The Listening Process

Mutual Listening - Account 1

"Emerging Common Ground":a Toronto experiment by Chris Ambidge
originally published in The Witness May 1998

It was, I think, Gandhi who said, "those who shout hear only their own voice". Shouting is not, ultimately, an approach which works in trying to convince someone else of your own point of view. Too often, though, that is the approach taken by people on both sides as the vexing questions surrounding lesbigays in the church are discussed.

As a gay man who is devoted to the Anglican church, I've been involved in those discussions for a long time; and, quite honestly, I don't have time for the shouting any more. I'm not convinced that repeated assertion by either side of "points where I am right and you are wrong" is getting us anywhere. That shouting is tremendously debilitating, both for the shouters and the shouted at. I consider myself blessed to be part of a dialogue in Toronto that seems to be clearing a different path through the underbrush.

I've been active with Integrity, lesbigay Anglicans and our friends, since the 1980s. In 1994, a group called Fidelity was formed in Toronto. Fidelity felt that the church's traditional teachings around homosexuality were not being heard enough. Initially I was not pleased by their formation, selfishly wanting everything to go my own way. On mature reflection, though, I'm glad that they exist. Fidelity gives people who do not agree with me a locus for their feelings, where that theology and that viewpoint can be spoken.

Over the past few years, Integrity and Fidelity have come together in different ways --ways that I believe are truly advancing the Commonwealth of God.

Terry Finlay, bishop of Toronto, called a group of people together to engage in dialogue around the still-vexing questions. Six people, three from each "side" have been talking with the bishop for nearly three years now. At our first meeting, the bishop asked us "How can we live together in the same church?" Our dialogue has continued with the hope that there is a way. Very early on, we realised that while we have obvious and significant differences, there is a great deal of material on which we agree. That shouldn't be surprising, for the rock on which the church is built is common to all of us.

We spent a lot of time working out a statement of Emerging Common Ground, eight points which we could all affirm. We realise that no one individual has all the answers, simply from the limitation of their point of view. This means no-one has a monopoly on truth. We agree, among other things, that scripture is not to be mined for proof-texts to hammer against others; we agree that the Holy Spirit continues to lead the church. We agree that Christian tradition is very important and must be respected, and we agree that it is important to re-examine tradition occasionally, particularly when there is real human pain and anguish. These last two are not new, of course; but they are not often seen in the same document.

The statement was presented to the diocese as a whole at our synod last autumn in the form of a pamphlet available at both the Integrity display and the Fidelity display. I think it is highly significant that any statement at all could be made which deals directly with gays and lesbians and which could in good conscience be distributed by both these groups. The document has been commented on by several news services, both inside and outside Canada.

The other way that Integrity and Fidelity have come together is at the eucharistic table. Last September, Paul Feheley, vice-president of Fidelity, was the celebrant at Integrity's monthly Eucharist. He preached, we prayed together, and all of us passed the peace of the reconciling Christ. Fidelity and Integrity members then circled the altar for the liturgy of the Eucharist. "We break this bread to share in the body of Christ / we being many are one body, for we all share in the one bread" we prayed, and then administered the elements one to another around the circle.

The dialogue with our bishop is ongoing, in areas where we may see things differently, and Paul Feheley will preside again at another Integrity/Fidelity Eucharist next September. We're continuing to live together in the same church.

I don't want to sound holier-than-thou, but I really think that is why Integrity and Fidelity appear to be making some progress. Jesus Christ is the rock on whom we all stand. As we look at each other during the discussions, we are looking at our beloved's beloved. The discussion table is also a eucharistic table. We must come to that discussion table believing that everyone is there in good faith.

Accepting the bona fides of the others is not enough, though. I believe we have to get rid of the idea of winners and losers, us and them. It's not easy, for that bifurcation is deeply entrenched in our culture, from sports competitions to the law courts to party politics. I remember watching debates in General Synod 1989. Early on there was a vote on some matter where a decision had to be made. When the motion passed, there was some applause, which was very quickly stopped by Archbishop Hambidge. "I don't want any of that," he said. "Applause like that after a motion means someone has won, and if there are winners, there are losers. I don't want any losers in this Church, so I don't want any applause."

Ann Carlson of Integrity/Tidewater put it this way: "When we talk of peace and community, we too often assume that they can be achieved only through victory, defeat or compromise. I think we need to expand our definition of peace. I can't be at peace with an enemy. I am not at peace when God is on my side and I view other faith community members as God's opponents. True peace may involve learning to live without God on 'my side', because God is bigger than that."

Canon Paul put it this way in his sermon to the joint service:
"You and I both know that we are right in our thinking of what the church should do regarding all the questions about homosexuality. I wonder if we have the same conviction to admit that we could be wrong. How far are we prepared to risk our understanding of the truth? How open are we to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to us? Too few of us are prepared to risk. We think our goal is victory, when it must be the pursuit of truth."

I would not want to minimise either the very real concerns of or the differences between Integrity and Fidelity people; but I am advocating moving away from a confrontational "P wins, therefore Q loses" model of debate. Lesbians and gays in the church raise hard questions, and one joint Eucharist and one pamphlet are not going to answer them. But we are continuing to talk, and we continue to pray together.

It isn't easy. There are people on both sides who say we've sold out. I've been called an Uncle Tom for making nice with my oppressors. That's debilitating. One of the things that keeps me going is the notion, pointed out to me by a wise woman, that God will not allow the church to be destroyed by this one issue. Jesus gave his life for us, the church is his body, so something as relatively minor as this isn't going to cause the church to blow up. That does not mean we won't make mistakes as we journey. But the Body of Christ and its many members will survive.

The idea of "us and them" is pernicious, but very deeply ingrained. Think of the Eucharistic prayer "this is my blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for many". That prayer has been around for centuries, with implicit distinctions between "you" and "the many", between us and them, but that dichotomy is not found in any one of the Gospel narratives. As we said in Emerging Common Ground, "It is not given to any of us to know the whole truth, and so we need to learn from each other." If we all commit to more listening and learning, and less shouting, maybe the still, small voice will make itself heard.