Reflecting on the Cascade Conversations in Glasgow & Galloway

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.

Why I’m Still Not Convinced By The Cascade Conversations

Kelvin has written nearly everything you need to know about the listening process that we endured at Synod today, and you all know what I thought of it before this started. If you haven’t already, read his first.

I knew precious little about what we were getting at Synod. I knew that we were expecting a presentation on what happened at Pitlochry and then small group table discussions, and I knew that there would be no time for discussion as a whole Synod or feedback from the groups. I knew the last part because I went hopping mad at my own Diocesan Bishop when I learned of it at our pre-Synod meeting last week.

Let me tell you something about a whole Synod discussion and about small group table discussions. The Scottish Episcopal Church is changing the way we train people for ministry, and this morning we had a conversation about that in our small groups and then we had an incredibly fruitful conversation and Q&A as a whole Synod. Because the changing of TISEC to the Scottish Episcopal Institute is important business that means a lot for the life of our Church and that a lot of people have a lot of questions about, and so we discuss it in this way, together, so that concerns can be raised and answers given and lively debate had. I ask you, what is less important about the inclusion of LGBT people in the life of our Church and the way we treat them and their relationships that means that we do not discuss that together and that it does not have to appear in Synod minutes?

Does it appear to you that the people who decide how we talk about these things might be frightened of what might happen if we actually talked about them? It appears that way to me.

The presentation on Pitlochry was worse than I expected. And “worse than I expected” is an awfully low bar to clear; I did not go into this with high standards. It became clear to me very quickly that nothing of substance was going to be shared with us in that presentation and I have my suspicions that that means that nothing of substance was discussed in Pitlochry. I began weeping during the presentation and I continued weeping all the way through the table discussion. I feel angry and disrespected and (unsuccessfully) manipulated by the people in charge of my Church, and I feel ashamed of what I have from this Synod to take back to the LGBT members of my congregation, which is nothing.

The table discussion was better than the one I sat through at Diocesan Synod, but I credit that to my having been on a table this week with good people. Unlike at Diocesan Synod, where I sat through chat about Holy Mother Church and sodomites. The fact that I was blessed with sensible people to talk to does not change the fact that we weren’t allowed to achieve anything of substance or to share our views, including the view that same-sex marriages are already part of the life of the Scottish Episcopal Church whether they like it or not, with Synod as a whole.

All around the room, the question was being asked of why are we not just getting on with this? But, of course, God forbid that any Synod members should be allowed to express that view to Synod.

What I have seen in the last two days is that the views of people in the Church are changing and that the Church is growing restless, and that a small number of people who have more power than they should are silencing our voices.

The Primus spoke afterwards about the value of this process in that it does not turn the issue into a debate with winners and losers.

He forgets about those of us who are already losing.

Losing our faith.

Losing our patience.

Losing heart.

Let’s Talk

It is General Synod next week.

There are going to be lots of interesting conversations at Synod, conversations about what our Scottishness has to do with how we identify ourselves as a Church and about how we train ordinands and about how we count people who come to church and about what happens when someone who needs to be commemorated inconveniently dies on a major festival. Last year was my first General Synod and I liked being there and being part of those sorts of conversations.

I admit to being sorry and disappointed that Standing Committee have this year refused to bring a motion that was proposed to them regarding discussions on same-sex marriage. Those of us who are attending Synod or are alternate members of Synod have already read the text of that rejected motion, and as those of you who have read it will already be aware, I was the proposer of it. I’m sorry that it’s been rejected, because I think that a valuable whole Church conversation could have been had had such a motion been brought as part of the ordinary business of Synod; and I’m disappointed, because those who choose how Church business is to be conducted have for a couple of years now been conducting themselves in a manner that I think lacks courage.

For those not on Synod who might be interested, the motion that I proposed was as follows:

This Synod notes:

1) The recent passage of legislation which allows same-sex couples to marry in Scotland,

2) The principle which is now established in Scots law that no one should be forced to act against their conscience in this area,

3) That Scottish Episcopalians are not of one mind about these and other matters.

This Synod resolves:

1) For the wellbeing, peace, and mission of the Church, to endorse the principle that no one should be forced to act against their conscience in this area within the Church,

2) To request that the Faith and Order board asks the Committee on Canons to draft an amendment to Canon 31 which will allow for the possibility of same-sex weddings taking place in the Scottish Episcopal Church whilst ensuring that no celebrant be compelled to act against their conscience in this area,

3) To consider such an amendment for First Reading at General Synod 2015, with consequent discussion in Diocesan Synods as an integral part of the Church’s wider conversations within this area,

4) To notify dioceses immediately after this Synod as to how General Synod intends this matter to be considered.

However, my disappointment that this motion will not be being brought is nothing compared to my disappointment in the manner in which we will be discussing the issue at Synod.

The main thing we will be doing is hearing a series of short presentations on Pitlochry conversations, a process that I spoke about here. I have spoken to a couple of people who went to Pitlochry. My understanding is that it was useful as a listening process and that people came away from it with a lot to think about it and feeling generally affirmed. I am pleased about this, and I am pleased that the experience was so positive — certainly it was more positive than I feared it might be. On the other hand, my understanding is also that in spite of all the positives it is not a conversation that has got us anywhere in terms of what we want to do, how we are going to do it, or in what sort of timescale we might be having the conversation. After the people who were in Pitlochry have given their presentations, there will be small group discussions at Synod. There will be no whole Synod conversation and no chance for real feedback (we will have the opportunity to write things on flipcharts), and, so far as I am aware, nothing in the small group discussions is likely to be made public. It is not clear at this stage, even after asking, whether the content or outcome of the small group debates will be recorded in the minutes. It is most likely not.

There will be no chance at all for anyone to get up at Synod and say, “I disagree with the way we are doing this.”

I raised my disappointment in a Diocesan meeting with how this conversation is going to be had next week at General Synod. It seems to me more and more that the Church is trying to avoid doing or saying anything that will necessitate them having a conversation in public or making any sort of decision. I have never before had the experience of having everyone in a room agree with me. It is a disconcerting experience.

But it does say a lot about where the people within the Church are on this.

I think we are getting to a point now where people on all sides of the aisle would really rather just get on with it. It might be that we do disagree with what we want the outcome of this conversation to be — and I don’t know that we do disagree as much as we think we do. I don’t want the Scottish Episcopal Church to become a place where only the people who agree with me are welcome. I want this to be a place where all — all — are welcome. I want no one to be forced to act against their conscience. I want to believe in the same God as do people who agree with me about marriage, as do people who endorse a traditional view of marriage, as do people who think we should just do it like they do in France. I believe absolutely in religious freedom, and that means believing in the religious freedom of people who have views different from mine as well as the religious freedom of people who broadly agree with me. The Scottish Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion as a whole is a broad church and a church where one of the things we have historically been good at is believing that there is room for more than one idea. That is a history that I am proud of and one that I think should also be part of our future.

And the point we are at now is that all kinds of people who have all kinds of ideas are starting to think that we should define what we are talking about and then actually talk about it, so that we can reach an outcome and then get on with the business of living it and then talk about something else.

Are you not bored of talking about this? I am. I am bored. I would like to move on and talk about other things. But so long as the Church keeps dragging its feet and talking around it instead of about it, I can’t and nor can anyone else.

The Cascade Conversations: Why The Scottish Episcopal Church Is Frightening Me

In a few days, fifty people will be meeting in Pitlochry to have a conversation about issues around homosexuality as they relate to the Scottish Episcopal Church. This is the process that I alluded to after Diocesan Synod and that Kelvin talked about earlier in the week.

I will not be there because I haven’t been invited.

I’m not comfortable with the process as I understand it or with the environment in which these conversations are going to be conducted next week, and I’ve publicly criticised both of those things. In spite of that, I find it odd that I’m not going to be there. It is going to be two days of conversations about gay people and our relationships. I am one of the convenors of the Church’s only national LGBT advocacy group and I haven’t been invited, and nor has the other convenor and nor has the founder. Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I will freely admit that I, on behalf of Changing Attitude Scotland, had already turned down the opportunity to give input into the design process as those of us within the organisation felt it important not to lend credence to what we see as a flawed process, and so it might seem churlish of me to now be suspicious about my lack of invitation to the Cascade Conversations. But it seems to me that we have moved on from process and are now into substance, and I do find it deeply worrying that that conversation is going to be happening without us there.

There is a phrase for this in the NHS: “No decision about me without me.”

I do not believe that these few days are going to be a safe space for LGBT people. I worry that the precautions that we are told will be taken will be more effective at making it a safe space for homophobic people than for the people who the conversations are about. I admit freely that I wouldn’t have been comfortable sitting in and participating in those conversations, and I wouldn’t have been comfortable thinking of my LGBT friends doing that, particularly my LGBT friends who are in ordained ministry. But I do uncomfortable things all the time, and here’s the thing: I’m a lot less comfortable thinking that those conversations are taking place behind our backs.

And I don’t feel that I’m overstating things when I say that it’s behind our backs. It’s not only that I’m not going to be there. It’s that I don’t know who is going to be there. It’s that I don’t know what the conversation points will be. It’s that ten months after the questions was first asked, I still haven’t been told what “issues about same-sex relationships” are. It’s that in discussions about Pitlochry, people keep telling me that participants will maintain confidentiality and I don’t understand – and I say this as someone whose entire life is regulated by the General Medical Council – what that means or how it’s going to be achieved or what the point of it is.

This frightens me.

It frightens me because I believe that it undermines the place of LGBT people within the Church, whose existence ought not to be up for debate and whose rights ought not to be the subject of backroom politics and under-the-table decisions.

Now, I’ve been told a lot in the ten months since this process was imposed on a dissenting General Synod that it is going to be done this way because the Synodical process of debating and passing resolutions does not allow for Whole Church engagement with the issues. I disagree with this, but I do see how that might be a matter of opinion. But for the sake of absolute clarity, let me list the things that Synod is:

  • The accepted governing body of the Church.
  • A body of lay and ordained individuals who were elected by the whole Church in a free and open electoral process.
  • An annual meeting for which the agenda is freely available.
  • An open meeting at which anyone who was not elected is free to come in and hear whatever is said.
  • A moderated process which is carried out according to established rules, which publishes a public record of minutes and decisions, and about which anyone, whether member or observer, can talk about to anyone else.

It is the way this Church decides things. It is the way we decide little things that seem relatively inconsequential, like when exactly we celebrate the feast day of a saint that only three people have ever heard of. It is the way we decide important things, like what provisions we are going to make for our clergy in their retirement. And it is the way that we decide enormous great seismic social shifts in the life of the Church, like the ordination of women. It isn’t a perfect system, perhaps, but, my God, it’s better than any of the other options.

If there are issues about LGBT people to be debated, let them be debated in the proper way and let us do it in public.

I’m also frightened because I believe that it undermines the credibility and integrity of this Church that I honestly love.

When I talk about the Church, I do it with a certain amount of privilege and I am very aware of that privilege. I am not an unprominent member of the Scottish Episcopal Church. I will be at Synod, because the Diocese in which I am a member chose to send me there. I am a member of a congregation that is growing and comparatively well off and has a degree of press visibility. I am white and middle-class and speak English as my first language. I am not ordained, not in the priesthood or in the diaconate or in any lay ministry, and that means that I can piss people off without worrying that it will impact on my livelihood. I am single, and that too is a privilege because it means that I can talk without jeopardising my relationship or dragging a partner into something that they never signed up for. I am enormously privileged. I have a voice and people pay attention when I choose to use it, and, because of all the rest of it, I believe that I have a responsibility to do so.

But still I’m frightened.

I’m frightened of what the Church is saying about me and about people like me. I’m more frightened of the things that are being said where I can’t listen to them than I am of the nasty things that are said to my face. I’m frightened for my place within the Church and for the place of the Church within my life. I’m frightened that a decision will be made about me and my friends that has no mandate, that I have had no say in, and that the clock cannot be turned back on. I’m frightened because even though no one can take God away from me, it sometimes feels like they’re trying to.

And if that’s how I feel, with all of my privilege and my little bit of power, I think that everyone else should be bloody terrified.