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