Shared Conversations and The Evangelical Ascendancy: an existential crisis?



Six people witness a car accident. Reading their reports, you’d wonder if they witnessed the same event, or even were in the same street. The problem with their reports is of three “P’s”: partiality, perception and proscription. What one saw, the other didn’t. One witness thought something important but another thought it irrelevant. All had common themes, but reached different conclusions.

I returned a few days ago from the York sessions of General Synod. Much of that was “business as usual” even if that meant little more than those of us who are still new trying our best to negotiate the geography of York University.

The last few days though were not ‘business as usual’. The afternoon of Sunday, the whole of Monday and the morning of Tuesday were given up for Shared Conversations.

For anyone not ‘churchy’ the Shared Conversations are about engaging people from a diversity of theological backgrounds in a common attempt to consider how the Church of England might respond to the issues surrounding Human Sexuality in a culturally changing society. You can read more about that here.

So anything I write now comes with some caveats.

Firstly, by its nature, it is my reflection on those three days. It’s not a statement on behalf of anyone else, nor any ‘group’ within the Church.

Secondly, because we all agreed to a set of protocols about handling sensitive information, there is a necessary redaction of some of the details. That is, I think, quite right.

Thirdly, my own reflection also comes affected by the “three P’s” – just as anyone’s account of our time together would also be influenced.

In what follows, therefore, I’m attempting not only to give something of a ‘flavour’ of what happened, but also to try to dig a little deeper and tease out some themes which struck me personally during this process. Again, they are my reflections…

The Process

The Conversations were a mix of group work and plenary sessions. Each synod member was assigned a ‘parent’ group of around twenty people plus a facilitator. For some of that time we worked together in sub-sets of three or six people. The group work was both reflecting on where we were each ‘coming from’ and reflecting on what we had heard in the plenary sessions. They were as much ‘get to know you’ sessions as anything else.

The ‘whole synod plenary sessions’ were essentially panel based conversations which we were witnesses to. We heard from panels of biblical scholars; from young people who are LGTB; from a range of older clergy and lay people who brought their own sexual identities and perspectives; and from a group of clergy reflecting on the human sexuality debate across the wider Anglican Communion.

We all came with a whole range of expectations to the start of the process. For many, and for me, there was a certain sense of dread. How uncomfortable would this all be? Was there a hidden agenda? Would there be a massive punch up? Would we be duped into making decisions? Would this all be ‘one way’ traffic? Would it all just be a massive waste of time (and money)? Would it be all talk, just a load of hot air?

My reflection is that much of that sense of dread dissipated pretty quickly. That’s not to say this was at all easy – it wasn’t. There were certainly times that this was tough going. Members laughed, and members cried. Some of what we heard was what we’ve always heard and was fearsomely unsurprising. Other material was surprising, thought-provoking, informative and challenging. Some parts were easy, and others were very difficult indeed to listen to.

If the Shared Conversations were nothing more than an attempt to get people with differing views to listen to, rather than shout at each other, then I think the time was well spent. Clearly a great number had a real will to explore ways of dealing with contentious subjects which elevates our discourse and understanding, rather than diminishing it. That some very conservative evangelicals didn’t boycott, but participated, should be applauded.

These were not though conversations in which we dealt with the issues at hand directly. For those who thought this might just be a ‘here are the questions and here are my answers’ session, there will have been some disappointment and frustration. For me and for many I think the value will lie not in what we have just done, but further down the road.

That, pretty simplistically says something about what we did. All of us will reflect on our time together. But for me, there are some serious questions that arise – as much from what was not said, as from what was.

When is a sex debate not a sex debate?

More than once, it was clear that Synod holds “proxy” debates. So for example, an earlier discussion about legislative reform was clearly just as much a debate on “can we trust Bishops?” For much of the wider world, the Shared Conversations might have appeared to be a discussion about “homosexuality”. But for me, what was striking was that this was just as much a proxy debate.

Yes, human sexuality was indeed the catalyst – but it certainly felt at times that what was being debated were some very big issues which haven’t been satisfactorily dealt with before. Now that can sound like a weird paradox. If the Church is obsessed with sex, you’d think we’d have a grammar, a hermenutic, a doctrine or two, a common theological reference point? You might even think we’d talk about sex, a lot. That I think is a much bigger problem – there’s a lot, it seems to me of restating of slogans (by which I mean theologically or biblically loaded ‘code phrases’) which singularly failed to be ‘unpacked,’ challenged, thought through and nailed down.

So questions about theological anthropology and ‘personhood’, ethics and moral theology, ecumenical implications, sacramental understandings, theologies of justice and more were, if at all, skated over. It’s interesting that hearing comments from others, you’d think that we’d hardly mentioned the Bible – though that was far from my view, but a bit more of that later…

What was striking was that for a debate about human sexuality, how little we talked about human sexuality. LGBT people seemed to be the ‘elephant in the room’ which often meant that contributions from LGBTI+ people were powerful for the fact that the debate opened up, more so than some other of the content.

Further still, ‘homosexuality’ is, and I think ought to be seen as shorthand for a whole host of discomfort with sex. Sex is, after all, dirty isn’t it? As such, gay sex is really dirty sex. And that is, I think, a cop out. There’s clearly as much problem with sex outside of marriage in purely heterosexual terms. Ditto, divorce and remarriage. And contraception. Etc etc etc… That’s all by way of saying that we spend a lot of time talking about sex, but not talking about sex. It’s all very English.

Haven’t we been here before?

In short, yes. For almost all of my adult life the CofE has been debating the Ordination of Women: first as deacons, then as priests, then as bishops. That’s well over thirty years. It has been like watching in particular the (in the widest interpretation of the phrase) catholic movement of the Church of England have an enormous car crash. Speaking as someone who inhabits (for want of a better phrase) the ‘traditionalist’ catholic part of the playground, it has at times consumed us, sapped our energies, and often, regretfully relegated our sense of mission to a very low item on the agenda. Over all those years it was a debate which (occasionally) had real theological enterprise and at worst (and far more often) been from all sides a vicious exercise in name calling.

That’s no doubt a gross simplification, but might serve as a decent shorthand. Despite all of that, we’ve arrived at a point of some degree of permanent settlement. How long that will last is a good question.

I say all of this because of all the ‘wings’ of the Church of England, it was the Catholic wing which perhaps found itself at the epicenter. The present debate doesn’t though feel like another anglo-catholic car crash. It certainly doesn’t seem to be where the spotlight is. It genuinely doesn’t seem to be the place where the voices are, at present, raised.

Perhaps that’s at least in part what the Shared Conversations are about – trying to stop a car crash in a different part of the Church of England (and as such, to ameliorate the same being replicated across the wider Anglican world). It may be that we’re learning some lessons. It could just be that we’re trying to change the tone of the debate – or rather to set far clearer parameters for our internal discourse before the next round of decision making takes place.

I fully realize that this debate has been ongoing for quite some time. But (and its a big but) whilst Issues in Human Sexuality, the Higton debate and indeed the last two Lambeth Conferences (and passim the Ordination of Gene Robinson) have all turned up the volume at times, this debate has been ‘held back’ because of the ordination debate in England. Now that’s out of the way, the Human Sexuality debate can’t be put off or held back any longer. It’s an argument whose time has come – and it certainly isn’t going to go away now.

Sex: Is this The “Evangelical” Problem?

More than once throughout the Shared Conversations process I was struck as being not only a participant, but also being an observer in what felt an overwhelmingly ‘evangelical centric’ debate. Almost everyone who spoke from the platform appeared to come from an evangelical background: be that ‘conservative’ ‘liberal’ ‘progressive’ or whatever tag you might dream up. It felt very very much at times as if this wasn’t the whole Church of England talking – rather we were, in differing degrees, engaged in a inter-pan-evangelical family argument within the Church of England (albeit one heavily influenced by events from outside).

This often felt in itself like a proxy debate for at least three issues. Firstly, there is very serious question about ‘what is the authority of the scriptures in the Church?’ To put it another way, ‘how can we read the bible and when we do, do we agree on what scripture says’? That’s going to be a very difficult question of hermenutics. For some, the Bible is very clear and is to be read at least in general terms as a form of interpreted literalism. For others, there are important ranges of exegetical readings to be applied. For more still there are significances of how newer biblical hermeneutics might be brought to bear, influenced by feminist, queer, liberation and other contexts. That itself should illuminate the difficultly of the theological question: when we read the bible, what’s the right way to do so (especially if I believe you’re reading it all wrong).

Alongside that sits another thorny question. What is the determinable authority for anglicanism? Is it sola scriptura? Is it tradition, or reason? Is it that the historic Chicago-Lambeth quadrilateral – Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Episcope – is breaking down? Whilst I wouldn’t agree with my evangelical brothers and sisters that scripture alone is a defining authority, there is a real sense I perceive within this debate that for them, the place of scripture is under threat, as well as specific ways in which that scripture might be read. I absolutely realise that ‘conservative’ is no more a hegemony amongst evangleicalism than ‘traditionalism’ is so amongst catholics. The point though it where the balance is.

That is perhaps the third ‘issue’ proxy debate in evangelicalism – where now? The shape of evangelicalism is today very different to what it was at the start of the 1970s. What I can remember from my childhood as being “low church” is a different beast to much of the evangelical world today. I’m by no means an expert – but sung mattins with the Vicar in a surplice, scarf and hood is, I suspect a much rarer beast than a charismatic influenced, worship band led, non robed “service of the Word”. I stand to be corrected, but evengelicalism’s 70s revival has now created a section of the church which has its hands on lots of levers of ‘power’… just at a time when an issue comes along which threatens to break up that growing monopoly and influence. Could this be the issue which breaks the evangelical ascendancy? Is this debate not just about human sexuality – but the outplaying of an existential evangelical crisis unable to deal with the present cultural zeitgeist?

The Justice Question?

For at least some of the more generally liberal parts of the Church of England this is an equal crisis, but one in which this group feels firmly themselves to have an upper hand. After all, if the question of the ordination of women was about inclusive justice, then surely the context of this debate bears as much, if not more of the hallmarks of that debate? Since those arguments held sway then, surely they will triumph now?

That of course whilst a theological solipsism of reason, just as much as the ordination debate was, is now hitting buffers not easily forseen in the law of unintended consequences. Surely, the sisters liberated from the yoke of patriarchal oppression will rally to the cry of liberation of all similarly oppressed?

There of course is the rub. It turns out that some of those who have scaled the dizzy highs of preferment aren’t so keen to publicly cry for freedom for others. No wonder there was a sharp intake of breath from some when newly appointed women bishops demurred from a full throated defence of others facing proscription. If the ordination of women was ever seen as a trojan horse to deliver full acceptance of human sexuality, it turns out the horse is busy eating the hay bales and has forgotten to gallop to the rescue…

There can be little doubt that society has moved on. For many today, sexuality is of little if any import or consequence. Of course, outside metro political circles, that’s not quite the whole story, but in most social and media circles, the argument is won, even if there are pockets of resistance.

Is this just a question of the necessity of righteous justice as a Gospel imperative? Or is this playing out as an overarching metanarrative of an inbuilt conservative position? Just as the conservative position clings to a claim to scriptural warrant, so a more progressive position clings to an appeal for reason to triumph.

The problem of course is one of inherited position and the inherent weakness that at a three or four legged appeal to a theological argumentative ‘stool’ cannot stand on one leg alone.

Justice is blind, says the maxim. But this argument isn’t impartial, and rightly so. But in order for the justice argument to have weight, it has to have a theological back up – one which is at present, it seems to me, sadly lacking.

The Theological deficit?

A colleague of mine is fond of saying that if the arguments about the ordination of women were primarily wanting a theological response, but found a justice argument, so the debate about human sexuality should be precisely the reverse. In other words, if the previous argument had found deep and resonant theological foundations, then what now follows would have had a much easier a path. The fact that the former didn’t, means that the latter has a far more tortuous pathway.

Anyone who might have posited this as a ‘zero sum’ argument misses the point. This is,  I predict, about to become a battle which, in the Church of England, will make the ordination of women a row of the order of magnitude of which comes first, milk or tea?

It is that our theological grounding is partial, based too often on perspective and necessitates from both sides a degree of unsubstantiated proscription that sets the scene of what may well be a fractious battle. This is about a battle between the soul of evangelicalism and the soul of progressive liberalism. And the stakes are high.

What’s missing are cogent theological voices. Above the loudspeaker claims and counter claims needs to be a persuasive range of voices which carry real weight. My worry is where are the scholars, the scholar bishops on both sides which can weigh in? This has to be a much wider consideration that simply the repetitive exegetical attempts to corral some bible verses as proof texts one way or the other.

Even in recent weeks, Synod members doormats have been the recipients of thuds of books arriving on this very subject. That there is recognition that this debate needs wider perameters is good. But my worry is that in a landscape in which ‘we no longer trust experts’ there is an increasing cultural norm that what we need is a better slogan rather than depth of understanding.

In a fast moving debate both in the church as in society, there remains the propensity that the Church will find itself behind the curve. I’m convinced that where we are now is far from a sensible position. Some movement is required. But as ever, the theological and political balance is a difficult question.

Where now?

Imagine the scene. Slogans about with claim and counter-claim aplenty. Those leading the debate have a soupcon of charisma, but aren’t necessarily the main players. The leader has taken a real gamble that this might pay off, but its a huge investment on what might be an uncertain outcome. Potential splits abound. The stakes are high.

It is more than a passing co-incidence that Synod began with a debate about Brexit. Yet that debate was framed, illuminated and overshadowed by the debate still to come about human sexuality (believe me, there were quite a few speakers who drew parallels, or sought to make inferences about the sexuality conversations from and in the Brexit debate on the floor of synod.

The parallels are striking.

In what is increasingly called a post-fact, post-truth, post-reason political environment, the church can no less be immune to the cultural battles that seem no less reducible or illuminating at times than the taunts of a playground fight. That might well be a harsh judgement – but one which I am happy to defend.

Sex is the Church of England’s Brexit moment. Its a take it or leave it argument. And one for which, on either side, there are real significant dangers and unintended consequences.

The danger isn’t that we embark on a ‘zero-sum’ or ‘ no-win’ argument which fractures the church: it is that we engage in a damaging ‘no-sum’ ‘zero-win’ debate in which all are hurt and damaged. There is a real danger of a scorched earth outcome.

This is the age of theology by megaphone. That simply will not do.

The Church’s treatment of LGBTI Christians is little less than shocking. That should, I believe, be rightly called out, denounced and condemned. Eirenic statements are simply not good enough.

But a debate characterized as being between bible fundamentalist and revisionist gnostic relativists also falls short of where we ought to be. There are serious theological considerations to a debate which ought to be about justice, but which skirt important doctrinal themes because in previous debates they have been ducked and avoided.

Calling all conservative Christians ‘homophobes’ is as insidious as calling all brexit leavers ‘racists.’ I don’t deny that there are homophobes in the church – there are – but tarring everyone with the same brush isn’t just disingenuous, it fails to flush out what the real arguments are. Equally calling all LGBTI people ‘abominations’ isn’t where the vast majority of people are today.

We might like a bit of gladiatorial conflict, but it is very wearing. Trying to seek out what is God’s purpose, prayerfully and deeply discerning what we are called to do can’t be packaged as an ecclesiastical version of the X Factor. This should rightly be a grounded, robust and passionate conversation, debate and journey. But it must not be reduced to vacuity.

What we’re watching is an action reply of a previous car crash. The issue at hand is different, but the hermeneutic and pathology is almost identical. The question that faces us is are we willing to live with this for thirty years, with the attendant realities for mission, for the implosion of a section of the church and for the contingent consequences as yet unknown?

Or might we be able to do something far more grown up, get our story together and provide credible witness statements which rather than doing damage to each other, bring us together in a narrative which propels us beyond the present? We are after all, sinners. We are all redeemed by the love of God in Jesus Christ.

Jesus didn’t shy away from difficulties, or from debate. He did though say that its better to acknowledge that we’re all sinners and to put our stones down before we start shouting at each other.

Only time will tell what comes next. Well, time and the House of Bishops. Only those involved have the wherewithal to make a difference. Let’s drop the slogans, stop shouting and keep talking.

Whatever your view, pray for us all.