Last night we held our first session at St. Andrew’s Hespeler to start to work through the document, “Body, Mind and Soul: Thinking together about human sexuality and sexual orientation in The Presbyterian Church in Canada.” I must say that I found the session a little bit hard to prepare for and that I didn’t know what to expect going in.
The discussions that we held together were held in an intentional atmosphere of openness and confidentiality so that people could be able to speak freely and not fear that their words or views would be shared. So I am not at liberty to share any particular words or views expressed. But I know that a lot of people who are leading these discussions are having a hard time figuring out how to do them well. So I would like to at least share a few observations and insights that might be helpful to others who are planning or preparing.
1) Questions of why we are doing this
I thought that I had a pretty good understanding going in of why we were going through this exercise. The General Assembly is going through a process of discerning where the Holy Spirit might be leading us to change (or not change) our approach to issues around human sexuality and needs congregations like our own to participate in that discernment. In order to help we need to go through a process like this. But a discussion of that sense of purpose was important. Perceptions of what we were doing were not necessarily shared.
There was suspicion expressed by some. There were feelings that the study had been written with a bias towards certain conclusions. There were feelings expressed that the decision had already been made and that this process was simply designed to get us to that foregone conclusion. These views did come out of one particular perspective on the issues, but I can well imagine that, in some other context, people coming from the opposite point of view might well feel the same thing.
A discussion of bias and expectations was therefore necessary. I appreciate all of the work that went into this document and how well it is done given the time constraints on it. I also don’t think that it is possible to create such a document without some bias seeping through from time to time. Given that there are multiple authors, I expect that different biases will come through at different points. I think we can acknowledge that without getting hung up on it.
As to being able to come up with something coherent to feed back to the national church committees, I must say that I cannot see at this time how we may come up with a consensus response. Pray for us!
2) People prepared and engaged!
I planned to start by dealing with the section on Scripture. I made pages 14 to 37 available to people on the previous Sunday to read in preparation and also directed them to the downloadable document. I also had pages 89 – 97 printed up for our first session as a handout.
I had my doubts and questions about whether people would read that pages in preparation. None of it was necessarily very easy reading, but they all did it. Some acknowledged that they had to read it in small bites but they were all committed enough to do it. Always a good sign.
I started by going through the listening circles group guidelines (pp. 87,88). A very good place to start. In retrospect, I likely should have printed that up too, or put it up in a poster format.
It took some time to get people engaged, but once we got going, engagement was good, respectful, truthful and positive. Some did not speak up. I may need to check in with a few to see if they are looking for someone to help them to find those openings to speak or if they just need us to respect their silence.
3) My role as a leader
I struggled and expect I will continue to struggle in my role as a leader. My issue is that I do have opinions and, even more important, convictions around these issue. I also feel that I have a right and a duty to share those convictions that have come out of thoughtful reflection and scriptural study. But I am also aware that, whenever I speak, there is this danger that it will be received as the authoritative and definitive answer or opinion which may cause others to feel that their opinions or approaches are being squelched. Because of that, I felt that I maintained a light touch on moderation and leadership. I do not regret that and feel that it was the most helpful approach at least this time.
4) Our progress
We specifically discussed Leviticus 18:22 and Genesis 19:4-8. We discussed related issues like the Holiness Code, cultural assumptions around homosexual activity in the ancient Mediterranean world, the dimensions of hospitality and the larger Biblical context of the Sodom story.
We branched off (necessarily, I think) into discussions about the assumptions that people were bringing to the table. There was certainly diversity in the approaches.
I used only one of the supplied discussion questions. Other prompts to continuing discussion were not a big problem.
We ended after about and hour and a half (but before running out of steam) by deciding that next week we would try to deal with the passages from the New Testament Letters and the whole Normal vs. Normative discussion. (p. 92). I feel that I have a bit of a better handle on how to prepare for that.
5) This will not change anyone’s mind.
I went into this saying that I don’t expect that, ultimately, we will all agree about what to do and that it is okay that we don’t agree. This was certainly confirmed. Even more important, I think that this idea was embraced by everyone. There were attempts, of course, to get other people to appreciate someone’s point of view. There were critical discussions about where certain approaches would lead us and what the consequences might be. But everyone could respect where people were coming from.
One thing that is clear coming out of this discussion is how very segmented everyone is around these issues. Everyone — conservatives, traditionalists, progressives or whatever you want to call people — tends to read and follow only those sources of thought and learning that confirm the point of view that they already have. This can lead to one person stating something that is, in their mind, an established fact while someone also cites a totally contradictory datum as an established fact. This is a big issue in all kinds of ways for the church — perhaps an inescapable effect of our segmented information age.
Nevertheless, none of that means that this exercise is fruitless. The dialog is important, engaging and worthwhile. It was also uplifting and I am very thankful for that.