In a couple of contexts in the last week, people I follow on Facebook or Twitter have linked to a story about sexuality and the church but warned their friends or followers that it’s a bad idea to read the comments. Indeed! And this is hardly unique to the equal marriage debate; a few months ago I was taken aback by some comments about my appearance which appeared following a work video I’d made, comments which seemed to be suggesting that only the young and beautiful should ever be visible, and which I very much doubt the authors would have made to my face. As far too many people have discovered to their cost, there is something about the internet which encourages people to repeat their views without necessarily even trying to engage with the specifics of the story above the comments line, to be very shouty, and not to be concerned with causing offence (or to cause as much offence as they can).
One of the reasons why I found the Shared Conversations process so powerful was precisely because being present in the same space as people with whom one disagrees – and not even being able to go home in the evening, but to be resident with them for a couple of nights – makes it so much harder to do the shouty thing. While there are always people who manage to shout even in these circumstances, the presence of the excellent trained facilitators meant that anyone inclined to shout was deterred.
Over Christmas I watched the new episodes of Marigold Hotel on Tour. If you’ve not seen this, it’s a spin-off from an unexpectedly popular series in which a diverse group of older celebrities went to India to find out if this would be a good place to which to retire. Two of them are openly gay – Miriam Margolyes and Wayne Sleep. In the new episodes, set in Florida and Osaka, they asked local gay people specifically about how they felt other members of the senior-citizen developments or communities in which they lived reacted to their presence. This reminded me of a story earlier this year about whether retirement homes in the USA were good places for gay people to live; it made disturbing reading.
In the Florida episode, the two women in the group were concerned about the then-imminent US presidential elections and were looking for Democrats, which turned out to be a difficult quest in a particularly upmarket retirement community. One Republican was highly offensive and shouty and Miriam responded by telling him so. There was no attempt by either of them to understand why the other held the views they did. The way this was presented on the programme, the man had simply come up and, uninvited, injected his views into the conversation that was already happening. This reminded of me of some Comments threads I’ve read where people whose position is nowhere near that of the CofE on anything are busy telling those of us who are members what we should be doing…
Some of the criticism levelled at the past year’s CofE Shared Conversations process has been on the grounds that the daily schedule didn’t include any attempt to go through the various passages in the Bible which are drawn upon to support the different sides of the equal marriage debate. And there’s truth in that. Looking at the comments on various stories on Christian news sites, though, I wonder how it could ever have happened: saying ‘it says in this verse…’ and getting the response ‘yes but you’re ignoring the context/mistranslating the Greek/not seeing the bigger picture’ is not a dialogue: it goes nowhere, and we’ve been having it for decades. By meeting those with whom we disagree, eating with them, talking to them, hearing them, truly recognising them as fellow Christians – that’s where being shouty starts to calm down. However, the feelings in this debate are so strong that even the central Christian place of meeting together – sharing the Eucharist – has not always been possible at SC meetings.
in a well-publicised case of someone meeting the person who had used highly offensive language about her online – Mary Beard and a young man who tweeted about her – there seems to have been some genuine reconciliation. Mary commented to the journalist, “Please don’t overplay this. I am just a sensible middle-aged woman who does what sensible middle-aged women do: move on.”
What is the worst thing that could happen if the CofE allows those whose conscience permits it to solemnise equal marriages in church buildings and treats LGBTI people offering for, or in, ministry in the same way as other people? Can a sensible middle-aged church move on in 2017?