Sunday, 6 September 2015

Mirrors, Shadows and Confessions: The NW Region Shared Conversations Part 1

NOTE a. This blog post has been written under a commitment to the St Michael House Protocols. I suspect the impact of this commitment on my writing will mean some people will find what I write here too sketchy and general. I write this blog post as part of my own process. I aim to be fulsome about my own reaction to participating the N.W. Region Shared Conversations on Sexuality. If I am discrete it is to protect the innocent.

NOTE b. Several other people have written in response to their experiences of previous regional Conversations. Memory tells me at least some of them draw attention to the mechanics and process of the conference. I’ve deliberate sought to place my reflections in a wider psychological and philosophical frame.

NOTE c. This is part one of two blog-posts. The second post will examine some of the process dimensions of the conference a little more strongly. It will also reflect specifically on my experience of attending the conference as a trans woman. I will draw attention to some of the weaknesses of the Shared Conversations (S.C.s) on matters of the intersections between gender and sexuality.

‘…if his story is really a confession, then so is mine…’

The older I get the more I find Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ a bloated and excessive piece of film making. I’m increasingly inclined to prefer Conrad’s short, precise ‘Heart of Darkness,’ upon which ‘Apocalypse Now’ is loosely based.

Nonetheless the above line of script (spoken in voiceover by the protagonist, the army assassin Willard) keeps coming back to me. Since returning from the latest Shared Conversations on Friday, Willard’s words – offered in meditation on his target, the unbalanced, rogue army commander Kurtz – have pinged ‘round my head like a pin ball.

Willard and Kurtz are shadows of each other. Willard is the hardened and disciplined killer, operating at the behest of a psychically-questionable U.S. government, while Kurtz, the brilliant army commander whose experience of violence has made him a living exposure of the insanity of war, is the killer whose main sin is to have gone off the government’s prescribed map of violence. As Willard reads of and listens to recordings of Kurtz’s disturbing career, Willard sees that they are caught, indeed bonded, in confession. ‘Confession’ here acts as a mutual disclosure of the Other – the protagonist and antagonist are mirrors and shadows of each other, simultaneously substantial and insubstantial, clear and distorting.

Not least among the impacts of the three days of the Shared Conversations was my sense of being caught up in mutual disclosure. One of the horizons of ‘confession’ is ‘acknowledgement’. The nature of the process, as I experienced it, was partly about ‘acknowledgement’: acknowledgement that those people I am inclined to read according to stereotypes and as placeholders for my anger, distrust and sense of injustice are actual people.

I trust that I don’t need to unpack that statement in order for you, dear reader, to appreciate how powerful, disturbing and potent that can be. I – like all people – am inclined to stay in comfort zones: I want to hang out with like-minded individuals and communities. Part of the process of the Shared Conversations is to bring together people whose default position is ‘suspicion’ and ‘fear’ of those they’re inclined to characterize as (depending on your theological prejudices) ‘homophobic’, ‘unsound’, ‘unbiblical’, ‘lacking in grace and generosity’ and so on. That someone with as fierce and decided views on a number of things as me might spend the best part of three days in the company of those who find me (in the least) ‘a bit dodgy’ and (at the most) a dangerous heretic and not just be polite is a testimony to the skill of facilitators and the structure of the event.

Running further and deeper with this notion of mutually-revealed confession, I had not anticipated that I might begin to see myself as my ‘opponents’ might see me. In one sense it’s irrelevant if this mirroring of the shadow was intended as part of the Shared Conversations process. For me, it happened. I began to see how troubling, disturbing and outrĂ© I might look to some whose readings of scripture, theology, the being of God and so on are more univocal, timeless and monolithic than my own.

I am conscious of my own violence and my capacity for it. One aspect of that is making other people ‘monstrous’. As part of the S.C.s I began to relearn a half-forgotten truth – that those who I am inclined to characterize as grim and judgmental, rule-bound and priggish are three-dimensional human beings who bear their own share of hope, love and faith. I saw them. We met face-to-face. I met family, even if – as with our human families – there were moments when I was glad there was a sufficient number of rooms in our Lord’s House (well, four star hotel) for each of us to retreat into alternative spaces. The conference reminded me that family is holy and extraordinary and therefore dangerous and risky. I have never been surprised by the claim that ‘family’ is the theatre for our truth-telling and sustenance, but also that most abuse takes place in family settings. It is a place where power-dynamics can work to conceal their violence, but also is a key setting for our growth into extraordinary people.

I don’t want to be romantic or sentimental about this talk of 'meeting' and 'family' and 'confession'. I speak, I think, from a position of considerable emotional and psychological privilege. Though I have been significantly wounded both by the Church’s and individual’s rehearsal/performance of certain theological positions, the S.C.s revealed just how safe and secure I actually feel. I occupy a position of relative power and authority.

I sense that not all LGBT people represented in the latest conversation felt so safe (though I think some did). The way in which the the S.C. are set-up – not to privilege one set of narratives over others – meant that some LGBT participants may have felt they had to endure language and claims about their lives that were offensive and judgmental. As the C of E slouches towards the New Heaven & New Earth (whatever that might look like!) I fear that we may cut off our pastoral noses to spite our theological faces.

Or to mix my metaphors somewhat - I fear the power dynamics of family will be ordered around the demands of those who (despite occupying traditional positions of authority, power and position) will perform hurt so loudly that it will silence the centuries of exclusion and pain lived by a group of humans who simply want an equal place in the family. As I said at one point in the S.C.s, if we are to truly be God’s family we cannot continue to live a reality that permits second-rate, tolerated members. There are no second-raters, there are none here under sufferance, unless we all are. And we stand together and fall together.


  1. I love the smell of confession in the morning!

    Thank you for your reflection. The various reflections I've read of the SCs that have been written LGBT people are so thoughtful, so cautious. I wonder if many of the 'others' could show such grace.

    The otherness of the traditional view is odd. They have tradition, history, institution on their side, yet they know themselves to have become imperceptibly other in our wider society. Perhaps it is right that the powerless in the church should become powerful -- as you described yourself -- while the powerful become powerless. This seems like the true way of the Kingdom, and its Gospel imperative to overturn. Some of the actions of these 'other' do speak of persecution complex, and we know that if the institutionally powerful feel cornered they can flail unpredictably. A great deal of compassion is needed for those who would turn love to hate.

    It might be easy to think the SCs will have no effect on the hard-hearted, but we should hope for more. When I worked briefly for Corymeela during the Troubles, bringing Catholic and Protestant young people together for cross-community work was so fraught with difficulty. They lived lives isolated from each other, went to different schools, enjoyed different sports, and had different names. They were alien to each other, and that came with fear, misunderstanding and hurt. Yet the powerful thing was simply exposing them to the humanity of the other, showing that they weren't the monsters of imagination. As a facilitator, I saw marvellous transformations in attitudes

    In grace, you acknowledged the reality of family in the other. In grace, be assured that they have seen the family in you and those they have 'othered'. They are sure to be uncomfortable as you were. They cannot go back to hating insubstantial monsters, and they cannot truly hate those they have recognised as family. Here God's grace abounds; take heart.

  2. Thank you Rachel, really helpful reflection, especially regarding family dynamics.

  3. Very interesting reflections! Makes one wonder if you should all defect to the U.S. where the church isn't too bad.

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