Friday, May 8, 2009

Windsor Listening Process: Report to the Parish

Several months ago, Bishop Peter Lee invited St. Paul's to participate in a pilot project to explore a method of "listening" on the deeply divisive issues of sexuality. I was asked to invite four people to engage in a conversation with four people from St. John the Baptist Church in Ivy. Their conversations would be moderated by a trained facilitator.  

The four individuals from St. Paul's whom I invited to participate were Peter Dennison, Simeon Fitch, Margaret Mohrmann and Mildred Robinson. The wider context for this was the Windsor Report of the Anglican Communion a few years ago recommending that the Communion as a whole engage in a listening process, though no specific process was suggested.

The group began meeting in Lent and their conversations were strictly confidential. The dialogue was not designed to bring consensus on sexuality issues, but allow viewpoints to be heard with respect. The facilitator has written a confidential report to Bishop Lee, who is most interested in knowing whether their method could have a wider application and what adjustments might need to be made. The method itself can be found by clicking HERE.

I am very grateful to Peter, Simeon, Margaret and Mildred for devoting considerable time, energy and commitment to this process, and especially for their courage engaging in a dialogue that required them to be vulnerable with each other and a group from a very different congregation than our own. The four have correctly concluded that to respect the process they cannot answer questions about it.  Instead, our group has prepared a report to the parish. The report will be posted on the St. Paul's website, and I am posting it in full here:
Windsor Dialogue Listening Group
St. Paul’s Memorial Church
Report to the Parish
May 5, 2009

Group Members: Peter Dennison, Simeon Fitch, Margaret Mohrmann, Mildred Robinson

The “Windsor Dialogue Listening Process” is part of a 2008 report from the “R-5 Commission” (appointed by Bishop Lee in 2007). The full report, including the details of the Listening Process format, is available on the Diocese of Virginia website at: HERE.

As part of the pilot program for the Listening Process, twelve parishes throughout the diocese were paired; St. Paul’s was matched with St. John the Baptist, Ivy. Our rector, the Rev. Jim Richardson, and St. John’s vicar, the Rev. Kathleen Sturges, each named four parishioners to the Listening Group. The Group met six times in two-hour sessions from March 8 to May 3, using the Windsor Dialogue Commission designated format, under the guidance of a diocese-trained facilitator.

At the initial session we agreed to “ground rules” for the group that included boundaries, confidentiality, and a commitment to listen carefully and make “I statements.” It is important to note that the stated objective of the Listening Process is neither persuasion nor argumentation, but open and honest communication with the goal of mutual understanding. The process is about listening and sharing, not debate; understanding without requiring agreement. In our experience, the sharing was indeed honest and open, at times intense, and all participants consistently manifested respect and quietly focused attention. As a result, the process was more a series of monologues—with such responses as there were mostly signaling understanding, empathy, and appreciation—than it was a conversational dialogue. Nevertheless, we believe the objective of mutual understanding was indeed accomplished.

According to the R-5 Commission report, the overarching goal of the Listening Process is “discernment of a possible ‘emerging consensus’ with regard to the permitting of ‘local option’ for the blessing of same-gender unions” in the diocese. In no session, however, was this topic among those provided in the format; in none of our meetings was it a subject of discussion. Likewise, there was no provision in any session for direct discussion of scriptural passages variously said to forbid, permit, or support committed same-gender partnerships, nor did that discussion happen. It became clear instead that the Listening Process itself is not directly about those questions, but about all that we each bring to the table when we consider (or debate) the full sacramental inclusion of those among us who are gay or lesbian, not only in baptism and Eucharist, but in matrimony, ordination, and consecration.

Each two-hour session followed a similar format: After an opening prayer, participants responded to an opening statement or question (an “ice breaker” so called, although in most sessions it was considerably more substantive—and difficult—than “ice breakers” generally are). We then spent the majority of the two hours in the “sharing time” segment, in which we responded to specific topics or questions in some depth, with the facilitator ensuring the “ground rules” were followed. The session concluded with a reflective Bible study, in which we read the designated passage through three times, with silence between the readings, and then spoke of connections we saw between the text and what we had been talking about during the session.

In the initial session, we explored what could be called our “spiritual autobiographies,” telling each other our background in and current relation to our faith and to the church; the Bible passage that ended that session was Luke 19.1-7, in which Jesus invites himself to the house of Zaccheus the tax collector. We took this discussion further in the second session, which focused on our experience in our own parish in some detail, including what draws us and keeps us there and whether and why we might consider leaving. For this session, our Bible study centered on Psalm 84, “How lovely is thy dwelling place.” After an hour’s break for supper (scheduling was definitely one of our biggest problems; this was a two-session marathon day), we continued with the third session, in which the focus broadened beyond church to our memories, from childhood on, of experiences in which we felt particularly included or excluded. The biblical text for that evening was Acts 10.1-20, the story in which Peter dreams that God challenges and corrects him about definitions of “clean” and “unclean,” after which he is then called upon to baptize the non-Jewish Cornelius and his family.

The fourth session was the crux of the process, and certainly the most difficult time of “sharing.” The subject was sexuality but, in keeping with the tenor of the process, it was not what we think about sexuality and its possible expressions, but rather our own experience of coming to awareness about sexuality and how our understanding has changed over time. This session is the only one of the six in which we were asked to speak directly about sexuality; the subject certainly arose in other sessions, but only because we knew it was the subtext of the entire process. The concluding Bible study was reflection on Genesis 1.26-31, the first of the two stories about the creation of human beings—the story of male and female created as two facets of androgynous humanity, not the later Genesis 2 story in which woman is fashioned from man’s rib to be a helper to him.

At our fifth meeting, we first talked about what had stayed with us from the previous session, and about whether and how what we heard had affected our views of the current controversy in the church. We then spoke of our hopes for the future of the church, what we think it should look like, and finished with reflection on Matthew 15. 29-37, the feeding of the 4000—in which, as was noted by the group, Jesus creates abundance and Jesus’ disciples are charged with distributing it. The final session was largely evaluative; we spoke of what we had experienced and learned over the previous sessions, and in doing so crafted the report our facilitator would forward to the Bishop. The concluding Bible study was of Acts 2.1-13, the story of Pentecost, when the observers responded to the power of the Holy Spirit in a variety of ways, including bafflement, curiosity, and derision.

The report generated in that session, we learned late in the process, is for the Bishop only and is not to be shared with our own parishes. Together with reports from the other five groups, all of which have now completed their meetings, our responses comprise the results of this pilot study. We have no information, and little basis on which to speculate, about what will now happen in this process or what the Bishop or the R-5 Commission expected or hoped for from it.

When asked, in the final session, what we had learned from the process, our answers were all over the board. In many ways, it was truthful to say we had learned nothing that showed a clear path forward. On the other hand, we learned a great deal about ourselves and about each other. We learned the sweetness of true, heartfelt communication, when trust is present and honesty valued. We saw how a sense of community is born out of that trust, openness, and safety. We learned both how different “Episcopalians” are, and how alike. We learned that, no matter where we stand on issues or what our experiences have been, talking about sex in “I statements” is far from simple; it is both difficult and complex. The complexity of what we all bring to our discussions about sexuality and the church is a very good thing to have learned, casting doubt on simplistic and reductive polarizations, the usual fodder of debates on questions of scriptural interpretation and definitions of justice.

The Listening Process did not, and perhaps is not really designed to, engender or uncover consensus on the issues about sexuality currently troubling the church. However, it seems to us to have rich potential for fostering respect, trust, and love among the members of our diverse diocese, even when we are not of one mind on matters of sexuality. Through this groundwork comes the hope for us at St. Paul’s for a progressive future where all of God’s children are affirmed in their right to the full sacramental blessings of the Church. It is clear that the Holy Spirit is at work in our diocese—we surely covered sacred ground in our courageous sharing and heart-felt listening—yet the work at hand is just beginning. As a group we appreciate the trust and support St. Paul’s gave us as we experienced this process; we now ask you to pray that the Bishop continues this process and to support the work required to make whole our part in the Body of Christ.

1 comment:

Janice Dean said...

Thank you, Margaret, Mildred, Peter, and Simeon, for sharing this report with us. It is almost painful to read this very concise summary of your experience while knowing that I cannot ask you questions about it, even though I understand and deeply respect that decision. I am personally grateful to you for your courage in participating in this process, and I hope and pray with you that your efforts will bear wonderful fruit for our diocese and the larger church.

I have often pondered, of late, how God's work is never easy, even though Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Perhaps he is speaking of the peace we gain after we have done God's (often very difficult) work. I hope, through this process, that you have gained some new peace both for yourselves and for all the rest of us. Thank you again.