I am thankful for that, and to those who listened to me, and for the silences we held together.
As I say, we can all critique process, and – as I’ve done here – we can raise concerns about the things we didn’t talk about, or the voices we didn’t hear. But my most important impression of the whole, the one that I find quite overwhelming, was something that struck me during one of the plenary panels: in a chamber with nearly 500 people sitting there, the quiet, attentiveness was astounding. I was overwhelmed with hope and actually awe for a church, so messy and so flawed, that had the courage to say “This is difficult, we don’t know how to work this out, but we’re going to give our time and attention and resource to do it together.” For me, the most hopeful thing about the whole process was that we were listening and thinking and struggling together, deeply and seriously. In a world where we aren’t good at doing that, where we jump to easy answers, and don’t do either each other or questions the justice of paying proper attention, this seemed special. “A serious house on serious earth”, dealing with the serious questions of lives before God.