Who Do We Think We Are? Group Work in Church

(Updated 7 Feb 2023)

As we prepare for the February meeting of General Synod, we now know that Living in Love and Faith will be turning up on three consecutive days. On the Monday, there will be a presentation – i.e. something which doesn’t lead to a vote – on what is happening during the week, I assume led by the Bishop of London. Earlier in the afternoon there will have been an address from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Perhaps he will elaborate on his recent statement that he welcomes the draft prayers and liturgies but, because of his Anglican Communion role, won’t be using them himself. This has been seen as a cop-out, or as a very shrewd way of balancing his roles in the C of E and in the Anglican Communion. We’ll soon find out.

On Wednesday, there’s the five-hour debate, possibly with a pause, if the chair thinks that’s a good idea. I can’t see our bladders, backs or sanity holding up without such a pause. 

And on Tuesday… there’s the dreaded ‘group work’. Anyone who has done anything in the Church of England, from parish level upwards, will at some time have experienced the horrors of group work. General Synod is no exception. At the July 2022 sessions, we had a particularly pointless and unhelpful session, which left people feeling bruised.

For the Tuesday session, we will have half an hour introducing the group work, 20 minutes to move to our room (groups of 15-20 people with at least one bishop present in each group, as well as a facilitator) and then 40 minutes on the Pastoral Principles. These are:

  • Acknowledge prejudice
  • Cast out fear
  • Speak into silence
  • Address ignorance
  • Admit hypocrisy 
  • Pay attention to power.

Ten minutes off, then an hour on the draft prayers and on the new pastoral guidance replacing “Issues”. 20 minutes to make it back to the Assembly Hall, and an hour of feedback and questions. 

That does sound considerably better than the group work at the July 2022 sessions, when for some reason we were all asked to share ‘What the Bible means to me’. This group work is focused on and relevant to the place we are in on the LLF ‘journey’. Nobody has to take part, and it would be possible to leave during the official ten-minute break. The ground rules have been circulated. They include ‘enabling everyone to speak’ but without putting anyone on the spot; no interrupting; being sensitive to each other’s feelings; and so on. Negotiating the Pastoral Principles could be challenging, to put it mildly. If someone says something that is just plain wrong – about history, about science – then we need to ‘address ignorance’ but we can’t interrupt so do we just have to wait until it’s over and the damage is done?

I wonder if, like most Church of England group work, this will involve post-it notes? There’s probably a Bible verse somewhere about that. At the diocesan Shared Conversations – the precursor to Living in Love and Faith, held between 2015 and 2017 – the group work included the largest post-it notes I’ve seen.

But those Shared Conversations also had some of the best exercises I’ve ever encountered for making participants think. One involved Person A describing to Person B a line drawing which B could not see for themselves. B had to draw it, based on what A said. When we did this for the first time, B couldn’t ask questions. In the next round, B could. So, was it easier to draw the picture if you could ask questions? Or did the interruptions make it more difficult for A to get their message across? When I reflected on this later, I concluded that what mattered were the expectations of the person trying to listen and draw. If what was being said by A was entirely outside B’s experience, then B would not be able to relate to this, and it didn’t matter how many questions B asked: the drawing still didn’t look like what A was trying to describe. 

Another piece of group work I’ve found useful is one I first saw in action when reviewing the training provision of another diocese: the fruit and chocolate exercise. You start with a ‘safe’ opposition: fruit or chocolate? With no further explanation, you ask people to stand somewhere on a line with the concept of ‘fruit’ at one end, ‘chocolate’ at the other. You are encouraged to ask others why they are standing where they’ve decided to stand – those next to you, those at the other end – and others ask you to justify your own position. After a few of these you move to the Really Controversial Concepts – like ‘same sex marriage’ at one end, ‘all same-sex relationships are sin’ at the other. What happened in the College of Bishops residential meetings is not public, but there have been two short videos released and it was possible to see a situation in which some were at their tables, others standing in groups, and I wondered whether they were doing this form of group work? 

It would be a very appropriate exercise in the Living in Love and Faith context. You find that those who are standing beside you – your supposed allies – are there for reasons very different to your own. You find common ground with those at the other end of the spectrum. As I commented when I first saw this exercise, “Not everyone who positions herself as holding a particular belief or view does so for the same reason as others who hold that belief or view. People don’t all hear a question in the same way. It’s not easy to second-guess the motives of others. We all come to any debate with our own assumptions about others, and they in turn make assumptions about us. We come to any debate with our own history.” The person who loves chocolate but has just been diagnosed as diabetic, so stands at the ‘fruit’ end of the spectrum; the person who stands at the ‘fruit’ end and had judged everyone up the ‘chocolate’ end as hedonistic, but then realises someone up there works for a firm making chocolate and someone else is standing there to give their friend moral support. 

I’ve often heard the assumption that anyone supporting same-sex marriage must have a family member who is gay. That definitely isn’t the case, but you could be standing at the ‘same sex marriage’ end of the line because of the person you love and care for, with that overriding your feeling that maybe it isn’t really ‘marriage’ (or, to pick up a distinction which the documents for this Synod are pushing, it’s marriage but it’s not ‘Holy Matrimony’). Or you could be at the ‘it’s all sin’ end, because you know that, in your congregation, to say anything else would mean having to leave. Never underestimate the fear of being the odd one out in your support group.

People are complicated. This is one form of group work which acknowledges this, and creates respect. Whatever happens in February, I pray that we can show each other respect, even in our differences.

About fluff35

I blog on a range of subjects arising from various aspects of my life. On https://theretiringacademic.wordpress.com, I focus on my reactions to early retirement and think about aspects of teaching and research which I hope will be stimulating to those still working in higher education. On https://shared-conversations.com, I blog as an authorized lay preacher in a pretty standard parish church of the Church of England, who needs to write in order to find out what she thinks. I took part in the Oxford/St Albans/Armed Forces C of E 'Shared Conversations' in March 2016, worked on the Living in Love and Faith resources from 2017 and was elected to General Synod in October 2021, and continue to try to reflect on some of the issues. On https://mistakinghistories.wordpress.com I share my thoughts on various aspects of the history of medicine and the body. I have also written for The Conversation UK on https://theconversation.com/profiles/helen-king-94923/articles
This entry was posted in General Synod, Living in Love and Faith, marriage, Shared Conversations and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Who Do We Think We Are? Group Work in Church

  1. Pingback: Forty years of foreplay: before the February 2023 General Synod | sharedconversations

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