Friday, 8 April 2016

ACC: First Impressions

And we're off.  First day off ACC and I wanted to give a few first impressions although it won't be a long post - the schedule already is pretty exacting and after being awake for two days while travelling, bed is calling.

It's been a real privilege to meet the other delegates and attendees and get a sense of the Anglican Communion's global reach.  Hearing the Lord's Prayer in multiple languages at the opening Morning Prayer was very moving and I'm looking forward to more discussions with table colleagues from Australia, Canada, Kenya, Malaysia and South Sudan as the meeting continues.

This is where the Council meeting will be based for the next 10 days in the Cathedral in Lusaka:

And this is a detail of one of the big windows:

Today was a getting-to-know each other kind of day with bible study based on the book of Ruth as it will be every day of the Council meeting.  The highlight for me (and I think many others) was the choir who joined us for afternoon Eucharist.  During the service they sang beautifully but, as it turned out, were being pretty restrained.  After most of the delegates had left for lunch, the choir kept singing and really turned it onAnd they sounded glorious as - hopefully - you'll hear in this clip (you might want to turn your sound down.)

We've also started to get into the 'business' and I'll reflect on that in my next post.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

And he said yes

Nearly two years is rather long for an update.  Suffused with energy from the initial Pitlochry Cascade conversation (discussed here), my intention to continue blogging was sincere but the next steps in the process took longer then I anticipated, other things got in the way, energy flagged and so on and so on.  Two events though, linked as you'll see in due course have, finally, inspired this second post.

Firstly though, a short update on the Cascade process and ensuing events in the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC).  As envisaged, the conversations did cascade into the SEC Dioceses. It is fair to acknowledge there were different experiences overall of the process and strong divisions about its efficacy and appropriateness.  I only comment on my experience which was - almost wholly - positive.

Ultimately, I was involved in four further conversations.  At their best, there was a breath-taking and, in language I'm not prone to using, Spirit-inspired willingness to be open, honest and vulnerable.  Many conversations were extremely emotionally charged underpinned by a deeply sincere listening - whatever the perspective being articulated - allied to a genuine desire truly to understand what that meant for the individual speaking and discern what it might mean for the SEC in Scotland at this stage of the 21st Century.  That doesn't mean that challenging,uncomfortable - even painful - things weren't said, they were.  Some contributions were difficult to hear and, I daresay, to articulate.  The process left me with three observations:

  • Prior to engaging in the conversations, somewhere deep down, I probably thought the division was between a group with an inherent characteristic (LGBTI people) and a group who thought in a particular way that excluded them.  Conversation would help 'them' understand better and, in the spirit of rational discourse, their 'thinking' would, hopefully, change.  Post conversation, I sense something much more complex.  The strong identity I feel, informed by my history, my sexual orientation, my spirituality – in other words, all that makes me, me – I absolutely saw reflected in those who perceive this issue differently. In short, their perspective was as intrinsic, as important and as emotional a part of who they are as mine is of who I am.  And however difficult it might have been at times to hear that perspective, I am truly grateful to everyone who was willing to share it with me.
  • That however much I listened, the chances I would heard a perspective, however sensitively articulated, that would make me review my sexual orientation or change my perspective on same sex marriage were slim to the point of non-existence.  This troubled me as if I couldn't offer that openness to the possibility of change, how could I genuinely expect it of someone who saw the issue differently?  I can't say I ever resolved that although interestingly, during one conversation, someone who – as I understand it – does perceive this issue differently to me, was the person who clarified something I had struggled to articulate about what it was that I valued so much about getting married in church. It is, of course, that God will be there.
  • I was very interested by the number of conversations that quickly moved from issues of sexual orientation to issues of gender identity.  My strong sense was, whatever the Church's view, many of those I spoke with have resolved the issue of sexual orientation for themselves and moved on.
So, what of the Church's view? At the SEC's General Synod (in effect, its legislative body) in 2015, there was discussion of a number of options which resulted in agreement to remove an explicit reference within the SEC canons (the rules of the Church) to marriage being between a man and a woman (a record of the discussion is contained in this document  (pdf) starting at page 45).  As I understand it, the aim is to achieve a situation where SEC churches and ministers who wish to offer same-sex marriages may but none must.  If this change is endorsed at the next two Synod meetings (this year and next) then from later 2017, churches within the SEC will be able to offer same-sex marriage in Church.

Perhaps not surprisingly, talking about marriage in the abstract led me to thinking about it practically.  This year, my partner and I have been together for ten years which seemed an auspicious time to think about such things and when I realised this year's St John's Choir annual party was scheduled for ten years to the day since we got together, a plan began to form.  The party centres around a cabaret where choir members perform pieces which over the years have ranged between music and spoken word, vocal and instrumental, the sacred and the extremely profane.  So with the aid of a certain Mr Sondheim and this piece in particular, I wove my proposal into the evening.  And he said yes.

It was lovely to be able to share this with a group of people who mean a great deal to both of us.  Their and many others' subsequent affirmation both within the Church and outwith has been been humbling and heart-warming in equal measure.  If all goes well with the Canonical process, I hope the scene I described in my first post will be a real possibility for September 2017 where another fortuitous date alignment (a significant birthday in this instance) suggests a possible date.  There *might* already be a provisional booking in the Church diary.

And there has been a second, and germane, yes.  A few months ago, completely out of the blue, I was asked if I would represent the Scottish Episcopal Church at this year's meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council.  Every three years or so, the ACC brings together representatives from all of the provinces that make up the world-wide Anglican Communion and is formally one of its four 'instruments of communion' (the other three being the Lambeth Conference, the Primates' meeting and the Archbishop of Canterbury).

I felt - and still feel - very honoured to be asked all the more so since being commissioned at a service today at the Cathedral of the Isles on Cumbrae.  Nonetheless, as with involvement in the Cascade process, I found I needed to think before agreeing.  The theme for this year's ACC which takes place in Lusaka, Zambia is Intentional Discipleship in a world of difference. Issues of human sexuality are not formally on the agenda but they will, at the very least, provide a backdrop.

As a result of the most recent Primates' meeting, the Episcopal Church in the US (TEC), which has changed its Canons to permit same-sex marriage, has had its participation in the Anglican Communion restricted (point 7 of this statement).  Some are construing this as precluding TEC's attendance at the ACC and three provinces have indicated so far that they will not attend if TEC does.  If the Scottish Episcopal Church continues on its current trajectory, it's reasonable to assume it will be subject to similar restrictions in time.

There is also the not insignificant factor that in Zambia, 'homosexual acts' are illegal and reported government attitudes are hostile.  I find myself reflecting on some of the dynamics referenced in my first post and also superbly articulated in this blog by Kieran Fenby-Hulse who both I and my partner follow on Twitter.  However, apprehensions aside, after some deliberation, prayer and discussion with valued colleagues, I ultimately concluded yes and head to Lusaka with the following hopes; that:

  • through my participation in the ACC I can do full justice to the SEC which though small, is a province blessed with great richness and diversity
  • I listen, learn and make new friends, both in ways I might expect and ways I don't
  • where there are points of disagreement or tension I can approach these with honesty, courage, integrity and love
  • the meeting as a whole brings people together more than it divides them and that proves true for the Anglican Communion as a whole.
Dependent on whatever social media policy is adopted, I hope to report on the meeting as it progresses and look forward to a memorable, life-enhancing new experience.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Cascade Conversation

This is my first ever blog post.  I've thought about blogging before but concluded there was no shortage of talented and creative bloggers in the world and I had little confidence I had much original or distinctive to contribute.  For good or ill, last week, that changed.

In March, I was asked if I would be part of a group from the Episcopal Diocese of Edinburgh participating in the Scottish Episcopal Church's (SEC) Cascade Conversation in Pitlochry on how  the SEC should respond to the recent legislation enabling same sex couples to marry.  I didn't immediately say yes.

As a partnered gay man, 'out' for over twenty-five years, an active member of St John's, Princes Street, Edinburgh for nearly half that time and with some experience of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) politics and policy, not to mention a fondness of chatting, you might think I'd be a shoe-in for something like this.  So why the hesitation?

Well, for starters, this is a big, emotional conversation for the Church and I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to be in the middle of it.  It's been some years since I was actively engaged with LGBT issues and during that time, I've grown to like my sexual orientation being simply one facet of my identity and not necessarily a very important one.  At St John's, where I have felt at home and affirmed pretty much from the moment I started going, the fact I sing tenor, have a degree of administrative competence and can bake a decent spelt loaf have all been far more important than my partner's gender.

Also, besides being a big, emotional conversation for the Church, I also knew this would be a big, emotional conversation for me.  Whilst readily acknowledging that it's not for everyone, I want to get married.  And I want to get married in the Church I know and love, in front of friends and family, amidst the community of which I'm a part and with my choir colleagues singing their hearts out from the choir stalls I usually inhabit on a Sunday.  For someone who likes to be calm, rational and a bit detached when debating an issue I suspected, and indeed was warned, that this conversation would be intense and emotionally draining and I wasn't sure I was up for it.

But after a few days' reflection, I agreed.  As I thought it through, I realised that my detachment from LGBT activism and increase in church involvement had coincided pretty much exactly and something about this nagged at me.  Also, for this conversation to be effective and have any integrity, there had to be LGBT voices in the mix.  Though I was pretty certain that were I to go I wouldn't be the only LGBT voice there, I concluded the only way I could be entirely confident would be to go myself.

In the interest's of full disclosure, I ought to add that Pitlochry's proximity to the retail palace that is House of Bruar might have played a minor influencing role.

So, last Tuesday, along with around 59 other members of the SEC, I pitched up in Pitlochry with a fair degree of nervous apprehension - a state of mind it was later confirmed shared by pretty much everyone.  The process for the two days had been very carefully crafted.  It centred around collective listening to conversations between a number of invited contributors, including speakers from other denominations across the UK, which fed into facilitated conversations within a small group that we stayed with over the two days.  These conversations were regularly interspersed with opportunities for collective worship.  All this happened in the same, big room.

We started with the kind of scene-setting and ice-breaker activity which is pretty typical in my experience of this kind of event.  We were invited to endorse a proposed working agreement - mutual respect, owning contributions, non-interruption, Chatham House rule - principles of that nature.  There was some divergence of opinion on a proposal that participants refrain from engaging in social media about the two-day conversation until it concluded - which was the position ultimately adopted.  Some felt that using social media would contribute to a more transparent process whilst others felt it could inhibit the conversation.  As with the big issue we were to discuss, I found myself wondering how a conversation on the topic would go in ten years' time but that's perhaps a topic for a different post.

Preliminaries over, we started to engage with the substantive topic and as my group did the kind of round table introduction with which many will be familiar, for the first time in a good number of years, I essentially outed myself to a group of strangers.  Now, that's not the big deal it was twenty-five years ago when I first started doing it but when you're about to embark on a fundamental discussion of attitudes to same sex relationships, knowing that bit of information will colour how others hear your contribution, positively or negatively, it's still something.  And I have to say, this small act of courage, maybe even faith, was treated with a level of respect and positive regard that imbued all that followed - however difficult - with an affirming quality I had not been anticipating.  Which takes me to the conversation or, rather, conversations themselves.  They were not easy. 

My sense was that we started slowly and very cautiously, becoming more challenging and searching as the trust between the parties to the conversation grew.  The searching quality of conversation cut both ways and proved wide-ranging.  We covered the meaning or interpretation of specific bible passages, general attitudes to same sex relationships and marriage – same sex or otherwise, the significance of any position the SEC might take relative to the wider Anglican Communion, frustration that this issue was taking up so much time and and energy and how that was perceived by wider society, the Church's historic position (ancient and recent) and its impact on LGBT people, the organisational process for making any changes to the SEC's current position and much more besides.  In many ways though, the how of the discussion was more important than the what.

I deeply appreciated the manner in which people in a very different place to me on this issue were willing to engage with my story and aspirations and, it seemed to me, sincerely seek to reconcile their desire to live up to the ideal of Christ's love with their understanding, interpretation, experience (I'm not sure which word is most apt) of scripture that at least limits if not outright prohibits recognition of same sex relationships.  In return, no matter how gently or reluctantly expressed, it was no easy thing for me to hear someone's articulation of their understanding/ interpretation/experience of scripture that no matter how diligently I might seek to follow the Christian model of a romantic and sexual relationship in my life, for as long as that expression was in the context of a relationship with another man, I could only ever be living in sin.  Nor, I dare say, an easy thing to say in the context of this conversation.  But this kind of intellectually engaging and emotionally demanding exchange is, I think, exactly where the Church's conversation needs to be and my experience of the Cascade format was that it allowed this to happen.

Where this process will ultimately take the SEC, I am not honestly sure.  This conversation was, for me, a very good start but the number of possible conclusions is limited and I fear the understanding and respect evident over these two days may break down as it becomes clearer which option or options become more or less likely.  But that is effectively an echo of the apprehension I and others felt going into the Cascade conversation and, if a way can be found of disagreeing agreeably - as Malcolm Round puts it in his eloquent blog post on this same topic - I think the Cascade model has a good chance of succeeding.

So, what next?  The idea is that this conversation should now cascade throughout the SEC and, if the attitude of the Edinburgh Diocese participants is anything to go by, there are 60 advocates convinced of the importance of this as a process and keen to take it forward.  The different area participants and their Bishops will need to work out the logistics of how this will happen in their particular Diocese.  Once I know how this might work within the Diocese of Edinburgh, I'll post that here.

For now, I will simply offer prayerful thanks – to those who made last week happen, for the opportunity to meet new people and re-establish contact with people I'd met before and for the privilege of talking to people with whom I agreed and – just possibly even more – of talking to people with whom I did not.