This time next week, the “Cascade Conversations” will be taking place in Pitlochry. This is an attempt to allow discussion in the Scottish Episcopal Church about issues relating to homosexuality.
I won’t be there because I’ve not been invited and I’m sorry about that as I would have liked to listen to what others were saying. Invitations were entirely at the whim of diocesan bishops and my own has chosen not to invite me.
The idea is that this conversation will cascade into dioceses but how that will happen is far from clear.
In many ways this process has been a model example of how not to do things. There was no-one who was gay on the initial scoping group. There have been several people who have represented anti-gay organisations on the design group but none who have been prominent members of LGBT advocacy groups in the church.
My more fundamental concern though is the idea of having a closed conference at which many people who would like to be there are excluded. It is, as someone with a lot of experience of living in Africa pointed out to me the other day, the very opposite of indaba – the idea that you get everyone together and talk until you find a solution.
The last time we had a process like this in the church where bishops chose people to go to a conference it was all about patterns of ministry and mission. It was a hugely successful conference for those who were invited by the bishops but a disaster for the church as the resentments which built up amongst those who were not invited were significant. Were a psychological study to be made of the troubles of the Theological Institute of the Scottish Episcopal Church then that conference would be a significant point to remember as a time when some felt they had a mandate for a certain trajectory which was not shared by the rest of the church.
One of the things which I observe in many Anglican Churches is the odd reality that decisions about homosexuality seem to be made in private by bishops (and their chosen advisers). It is very odd behaviour in churches with synodical government. After all, when we decided big things about the ordination of women as priests and bishops it was the General Synod which made the decisions.
General Synod has at least some transparency about it. There is defined process and you know who will be there to represent you. Despite asking my bishop a month or so ago, I still don’t know who is representing this diocese at the Pitlochry talks. Bishop Gregor simply refused point-blank to tell me.
At our diocesan synod, questions were asked by a couple of us about whether this was a safe process for anyone who is gay. One of the things that many people don’t understand is that straight people and gay people don’t meet as equals within church processes. To put it bluntly, revealing things about your life, your relationships and your hopes at these events if you are straight makes no difference to how you will be treated in the future by people who have power within decision-making processes about jobs, housing, pensions etc. For gay people that just isn’t true. Revealing personal material about yourself could cost you a job, could bring trouble for your partner, could lead to you losing your home.
Now, when asked about this at our synod, Bishop Gregor gave a good answer for himself but a terrible answer for the current process. He said that if someone who happens to be gay or lesbian revealed anything about themselves then he would admire their honesty and integrity and was very clear that they would not be treated in a detrimental way in this diocese. That was absolutely the right thing to say. However, he then went on to say that of course, he could not give the same guarantee on behalf of anyone else in the church and particularly could not guarantee that bishops in other dioceses would take the same view.
That crucial admission marks this out as a very unsafe process for gay people in the church. My recommendation to any gay or lesbian ordinand, lay-reader, deacon, priest or bishop or anyone in any of the new less clearly defined lay ministries who is involved in these talks would be that they should be very cautious about talking about their own lives. This isn’t a safe process and one might suffer in the future for being honest.
That is, if there is anyone gay who has been invited.