The Listening Process

Reports from the Provinces - The Anglican Church of Australia.

The Anglican Church of Australia has responded to Lambeth Conference 1998 Resolution 1.10(f) through research publications prepared by the General Synod doctrine Commission. The first, Faithfulness in Fellowship: Reflections on Homosexuality and the Church, published in 2001. offered 10 essays on various aspects of the issue. A study book based on the essays and published in 2003, was designed for parish use. Lost in Translation? Anglicans, Controversy and the Bible, a further set of essays reflecting on aspects of biblical interpretation as it impacted the issue, was published in 2004.

Its response to clause (c) of the same resolution, on the commitment to listening to the experience of gay people, has not taken the form of a national process. Nor have diocese-wide processes generally been adopted; where they have been, they have faced some difficulties. Three of the 23 Australian dioceses have undertaken broad based programs, located either within Synod meetings, clergy conferences, or in directed parish programs. In other dioceses, “listening” has been initiated at parish level mainly. In the majority of dioceses, however, the listening initiative has been the diocesan bishop’s, with most bishops taking seriously the need to listen carefully to gay people in the church at least, and in some cases, in the wider community as well. Most diocesans have been keen to offer sensitive pastoral care whenever possible, and have encouraged their clergy to do likewise.

In those dioceses where more broadly-based listening processes have been tried, reports suggest it has been difficult to discern the experiences of gay people, either because the processes involved did not enable this kind of listening, or because gay people felt too vulnerable to speak publicly. In some cases, responses to gay people who attempt to communicate their experiences have been insensitive. This has happened in synods and other wider church gatherings, and not just in parishes. Some dioceses have hesitated to introduce broader listening programs because of this. Understandably, bishops are reluctant to expose vulnerable people to insensitivity. The Church, it seems, is not a safe place for gay people. As one diocesan spokesperson has commented, the “listening process” in his diocese 'became a time of “shouting” rather than listening'. Though some bishops of rural dioceses have suggested that insensitivity may be partly a product of a conservative rural environment, the evidence indicates that it is also a factor in large city contexts. The Anglican Church in Australia may need to reflect seriously on this situation and how to overcome such insensitivity.

As part of an investigation carried out on behalf of the General Synod Standing Committee, a group of 20 gay Anglicans – clergy and laity – expressed the view that any process that exposed them to public labelling as homosexual people would not allow them to speak freely and confidently of their experience as gay Christians. Clergy in particular felt vulnerable about “outing” themselves in the present climate, even with sympathetic bishops. They suggested that if the Church was serious about listening to gay Christians, then it needed to adopt a two-stage listening model: (1) Each diocese should establish a “listening” process that invited gay clergy and laity to speak of their experiences as gay people and Christians in a confident environment, where the only non-gay person present was an independent lay facilitator. The facilitator’s written record of their experiences would take particular care to protect their anonymity. (2) This written account could then be offered to the wider Church