On the fringe

It was in the immediate post-war years, in 1947, that the Fringe became part of the Edinburgh Festival.  The name of this alternative to the official arts festival was an invention, but the name stuck and has, over those years, become global and accepted.  We know what fringe events are, the things that happen on the edges.

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The fringe – the edge

I spent most of last week, as followers of this blog will know, at the meeting of the General Synod in Westminster.  If you haven’t seen my various reflections, once or twice a day, then you can find them here.  One of the things that I seldom comment about, however, is the Synod fringe.

As a Group of Sessions approaches we begin to get emails, or flyers, now helpfully bundled together in an official package by the Synod office, enticing and inviting us to different events that happen over breakfast, over lunch and before dinner.  These are alternatively opportunities for hobby horse riders and anorak wearers to invite other riders or sartorial dressers to come along and share their passion, or they are useful information sharing occasions.  Whichever they are they can be huge fun and really helpful.

I am a member of two Synod groups and I regularly try to attend other meetings whenever I can.  The first evening of any Synod is always the occasion when ACiS (Affirming Catholics in Synod – everything has an acronym) meets.  There are a number of ‘tribal’ gatherings, this is one of them.  Whether you are a conservative evangelical or catholic, an open evangelical or a progressive catholic, whether you are in a tribe that doesn’t like to think of itself as a tribe, there is a group for you.  So EGGS meets almost always when ACiS meets (EGGS is the Evangelical Group in General Synod) but being as no one would want to be at both of these that doesn’t matter.  There are the ‘Catholic Societies’ which doesn’t include members of ACiS because the latter is in support of the ordination of women (it’s basically Affirming Catholicism and the Society of Catholic Priests meeting together though not entirely or exclusively).  There’s the Open Synod Group which is none of the above and I understand that there was at this Synod the first meeting of an Evangelical Forum which represents those from the open end of that group.  WATCH (Women and the Church) has a meeting, and … well, you get the point.

At one level, of course there is always the danger of fragmentation but the CofE is already fragmented and tribal, we just have to be honest about this.  At their best these groups allow for letting off steam, for doing some theology, for preparing for debates, for talking through the issues.  I find the ACiS meeting invaluable.  If we are in Westminster we meet for a Mass in the lovely church of St Matthew just around the corner and then have supper and a romp through the agenda.  And that is where I catch up with my friends immediately, at the beginning of Synod.

Whilst the Cathedrals Measure has been on the Synod agenda we have been running fringe events to help members who are interested in cathedrals (we should never assume everyone is) to come along for some information sharing and an opportunity for questions to be answered.  So early on Tuesday we held a breakfast gathering just before the debate on the Measure happened.

And I always try to go to the Synod group meeting on sexuality.  This time, in the aftermath of the Bishops’ Statement, there was a fantastic and positive session on services of prayer, fitting the bishops’ guidelines and encouragement, that churches and cathedrals have offered to single-sex couples.  What was shared was so imaginative and inspiring and encouraged people in the room to think positively and creatively.

So thank God for the fringe.  Of course, it was there, on the fringe, that Jesus did so much of his best and life-changing work.  The fringe was where the excluded gathered and as Jesus walked through the communities, that was where he found people, on the fringe.  They were on the fringe of their society, on the edge of community, the marginalised and at the margin he brought them back to the centre, which in fact was the heart of the love of God.

The irony was that a woman on the fringe found healing by the fringe.

Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.’ (Matthew 9.20-21)

Her plight was excluding her, the fringe brought her to the centre.  The edge can be a most creative place to be.

God, may those who live on the fringe
know your love as the centre.
Amen.

Can we talk? Part 2

Our Shared Conversations are over and the participants from Europe, Guildford and Southwark have made their way home. The rule was that we were asked not to Tweet or Blog during the time we were together – and to be honest that made sense. Rather than thinking about an external audience we were able to concentrate much more on the task in hand.

And what was that task? Well, in a sense it was simple. We talked about the church, our selves, the issue of homosexuality and the church’s response to it. We were reminded at the beginning that we were not there to arrive at any decision, that the conversation was all important, that we had no power or mandate to change anything. To be honest that felt quite strange. We are now used to setting and measuring outcomes and so to be told that there was no expected outcome made me want to ask ‘So why are we here?’ But we were there in order to listen and to talk.

Talk and listen

Talk and listen

So what have I come away with? Well, I’ve heard some moving stories of people’s lives and beliefs. People have been enormously generous in being prepared to be honest and open in what they have said. On Day Two we are given a massive amount of time in small groups to tell our own story. We each had about twenty minutes to speak about whatever we wanted to speak about in terms of our own life, faith, sexual journey. But that didn’t feel too long when, after spending time plotting my own story, I then told the others. Even though I had told bits of it on many occasions and to different people I hadn’t put it all together in one complete narrative like that, nor quite seen all the connections and influences.

As I listened to others it was good to hear that though my story was my own it was, in places, not that unusual. Again, that’s reassuring. And, of course, to be listened to, without interruption, without interrogation, is unusual in itself. So all of that was gift.

I leave with two thoughts. The first is that I actually feel more hopeful after the process. I don’t think anyone changed their mind, that wasn’t expected and though we’d been told that outcomes weren’t expected we have something as a diocesan group to bring back to the diocese. But I think, even more importantly, we all know more about one another than we did on arrival and that knowledge must, by the grace of God, change things.

The second thought that I take away came as a consequence of the afternoon session on Day Two when we were looking at possible solutions to the problem/challenge that we face as a church with regard to the presence of large numbers of LGBTIQ clergy and laity. Our group came up with a lot of possible solutions from the most conservative to the most liberal via keeping the muddle and the status quo. As we then set out the positive and negative impacts of some of these possible solutions I was struck by the fact that all of them, even doing nothing, were enormously painful, enormously costly. We looked at what we had produced – who would bear the pain, who would pay the price? What are we asking of each other, and not just those who are at the heart of the issue, the LGBTIQ clergy doing amazing jobs, exercising incredible ministries in our parishes, the LGBTIQ laity faithfully worshipping, living out the Gospel, disciples of Jesus Christ, but also those who hold more conservative views on the issue. No one wanted to cause pain, no one wanted the person next to them to suffer.

That doesn’t mean I have found an answer, a solution, just a realisation that any solution will demand everything of us as a church.

Jesus is in the conversation

Jesus is in the conversation

At a luncheon in the White House in 1954 Sir Winston Churchill was reported to have said ‘To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.’ And, of course, Jesus advises just the same thing where he says ‘Come to terms quickly with your accuser’ (Matthew 5.25). God is in the conversation, and God was in these conversations. Let’s keep talking.

Lord,
you blessed us in these conversations.
Continue to bless your church
that we may be
gentle and caring with each other.
Amen.

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