Over the last six months since General Synod, the dioceses of the Scottish Episcopal Church have been engaging in “Cascade Conversations” . You may remember from what I’ve previously said that this is the process which some senior members of the Church decided we ought to use to discuss same-sex relationships [sic] in the Church.
The conversations in my diocese, which is Glasgow and Galloway, concluded this weekend with an event in Galloway. There had been previous events in Glasgow and in Ayrshire. I have attended all three of them and have engaged with the process as best I was able.
The process has followed on from the conference held in Pitlochry shortly after Easter and the presentation which took place at General Synod in June. This “cascading” process has involved series of conversations, which have begun to be arranged and take place in the various dioceses of the Church. The intent was for the conversations across the Province will have broadly the same format as the conversations that were held in Pitlochry, beginning with reflections from invited speakers and then breaking into small groups for further conversation and reflection. The further intent, so we have been told, was for those conversations to “cascade” further into churches and communities. It was thought that the result would be a whole Church conversation.
I have chosen not to speak publicly about my experience of Cascade until the events in my diocese had ended, because I did not wish to prejudice the process. I am going to write publicly about them now.
I know that some of you who were there and others who have heard reports will know that there was a social media embargo. For the first two events, that embargo was only in place for the time we were meeting, and each participant was given guidelines which stated specifically that we were entitled to speak freely about process including on social media. At the third event, we were specifically asked not to discuss the event on social media. I think that is an unhelpful and dangerous embargo and although I’ve respected the embargo while physically in the conversations, I am deliberately disregarding it now.
You may also know that there was a rule of strict confidentiality, specifically that anything said in the small groups and in the room was to remain entirely confidential to the groups and to the room respectively. I am not going to break that rule of confidentiality at this stage. It has been stated on multiple occasions by the House of Bishops and by the Design Group and it was reiterated at the events themselves by the facilitator that the purpose of these rules was to ensure that the process was a safe space.
I have been openly and unashamedly critical of the process since it was foisted upon (not chosen by, not agreed to) a vocally dubious General Synod in 2013. I have criticised it in social media, I have criticised it to my Bishop and to the Primus, and, with considerable support from those both inside and outside of the Synodical processes, I openly dissented against it at this year’s General Synod. I had my doubts from the conception of the Design Group, which arranged the process beginning with Pitlochry. After hearing a little about it at General Synod 2014, I wept tears of anger for myself and shame for my Church as many of my worst fears seemed to be confirmed.
In the end, I did not engage with this process because I think it is the best or the most appropriate process to handle this bit of Church debate, but because it was the process I had been left with and my option was to engage with it or to not be involved at all. In September, at the first Cascade Conversation in my diocese, I was an invited speaker, and I made the terms on which I had eventually engaged very clear to the participants.
But I do confess that despite all of this I did not go to the first event looking to be offended by it. I had heard good things about the event in Pitlochry, and it was clear to me that some participants had found it extremely valuable – some of them people whom I respect and like a great deal. It is not actually in my interests to torpedo what is presently the only mechanism we in the Church have for discussing a subject that matters a great deal to many of us, and I wondered if perhaps by engaging in it I might at least start to see some of the good things that others so obviously had.
It is disappointing that I come away with a sense of having not seen those good things.
I give credit where due to those particular members of the planning committee in Glasgow and Galloway who, having been present for the horrific situation that unfolded at General Synod when the Cascade Conversations were discussed ,worked hard to make this a more positive experience than that. I acknowledge that they were able to do that only within the Provincial framework that they had been given. I acknowledge that some people did indeed have positive experiences at these Diocesan events and say that they have learned valuable things, and I think that that is good and I have no wish to take that positivity away from them.
However, I think it is important that the voices of those who have had negative experiences are not silenced. My experience of this process is that the provincial Design Group and the House of Bishops do not wish to hear from those of us whose experience of this process is that it has been dreadful.
The pitch at the beginning of each event that I have been to has been that there are no outcomes to the day, that there are no decisions being made, that nobody is to take a position, that nobody is to challenge anyone or ask anyone any probing questions. The whole point of the day is simply to listen. The day takes place on holy ground, we were reminded constantly, a refrain that was also uttered in the General Synod presentation about the Pitlochry meeting, and that, while perhaps done with the best of intentions, came across to me as grossly manipulative.
The pitch has also acknowledged equal marriage legislation, but the process has never been said to be about equal marriage – we are, so far as I know and reflected in all of the conversations I have participated in, still having a conversation about issues around same-sex relationships, which, with no definition, cannot be and has not been a cohesive conversation.
My main trouble all along with a broadly defined listening process is its existence as the only process. If it were happening alongside a Synodical process, or in the context of (defined) equal marriage legislation and the (defined) processes of the Church, or even with a sense of general timeline and an idea of what might happen next, I would probably think that a listening process in which the whole Church can participate was a good idea. But absent those things, what results is a roomful of people who aren’t really certain what they’re meant to be talking about. It leads to people sitting around in their small groups not knowing where to begin, or leads to entirely separate conversations about different things with no common thread and not really getting anyone anywhere at all.
We were told at General Synod that the diocesan Cascade Conversations would be over by the end of November, which was later altered to the end of the year, which has been further extended as we know now that one Diocese is not holding its events until the spring of next year. And once these events actually are over, we will have “further conversations” in Diocesan Synods. And what will happen after that? Bishop Gregor spoke briefly about plans that the Faith and Order Board have for options that might be offered to Synod, but no suggestion as to what form those options might take or what timescale they might take place over.
A few weeks ago, I was at a meeting where someone asked about the timeline of the process and when it would end. This was not a Cascade event – this was a different meeting, public and minuted and with no expectations of confidentiality, all of which means I am allowed to say that a member of the provincial Design Group was present and their response was that the process will never end because the Church must always keep talking about lots of issues. I acknowledged the truth to this but said that, as I had been told by the Province and by the Diocese and by the House of Bishops that nothing else could happen until the Cascade process, as it had been pitched to us, had ended, it must end. I have still not been given an answer as to when it will.
The best thing I can say on a personal level about the Cascade Conversations in this Diocese is that on one occasion I found them blandly inoffensive and lacklustre, and I left wondering what it was I had just wasted my Saturday on.
Now, let me return to this idea of strict confidentiality and let’s talk about the principle of safe space.
For when it has been worse, the worse has been created by this wilful misunderstanding of the difference between confidentiality and secrecy.
I was one of a number of people at the Diocesan Synod in Glasgow and Galloway, long before even the Pitlochry event, who tried to educate the original Design Group on what a safe space actually is and why an imposition of confidentiality on a group that is on the wrong side of a power imbalance is dangerous and abusive.
That word, “abusive”.
I do not use it carelessly. I do not take it lightly when I say that a harmful thing has been done wilfully, but in this case a harmful thing was deliberately included in a process after multiple people who have some experience in this matter had tried to talk about what a safe space is and what it is supposed to be, and were ignored.
In the course of the Cascade Conversations that have taken place in this Diocese, a number of offensive and inappropriate and factually inaccurate things have been said, each one of them about LGBT people, and none of the LGBT people there were allowed to talk about them afterwards.
We are not allowed to talk about them to each other, or at Synods, or in public, or online. And when the Province tells me how wonderful this has all been and I tell them that it hasn’t, I am not allowed to say, “and this is why.” I think it is harmful that when offensive things were said to me in my small group, I was not allowed to tell the rest of the room what had been said. I think it is harmful that I was not allowed to challenge those things and that I was expected to receive them with “respectful listening”. I think it is harmful that I am not allowed to report them at Synod or talk about it online. I think that telling me that I am not allowed to speak about any of those things or repeat them to anyone else, ever, is a harmful process and is the very opposite of what a safe space is meant to be.
And don’t forget, I’m not the one who has the most to lose in all of this.
I could lose my church, and that’s not nothing.
But I have friends who could lose their careers, their homes, and their relationships over this, and that’s a lot more.
If a process which was designed by a power structure to talk about a minority group has as one of its core principles that members of the minority group must be silent on the matter of what was said about and to them, that is abuse.
It is my understanding from a member of the provincial Design Group that this Cascade process and how well it has gone has been informally reported to bodies outside of Scotland and outside of the Anglican Communion, and they are so pleased with how well they are being told it has gone that they are considering adopting the process for themselves.
This is not being done in my name.