In its report published in November 2013, the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality recommended that:
“The subject of sexuality, with its history of deeply entrenched views, would be best addressed by facilitated conversations or a similar process to which the Church of England needs to commit itself at national and diocesan level.”
In order to meet this, the Church of England has undertaken a process of Shared Conversations across three circles: the College of Bishops (September 2014); Regionally (April 2015-March 2016); and with members of General Synod (July 2016). The key question on which the church has reflected in these three circles is: Given the significant changes in our culture in relation to human sexuality, how should the Church respond?
The facilitated conversations have taken place to create safe spaces in which questions of difference and disagreement can be explored in relation to questions of scripture, mission and human sexuality. They started with the premise that sound judgements about others must start with adequate knowledge about who the “other” is and what they actually believe and practise. When members of the church draw different conclusions from their reading of scripture and hold that God’s call to his people has implications for conduct and ethics which others within the church dispute strongly, knowing the “other” becomes crucial.
The aim of the Shared Conversations was that the diversity of views within the church would be expressed honestly and heard respectfully, with the hope that, in so doing, individuals might come to discern that which is of Christ in those with whom they profoundly disagree. Neither this process of conversation, nor any of those involved in facilitating it, have any authority in the decision-making of the church.
The paradox of conversations of this kind is that they do not require that any participant changes his or her mind. Minds may change – but that would not be a measure, in itself, of the “success” of the conversations. The conversations are intended to help us find out how much we can agree on, how much difference we can accept in fellow Christians without agreeing, and where we find the limits of agreement to lie.
The Shared Conversations in the College of Bishops and the Regional Conversations have both concluded. The third circle of Shared Conversations with members of General Synod took place in July 2016, immediately after the Synod had been prorogued and official business concluded.