The Listening Process

Listening to the experience of lesbian and gay people

Lambeth 1.10 called for those in the Anglican Communion to listen to the experience of homosexual persons.

Where such listening has taken place the process has been difficult for all concerned.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of every country have experienced attitudes which exclude them from society. Many have felt unable to share something which appears to them to define their being even to their closest friends and family. Being listened to is in itself costly.

Listening itself has seemed to some people to be giving up clear biblical principles and traditional values. The heart of the church seems to be at stake. It is thought that listening might itself involve compromise. Those who articulate traditional teaching have risked being branded as homophobic and unloving. However, listening is itself a Biblical principle and vital for our mission to gay and lesbian people, our mission with gay and lesbian people and mission in a world where more and more societies accept gay and lesbian relationships.

Listening is painful.

Listening is also fruitful. When we listen we can hear of the dedication and service of committed Christians who are attracted to people of the same gender. We discover the realities of the societies in which we serve. When we listen we can also be listened to and present the Good News of Jesus Christ. In Mission and ministry Anglicans are committed to presenting Christ to all people, to offer loving service and to seek to transform unjust structures of society. We can only do this by listening to God and listening to those to whom we offer his love.

Successful listening requires a commitment to creating safe places, to owning common ground and to sharing the sense of vulnerability. It does not require us to commit to changing our theology.

Safe Places

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the primates and all the bishops of the Anglican Communion at the Lambeth Conference have condemned the victimisation and diminishment of any person on the grounds of their sexual orientation and have offered the full pastoral care of the church for all people including lesbians and gays.

However, such assertions need to be articulated constantly  in action as well as words in order to create safe space where lesbian and gay people can be heard. Safe space may be created by assurances of confidentiality. Even then it will require the forming of relationships of trust. Creating safe space takes work.

The prevalence of homophobia (the irrational fear of gay and lesbian people) has lead to those who hold a traditional view of the inappropriateness of sexual activity outside marriage being labelled as homophobic just for holding those views. In consequence they too have felt it unsafe to articulate their views. Safe ground includes space for honesty about conservative attitudes to sexuality.

Listening is sometimes feared as a potential tool for forcing the listener to change their mind. However, the object of listening is not to have one’s mind changed, but to hear the joys as well as the struggles of following Christ as a gay or lesbian person. Listening is about hearing the struggles of individuals as they seek to follow Christ and this will change our hearts and how we speak. Listening is about seeking to understand the way the speaker understands the Bible, tradition and reason. Listening is about hearing the experience of  parents, children and friends of lesbian and gay people.

It is more difficult to listen to gay and lesbian voices in contexts where homosexuality is illegal. The Church of England worked hard to decriminalise homosexuality in the 1950s and 60s. The Archbishop of Canterbury has stated his opposition to the use of civil law to limit the freedoms of choice for homosexuals.[1] Conservative scholars such as Robert Gagnon support the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Even in these contexts it is possible to listen to those of homosexual orientation. International links may be used in such contexts.

Common Ground

Common ground is also required for the listening process. The call of Lambeth 1.10 to listen to homosexual persons was to listen to members of the body of Christ. We are united in our baptism and share the same scriptures and traditions.

The facilitator of a dialogue on human sexuality between churches from an English diocese and one from Africa emphasised that the first and most vital step was to ‘occupy common ground’. Recalling the process he says:
‘It was recognised that the conversation was not going to be easy and that in order to stand together on the uncomfortable ground of difference there needed to be a number of safeguards in place and an appropriate process to build up the necessary respect before stepping out on to this ground.

  • The conversation needed to start at a point where all participants could occupy common ground with confidence while at the same time acknowledging and respecting differences that existed.
  • The common ground that the exercise identified needed to be occupied rather than just acknowledged. It also needed to be built on enabling it to move from the personal to the corporate.’

The participants spent the first day sharing their experiences of God and of mission. With no mention of homosexuality, they identified with one another’s theology and missiological tasks. ‘We did not just ‘acknowledge’ or ‘describe’ this common ground we actually occupied it together and dwelt there for some time. This was  possible because we had created a safe place to occupy this ground but the act of occupying this ground together secured the safe place for our further explorations.’

In this context the second day could be given over to hearing different voices over issues which threaten to split the church. This was done in the context of common worship and prayer.

Sharing of Vulnerability

Listening does require vulnerability. The person being listened to opens themselves up to the possibility of criticism. We all have things in our past of which we are ashamed and fearful. The Bible tells us that we are all sinners in need of the love of God. It is in the context of common vulnerability that we can move towards hearing one another as God hears us and knowing one another as God knows us.

The listening should not just be about a gay or lesbian testifying to their experiences, but also the experiences of others shared in the process.

Notes

1. http://www.anglicannews.org/news/2006/06/archbishop-of-canterbury-challenge-and-hope-for-the-anglican-communion.aspx ‘It is possible – indeed, it is imperative – to give the strongest support to the defence of homosexual people against violence, bigotry and legal disadvantage, to appreciate the role played in the life of the church by people of homosexual orientation, and still to believe that this doesn't settle the question of whether the Christian Church has the freedom, on the basis of the Bible, and its historic teachings, to bless homosexual partnerships as a clear expression of God's will.’ Bold mine