Human Sexuality: Open Church Mesa Gathering

The Open Church Mesa Gathering, held back in April, was a two-day conference, organised and hosted by Steve Chalke’s Oasis Waterloo church. The full title was ‘Open Church: The church, sexuality, mission and the future. An important conversation for all those passionate about the future of the church. ‘Mesa’ is Spanish for ‘table’, and the concept was of a gathering together around a single table of different voices to discuss church, sexuality, mission, and the future. The conference consisted of a number of talks and some workshops, with plenty of time allowed around the margins of these fixed points for people to chat together. Speakers included Steve Chalke himself, Tony Campolo (by video-link), Vicky Beeching, Andrew Marin, Bishop Alan Wilson and a number of others (including a significant group of young LGBT contributors). In stating all of that, two things become clear about the event: this was what might be described as an ‘Inclusive Evangelical’ gathering (it was a gathering mainly of evangelicals, most of whom were pro-gay), and it was a gathering inextricably caught up in the politics around Steve Chalke’s declaration of his own pro-gay stance in 2013. This summed up both the strengths and weaknesses of the event: this was a safe space for a group of people (gay and pro-gay evangelicals) who often find it difficult to feel that they can find a safe place to be themselves, and partly as a consequence of that the range of views expressed and engaged with was actually fairly narrow.

I suspect the narrowness of the range of views was a surprise even to the conference organisers. One of the speakers – Counsellor and former model Susie Flashman-Jarvis, had been billed as a speaker with traditional views but seeking to support a son who was gay. It emerged that her own views were now quite liberal. Tony Campolo, the only explicitly conservative speaker, was clearly on a journey himself, expressing some reservations about many traditional positions, and clearly concerned to be as inclusive as he could.

Given the broadly evangelical makeup of the gathering, the strongly pro-gay tone was striking. I spoke to many people who were committed members of evangelical churches that would not be seen as pro-gay. Some were youth group leaders or home group leaders. Some of the young people, who had clearly experienced rejection from evangelicals, were visibly relieved at finding themselves in a safe space. Obviously this was a self-selecting group. Evangelicals who had decided Steve Chalke had put himself ‘beyond the pale’ were unlikely to attend. But this was a sold-out conference of committed evangelical churchgoers, to which (on my brief and totally unscientific sampling) most people had not travelled more than an hour to get to. This could be a window into a foreseeable future where the centre-ground in evangelicalism has shifted.

That would indisputably be good news for gay evangelicals, who may find evangelical churches become safer places for them. However, if the conference is a window into a foreseeable future, there are some other things to notice. Firstly, and hugely significantly for a gathering of evangelicals, it is clear that a shift of this nature in such a short space of time implies a (perhaps unexamined) shift in understanding of Biblical interpretation or authority. Steve Chalke explicitly called for this in his talk, and several of the speakers urged a greater embracing of mystery, but given the (often contradictory) range of biblical approaches presented by the various speakers, these questions clearly need more attention. Simply, for evangelicals (whose identity is centred around being ‘Bible people’) to make a very public shift in their biblical interpretation on a controversial issue necessitates having a serious discussion about how we read the Bible, and at present there is little sign this is happening.

Secondly, and perhaps related, the shift from a conservative to a liberal position doesn’t seem to change much else. This was not a gathering that was much more inclusive than other evangelical gatherings might have been, it simply included different people. However, my observation was that few people noticed this, being convinced that because openly LGBTI Christians could take the stage (and in an evangelical context this genuinely *is* a big deal) this automatically made the event inclusive. Andrew Marin (to his considerable credit) pointed this out in his address – challenging people to remain open and inclusive having included LGBTI Christians. But it seemed that not many people were listening. Tony Campolo (at that point the only speaker explicitly taking a conservative position) was repeatedly challenged to rethink his views. No speaker from a liberal position was ever similarly challenged by either audience or presenters. The opportunity to ask Campolo constructive questions (like ‘how can we enable an open and honest conversation about sexuality to happen with more conservative evangelicals?’) was passed up in favour of trying to get him to justify his position. Marin himself came under repeated pressure from other speakers and the conference facilitators to state clearly his own position, despite having explained that he refuses to do this as a key part of his bridge-building ministry. At one point in a panel discussion another speaker, with the tacit approval of the chair, attempted to get the audience to pressure Marin into ‘outing’ himself as either a conservative or liberal, whilst one of the other panel members did a not-too-subtle chicken impression. I should say clearly that I would defend to the utmost the need for gatherings like this, which are safe spaces for LGBTI Christians and their allies, but it concerned me that even the conference organisers seemed unable to recognise the extent to which it was not safe for others.

Reflecting on it now, I found this an exciting and challenging conference with some impressive speakers. The chance to hear younger voices was especially helpful (a number of teenagers spoke), giving a sense of freshness to the discussions. But it had the narrowest range of participants of all the three events I attended. The conversation in the title turned out to be mainly an internal one within this grouping of liberal-leaning evangelicals. It may be that that is necessary at this point in time – more liberal evangelicals have long been silent (and perhaps silenced) in the discussion about sexuality. It takes time to gather the confidence to engage with those who often give the impression of pretending you don’t exist. But this is a voice that needs to be heard.

Other people have written about the conference here:

Premier’s review

Savi Hensman’s review

Ian Paul (reflections on a pre-meeting organised by Steve Chalke)

Human Sexuality: C of E Shared Conversations

I’ve been writing and thinking about church and sexuality for some time now (and my research will hopefully get published later this year), but much of that has been done on my own. This year I’ve been lucky enough to attend three key gatherings examining homosexuality and the church. First, a gathering of evangelical leaders and theologians brought together in London by the CEEC in preparation for the Church of England’s Shared Conversations on Human Sexuality. Second, the Open Church Mesa gathering at Oasis Waterloo, which was open to anyone who wanted to attend. Third, the East Midlands Shared Conversation on Human Sexuality, that brought together representatives from 5 dioceses. They were three very different gatherings, but in different ways gave snapshots of where we as a church are on this issue. I’m going to give a quick write-up of my experience of being part of each of them, and then perhaps start to think about how the experience of being to each of them has changed my understanding of the issues. This is the first of these posts, and I will post again on each of the other gatherings.

The gathering I was at most recently was the East Midlands Shared Conversations. This brought together representatives from the dioceses of Leicester, Lincoln, Peterborough, Derby and Southwell & Nottingham. We met over three days in a conference centre just outside Leicester, where a team of facilitators led us through a series of discussions that explored the geography of the debate: the changes in British society, discussions about scripture, hopes and fears about the future of the church. Overall, the conversations took the form of a mapping exercise. The intent was to create space for people to hear those on all ‘sides’ of the debate, and therefore understand something of the overall shape of the debate within the church as a whole.

There had been strict guidelines as to the makeup of each diocesan delegation. A certain proportion should be lay people, a certain proportion should be under 40, a certain proportion should be LGBTI, and the range of views within the diocese should be represented within the delegation. (My observation was that dioceses had struggled to do this. Although there was a good proportion of lay people, and a fair number of LGBTI people, there were few under 40, and it had been hard to represent the more conservative end of the argument when various groups had advised their members not to attend). I was part of the Southwell & Nottingham group.

Overall, the conversations represented Anglicanism at its best – finding a way to talk and share communion with each other despite our differences. As Richard Coles (who was at the same gathering) said in his Pause For Thought reflection, we didn’t find the answers, but what we did find was (in his words) that our non-negotiables seem a bit more negotiable when we explore them together rather than using them as barriers to keep each other out.
The value of exploring our positions in the company of those we disagree with (as opposed to arguing with each other) is that we can see where the differences between us really lie, and as might be expected we often find that they are not where we might have thought. There were some great moments over the days we had together where there was a palpable sense that misconceptions were being set aside, and those who fundamentally disagreed with each other took the time to see each other clearly and left with a greater respect for each other. In particular, there was a session where one of the self-described conservatives sat with a group of self-confessed liberals and listened to all the things they wanted him to hear, before stating his own position as clearly and non-defensively as he could. Rather like a lion in a den of Daniels, as someone described it later. Nobody changed their minds about what they believed. But I think everyone came away with a real sense of respect for each other as people sincerely trying to live their lives as disciples of Christ.

So overall, I felt the Conversations were a positive thing and I sincerely hope that they help the church as we move forward together. However, I came away with a feeling of great sadness that I haven’t been able to shake. I took the time while I was there to talk to most of the people who were self-confessed conservatives. This wasn’t particularly onerous – they were all quite congenial and they were all evangelical (if there were conservative catholics in our gathering I don’t think I met them), so they were my people, we shared a common language. Although I think we were able to identify the areas where we disagreed (and this has given me much to ponder over) there was a great deal on which we agreed. Yet from all of them, I had the unmistakeable sense that they were disengaging from the debate. Not on a personal level – I think those who were there genuinely contributed to the Conversations – but they were self-consciously representatives of a grouping that was disengaging from the debate. Almost every one of them talked about what it would take for them to leave the church. Some seemed convinced it would happen, and sooner rather than later. And these, of course, were the conservatives who were independently-minded enough to disregard the advice of Reform to boycott the Conversations. Reform’s position in itself indicates an even more significant level of disengagement that is prevalent amongst many conservatives. I had the frustrating sense that there was a good and worthwhile conversation just starting, very hesitantly, to begin, and yet that one ‘side’ had already decided that conversation had been exhausted and was getting ready to walk out.

I’m not sure where that leaves the Church of England. It leaves me, as an evangelical anglican feeling, as I said to someone at the conversations, like a child watching their parents go through a nasty divorce, conscious that at some point I’m going to have to decide which one I’m going to have to live with.