by the Rt Revd Martin Seeley, Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich
I am very glad I participated as a diocesan representative in our regional Shared Conversations. I came away inspired by the honesty and trust we were able to share. I was also left discouraged by the gulf between the positions some people hold.
St Edmundsbury and Ipswich were teamed up with Norwich and Ely, and the representatives met together for Shared Conversations just over a year ago.
Along with all the other diocesan groups, ours was a mixture of lay and ordained, men and women, homosexual and heterosexual.
We made sure the group had a good range of theological perspectives too, from the “liberal” to the “conservative,” tempered just a little by Suffolk modesty.
The experience was immensely rich for each one of us, while it was also challenging. The sessions where participants shared their own stories, of how we came to think and believe the way we did, were particularly valuable. It is unusual to be able to say what you think and believe, and why, without being interrupted or argued with.
Our group has met three times since then, over dinner, the last time being a week after the recent General Synod. The last two occasions the diocese’s General Synod members have joined the group.
It seems for us the General Synod members’ and the Shared Conversation members’ respective experiences of the process have been qualitatively different. The General Synod experience seems to have been less effective compared with the regional Shared Conversation experience.
Trust and honesty has quickly developed across the combined group of fourteen, enabling some tough conversations to take place. We slip up from time to time, but we have been able to start to say things to each other about what we think and believe without fear that it will lead to irreparable damage.
These meetings have given us a profound experience of the grace and mercy of Christ among us, and has encouraged us to want to share this experience more widely in the Diocese.
But as we have reflected on this process we have come to believe that the Shared Conversations did not help us in one particular area. The outstanding issue that we believe it is vital we listen to each other about is our different positions on the handling of Scripture. We want now to work at this ourselves, and at the same time learn sufficient facilitation skills to assist others around the Diocese to have shared conversations about Scripture too.
I remain puzzled that we seem so unable to have this conversation as a Church, and I have been trying to understand why that may be so.
In part, I think, it is that the more conservative perspective has become more clearly and strongly articulated, while those of a more liberal perspective have not found a way of expressing their understanding of the authority of scripture accessibly and concisely.
And part of the difficulty is that we use words like “conservative” and “liberal” in ways that are freighted with political and theological presumptions and perhaps without being clear what we mean by them.
We often use them to describe the position different from our own, and do so not necessarily with love and regard. We tend to speak in parody of views or understandings we do not hold ourselves.
I wonder how helpful labels like conservative, liberal, contextual, and literal are in fact, whether we use them of others or of ourselves.
And part of the difficulty is that I am not sure any of us is hermeneutically consistent.
We may say we hold to a literal interpretation of Scripture, but do we interpret all Scripture literally? If we hold a literal interpretation of the first creation account, for example, do we also believe in the real presence?
Or we may espouse a contextual interpretation but actually handle a great deal of Scripture literally. Otherwise how might some people who approach Scripture with a contextual perspective also believe in the real presence?
Can we listen to those of different viewpoints and understand how it is that each is working with a version of the authority of Scripture, and can we accept the validity of each other’s versions?
We each approach Scripture with beliefs about God that are in an interrogative relationship with our reading of Scripture. Are we sufficiently aware of those beliefs?
And are we able to be clear and honest about our interpretative positions? All of us come to Scripture with a mixture of experience and rationality that shapes how we engage with Scripture. The roots of our approach may go a long way back in our own history. Can we unravel that and work out what the influences are on our understanding?
Do we have insight into currents of thought, much stemming from the Enlightenment, that shape our approach, and the extent to which whatever interpretative position we hold, we have been shaped to some extent by the culture and philosophical environment we have inherited?
There is a good deal to share in these shared conversations. The challenge seems to me to develop self-awareness, honesty and trust so that can we listen to one another about how we engage with Scripture, and listen respectfully and without judgement.
Our diocesan group has experienced Christ’s grace and blessing in our time together so far. We pray for this gift now, the gift of the Spirit moving among us, leading us together into truth.