So, tomorrow I head off to become part of the Shared Conversations which have been going on in the Church of England since April of this year and will conclude in March of next year. The dioceses have all been grouped and Southwark will be talking with representatives of both the Diocese of Guildford and the Diocese of Europe.
The official website says that the conversations are about ‘scripture, mission and human sexuality’ but I suppose in all of our minds – well, in my mind – the last will be first. So, three days talking about sex and the Bible! What a prospect. In many ways I feel as though I’ve been talking about the subject for years. The urban myth – or is it true – is that the average man thinks about sex every 7 seconds. But the church seems to think about it constantly – we almost seem to think about it more than anything. If an adolescent boy thinks about sex more than a mature man surely the church is displaying something of adolescence and putting sex and sexuality far too high up the agenda.
But like it or not, comfortable with it or not, that is where the subject is and it is the reality of that and the reality of the reactions that that induces in people that we have to deal with. The truth is that whilst ever we’re thinking about sex we’re not thinking about other things – may I say more important things, for me, than who people love.
So we have to talk and I’m glad to get this opportunity to talk about it. The conversations will of course be kept confidential but I hope that within the rules I’ll be able to comment on something of the atmosphere, something of the feel of the conversations. And it’s quite right that we don’t give the detail or the names of who said this and who said that.
A couple of weeks ago those of us from the Diocese of Southwark met for dinner at the home of the Bishop of Southwark. It was billed simply an opportunity to meet one another before we arrived at the conference centre that will be our base for the next three days but in fact it became much more than that. As we sat around the table we were invited to introduce ourselves and just say something of why we had put ourselves forward to be part of the conversations.
I don’t think that I have ever been in such a powerful and moving conversation. The honesty of people, the openness was staggering and I thought ‘if this is this evening what will the actual time together be like?’ I left Bishop’s House deeply encouraged by what I had experienced and heard from people, many of whom, before that evening, I had never met, many who were making themselves vulnerable, risking themselves, for the sake of the church.
So we will be talking about ‘the’ issue but I’m glad that we will also be engaging with scripture and thinking about mission. One of the things that really saddens me is that the church, as I see it, has now lost years of mission opportunity because of our attitudes both to women and to sex, and not least same sex attraction. Both these issues have absorbed so much of our emotional and intellectual energy, both of these are issues that ‘out there’, in the world, where Christ is, have been dealt with so much more honestly and successfully and with such obvious benefits. Finally we have found a way through to allow women to exercise their God-called ministry at every level of the church and to allow for the flourishing of all parts of the church. Could it be that having that in our recent memory we could do the same with regard to homosexuality? Well, I wait to see. But, you know, I’m hopeful.
One thing I have learnt is that whatever the issue it’s better to talk than to keep silent and to let it all ferment and fester. I may not want the conversation but talking seems to be vital and so I really am ready to engage.
The wonderful and much missed poet and writer Maya Angelou in her poem ‘Touched by an angel’ writes
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.
As we talk of love we will remember both pleasure and pain and the knowledge that some who are our brothers and sisters despise us for who we love. But perhaps the chains of fear can be removed and the Spirit give us the confidence to love and speak of love.
Living Word, Living God,
bless our conversations
bless the church
and make us open,
receptive and ready
to speak and to hear.