Shared conversations: some came to seek truth; others to conquer. Why can’t we just be kind?

Commenting on the Bishops’ statement Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations (“a gamma minus piece of drafting if ever there was one”), Canon Professor Mark Chapman prophesies that it “will make General Synod bloody”. The report is due to be discussed in Synod on 15th February, when it will be the subject of a “take note” debate. “Such a debate is a neutral motion,” explains the Rt Rev’d Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden. “It allows Synod to discuss the content and recommendations contained in the report, but a vote in favour of the motion does not commit the Synod to the acceptance of any matter in the report.” Presumably, then, a vote against the report would be similarly non-binding and ineffectual, which invites the rather obvious question of why bother to divide on the matter at all.

“The House of Bishops will listen carefully to the debate, and to any subsequent matters raised by members in correspondence, to inform their further work,” Bishop Pete further explains. So a vote is to take the temperature of the prophesied blood, which probably won’t be 98.6F.

“We are asking all members of General Synod not to take note. In other words, to vote against the motion,” exhorts the LGBT consortium Inclusive Church, Changing Attitude and the Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement (LGCM). They say they were “very shocked and dismayed” by the report, which is precisely the reaction the Bishops themselves foresaw. “We know that this report may prove challenging or difficult reading,” they submitted with humility, “from the wellsprings of prayer, careful thought, and.. mindful of our calling as bishops”. But their humility, prayer and mindfulness seem to be of little consequence to the Inclusive Church (consortium), who write:

For too many of our members, who had taken part in all good faith in the Shared Conversations, this was a very significant betrayal of trust. LGCM is also concerned that the established church, in which the country as a whole has a stake, is proposing to retain unchanged a theology and pastoral practice and discipline that is significantly out of kilter with the nation’s understanding of equality and justice in matters of sexuality and gender.  This is an issue which affects all those of us who believe our sexuality to be a gift from God.  The Church of England seeks to engage with all the communities of England, and yet it does so in a way which diminishes the gospel message that God’s love is for everyone, without exception.  We are all alike impeded in our mission of conveying the message that God’s love is for everyone, regardless of who they are, or who they love.

It is interesting to note that they view the Bishop’s report as a “betrayal of trust”, emphasising that their participation in Shared Conversations was “in all good faith”. There is a sense of an (assured?) expectation of some sort of change in the church’s teaching, liturgy and doctrine of marriage as a consequence of that participation; that the outcome of Shared Conversations was somehow pre-ordained. The Bishops explain that they listened very carefully and compassionately to the Shared Conversations, but took account also of “the Christian faith as we have received it”, which obviously isn’t quite what the Inclusive Church desire to make it. So, it seems, there must be blood.

Which is something of a pity, for the division isn’t so much concerned with the fundamental matter of marriage equality, but the rather more fundamental matter (for the Christian) of mission. Consider this phrase: “..the established church, in which the country as a whole has a stake, is proposing to retain unchanged a theology and pastoral practice and discipline that is significantly out of kilter with the nation’s understanding..” Might not some say that this is rather the point of the Church? Didn’t Jesus say that believers would be hated for his sake (Mt 10:22)? Since when did it become the Church’s task to ensure that its theology conformed to the world’s understanding?

Please try to resist turning the ensuing chat thread into one of the inevitable conformity of Erastianism, or the more general pleasure of Anglican-bashing: the issue here is mission, and that is the work of God. The Church of England exists for all people; not just Christians. And, as Lesslie Newbigin observed, “there is not and cannot be a gospel which is not culturally embodied”. The church is concerned with the temporal as well as the spiritual; with the social and political as well as the devotional and metaphysical. But let us not forget that it is also concerned with holiness and salvation as well as wholeness and relationship. The pastoral may affirm identity and dignity, but the ultimate community is found not in or amongst God’s people, but in the fellowship with God which we have through Christ.

We must thank Inclusive Church for nudging the debate in this direction, because it goes to the heart of the Christian faith and to the essence of discipleship, which is not to conform to the prevailing culture, but to contend against it in the hope of transforming it, as we are ourselves transformed inwardly by the renewing of the mind and heart to conformity with Christ. American theologian H Richard Niebuhr outlined five possible relationships between the gospel and culture: Christ against culture; of culture; above culture; with culture in paradox; and Christ the transformer of culture. Each model of mission generates different understandings of the purpose and function of the Church. But each finds its expression in the ‘broad church’ via media that is the Church of England.

As observed some months ago, there are bishops who view culture as antagonistic to the gospel, and so adopt a confrontational approach. Others see culture as being essentially ‘on our side’, so adopt the anthropological model of contextualisation, looking for ways in which God has revealed himself in culture and building on those. Those who adopt the ‘Christ of culture’ model have a syncretic approach and incline toward a mediating third way, keeping culture and faith in creative tension. Those who see Christ as the transformer of culture adopt a critical contextualisation which by no means rejects culture, but is prepared to be critical both of the context and of the way we ourselves perceive the gospel and its meaning.

So when the Bishops write that they “affirm the integrity and value of each person affected by what (they) say”, they mean it. There is no question of episcopal “betrayal” or of the church endangering people’s “safety and well-being”. How does caricaturing the argument in this way facilitate dialogue? How does it lead to the exploration of ethical complexity and the revelation of moral truth? Or has all dialogue now ceased because one side feels “shocked and dismayed”?

This appears to be the case: “..we understand that Synod members are to be asked to take part in group conversations before the debate.. we urge all Synod members to refuse to take part in such group work” (Inclusive Church’s bold).

This is a pity. It is healthy to be critical, and even healthier to criticise with kindness. But for that to occur, there must be relationship, and for there to be relationship, there must be conversation. If the objective of each ‘side’ were to attain greater truth, rather than to conquer or bludgeon into acceptance or conformity, argument would be more godly and witness all the more commendable. But if righteousness must be asserted with verbal bullets and reactionary bombs, there will, inevitably, be blood.

Isn’t it better just to be kind to one another? After all, St Paul said the greatest thing is love: it is greater, even, than faith. Can’t we just help one another to understand different apprehensions of truth instead of sending our brethren to Coventry, seeking blood on the floor at the General Synod, or taking every opportunity Channel 4 News might give to denigrate Evangelical theology?