The Listening Process

Listening to Learn, Learning to Listen

The following is a reflection the listening process from Andrew Goddard published as a newsletter on the Fulcrum Website. It is published here to assist thinking about what the listening process is and might be. The opinions are of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Anglican Communion Office. They are felt to be helpful in understanding the process of listening.

The Communion's listening process on sexuality has recently been given much greater impetus by the appointment of Canon Phil Groves as Facilitator of the Listening Process based at the Anglican Communion Office. It is, sadly, an enterprise in which evangelicals have not always been to the fore and some have shown a level of skepticism that borders on antipathy. One of the major difficulties in the whole process is determining what we mean by 'listening'. This Newsletter explores that theme by studying and rejecting two understandings and offering a third perspective on the task we have to undertake. It is written out of a commitment to Fulcrum's stance on issues of sexuality which is clearly stated in our explanation of the evangelical centre:

In the much-contested area of sexual ethics this means that the proper context for sexual expression is the union of a man and a woman in marriage. We will participate in debates on issues in sexual ethics arising today in the life of the Church and we identify as key references the CofE document Issues in Human Sexuality and Resolution I.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference and True Union (a document shared with the Anglican Primates' Meeting, Brazil 2003).

A conservative evangelical approach critiqued

On Sunday 28th May, during events surrounding the reported difficulties of Bishop John Gladwin in Kenya, Anglican Mainstream posted a brief anonymous piece entitled 'What is meant by listening?'. Responding to a claim by the chaplain to the Bishop of Chelmsford that African countries were not so far advanced as Western countries in the process of listening to the experiences of homosexuals, this sought to explain what Anglican Mainstream thought was meant by 'listening' and to do so by reference to the Lambeth 1998 resolution. It asserted that, in the context of the resolution as a whole,

it is clear that the comment on 'listening' [is understood?] as subservient to the fact that such relationships are wrong in Scripture and therefore those living in them are expected to seek the pastoral care and moral direction of the church and the transforming power of God

It therefore concluded that 'the reason we have to listen to them [is?] so that they can be transformed not continue in relationships which are unscriptural'. It then rejected as 'patronising' the claim that African countries are not so far advanced in this "listening process"

Although this interpretation of the Lambeth resolution and 'listening' is one held among some supporters of Anglican Mainstream it is certainly not the only one. It is, I believe, seriously flawed at a number of levels. It is, therefore, important to return to the Lambeth resolution, True Union in the Body? and other views already expressed by those committed to I.10 in order to develop an alternative account of 'what is meant by listening'.

Lambeth 1998

First, it is important to recognize that resolution I.10 from 1998 is not the only relevant Lambeth resolution. In the first main discussion of the subject of homosexuality at a Lambeth Conference (in 1978) it was agreed that 'The Church, recognising the need for pastoral concern for those who are homosexual, encourages dialogue with them' (Resolution 10). This resolution was reaffirmed in 1988 (Resolution 64). Anglican Mainstream's interpretation has some support here, certainly compared to readings of 'listening' which view it primarily in terms of the means by which we learn the errors of our ways and receive new revelation. 'Dialogue' is clearly set in the context of a statement of the traditional view ('we reaffirm heterosexuality as the scriptural norm') and 'the need for pastoral concern'. However, the strong and exclusive claim that 'we have to listen to them' so they can be transformed does not do justice to the nature of 'dialogue'.

Second, in relation to the 1998 Lambeth resolution itself, there must be great caution in offering a definitive interpretation of the resolution as a whole given the complexities surrounding (some might say self-contradictions within) its final form. Perhaps no two people who voted for the lengthy final resolution interpreted it or its significance in precisely the same way. Nowhere is this more the case than in relation to the clause on listening. This clause was not in the original proposed motion from the section working on sexuality which had itself refused to listen to representatives from Changing Attitude as part of its work. It was proposed in the plenary debate by Michael Bourke, Suffragan Bishop of Wolverhampton in the Diocese of Lichfield. His own understanding is clear from his speech as reported at the time. He warned that the Bible can be used both as source as faith and as a way to oppress people. Referring to witch-burning and racism he argued that we should use humility in interpreting texts and should rely on Spirit of Jesus. He then went on to say,

Lambeth is not going to say homosexuality is all right, but we need to listen to homosexual people. Listening to their stories is especially important if you think homosexuality is sinful - listening is the only way to overcome homophobic societies all around the world.

Clearly the understanding of listening from the amendment's proposer is quite different from that now offered by Anglican Mainstream.

Later in the debate, Peter Selby, Bishop of Worcester drew attention to the fact that the proposed amendment calling for listening to gay and lesbian people had not been taken and it was agreed to consider it with Peter Selby the main speaker in its favour. He made clear his view that 'the resolution won't have authority if it doesn't respond to the people affected. We must listen.' The amendment was overwhelmingly approved and incorporated into the final text.

It is quite clear therefore that the intention of those moving the amendment - both the bishops concerned (like the Bishop of Chelmsford) serve as patrons of Changing Attitude - was clearly expressed in the debate and was quite different from that being argued for now by Anglican Mainstream. Indeed I know of no interpretation of the 'listening' aspect of the resolution being given during the debate at Lambeth that fits with that being offered now.

True Union in the Body?

True Union In the Body? (of which I was one of the authors) is a contribution to the Communion's debate on the public blessing of same-sex unions cited by Fulcrum as a key reference in debates on sexual ethics. It sought to explain and commend the official teaching of the Communion as expressed in I.10. It is important to realise, therefore, the stance that it took in relation to 'listening' and responding to those who are not convinced by that teaching and who even live contrary to it.
It opens with a clear awareness of the need for us all to listen to the voice of Christ:

Our motive, then, is not the defence of our truth but a contribution to the present conversation in the Anglican Communion and the promotion of Christ's love. We are well aware that truth claims can be a cloak for power-games, and that worldviews can be imposed on others in ways that are abusive and oppressive or which marginalize the voiceless. In this situation we must listen out all the harder, not to those who shout loudest, but to the voice of the living Christ who defines the character and limits of his Body as its founder and present head. Christians in the highly sexualized culture of the West need to listen especially carefully-but so too do Christians in other parts of the world where issues of human sexuality, even if slightly different in their manifestations, are equally urgent and in need of address. All of us need to be conscious, not of the 'speck in our brother's eye' but rather of the 'plank' in our own (Matthew 7:4). Thus the whole Church needs to open herself to God's judgment in the confidence that God's word, if it judges us all, also brings us all life (1.14).

The paper proceeds to acknowledge that 'Christian re-thinking on this issue...is not merely a capitulation to secular culture' (2.3). Furthermore, 'it would be quite wrong to imagine or pretend that homosexual attraction and practice is unknown outside the Western world' (2.4), something now helpfully acknowledged by CAPA in their 'Road to Lambeth' statement. Although 'many Church leaders in the 'non-West' find it difficult to understand and sympathize with advocates of same-sex blessings', in 'the global Anglican Communion this is an issue that simply cannot now be ignored by anyone. There is a need 'to interpret the times guided by the Spirit of God'. This involves 'a new task for Christian theology and ethics' (2.4). Such discernment 'is inevitably required of those in the West who minister amongst gay people' and 'those outside the Western context must learn from those involved in ministry to gay people, listening to and struggling with the difficult questions raised by such a pastoral and missionary context' (2.5). The relevance of that to the Communion as a whole and in particular parts is clear.

True Union? later acknowledges that those convinced that God in Scripture condemns all forms of homosexual practice will view the choice facing the Church as one of whether to obey God or to disobey Him. However, it also recognizes that 'the Church must listen respectfully to the experience of all people, acknowledging that she still has much to learn about the broader homosexual experience' (4.29). Among those who need to be heard it highlighted 'those who experience same-sex attraction, but who seek faithfully to follow the often difficult path of Christian discipleship in obedience to Scripture and the Church's teaching' (4.29). However, it clearly did not limit listening so that listening was only to such people or only if its stated purpose was to result in such conclusions.

Finally, in the conclusion of its chapter on the church's pastoral response it made clear (5.20) that 'in standing firm in allegiance to traditional teaching, the Church must acknowledge and repent of her widespread failings, both past and present, in her pastoral care of those experiencing homosexual attraction and much more seriously commit herself to 'listen to the experiences of homosexual persons' (Lambeth I.10)'.

The rationale for such ongoing listening and discernment was also clearly stated. In relation to understanding biblical texts, 'it is important that the Church respects (and engages in serious dialogue with) individual Christians who see loving and committed same-sex relationships in our culture as lying outside the scope of these passages' condemnation' (4.18). Listening must also be undertaken because 'in principle, of course, the Christian Tradition might be in need of correction and development in this area (as in others such as usury, slavery and the role of women)' (4.22). In thinking about how to respond to those gay Christians who did not accept I.10 it quoted the St Andrew's Day Statement to argue that

strong opposition to the public conferral of legitimacy on same-sex unions does not necessarily entail exclusion of all Christians who enter such unions in the sincere belief that they are an acceptable pattern of Christian discipleship. Here there is room for a generous inclusivity in the name of Christ (5.20).

'Listening' within that clear and committed frame of reference is clearly much more open, humble and fluid than the rather precise, controlling and limiting definition offered by Anglican Mainstream and explored above.

The Windsor Report and Repair the Tear

The Windsor Report did not focus on either the teaching on sexuality in I.10 or on the listening process. However, it did include the following in paragraph 146:

We remind all in the Communion that Lambeth Resolution I.10 calls for an ongoing process of listening and discernment, and that Christians of good will need to be prepared to engage honestly and frankly with each other on issues relating to human sexuality. It is vital that the Communion establish processes and structures to facilitate ongoing discussion. One of the deepest realities that the Communion faces is continuing difference on the presenting issue of ministry by and to persons who openly engage in sexually active homosexual relationships. Whilst this report criticises those who have propagated change without sufficient regard to the common life of the Communion, it has to be recognised that debate on this issue cannot be closed whilst sincerely but radically different positions continue to be held across the Communion. The later sections of Lambeth Resolution I.10 cannot be ignored any more than the first section, as the primates have noted.

In their response to the report – Repair the Tear- Anglican Mainstream (and CEEC) noted the addition here of the word 'discernment' alongside 'listening'. As a result it warned (para 13) of dangers as to where this addition might lead the Communion:

TWR's few discussions and references to the actual content of the Lambeth resolution...highlight only its important call for pastoral care and listening. Indeed, in a potentially misleading and strictly inaccurate statement, it refers to the resolution calling for 'an ongoing process of listening and discernment' (§146, italics added). The actual resolution only called for "listening" as one would listen to any group of people. This has understandably raised concerns that TWR may be giving the substantive content of the resolution a much more tentative status than that declared by the Lambeth Conference and the Primates...While listening to those most directly affected by the resolution and engaging in respectful dialogue with those who reject its reaffirmation of traditional and biblical Christian teaching, it is important that the Communion does not let the authoritative status of Lambeth I.10 be gradually eroded - all the more since there has been no substantive case made within the Communion against its theological rationale. Further, listening must be firmly linked not primarily to the theological sphere, but to the pastoral sphere. What is seriously needed is a deeper effort by all to engage in the pastoral support and care of those who struggle to understand and live in the light of orthodox moral teaching. This "family discussion" that is envisaged must be directed into such greater pastoral engagement.

Here again it should be noted that listening is 'important' and there needs to be 'respectful dialogue' with those who reject I.10's stance. Though focusing this listening 'primarily' on the pastoral sphere it is not limited to this nor is the pastoral goal sharply defined. In fact it is recognized that there is a need for 'theological' engagement and indeed the lack of such an approach from those who disagree with I.10 is bemoaned, implicitly therefore encouraging the development and articulation of such theological arguments so that people can listen to them.

It is therefore not strictly true that, as Colin Coward claimed, Repair the Tear stated 'there is no room in which to discuss the theology of human sexuality in the church. It limits engagement with lesbian and gay people to those who struggle and live in the light of orthodox moral teaching...Conversation can only be held within the already agreed doctrinal and structural arrangements of the Anglican Communion.' Colin Coward's claims do, however, appear more accurate in relation to the statement earlier this year from Anglican Mainstream. However, as we have seen, that AM statement offers an interpretation of I.10 which

  • is hard to justify given the framing of that resolution
  • contradicts views expressed in True Union in the Body?
  • goes beyond the cautionary comments in Repair the Tear.

So, is there an alternative evangelical understanding of listening which fits with I.10 as a whole and with a way of providing orthodox support for its teaching on sexuality?

Listening to learn...

One fundamental problem with the latest Mainstream statement is its claim that 'the reason we have to listen to them [is?] so that they can be transformed.' While it is undoubtedly the case that people are sometimes transformed through talking and simply being listened to, it is not generally possible to define the nature of that transformation in advance. The usual expectation in human relationships would be that it is at least as likely to be those who do the listening who are transformed. And that, of course, is perhaps part of the problem for some people on all 'sides' in the current situation: they want to talk and be listened to in order to persuade others to be transformed rather than to listen in order to learn and perhaps be transformed themselves. So for some, again on all sides, if people are not clearly changing their mind and being persuaded by what they are being told by those who disagree with them then they cannot really be listening. I recall being told by someone after speaking to the local Changing Attitude group that I could not really be serious about listening because I'd been engaged in debates and discussion for several years and still held much the same views - in terms of homosexual practice being a sin - that I did before I started!

Learning from experience: theologically flawed views

One of the underlying issues here is undoubtedly quite different understandings of the role of 'listening to experience' in the development of Christian theology, including moral theology. All of us listen with theological presuppositions, especially in relation to sources of authority and divine revelation. These presuppositions may of course themselves be challenged and reshaped through dialogue and listening but they certainly cannot be ignored or dismissed. Some of these presuppositions are very important in the dynamics of the listening process and need to be subjected to analysis.

One presupposition - which appears to drive much of the enthusiasm for the 'listening process', especially in North America - requires more serious theological critique than is possible here. Its prominence, however, is undoubtedly a factor in pushing some more conservative Christians into a rather hostile stance towards 'listening'. There are those who appear to hold that 'experience' is a specially privileged locus of divine revelation that is to be placed alongside Scripture, tradition and reason as an authority for Christian theology and life. This is often expressed in terms of the belief that it is through our learning from 'experience' - viewed as a constantly developing dynamic process (often presumed to be 'progress') through history - that the Spirit fulfils Christ's promise to lead us into all truth. This understanding of how we come to know truth is then often tied to a commitment to 'inclusiveness' through the belief that it is only through listening to, including and accepting the experience of groups currently outside and on the margins of the church that we can hope to discern the fullness of God's truth.

Among many criticisms that can and must be made of this method, only two can be noted here. First, those who hold this view often manage to combine a remarkably naïve hermeneutic in relation to experience (especially when the interpretation of their own experience offered by those who present as marginalised or victims is granted an almost sacred quality which puts it beyond critique) while emphasising the complexities of interpreting biblical texts and employing a hermeneutic of suspicion in relation to them. It would appear that present experience is somehow sufficiently perspicuous for those who have ears to listen and hear while what has been the near-universal understanding for 2,000 years of the Spirit's voice heard through the plain sense of Scripture is either questioned or outright rejected.

Second, and similarly, great play is made of the complexity and diversity of biblical materials but the similar problems in relation to human experience are conveniently ignored. The true situation is closer to that described by Oliver O'Donovan in words that perhaps partly explain our current crisis and certainly warn against looking to 'listening to experience' as the means of resolving our difficulties:

There is, of course, no one single experience. Even within the compass of a single person's life, the experience of emotion and of sexuality is very varied; and when the experiences of different people are put in play, they often challenge and contest one another. The only possible outcome, then, of a discourse founded wholly on experience is unresolved conflict.

Learning from experience: Is there an alternative?

Faced with views of listening that give human experience too much authority, the temptation of some is either to dismiss listening or to define it very narrowly as in the piece from Anglican Mainstream. Neither approach is, however, necessary. Of course, evangelicals will have a firm conviction that, whatever else may result, listening to experience should never lead a faithful Christian to the conclusion that the Bible is wrong and an unreliable guide to God's will for us. That is not to deny the importance of listening to experience but rather to insist that all experience is ultimately weighed, tested and interpreted in the light of Scripture. Evangelicals - especially those influenced by the pietist, Wesleyan, Pentecostal and charismatic traditions within evangelicalism - cannot seriously claim that there is nothing to be learned from experience or from listening to the experience of others. There are many other fruits of listening to experience that can result even if one believes experience cannot 'trump' the teaching of the Bible.

Evangelicals may, for example, conclude, in the light of listening to and learning from the experience of other Christians, that they must go back and study their Bibles afresh. They may then conclude, through further prayerful biblical study and reflection on Scripture and experience, that they previously misheard, misunderstood or misinterpreted God's Word. That, for example, is what many evangelicals did during the 1970s and 1980s in relation to the restrictions traditionally placed on women's ministry. Some may ask whether it is really the Bible or experience that is acting as supreme authority in such situations and that must be a constant question as we wrestle with difficult issues. However, almost all of us who have changed our understanding of what Scripture teaches on some issue (and if we have never done that we must seriously ask whether Scripture is in any sense authoritative in our lives) have done so, in part, as a result of particular experiences that have opened up new questions and helped us shed what we believe is new light on God's Word. Here, of course, the experience of Peter with Cornelius and the deliberations of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) concerning the inclusion of Gentile converts presents an important biblical model (I've discussed this in my Grove Ethics booklet, (God, Gentiles and Gay Christians?).

In addition, through listening to gay and lesbian people, Christians may learn much about areas in relation to sexuality where the Bible does not directly speak. This in turn will frame both how we teach and how we pastor in relation to the subject. This learning from listening is already evident from such realities as the widespread acceptance by most 'conservatives' now that

  • there is a valid distinction between 'orientation' and 'practice'
  • 'homosexuality' is very rarely if ever a clear 'choice',
  • however we understand homosexual desire it is not simply a sign of a person's rejection of heterosexual desire or evidence of their uncontrolled sexual rapaciousness.

These - and other examples - should make clear that in addition to 'listening so we can show them how they are wrong and put them right' - there are many other quite acceptable ways of understanding listening that lead to new learning and insight and do not undermine the authority of Scripture or privilege experience as a separate means of authoritative special revelation.

Listening to experience in the Communion

The form of listening described above is clearly in line with the official position of the Anglican Communion. In relation to listening within the Communion, the Instruments of Communion have clearly affirmed traditional Christian teaching as set out in Lambeth I.10. This includes a statement as to what is 'contrary to Scripture' and what ecclesial actions are incompatible with that teaching. It is quite right for those committed to that teaching to be vigilant that, while it stands, it is not effectively ignored by the equal commitment to listen. However, it cannot be denied that such listening may eventually lead to some change in the teaching and in what actions are acceptable within the church.

The Communion is currently having to respond to provinces which, though strongly supporting the 'listening' process, have explicitly rejected that teaching in their practice. Its response - in The Windsor Report, the Primates' Dromantine communiqué and the ACC resolution - calls on them to regret such actions and commit themselves (by means of moratoria) to desist from them until 'a new consensus emerges' within the Communion. The failure of General Convention to do this now presents further major problems for the Communion and for the listening process within it.

However, the Communion has at no point declared that the teaching of I.10 is infallible or incapable of being corrected in the future. It would be rash to do so given the track record of past Lambeth conferences on a number of similar issues (eg over contraception and divorce and remarriage). Even more seriously, it would be incompatible with the Anglican conviction that councils 'when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God' (Article 20).

Given the context in which the 'listening' part of the resolution was framed there can be little doubt that, in the minds of its proposers, it represented an attempt to establish a means by which, through listening to those on whom the resolution had most direct impact, the church could learn not only how best to provide pastoral care in line with its teaching but also whether it had indeed erred in parts of the resolution. It is perfectly acceptable - and wise - for those who do not believe that the resolution has erred humbly to accept this dual aspect. Confident in the power of God's Word and Spirit, we are surely able to engage seriously in the listening process without putting further restrictions upon it but instead being open to learning where we are wrong.

Learning to listen: the question of control

The simple fact is that in a genuine commitment to listen we are unable - if it is true listening - to control the outcome of the process. This works both ways. Some, as a result of listening, may conclude that I.10 is wrong and/or too heavy a yoke for gay and lesbian Christians to bear. Others, as a result of listening, may be confirmed in their belief that homosexual practice is contrary to Scripture and learn, through hearing the attempts of some to justify their actions, something more of the depths of human sin and self-deception. To insist, however, that listening must take place with a particular and precise end in view and is only successful (or indeed has only really taken place) if that end is achieved is to fail to understand what it means to listen. Rather, in listening we open ourselves to hear from other Christians in the belief that in so doing we may better hear the voice of Christ.

A similar point in relation to refusing control over listening is that we must not be so selective in our listening that we filter out unwelcome voices. In relation to I.10 there are a whole range of voices that must be heard - gay and lesbian Christians in various forms of relationship or who would like to be in a relationship, homosexual Christians committed to a life of celibacy who see themselves as in a struggle against temptation, Christians who testify to God's healing and transformation of what they experienced as disordered and fallen homosexual desires. Once again the temptation we all face is to seek to control and determine the outcome of 'listening' by giving undue weight to those whose voices are most comfortable to our own pre-conceived ideas. If, however, we are serious about listening then the full range of Christian homosexual experience must be allowed to speak and must be treated with respect even when one judges some testimony to be more genuinely Christ-like than others.

Listening to learn and learning to listen

So what is involved in listening? It is an openness to learn something new and - by its very nature - we cannot determine exactly what it is that we will learn. It is important that listening is something we do in order to learn and not in order to teach and transform others. We listen to learn. We also though must learn to listen. In part that means that as we learn more we should be eager to listen more and get better at listening, aware as we learn of how much more there is to know, how far we have still to travel in our understanding of the truth. More seriously it means we have to learn the discipline of listening. This is one of the most important disciplines of the Christian life but sadly one that Christians, including evangelicals, are not always renowned for or gifted in even when it does not touch on such a difficult subject as sexuality.

I conclude with perhaps one of the best discussions of what we commit ourselves to when we commit ourselves to listening - and how we sin when we fail to listen properly. It is that offered by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a passage which, perhaps symbolically, first really struck me when I found it quoted in a book - Jeffrey Heskins' Face to Face (SCM, 2005) - which seeks to give voice to 'gay and lesbian clergy on holiness and life together'. Bonhoeffer wrote -

The first service one owes to others in the community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God's Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them. God's love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives us God's Word but also lends us God's ear. We do God's work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them. So often Christians, especially preachers, think that their only service is always to have to "offer" something when they are together with other people. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people seek a sympathetic ear and do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking even when they should be listening. But Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either; they will always be talking even in the presence of God. The death of the spiritual life starts here, and in the end there is nothing left but empty spiritual chatter and clerical condescension which chokes on pious words. Those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others, and finally no longer will even notice it. Those who think their time is too precious to spend listening will never really have time for God and others, but only for themselves and their own words and plans.

For Christians, pastoral care differs essentially from preaching in that here the task of listening is joined to the task of speaking the Word. There is also a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. This impatient, inattentive listening regularly despises the other Christian and finally is only waiting to get a chance to speak and thus to get rid of the other. This sort of listening is no fulfilment of our task. And it is certain that here, too, in our attitude toward other Christians we simply see reflected our own relationship to God. It should be no surprise that we are no longer able to perform the greatest service of listening that God has entrusted to us - hearing the confession of another Christian - if we refuse to lend our ear to another person on lesser subjects. The pagan world today knows something about persons who often can be helped only by having someone who will seriously listen to them. On this insight it has built its own secular form of pastoral care, which has become popular with many people, including Christians. But Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been entrusted to them by the One who is indeed the great listener and in whose work they are to participate. We should listen with the ears of God, so that we can speak the Word of God (Life Together, pp98-9).

Yours in Christ,
Andrew Goddard