by Dr Jo Sadgrove, Research Fellow at the Centre for Religion and Public Life at the University of Leeds; Research and Learning advisor, USPG and Member of the Social & Biological Science working group of LLF
Over the years, I have been fortunate to spend some time analysing sexuality, Christian belonging and community life around the Anglican Communion. These experiences have encouraged me to consider debates about same-sex relationships within the Anglican Communion as reflecting aspects of global power dynamics. In this short piece, I want to think not about sexuality or sexual identity per se, but about power. Specifically, how processes like LLF over the next few years might protect those people who have had their power taken away by the churches’ actions within and between different parts of the Anglican Communion. LGBTQI+ people around the world have suffered hugely in the crossfire of global exchanges that are as much about international relations as they are about physical bodies. A nuanced conversation about the nature of power within and between national institutions is, to me, a critical part of what debates about same-sex relationships require.
I have found the spectre of the Anglican Communion within the LLF discussions rather puzzling. At one point in the process there was talk of reporting to the Lambeth Conference, that LLF might be a ‘gift’ to the Communion. Such thinking seemed to echo the Church of England’s unequal historic relationship with the Anglican Communion. Perhaps I misunderstood the intent, but it struck me at the time that we needed to turn the conversation on its head – to ask and explore what engaging other parts of the Anglican Communion might offer to the Church of England’s conversation about sexuality, society and scripture. By this, I do not mean using church stances on sexuality in other parts of the world to garner support for differing perspectives held in the Church of England. Rather, trying to suspend disbelief and enter a ‘third space’ in which to think through assumptions about the relationships between sexual identity and practice, social performance, marriage, material wellbeing, the nature of leadership and the Christian tradition, not least the role of the Bible.
Many years ago, I had the privilege of being part of the evaluation team for the Communion-wide Continuing Indaba process. These ambitious cross-provincial encounters sought to break the dominance of western parliamentary-style ways of negotiating differences of view in relation to a number of issues across the Communion. Representatives from three different provinces spent a week living in each others’ contexts to learn about the life of the church in each place. The group then engaged in a facilitated conversation about difference. The process drew on a Zulu process for conflict transformation in which community members gather to share their perspectives on an issue facing or dividing the community. Continuing Indaba did not aim to avoid conflict or foster consensus across the conversation groups, but to nurture an understanding of how contexts shaped attitudes towards a range of challenges facing the churches including mission and evangelism, social justice, Christian ethics and sexuality.
The Indaba project required a great deal of courage from participants; many approached it with real fear. The discomforts of culture shock and profound personal vulnerability were felt in all of the encounters. Conversations were challenging and often painful. Participants had to confront aspects of themselves and their cultures that were uncomfortable and hard to acknowledge. Power dynamics were complex and differed greatly across the different groups. Patriarchy, racism, prejudice and (colonial) power had to be heard and explored by the groups. Yet despite the personal challenges, the value to the majority of participants of seeing their own church, context and worldview refracted through the perspectives of those from different provinces was clear. There was a marked growth of confidence in engaging in conversations where there existed real differences of view. We could see an emerging desire to engage with openness and curiosity rather than out of defensiveness or hostility. There was no expectation that minds would be changed on any of the issues. But the combinations of different provincial voices, the shifting vulnerabilities as people moved from context to context, and the building of relationships through the mutual exploration of another context profoundly re-shaped the conversation about same-sex relationships.
It strikes me that this kind of engagement is one that the LLF resources seek to foster – to open the space for engagement rather than closing it down. Continuing Indaba was challenging. It teaches us that careful facilitation, constant vigilance over power dynamics within group discussions and the protection of those who are making themselves vulnerable are integral to such an undertaking. Ensuring that these aspects are in place will be the true test for the Church of England over the coming years.
In a recent book The Weirdest People in the World, Joseph Henrich explores the exceptionalism of those raised in societies that are Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. In unravelling the peculiar nature of the Western psyche, Henrich reminds us of the profound challenges in understanding the limitations of our own cultural perspectives. Working across cultures is extremely helpful for identifying blind spots within our own thinking – for ensuring that the questions that might loom large when examining another context are addressed when seeking to understand ourselves. At its best, cross cultural engagement helps us grasp how very distinct our own discourses are for thinking and talking about sexuality and prejudice. It ensures that projections onto ‘homophobic Africans’ or ‘the permissive west’ (both stereotypes Continuing Indaba had to grapple with) are recognised as such, queried and neutralised so that real engagement can happen.
For many involved on all sides of LLF, the Anglican Communion looms as another challenge for the Church of England’s deliberations. Why is this? Because the global Anglican context calls for a deeper engagement with many of the fundamental questions that underpinned early missionary expansion. Issues of money, power and race continue to inform both debates about sexuality in the Anglican Communion and global mission. One of the most challenging legacies of colonialism, mission and international development appears to have been that of fixing the categories of ‘donor’ and ‘recipient’ in the minds of those who live in the global north and global south respectively. Whilst there is a wholehearted desire in the Church of England to practise mission in a mutual relationship of giving and receiving, there remain very entrenched ways of thinking about who might offer what to where, and limited thinking about how these habits and mentalities might be liberated from the crucible of colonialism, slavery and empire in which they were, for better or worse, shaped.
Issues of race and class intersect in powerful ways within global debates about sexuality. The Anglican Communion holds and reflects these painful realities. To see these for what they are clarifies our understanding about how national, church and interest-group power structures can inflict multiple oppressions. We can see these at work in some of the more hostile commentary that has followed the publication of LLF. Mutual encounters across contexts in which the intent is not to agree but to suspend disbelief, to listen, to draw on different knowledges and models of being Anglican indicate how liberation might be possible. Perhaps through deeper cross-contextual engagement, the Anglican Communion can be seen for the gift that it is and the Church of England can learn what it is to experience the vulnerability of being a recipient. Perhaps this is all part of the Archbishops’ call at this week’s General Synod to become a simpler, humbler Church.
 For a valuable account of the impact and potential of the Continuing Indaba process see Nesbitt, P.D., 2017. Indaba!: A way of listening, engaging, and understanding across the Anglican communion. Church Publishing, Inc..