Shared Conversations: Why the Church of England still has a long way to go on sexuality

Archbishop Justin Welby initiated Shared Conversations on human sexuality.Reuters

The Church of England has concluded its Shared Conversations on human sexuality with a two-day session at the York Synod.

That was the culmination of a process lasting nearly two years and also involving the College of Bishops and regional meetings. It sprang from a recommendation from the bishops in November 2013 that: "The subject of sexuality, with its history of deeply entrenched views, would be best addressed by facilitated conversations or a similar process to which the Church of England needs to commit itself at national and diocesan level."

In other words, according to the Shared Conversations website, rather than try to thrash everything out in a parliamentary-style showdown in which one side wins and the other side loses, conversations would "create safe spaces in which questions of difference and disagreement can be explored in relation to questions of scripture, mission and human sexuality". The conversations weren't aimed at reaching a decision. Neither were they aimed at changing people's minds: rather, the hope was that participants would "come to discern that which is of Christ in those with whom they profoundly disagree". So, "The conversations are intended to help us find out how much we can agree on, how much difference we can accept in fellow Christians without agreeing, and where we find the limits of agreement to lie."

Avoiding the issue?

Will the Conversations help the Church of England avoid utter shipwreck over the issue of human sexuality, or are they just a way of avoiding hard theological thinking in favour of feelgood encounters?

The conversations at the General Synod were held under the St Michael's House Protocols, which included not using social media during the discussions and not, frustratingly for a journalist, talking to anyone not directly involved in them. However, participants were encouraged to share "any learning that you have acquired" after the sessions were over, while being careful not to identify anyone else. And, as Christian Today revealed, some participants in the synod refused to take part in the Shared Conversations section altogether.

Did it work? Opinions on the synod sessions were mixed. Rev Andrew Dotchin, Vicar of Felixstowe, wrote on Facebook of the "brooding looks of disagreement and distaste from non-participants to others as the days proceeded". He thought his group had become more open-minded as discussions proceeded, but questioned whether they had really listened to the experience of LGBT people. He was scathing about "theologically illiterate" contributions from the front and generally thought things were moving in the direction of acceptance.

Christian Today contributor Rev Dr Ian Paul also contributed reflections, from elsewhere on the theological spectrum. He wrote of "good moments, and some genuinely helpful results", and was moved by the stories of LGBT people. But he was unimpressed by the quality of contributions from the front during the session on what Scripture says and how we interpret it, and by the organisers' response to criticisms; they were just wrong, the critics were told.

The Church Times collated other responses in a useful compendium, to which various members contributed. Generally the process was seen as well-managed and helpful, providing many new insights and inspiring some hope that a catastrophic split might be avoided.

The Shared Conversations at the synod were only part of the process, however. There were also regional events following a similar pattern of discussions in small groups. Responses from them are available in various places, including Changing Attitude, which works for the full inclusion of LGBT people in the Church. Many of these responses, from both sides, reflect on how their encounters have enabled them to understand more of "the other", to use the language of the project. Many others, including a painful one from Dan Grayson, say it just didn't work and they felt worse than ever. Still others, like one from Martin Saxby, indicate that while the experience might have been enjoyable and helpful, "this has not brought us any closer to a solution as positions are still firmly held on both sides, and people quickly revert to type".

The responses to the Shared Conversations, both those held at the synod and those held earlier, indicate two things: how far the Church has come in being able to talk about these things, and how far it has yet to go. It's indisputable that the initiative from Justin Welby and his chief of staff, David Porter, has been a hugely valuable exercise. It has brought people together face to face, so that those on both sides have had the chance to listen to each other's stories. They have not always done so, and they have certainly not always changed their minds, but at least they have been in the same room rather than writing angry social media posts. Arguably, this opportunity for encounter was essential before substantive talks could begin.

However, at some point they must, and there are questions that can scarcely be fudged. They are: will the CofE allow its priests to marry same-sex couples? Will it allow them to contract such marriages themselves? Will it permit clergy married to people of the same sex to be consecrated as bishops?

Dependent on these questions there are others, around whether the Church can live with the inevitable strains from the large number of clergy and lay people who just don't believe in gay marriage. It's inconceivable that clergy could be required to conduct same-sex marriages against their will, any more than they are required to marry divorced people. That might not be such a problem, but the question of episcopal oversight from, say, a married gay bishop – or one who has been consecrated by a married gay bishop – is far more difficult.

Agreeing to disagree?

These, however, are at the level of practical problems which it is not beyond the wit of the Church of England to solve. The fundamental question of human sexuality is whether it counts as one of the adiaphora, on which Anglicans can agree to disagree, or whether its theological significance is such that disagreement inevitably leads to schism. To put it another way: can Christians with traditional beliefs about sexuality continue to remain a member of a Church that marries same-sex couples, or do they have to leave? 

For many – not all – on the evangelical wing, it is a simple matter of biblical faithfulness and the historical witness of the Church. And while theology cannot be divorced from the lived experience of God's people – and for some, this is homosexual rather than heterosexual – neither can it be dictated by it. For many elsewhere on the spectrum, the Bible is not so clear, and the experiences of LGBT people must themselves be allowed to carry some weight. How much, and how far this experience should modify our understanding of the Bible, is moot. 

So while the conversations might have prepared the ground in terms of personal encounters, the real work of theological encounter remains to be done. So far, the indications are that positions remain entrenched, and the Shared Conversations may prove to be nothing more than a 1914 Christmas Truce – nice to look back on, but only a  temporary break in hostilities.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods