Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream
The Church of England’s “Shared Conversations” were officially launched in a low key manner at the February Synod: the website http://www.sharedconversations.org/ went live, and two booklets were published under the title “Grace and Disagreement”. The first of these booklets, subtitled “Thinking through the Process”, explains how facilitated discussions around the divisions over sexuality were recommended by the Pilling Report of November 2013. We now have a clear insight into the philosophy behind these “Conversation” meetings which begin after Easter, and the questions those taking part are going to grapple with on our behalf.
Summarising Pilling, the booklet outlines the context of rapidly changing attitudes towards sexuality in the nation to which the Church carries out its mission. The report notes that popular belief should not in itself determine the Church’s teaching. However in a number of ways, the guidance given in this booklet does not seek to defend and uphold that teaching (as one might expect from an official publication) but repeatedly assumes that it is up for negotiation, and even that those who still believe in it are the minority. The booklet tries to be “neutral” in giving equal weight to different views, and moves towards the conclusion that the important thing is not whether homosexual relationships are right or wrong in the eyes of God (since apparently we cannot ultimately know this for certain), but how we reach a place of “Good Disagreement” and model it to a world where bitter and even violent conflict is often the default position.
The document correctly observes that the sexuality debate is not a side issue, but reveals what we believe. How Scripture is used goes “to the heart of people’s sense of discipleship and their understanding of how God speaks to his people…what is at stake is the church’s understanding of …the God of the church and of Jesus himself.” [p.10]. However, though all sides in the debate hold Scripture in high regard, we can’t agree on how to interpret it. Rather than use the Conversations to re-hash the same old arguments, there should be a time of careful listening, as Anglicanism should be “capacious” enough to include all viewpoints. Rather than winning arguments, participants can discern Christ in “the other”, a concept supported by an enigmatic quotation from philosopher T.H. Green:
In discovering the otherness of the other, I find the questions which open up my potential.
There is a positive reference to discussing the suggestion in the Pilling Report of “Pastoral Accommodation”, whereby the Church would retain its traditional understanding of marriage, but allow services of prayer for Dioceses and congregations to “mark” commitment, virtue and faith in a same sex relationship. A version of this has been agreed by the Church of Scotland, whose report is commended for further study in the companion booklet (along with other essays written from different viewpoints). The author denies categorically that the Conversations have a pre-agreed outcome or that they will be manipulated in any way. This is despite the clear steer towards a “mixed economy”, based on an understanding of church as having almost limitless diversity, because of uncertainty about truth. The whole tenor of the document assumes that no matter how far apart and incompatible the views of the participants, because of “the warmth of shared faith” (Pilling), unity in the institution can be maintained.
In terms of relating to the worldwide Anglican Communion, the document shows awareness of how a decision for example to bless same sex relationships in the C of E could damage relationships and cause mission problems in other Provinces. The “Continuing Indaba” project of the Anglican Communion Office is endorsed as a solution: it has had a clear influence on the plan for Shared Conversations. However, it was previous incarnations of this Indaba process as used by American and Canadian revisionists, promoting “conversation” while facts were created on the ground in the blessing of same sex relationships and appointment of non-celibate gay clergy and Bishops, which split the Communion in 2003. Its principles and methods have been rejected as wrong by what has become the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans or the GAFCON movement. In a recent Pastoral Letter the GAFCON Primates say:
“we reject the process of “Indaba” as it is being implemented. Rather than seeking true resolution, it has been consistently manipulated only to recruit people to unbiblical positions. “Indaba” as currently practiced, is a fiction advancing human desires that are not informed by Gospel truth.”
This recent history has been airbrushed out of the “Grace and Disagreement” document.
The deliberate lack of clarity on theological foundations underlying the Conversations will be seen by many as a denial of the truth of the Gospel and undermining the ethical witness of the Church. Many orthodox Anglicans believe that the Conversation process is biased towards a revisionist agenda, and irredeemably flawed. Boycotting the process is an honourable course of action, as is taking part to stand for the traditional view, and chronicle the process itself. Either way, over the next few months the soft focus of Shared Conversations will be balanced by the hard fight for Synod election places, as it is in General Synod, perhaps in 2017, that the decision whether to change the Church’s teaching will be taken.