by the Rev Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor of Canterbury
Once in a while everyone has to have a difficult conversation. The work colleague who isn’t too keen on personal hygiene; someone you manage whose performance requires attention; a long-term relationship where something seems to be going wrong. They are inevitable, often unwelcome, sometimes completely necessary and therefore need careful preparation.
General Synod members are having a difficult conversation in July, on Human Sexuality (actually it’s about homosexuality but we’re now stuck with the unhelpful title, complete with Important Capital Letters). We know it’s been coming. Some have been dreading it and wish it would just go away. Others have been polishing up and putting on their theological and psychological armour, for both offensive and defensive purposes (we seem to find talking to one another almost impossible in the Church of England, so we resort to proxy conversations by talking at each other in advance by writing and blogging!); meanwhile, many other people have been wondering why we need to have the conversation at all because the world has moved on.
Nevertheless, it’s time for the long-awaited Shared Conversations. We can’t avoid talking to one another any longer.
So how am I preparing to take part? How am I going to Have a Difficult Conversation?
The most important thing I am doing is…nothing. This isn’t just because I’m tired of the conversation already – I am, I feel like I’ve been having it for a generation. Rather, it is because the most important thing about this difficult conversation is that it is between fellow-disciples. I realise not everyone agrees about this and that some people believe that people like me are Not Proper Christians – in my worst moments I can be tempted to think the same about them! That apart, the best thing I bring to the conversation is my discipleship, my walk with Jesus.
My discipleship happens to include being attracted exclusively to people of the same sex. But that is nowhere near the sum total of it. The way I have worked out my calling to be a follower of Jesus; the way I have responded to the promises made at my baptism, confirmation and (in my case) ordinations; the way I sustain these in prayer, in theological reflection and in service – these are what truly make me an authentic contributor to this conversation. Despite my inevitable failures as a disciple, it is its authenticity – the way I think about it and the way that it works itself out in love – that is the most important thing I can bring. If I’m not seeking to be faithful in those, then my contribution is likely to be limited, even unhelpful.
Second, to have the right conversation I must be clear about what it is about. We aren’t having a conversation about the ethics of same-sex relationships within the church. We know that conversation will continue and there are strongly-held and stoutly-defended, often-opposing, biblical and theological convictions held. Having that conversation will likely get us nowhere in July. Instead, this difficult conversation is about whether we can actually live together holding the views that we do. The Reformers called it adiaphora: are the disagreements we have, and the divergence of practice they imply, enough to materially affect the ability of Christians to live together in unity? Remembering this essential point helps me to realise that, even though we LGBT people seem to be the subject of the disagreement, it is not our fault that it is going on. The responsibility lies with the whole church to come to an answer about the question of adiaphora. Personally, that takes the pressure of a bit. I’m a baptised disciple, not a problem-causer or a trouble-maker.
And finally, of course, I’m praying. I’m praying for my fellow-LBGT members of Synod in all three Houses, some of whom are clearly more apprehensive about the conversations than I am and fear they have the most to lose. Please join me in praying for them, whatever side of the conversation you are on. Some feel very exposed and vulnerable, despite the strong assurances that have been given. We need to find courage to be able to speak with integrity as disciples.
But I’m also praying for my ‘opponents’. Almost a year ago, at the end of the last General Synod, I found myself praying with Julian Henderson, the Conservative Evangelical Bishop of Blackburn. I promised myself afterwards that I would try to pray for Julian in his ministry, precisely because we held very different views on sexuality. I can’t say I’ve been entirely successful in doing that through the year, but I have remembered him regularly and am doing so in these days leading up to July. His ministry is important to the work of the Gospel in Blackburn: praying for him reminds me of our mutual calling as disciples, deacons and priests, and his as a bishop. It’s hard to argue unlovingly if you’re praying for God to bless someone.
Having a difficult conversation is, well, difficult. But these words of Paul, admittedly taken out of context, have come to set the standard for my own preparation and contribution to Having a Difficult Conversation: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6). A good thing to remember.