What is a ‘shared conversation’?

WHAT IS a conversation if it’s not shared? Talking to myself? Enjoying the sound of my own voice? Only hearing views I agree with?

This odd phrase was chosen by the Church of England to describe its facilitated listening process to seek some reconciliation, or at least ‘good disagreement’ over diverse views on sexuality and same-sex marriage. Perhaps they meant that, rather than just talking to those we agree with, we should be talking with those with whom we profoundly disagree.

The Shared Conversations process is about half way through, with an uncertain outcome. As my partner was invited to take part in the meeting for the north west of England last month, I’m handing over this post to his reflection on the experience:

SHARED CONVERSATIONS: What does that phrase conjure up in your mind? Well, from the 3rd to the 5th of September I was invited to participate in a regional Shared Conversation on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality. This gathering welcomed delegates from Liverpool, Chester and Manchester dioceses, each of whom had been invited by their bishop to take part in this three day event. This is one of a dozen clusters of the 44 dioceses which comprise the Church of England.

The gathering was carefully and skilfully facilitated by a very talented team of people each with a variety of experiences in facilitation, reconciliation and mediation. This process of shared conversations was one of the key recommendations of the Pilling Report (2013), which the House of Bishops commissioned to look again at the ongoing Listening Process which the Church of England has been committed to since 1998, listening to the experiences of LGBT people. The Listening Process, the Pilling Report and the Shared Conversations all have no specified outcome. So why do it? Why take part?

While having no specified outcome, and no part in a final decision making process, the process of shared conversations is hoped to ‘change the way the conversation on human sexuality is happening’ and ‘build bridges’ between the different factions of the Church of England.  I probably don’t need to explain just how contentious the issue of human sexuality is within not just the Church of England but also the Anglican Communion, other Christian churches and indeed other faith groups. Just what is it about sexuality which gets so many of these groups so hot under the collar?

I have been finding it quite difficult to summarise the event adequately to friends and colleagues both within and outside of the church. I was either greeted with incredulity or bemusement at my attempts to explain. To be frank, I wasn’t entirely sure myself what I was being asked to contribute to, or indeed what it might cost me. Don’t get me wrong, believe it or not I am honoured that I was asked to take part. It has shown me that I have reached a point in my life that I can now share my journey and take up my place at the table which has been so hard won by many who have gone before me.

Perhaps part of the reason I was invited to take part was through my role as LGBT Ministry Facilitator at St Bride’s Church Liverpool. My primary responsibility is to co-ordinate the monthly Eucharist service we call Open Table. Open Table exists to provide a warm welcome to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans* (LGBT) community of Merseyside. We aim to create a safe, sacred, affirming space for LGBT people, friends, family and anyone exploring an inclusive spirituality. The community that has formed is such a blessing to each of the members and to me as we seek to bring our whole selves to God.  In addition I have the privilege of being in a civil partnership with Kieran, which we plan to convert this to marriage later this year.

I’m writing this blog post from a retreat house in mid Wales. After I was invited to participate in the conversation, I knew that I needed to look after myself and give myself some time to meditate, contemplate and ‘sit with’ my thoughts following the conference.  I knew that I would need space, what I don’t think I expected was the utter exhaustion I felt when I got home on the Friday evening. I felt drained beyond anything I have ever experienced before. I slept no more than a few hours each night as my head was whirring throughout the nights which even a few glasses of red wine failed to calm.

The framing question for the gathering was ‘given the significant changes in our culture in relation to human sexuality, how should the church respond?’ While the question was broadly framed in terms of human sexuality, and the facilitator’s frequent reminders to look at the topic broadly, in reality the primary topic was homosexuality. This is one topic over which the church, my church, is literally tearing itself apart.

This may sound somewhat melodramatic – I am a gay man, so indulge me – but approaching the conference I felt a little like Daniel going into the lions’ den! The prospect of entering a room full of people, around half of whom would have theological objections to who I am as a person and consider my beautiful relationship a sin, was daunting. Many of my concerns were allayed as we came face to face as humans, fellow pilgrims. Language was respectful at all times and clear boundaries were implemented in the form of the St Michael’s House Protocols to frame the conversations. What became evident to me was that many, perhaps even most at first, were seeing lions on both sides.

Leading up to going away I had felt that I needed to study up on a load of statistics, scripture verses, opposing hermeneutics, etc. I needed to be ready to ‘fight my corner’, or so I thought. While I did do considerable amounts of reading of books, articles, studies and papers as I always do, around a month before the event I settled on a different strategy. I was gearing myself up for a fight, and I’m more a lover than a fighter. A fight wasn’t going to do me or anyone else any good. In the end I decided all I needed to take was myself. My story. My journey into becoming the person I am today, the faith I have rediscovered and the love and integrity of my relationship with my partner. These are the treasures I hold and I was willing to share them. My remaining dilemma was that in my ministry role I have the deep honour of listening to many other peoples’ stories, should I not also share some of theirs?

Arriving at the hotel, I was pleased to meet many people I happened to know and a few I knew by reputation.  What did strike me was that there were no delegates from black or minority ethnic groups, none at all, unless I count myself as an expat Aussie! The first day and a half in many ways was gentle and somewhat easy. We looked at ways in which we can speak the same language but the words are interpreted differently. We shared stories and observations about our world and the ways in which we ‘read’ scripture. We also had the opportunity to offer a small group discussion and, with my vicar, I hosted a group which told the story of the development of Open Table.

In the morning of the second day we broke into small groups of three with the opportunity to share our personal journeys. We were given 40 minutes of reflection time to write a timeline of our stories and important events which have led to our current understanding around the issue of sexuality. I was pleasantly surprised that I found this exercise so positive. Once upon a time I would not have been able to reflect on the past without it taking me to a very dark place. My story is certainly not unique, nor as traumatic as some. It’s not a competition, but thinking back over the hurdles I’ve jumped – of fundamentalist Christianity in my youth, a period of so called ex-gay ‘therapy’ which triggered severe clinical depression, a breakdown and a deep seated self hatred which developed from the teachings of my youth – can be an exercise I avoid!

Yet this reflection on where I’ve come to in my journey showed me I’ve moved and am moving into a place where I am able to flourish. In my group I shared my journey into how I awakened to the fact that I was gay. How I sought to fight and repress it and the resultant negative mental health consequences, the rejection of my faith and church and subsequently my journey out of this. A journey into a loving relationship with my partner, a return to exploring a Christian faith albeit different from my youth, and a sense of acceptance of the person I am and am becoming. What was also evident to me was the growing empathy I have for others because of the journey I’ve walked. This journey has opened my eyes far beyond what I ever imagined as a young person.

However this was where the rubber hit the road. Up until now we had shared stories and spoken of observations. While I shared a very personal journey, the others in my group spoke of their theological understandings with little or no autobiographical detail. I believe this was a somewhat common experience. It came home to me quite starkly that for me it is personal, a life lived, within a freedom which has been granted to me by the state, not the church. A freedom hard fought against by the church in many, but not all, cases. For others in my group, there was no personal risk involved in sharing conversation or personal story. It felt, though I doubt it was intended, like this was an intellectual exercise, not a sharing of life. I began to feel weary.

Back in larger groups, we looked at insights from the personal journeys shared.  I became aware of just how vast a chasm separates us. I described this awareness as like feeling like I’d tripped and landed face first on the pavement. What is the sticking point? Interpretation of scripture. The Bible stands as a foundation of our faith yet has become an insurmountable wall separating us in the way we read it. What should be feeding us and uniting us is driving us apart. The purpose of all of these gatherings is to consider whether we can reach good disagreement, and what would that look like?  All the groups gathered in a sombre mood. Key words from our subgroups were displayed on boards many of which spoke of the possibility of separation. One of the facilitators offered an analogy that these conversations could be about building a bridge. But a bridge is only needed if there is a chasm to cross. It certainly doesn’t remove the divide.

What surprises me about this situation is that of all the vast theological differences which exist within this ‘broad church’, this is the issue it may split over! It seems like a form of institutional self harm.  We can hold profound differences on women in ministry, the authenticity of certain books of scripture, theologies of baptism, meaning of the Eucharist, ways of worship, divorce, even on the nature of God, yet it is the issue of two people of the same sex falling in love with each other that brings an ancient institution to the point of shattering. Why? I just don’t get it! How does sharing a home, the cooking, worship, prayer and our bodies with each other within a context of love, fidelity and integrity warrant the breakup of our church? The words of Isaiah flashed through my mind ‘Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness to light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter’. Or as I put it to someone, ‘do not call profane what is sacred’, i.e. my relationship with my partner.

Throughout the conference, the phrase ‘these issues’ was frequently used as a shortcut for homosexuality. While perhaps a convenient shortcut, it began to grate on me. We are not an ‘issue’. We aren’t in need of sorting out, we are living, breathing, human beings, beloved children of God.  Jesus spoke of coming to give ‘life abundant’. Our churches should be about creating communities in which human beings can flourish. Another refrain was ‘Let’s open scripture together’. Yes, but let’s look at our pastoral theology and read scripture through a pastoral lens.   To me, all theology must be pastoral theology. If our theology is not pastoral, then it isn’t good theology. What leads to human flourishing? In my more kind moments I honestly see those who would disagree with me wanting to say that they believe holding to a conservative reading of scripture and not exercising my sexuality is the way to human flourishing. I tried it that way for 17 years. I faithfully followed the teaching of the church. The outcome for me was isolation, poor mental health and ultimately a rejection of my faith. I chose in the end to try it differently, and have been led into the opposite of all these things. I have rediscovered my faith, found a loving and healthy relationship, friendship, a life-giving church community, and much more besides. I blossomed when I accepted my sexuality as a gift from God and attempted to live it out with integrity and love. Hildegard von Bingen expresses it well:

We cannot live in a world that is interpreted for us by others.  An interpreted world is not a hope.  Part of the terror is to take back our own listening. To use our own voice.  To see our own light.

Something that was practically ignored was the experience of trans* people. While the broad setting was human sexuality, the default narrow focus on homosexuality meant we left unexamined the role of gender. Gender identity, how this shapes our sexuality and our way of being in the world is relevant to everyone and the experience of trans* people has much to teach everyone. Perhaps particularly it demonstrates that our neatly defined categories of gender and sexuality are nowhere near as neat and solid as we may like to think they are.

Later on the second day, following the awareness of the depth of the divisions between us we were asked ‘What is essential to you’. I was beginning to feel quite raw by this point. I sat with this rawness tinged with fear, and I tentatively held my hand up. I said ‘I don’t feel any great need for you to agree with me theologically. What is essential to me is that the depth, love, integrity, fidelity and sheer importance of my relationship is honoured’. What I left unsaid is that the same must be true for other LGBT relationships – do not call profane that which is sacred.

Fear flows from conversations around sexuality. For some it is fear of being untrue to their interpretation of scripture, for some fear of God, or what it might mean for the institution if there were a change of mind on ‘these issues’. For me, there is a great fear of the consequences of not doing something! One person expressed ‘I’m being taken on a journey I don’t want to take.’ I acknowledge the pain that statement expresses, but they aren’t the ones who pay the price for not taking this journey. The cost of our church not taking this journey is borne by the LGBT young people in our congregations. Whether we want to or not, the message we are sending is ‘we hate you and so does God’. We may not put it in those words but that is the message received. All the carefully crafted words and nuances of the ‘official’ documents come across as uncaring, unrelated to our lived experience, and are at best ignored or worse seen as wilful ignorance or indeed immoral. When I attend Liverpool Pride events representing my church community, perhaps the most frequent question I am asked is ‘How can you do this? I thought the church hated us’. Hate is a strong word, yet that is the message being received in our communities.

Bishop Gene Robinson once said that the opposite of love is not hatred, it is fear. Fear then leads to hatred. Fear leads to attempts to garner power to protect ourselves, to build walls, gather ammunition and fight. Fear leads to violence, physical, mental and/or spiritual.  We do irrational things when we are afraid to attempt to feel secure again. I felt fear in our gathering. I was fearful of the consequences to my relationship and my wellbeing should an antigay narrative become dominant once again in our society. Perhaps others felt the fear of seeing their power and influence ebb away, or fear of letting God down, of giving in ‘to the spirit of the age’. One fear that was very evident was that by changing our minds on ‘this issue’ we are giving up on the Bible as the centre of our faith. How do we break through this fear and stand together as fellow human beings, beloved children of God?

Either the Bible or our interpretation of it is wrong. Why? Because of the fruit it bears. Because it either does violence to LGBT people or is used to condone it, even by those outside of our faith communities.  As long as we preach a message that LGBT people are ‘less than’ e.g. not God’s ideal, we condone violence, mental, spiritual and, yes, even physical. Religious objections to LGBT folk are taken as just one more excuse by some, both within and outside of our faith communities, as permission for violence.

This process of Shared Conversations is asking us all to give up power, to be vulnerable together. It is a tough call to ask me to lay down the little power I have painfully gathered for myself, mostly given to me by our secular society, without assurances of safety. I, along with other LGBT people, am asked to bear a heavier cost than those within the dominant narrative. Yet I’m also quite aware of the pitfalls of the oppressed becoming the oppressor, and it cycle back around again. This dynamic must be broken. Yes, LGBT people have been oppressed and have won many freedoms, but we must be careful not to become the oppressors or the cycle will go on. Let’s break it.

One person said, ‘We haven’t talked about love very much’. I had to agree. People are desperate to be loved! Love is the most transformative power that exists. ‘Love never fails’ (1Cor 13:8). If love is the fruit of our actions, then we know it is of God as ‘if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us’ (1Jn 4:12). If the Christian faith is about anything it’s that we are loved beyond measure, beyond price or boundary. If we can but know that we are loved our lives are transformed. A same sex relationship can bear all the same hallmarks of this love, and we must celebrate it.

When my partner and I had our civil partnership we were unable to celebrate in the church building where we worship week in and week out. We did however celebrate it with our church community. So many were there to witness our promises, to celebrate our love and to give us their blessing and support for our future. If the church is the people of God, our partnership is blessed over and over again by our church even if it wasn’t conducted in the church building. Thankfully God does not need his church’s permission to bless our relationship. He has done so in abundance.

Where does this leave us? What does the future hold for this conversation and the Church of England? I’m left with as many questions as I entered into this process. I just don’t know. I did even begin to find myself wondering again whether I should walk away and leave them to sort it out for themselves. Perhaps I am walking a faith journey which is too different from the church’s journey. I just don’t know.

We at St Bride’s hold three core values in everything we do. We say that we are a creative, progressive and inclusive community. ‘Progressive’ refers to our reading of theology – that we are progressive in thought and explore theology rather than offering definitive answers. I’m sometimes aware of the arrogance of saying I’m a progressive, implying that those who don’t agree with me are regressive. Though I don’t think this awareness is always reciprocated by other parties who similarly claim ‘we have THE truth’ and you must agree with us. Similarly some find the term inclusive as a divisive term. Who defines who is in and who is out?  Yet the word inclusive is a useful and clear signpost to the many who have been hurt by churches to say, ‘Here you are welcome’. I belong to the Inclusive Church network, which maintains a list of churches nationally who have signed up to a charter to commit to the value of inclusion. I use this list when I travel with my partner, as the sad truth is we simply are not welcome in just any church. A charter mark of being inclusive helps us find a community where we know we will be safe. Not unchallenged in our spirituality, but safe to worship together with my partner and not be spurned.

The Shared Conversations process has left me with more questions than answers. Perhaps that is a good thing!  Perhaps we all should learn to live with uncertainty, doubt and questions. To wrestle with these questions rather than hold an arrogant assurance that we are right, and hang the rest of them. Sometimes though, I confess I would like some simple answers, but life just ain’t like that.  I found myself wondering if I was too nice. Did I say too much, too little? Did I let myself get walked all over or did I simply do what I set out to do to share my story in the assurance that I am held by my church community, my workplace and my relationship with my partner? One of the questions posted to us was ‘Is this the pain of divorce or the pain of childbirth?’ I’d like to hope it may be the latter.

At the end of the conversations we were asked ‘What is my commitment to the ongoing conversation?’ The response I shared was that my commitment is to do what I am already doing with even greater empathy and energy. In addition, in response to an earlier conversation with someone who asked me, can I be welcoming to LGBT people but not affirming? My gut instinct is to say a simple no, for all the reasons above. Yet my heart says I want to affirm this person as a fellow human being, seeking to honour God, their integrity and other people.  How can I continue to journey with this person, holding all of this in tension?  I committed myself to looking at how this might be possible. I don’t have any simple answers though.  Perhaps a succinct way of putting this is, how do I faithfully dissent?  How do I dissent from my faith community’s teaching yet remain faithful? How do I continue to journey in the tension and the risk it brings yet with some hope for resolution?

Open Table, the ministry I facilitate, exists to provide pastoral care for LGBT people who aren’t welcome everywhere else.  To paraphrase Bishop Gene Robinson, it’s OK to pull people out of the water, but we also need to walk back up stream and see who is throwing them in! My commitment to renewed energy and empathy for the work of Open Table, I trust, will contribute to this process and create a space for the witness of our lives to shine.

Do I hold out hope? Yes, strangely enough, I do. I’ve seen real change. I’m not sure that 20 years ago I would have been even allowed in the room to have this conversation. I was welcomed, respected and my story was listened to. I met human beings, the people behind the words and the rhetoric so often written, and I hope they met me, that I was as open, honest and congruent as I could be. Locally I hold even more hope. I’ve found my parish in particular but also our diocese to be a place that will hold this tension with honesty yet also without losing sight of the human beings behind the positions. During the three days, the smaller the group, the deeper and more honest the sharing appeared to be, so perhaps locally we can deepen our relationships and share the conversation in different ways. We must act quickly though. It is not enough to talk endlessly – action must flow. We cannot let another generation grow up believing they are hated by the church and by extension, God.

A good step was taken in this direction when the leaders of the major Christian churches within Merseyside spoke out against homophobic violence in the murder of Michael Causer and the attack on trainee police officer James Parkes. This statement was formed in consultation with representatives of the local LGBT Christian community and published in Liverpool City Council’s antihomophobic bullying strategy (page 5).

The situation is complex with competing demands, competing narratives and the human story torn apart in the middle. How do we move forward amongst all this mess? Perhaps the cross, the paradox which is at the centre of the Christian faith, can show us a way. The cross is a visceral symbol of violence, power abused, weakness and failure. Yet in the sight of our God bleeding and dying is the turning on its head of power.

I am reminded of a blessing written by Steven Shakespeare which never ceases to move me:

May the cross be the sign in which we begin again to undo the cords of violence, the misery of exclusion and proclaim the love without conditions.

May all we do proclaim that unconditional love. Amen

By Warren Hartley – originally posted at stbridesliverpool.org.uk

Permanent link to this article: https://abravefaith.com/2015/10/26/what-is-a-shared-conversation/

1 comment

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  1. As a fellow participant in the Shared Conversations, I was delighted (sort of) to relive it all through your experience and particularly struck by your comment “While I shared a very personal journey, the others in my group spoke of their theological understandings with little or no autobiographical detail.” I was lucky enough to have been in a three where the other two (men) shared at a personal level, which is why it was so powerful (very emotional!) but had been wondering if my experience was typical or not. Thanks for your reflections!

  1. […] * My husband and co-facilitator of Open Table Liverpool, Warren Hartley, took part in the Shared Conversations for the Diocese of Liverpool – you can read his reflection on the experience here. […]

  2. […] Group, of which I am a member along with other LGBTI+ Christians, and the Diocese of Liverpool Shared Conversations group, which includes representatives from across the spectrum of thought on sexuality, same-gender […]

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