Students of the process should check out Ian Paul who blogged about his experience with "Shared Conversations", the latest attempt by the Church of England to muddle through its same-sex marriage mess. First, he explains what I call "the set up" or the plenary session,
"The worst plenary session of all was the first one, and it was very telling that what many view as the most important theological question—what does Scripture say and how should we make sense of it—was the one most badly misjudged. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to describe it as an absolute travesty of process. There were three speakers, one of whom supports the current teaching position of the Church, the other two arguing for change. The first person stayed within the brief, and spoke for seven to eight minutes; the second appeared to ignore the brief and spoke for 17 minutes, without intervention from the chair; the third spoke for 12 minutes. So we were offered 8 minutes on the Church’s current and historic teaching, and 29 minutes on why this was wrong. And the dynamic of putting the ‘orthodox’ position first meant that, as in all such debates, the advantage is handed to the others. Added to that, the first speaker, whilst eminently qualified in other ways, was not a biblical scholar, whilst the next one advocating change was. There was no voice from a Catholic perspective, engaging with the reception of Scripture within the tradition, and the ‘orthodox’ view was repeatedly labelled not as the Church’s teaching, but as ‘conservative’."I will skip the details of the falsehoods proclaimed by those in favor of same-sex blessings. The main point Ian Paul makes is there was no way to refute them.
"But the format of the presentation precluded proper exploration of these authoritative claims. It felt to me like a serious power play, and I felt I had been subject to an abuse of expert power."Let's move on to the table discussions,
"This was exacerbated for me by the facilitation in groups. Several times we were reprimanded for actually trying to discuss the issues involved, and understand what each other believed and why, and what the differences were. We were not supposed to be discussing this, but only talking about how we might talk about it. When questions were raised about the process itself, this was clearly out of bounds, and our facilitator responded by using emotional language—’I am disappointed…I am sad.’ The fundamental problem here was the underlying approach—that there are no right answers, and no given positions, and so what is needed is a juxtaposition of different views so that mutual respect can emerge. This might be just right for a position of political conflict, where there is no ‘objective’ position which can act as a reference point. But how can this be right in a context where the Church itself already has a committed position, one that has the weight of history behind it, and a position which, in theory, all the clergy and the bishops have themselves signed up to believing, supporting and teaching. Any group which included clergy in same-sex marriages would need to face the asymmetry that they have in their midst people who are disregarding the teaching position of the Church, and that cannot be an insignificant factor in shaping the debate. That is not a reason to avoid listening to the whole range of views. But it is a reason for thinking that we are not working with a tabula rasa, where we are simply doing theology de novo as if there is not a deep and broad theological legacy to wrestle with."
All of this seems to confirm my impression that when the Church tries to have these types of "conversations" the outcome has already been written. I believe that the main goal is to create the appearance of a conflict-free Church in hopes of preserving the institution.
What should you do if you are asked to participate in a "shared conversation"?
Here is my list,
- Know that the die has already been cast.
- Pray over the invitation.
- Decide to accept or decline the invitation.
- If you accept, document the event and how it was structured as well as how it was facilitated.
- If you decline, document your objections and publish them.
- At the event, do not be afraid to direct the conversation away from the limitations of the facilitator. After all, what power do they have over you?
- Speak up, but don't expect to change the outcome.