Thursday 15 October 2009

Listening, conversation and dialogue

I first met Peter Selby when I was priest-in-charge of St Faith’s, Wandsworth in south-west London. Peter arrived in 1984 to become Bishop of Kingston from Newcastle where he had been Diocesan Missioner. He was returning to old friends in Southwark where he had previously been Associate Director of Training, Vice-Principal of the Southwark Ordination Course and Assistant Diocesan Missioner.

Bishop Peter consecrated the newly-built parish church at St Faith’s and dedicated the new Primary School building. In consecrating the church in what was a full rite for me, he left his mark by tipping burning charcoal onto the floor. I came to know him as a person who listened without judgment or prejudice and spoke truth in ways that hit the mark.

In his paper to WOTS he addressed briefly the question of listening in the church, admitting that there are others who may have more experience than him of enabling dialogue between people of differing views about sexuality. My sexuality was part of the conversation between us when he was my bishop in Southwark. Bishop Peter was clear about two things. My being gay wasn’t an issue for him. What was at issue was the way I conducted myself in any relationship I might form, my fidelity a partner and to Christian teaching about love, relationship and intimacy.

He knows from personal experience that the conversation about sexuality is possible and that it depends on allowing all voices to be heard in a context where there are no threats of being disadvantaged in ministry. The possibility of conversation across radical difference and the quality of this conversation is something which different people are working to encourage, Canon Phil Groves, Professor Oliver O’Donovan and Andrew Marin among those doing so in a public way, and the group leaders and supporters in their local parish and diocesan context. The latter often touch those members of the Church of England for whom the presence of LGBT people isn’t a problem (and who are surprised to discover how intensely it is a problem for others). They also, bravely, touch that second group in diocesan and deanery conversations and encounters.

Bishop Peter also challenges both ‘us’ and ‘them’. Though both 'sides' may believe the debate is settled in our own minds, there is still the possibility of mutual recognition and acceptance and real conversation. The change that comes about in such conversations is not something as simple as people just changing their mind on the issue in dispute but other changes at once more subtle and more far-reaching.

This is challenging for everyone whose whole being is under scrutiny in the conversation but I believe the challenge has to be met. Unity in Christ and the full inclusion of LGBT people are not mutually exclusive alternatives which can be resolved by opting for one or the other (though that day might come, and schism is in effect already a reality over LGBT and women in the church). Neither is it possible, in Christ, to be rigid and defensive in our conversations with those who differ from us. They feel threatened by the prospect of change and we need to steer them through their own anxieties.

Referring to the Archbishop's constant insistence that the matter of human sexuality cannot be resolved by creating 'facts on the ground', Bishop Peter says that the ‘facts’ are what reveal the importance of the matter in hand and to ask that they disappear is to require people of passionate conviction to engage in a debate with no voice. We LGBT people need to hold our passionate conviction with confidence and engage in the conversation, listening and dialogue with something of Bishop Peter’s authority, integrity and conviction, speaking the truth, listening without judging.

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