‘When are the shared conversations starting and who’s going to be involved?’
I’ve heard and been asked these two questions in various settings over the months since The Pilling Report came out.
The Pilling Report commended a process of ‘facilitated conversation’ as a way of moving forward discussion and relationships within the Church of England on all things LGBT. In light of the House of Bishops’ meeting earlier this year, the notion of ‘facilitated conversation’ shifted towards ‘shared conversations’ between various interested parties, leading up to a discussion in General Synod in 2016. (One assumes that the term ‘facilitated’ was troublesome because it held the implication that healing and mediation might be necessary.)
As I understand it, this formal process of shared conversation begins after a meeting of the College of Bishops this coming autumn. Diocesan bishops will then nominate representatives for regional discussions, including LGBT reps and a mix of lay and ordained.
I’ve been thinking an awful lot about this (by church standards!) imminent process in the past couple of weeks. While this fact is no doubt a symptom of my need to get out more, my rumination is also unsurprising. Like pretty much every LGBT person who has chosen to stick around within the church I am profoundly conscious of the extent to which ‘we’ have been treated as something to be talked about, as an issue. So there’s a part of me that’s intrigued by the possibility that we might be talked to. Really talked to.
And, yet, the Pilling Report was also, supposedly, part of a process of being talked to and with. As someone who conversed at length with members of the Pilling Committee I’m not especially convinced I was listened to. It would not be beyond the possibility that I might the kind of person who was asked to participate in the upcoming conversations. (And I suspect there will be a goodly number of people who – as much out of a desire to know what this process will involve – will be keen to participate.) And yet that previous experience has made me suspicious of the whole process.
In some respects it feels like the world is changing fast. The number of ‘coming outs’ recently, including Vicky Beeching, has hopefully left some church people thinking, ‘are there actually any straight people in the church?’ (;-D). However, the treatment of Jeremy Pemberton and the patchy nature of support for LGBT people in the C of E should give pause. As someone said to me recently, ‘We live in a bubble in Manchester diocese.’ It is a place where – more or less – LGBT lay and ordained can thrive and feel supported. You don’t have to travel too far outside the bounds of the city to experience a quite different reality.
Why am I suspicious about the ‘shared conversation’ process? Partly because ‘conversations’ have been going on in one form or another since at least the Consultations of the ‘70s. And yet it’s not clear that the C of E institution qua institution has shifted that much.
However, I am more concerned about whether the conversations will truly be conversations. The notion of ‘conversation’ includes the meanings of a ‘turning together’ or a ‘changing together’ as well as a living amongst or dwelling together. It is a mesmerizing possibility, but given things like the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Statement (aka The Valentine’s Day Massacre) it’s difficult for those of us who have been traditionally excluded from welcome in the church to trust that those with power, privilege and authority will genuinely place their privilege at risk of conversion, of conversation.
I believe that, in conversation, a mutual conversion to one other is certainly possible and I guess many of us would still be willing to give it a go. But we’d better hope God is around to give all participants a reality check, a regular kick in the shins.