Shared Conversations: Can the Church of England prevent a split over gay marriage?

Guidance called 'grace and dialogue' has been issued to the general synod with instructions on how to listen and keep the conversations civil.Pixabay

The Church of England is engaged in a desperate programme to reconcile factions so opposed that one side often does not recognise the other as real Christians.

Shared Conversations are a series of facilitated, private talks at all levels of the Church to allow the different views to be heard. The discussions feature a mixture of small group sessions and larger group exercises. It is hoped that through this process of listening, the Church will be available to avoid another painful split that has dogged Protestant Christianity's turbulent history.

The Church's governing general synod will meet between 8-10 July and for three days afterwards will take part in these secret talks. This comes after two years where each local region of the CofE has held local versions so all members have the opportunity to discuss their views.

Christian Today has revealed the conclusion of the plans could be a form of "pastoral accommodation" such as an authorised service of welcome for LGBT couples.

LGBT activist Jayne Ozanne recently edited the book 'Journeys in Grace and Truth' where two evangelical bishops announced they had changed their view of gay relationships.

But long before any decision has been reached, even the manner of the approach has caused arguments. One said the conversations "confirmed all my worst fears" and the "entire process is biased" against evangelicals. Another said it was immensely helpful and said the sharing of stories in the conversations allowed people to "become fully human with each other".

Andrew Symes, is the executive secretary of Anglican Mainstream, an evangelical grouping that is opposed to same-sex marriage within the Church. Jayne Ozanne is a leading member of the Church's general synod and an LGBT activist. She described her regional talks as a "very personal" experience where "bridges of trust and understanding" were built.

"Inevitably when one understands another Christian we all start to revaluate our own thoughts and to refine each other," she told Christian Today.

But Symes is not so sure. "The positions are entrenched," he told Christian Today.

The pair both attended the same local talks in the diocese of Oxford but their different reflections highlight the polarities in the CofE. They both discussed their mutual experience seperately with Christian Today. Symes said: "What I wanted to do is step back and observe what I was expected to do or say. Am I really expected to say, 'I used to think this but actually this person is such a nice person I am actually going to change my views on it'? If that is what I am expected to do then I am afraid the thing has not worked."

Symes and Ozanne framed the debate differently. For Ozanne the Church's struggle over gay marriage is focused on the understanding of "desire and love". She said the debate had been "hijacked" because some people have hang ups about sex.

"Some guys are really focused on sex and don't see the bigger picture which is about love and intimacy and the desire to have a unique relationship. It is the desire to have someone I can love and cherish whom God has chosen for me and is natural to me."

For Symes the debate is really about the authority of scripture and how the church engages with culture.

"For centuries the Church has been at the heart of the nation. While there has always been a gap between confessing Christianity and cultural Christianity, a lot of the values from Christianity have embedded themselves in the nation and in the culture.

"What has happened recently is there has been a disconnect." He said the Church was at a crossroads in how it related to the culture around it.

Andrew Symes is ordained and is the executive secretary of the conservative site Anglican Mainstream.YouTube

But despite their differences, both see it as a question that cuts to the core of what the Church is. It is fundamental to the Church's nature. "The church has to decide if it is going to go with confessional Christianity or if it going to go with the culture, moving away from confessional Christianity," said Symes.

Ozanne said: "The critical question for me is what sort of Church God is calling us to be? Is the CofE an inn for the hospitality of all or a cottage for the chosen few? My reading of scripture and what Christ did on the cross is that he died for all and that is what the CofE believes in its creed and teaches in its doctrines. Others believe there are conditions on that acceptance."

The Archbishop of Canterbury's chief of staff David Porter, who runs the shared conversations programme, has recently admitted they may not prevent a split. "Shared conversations should not be measured on its ability to stop a fracture," he said. "Every church that has tried to address the issue of sexuality has fractured in some way.

"This is about raising the capacity of the Church to have a genuine conversation."

For Ozanne this admission was crucial. "Clearly the question is how we split [not whether we split].

"Do we do that in anger and frustration or do we do that in pain and in sorrow? It's just like a divorce. Do you have a nasty divorce where you throw lawyers at each other or do you just recognise for the good of both parties to go your separate ways?

"Sadly the tone of some this debate has not been particularly pleasant. I certainly feel I have been on the receiving end of some pretty vile stuff. It is the tone that has to change. As Christians we have to model a better way of dealing with disagreement."

The general synod is the Church of England's governing body. It is made up of three 'houses'; the house of bishops, the house of clergy and the house of laity.Reuters

This idea that the CofE could be heading for a split, despite the efforts at reconciliation, is one that both Symes and Ozanne share and even seem to prefer.

"Quite frankly I do not want to be breaking bread with someone who thinks I am going to hell," said Ozanne. "If someone thinks I am demonic and preaching a different faith other than the Christian faith, I am afraid I find that not just offensive but it calls what God has called clean, unclean."

Symes agreed the Church's bid to avoid a split was heading for failure. "I don't think it works fundamentally," he said of the shared conversations approach.

"I think the Church should have a shared common mission. That is when it breaks down. Because if you share a common mission and you...find you have fundamental differences in your values and strategy, then actually you find you cannot have a common mission even if you like each other personally.

"But to say that is to go against the whole spirit of shared conversations. You're not supposed to conclude that you can't share the same mission."

He went on to say that evangelicals could be blamed if they did not break with a church that approved of gay marriage. "If the church decides to go this route and bless gay relationships and eventually carry out gay marriages and evangelicals decide to stay in then I think that is a problem. Once that decision has been made then I think there has to be a clear distancing from confessional Christians in some way whether institutionally or in other ways."

It is unlikely any verdict will be reached at the upcoming synod meeting. The reflections of shared conversations will be taken to the CofE's senior body, the house of bishops, for consideration. A source has told Christian Today the decision could involve some form of "pastoral accommodation" and involve an authorised service of "welcome" or even blessing for people in same-sex relationships. That conclusion would be brought back to the synod at its next meeting in February 2017.

Any chance would require a two-thirds majority in synod. But conservatives are preparing to block the move as they hold more than a third of the lower house of laity.

You can read the full story on Christian Today here