Belatedly realising that I never posted some of the stuff I wrote about the CEEC consultation I attended in 2015. For context: the CEEC is the Church of England Evangelical Council. It’s a representative body for Evangelical Anglicans. Prior to the Shared Conversations process, they wanted to give key leaders a chance to reflect together on the issues. So they called together some theologians and activists (from all sides) to meet with them and reflect together on a report they had commissioned by Martin Davie that reviewed recent literature on the subject. I’ll discuss the report itself in another post. I was invited as a theologian.
I told a friend just before I went to the CEEC day that the whole thing was being conducted under Chatham House rules, meaning that we couldn’t say who said what, so probably all I’d be able to tell him about it was “we met, we talked, there were disagreements, no-one changed their mind”. Well, that’s true, as far as it goes. More happened than that rather cynical summary suggests, however.
I’d gone with some personal wariness. I’m an evangelical who holds to what was described in the report as the ‘traditionalist’ position on the Biblical texts concerning same-sex relationships (though not, as I discovered from reading the report, on all of them – there are some texts on which my reading now apparently counts as ‘revisionist’). However, I’ve become increasing concerned about the way in which a traditionalist interpretation of certain texts is being used in contemporary discussions, and I’ve been convinced that in many cases evangelicalism has been guilty of a sort of institutional homophobia. This puts me somewhere in the awkward middle ground of the debate, which everyone has a vested interest in saying isn’t a credible place to stand, and so I went convinced that the more people found out about my position the less people on either side would like me.
On top of this, I had gone having spent the day before reading through the CEEC report that we were supposed to be discussing together. This is by Martin Davie, and shortly to be published. I’ll go through this rather problematic report in another post, because it warrants a bit more attention than I can give it here, but in brief it’s a review of all significant writings (by all sides) on the biblical passages that are key to the debate on homosexuality in the period between the publication of ‘Some Issues in Human Sexuality’ and the recent ‘Pilling Report’. The report follows a tight brief set by the CEEC, to determine whether in that period any new research had suggested that a conservative reading of the texts was less well founded than it had been before. The report concludes that no such significant new research has emerged, and therefore a conservative reading of the texts has not been seriously challenged. It is, in short, a document written with the purpose of showing that the Pilling Report has changed nothing.
In the event, the day was not dominated by discussion of the report. There were three responses to the report, which critiqued it in different ways, and there was plenty of space for discussion around the wider debate. The day was designed to create space for reflection, to help people to listen to each other, and to consider where the debate might be going. The provocative question was asked: is the pain we feel the pain of divorce, or of childbirth? Are we on the verge of a parting of the ways or of a new birth?
I met with some wonderful people, and found compassion and thoughtfulness on both sides of the debate. In the end, though, my feeling was that the anger I’d feared simply wasn’t there. Most of the participants, on both ‘sides’, were old hands who had hashed this out many times before. They weren’t going to change their positions, and had come determined to play nice. A few spats aside, they avoided unproductive squabbling. It was the others, who didn’t quite fit this pattern, who intruiged me. There were evangelicals who wanted to claim a revisionist position themselves. There were those who wanted to acknowledge the validity of a revisionist position they didn’t hold to themselves. There were those willing to concede that the way the debate had been framed in the past and continued to be framed now was unhelpful. And increasingly, discussion was being framed in terms of endgames. What sort of structures (if any) might allow continued disagreement with integrity? What sort of developments would mean those holding to a traditional position might have to leave the church?
Overall, though, I was left with a sense of hope for the future.