Why Listen?

I spent a portion of yesterday at the Anglican Communion Office, putting some more input into the Study Guide that’s being produced by Phil Groves as part of the Listening Process. The Study Guide is going to be made available to all the bishops attending Lambeth 2008 (assuming any come of course) and will also be published for public purchase.

While I’m happy to share my experiences and insights with others through the Study Guide, I do wonder where this is all taking us. There have been calls from some sides for more listening to take place, that some Provinces of the Communion haven’t really engaged with the experiences of those who experience, or have experienced, homosexual attraction. This is a valid call and the re-emphasis of the need to hear the stories of people has been a useful exercise. But once the stories and experiences and viewpoints are in the hands of the Bishops, what then?

It seems to me that there needs to be an aim to listening which could be one of two things. The first aim might simply be to hear people’s stories so that Bishops and others from across the Communion can understand all the different experiences. This first possible aim has no intention of coming to any decision on the subject, because the decision has already been clearly made in the same Lambeth resolutions which asked for listening. Lambeth 1998 1:10 said:

This Conference:

  1. commends to the Church the subsection report on human sexuality;
  2. in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage;
  3. recognises that there are among us persons who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation. Many of these are members of the Church and are seeking the pastoral care, moral direction of the Church, and God’s transforming power for the living of their lives and the ordering of relationships. We commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and we wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ;
  4. while rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture, calls on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals, violence within marriage and any trivialisation and commercialisation of sex;
  5. cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions;
  6. requests the Primates and the ACC to establish a means of monitoring the work done on the subject of human sexuality in the Communion and to share statements and resources among us;
  7. notes the significance of the Kuala Lumpur Statement on Human Sexuality and the concerns expressed in resolutions IV.26, V.1, V.10, V.23 and V.35 on the authority of Scripture in matters of marriage and sexuality and asks the Primates and the ACC to include them in their monitoring process.

Now, I might be biased, but that’s a pretty conservative resolution, particularly sections 2, 4 and 5. There is in Lambeth 1998 1:10 a pretty unambiguous “decision” which doesn’t need any elaboration.

The alternative aim of listening might be to come to a decision. This aim starts with the assumption that the reason we need to listen is because not all the decision makers have had all the information at their fingertips. Lots of the bishops, this aim claims, haven’t heard the experiences of gay people so their discernment on this issue has been impaired. I can see some merit in this approach, but it implies that once the decision makers have listened they will be able to make a valid decision which must be accepted. If this is the correct aim of the listening process then it seems to me that the Lambeth Conference in 2008 (assuming full attendance) may be a perfect point for that decision to be made. In the form of the Study Guide every single Bishop of the Communion will have the tools to listen and will be able to make a judgement on that basis.

What we cannot have is a Listening Process that continues on and on until the decision that a certain party wants is reached. Such a solution would be intolerable and wouldn’t be listening at all, but rather a hijack of the process, equivalent to turning up for a court trial knowing that regardless of the evidence presented the judge will find you guilty. This I think is the suspicion of some on both sides, that the whole process is being steamrolled towards a particular predefined answer, regardless of the assurances on the Listening Process website that that is not the case.

So what to do? I think we need some of the key players on the revisionist side (LGCM, Integrity, TEC leadership etc) to spell out clearly and unambiguously what they see as the aim of listening. Is it aim one, simply to listen, which implies that Lambeth 1998 1:10’s clear conservative position on human sexuality is accepted as the decision already reached? Or is it aim two, that listening needs to come a conclusion and decision? If so, what would be the accepted collective decision making process for these groups? The Lambeth Conference? The Primates? The ACC? Canterbury? It can’t be individual provinces because time and time again (not least in the Windsor Report, the Dromantine Communique, the decisions of the ACC in 2005) it’s been argued and decided that individual provinces cannot make arbitrary decisions on such important matters.

So what I’m saying is this- let’s throw ourselves into the creation of the Study Guide and its part in the Listening Process, but let’s do so on the clear understanding of what the aim of it is. If it’s simply to listen then the decision-making has already been done. If it’s to listen to come to a conclusion then let’s spell out unambiguously what the process of coming to a decision is.

Either way, we’ve been doing this discussion for far too long and we now need to be getting on with laying out how we pastor people with same-sex attraction, not going over the arguments about its morality again and again and again. Unfortunately, to do the first (pastoring) we need to have done the second (theology). So let’s do it.

1 Comment on “Why Listen?

  1. Hi Peter,

    just a thought or two. It seems to me that if this is a genuine listening process, there can’t be an outcome predetermined by anybody – I agree with your paragraph beginning “What we cannot have…”. But I’m not so sure about your two alternatives. The ‘engine’, the purpose, of the process must (I feel) be to discern what is true about homosexuality – is it pathological, so that those of us who say ‘I’m gay’ are deceiving ourselves and need therapy/help to move ‘beyond gay’, or not? This I think is what the bishops and others need to sift through the “stories and viewpoints and experiences” to detect, if it’s the case (and I suspect it is) that the argument really turns on what the nature of homosexuality is.

    I think you’re quite right that Lambeth ’98 1:10 is a largely conservative resolution, but don’t agree that it has to be seen as expressing an immutable decision (you say “the decision has already been clearly made” and I’m taking it you’re implying that this isn’t a readily changeable decision – hope that’s fair). I understand that in such a tensely polarised debate it will be held to firmly, as a marker of where the majority view stands and for other reasons, but nonetheless I don’t think that makes it immutable.

    On your second possible aim: I don’t think it’s simply about decision-makers gathering more information, but, at the risk of repeating myself, that it’s about discerning what is true in this area, as a church – as a half-aside it strikes me that this process is also about how Anglicans ‘live together’ as a church with and through all the disagreements (and maybe, given some views, whether Anglicans ‘live together’ at all…).

    Following on (I hope) from what I’ve said, I don’t think that what’s needed is one side or another to spell out what they see as the aim of listening, but rather for all to be ready to seek truth and respond to it. And that’s bound to be costly, and to mean folks on both sides being willing to see and to say where they have been wrong.

    I don’t think that “the decision-making has already been done” because that viewpoint also, in effect, gives a predetermined outcome to the listening process, by suggesting that however much listening is done, the decision is made and cannot change.

    What I hope for is that through penitence, through all sides being able to see where we’ve been wrong as part of seeking truth, the debate might become quieter, less fraught, and that listening and discernment will thus be ‘freed up’.

    Not sure how coherent that all is, but still…

    in friendship, Blair

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