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Westminster Faith Debates, Unity and Diversity: by Erika Baker





A purely subjective account


I had been really looking forward to the Westminster Faith Debate “Diversity – what kind of unity is appropriate nationally and internationally, how can diversity become a strength?”, the penultimate one in this year’s series organised by Professor Linda Woodhead from Lancaster University.


The format of the debates is a 5 minute talk by each of the panellists followed by a brief moderated discussion between them, which is really more a question and answer format than a genuine conversation between the speakers. There is then a period for contributions from the floor and slightly longer contributions from the designated provocateurs.


I won’t summarise all the contributions here, they can shortly be listened to here, and Colin Coward published a very good summary of them here  .


Laura has asked me for a “smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd” contribution… well, the first thing to say is that there was indeed a full crowd, plenty of spontaneous applause (as well as the customary “end of speech” version) and that there were many interesting questions raised by various people in the audience.


The first speaker was Bishop Trevor Mwamba from Botswana, now Assistant Bishop in Chelmsford. I must confess, I had not heard of Bishop Trevor before and my initial suspicion was “an African bishop, well, we can guess where this is going”. I was delighted when Bishop Trevor spoke warmly about embracing diversity, and I also felt hugely ashamed of my completely unfounded original prejudice. SUCH a dangerous thing, suspicion and prejudice, and although I try so hard to be genuinely open to everyone, I still catch myself out every now and then.


It made me think that much of our debates around women bishops and about lgbt inclusion is characterised by mutual suspicion.


That perception was reinforced when the discussion was opened up to the floor and the first question was for a show of hands about whether the audience believed that the vote on women bishops had been a success and that it would provide stability and unity in difference. The vast majority voted “yes”, but I sensed with great hesitation, and if we had known that there would be a third option “we don’t know yet”, many of us would probably have voted for that. Talking to people afterwards, it was clear that traditionalists weren’t sure that the promises given to them would be kept indefinitely, whereas the women were still shocked by the complete lack of joy and celebration in General Synod after the final vote in favour and felt that there was still a very long way to go before the church truly celebrated women’s ministry.


One of the key comments for me came from Miranda Threlfall-Holmes who said that when she had first been one of those who came up with the idea of “mutual flourishing” it had been intended to be not a legalistic but a relational concept whereby we are each committed to the flourishing of the other. Since then, the term had morphed to mean “my right” to “my own flourishing”.

It is not clear to me why we can’t have both, why a focus on someone else’s flourishing is seen as threatening my own rights and place. And for me our inability to say not “either/or” but “both” will remain one of the great mysteries of our church debates. But if we could do what Miranda proposes, if we could focus on relationships and on the flourishing of the other, we would be a good deal further on than we are.


The actual debate was incredibly polite and measured, to the point that Simon Sarmiento criticised the panellists for being too nice to each other.


Someone from the floor commented that people tend to be nice when they meet face to face but that they can be quite vicious online.


Yes…. but no. It’s not the tone of the debate that’s the problem but its content. Anger and insults are as counterproductive as this appalling ice cold, dismissive politeness that so often characterises our conversations. Last night’s debate was perfectly polite but also, at some level, perfectly bland. I suspect it’s partly the format of the moderated panel discussion that does not allow a robust debate to develop. All anyone can do is to disagree politely and there is no mechanism and no time for teasing out the root of disagreement and of engaging with that passionately.


For me, coming from the lgbt sector, there is the added frustration of this huge imbalance of power, because my views about my own life still count for nothing in the church. We are still not formally included in the next round of discussions, which feels like yet again others talking passionately about us behind closed doors, reserving the right to make decisions on our behalf.

Having heard David Porter speak, I do believe that if anyone can make a go of guiding the conversations in the church, it is him. He has a sense of urgency and an appreciation of the difficulties on all sides. And yet, suspicion remains my overriding emotion.


This was encapsulated perfectly by a passionate contribution from the floor from a woman who had the courage to make the debate personal and who started by saying that God clearly had a sense of humour, making her female, gay and evangelical! She asked about the reality of lgtb suffering in the church and at the hand of church. And while there was passionate applause for her and some very heart-felt comments from the panellists, especially from Alan Wilson and Miranda, Andrew Symes from Anglican Mainstream acknowledged that Christian demands weren’t always easy for people and that one had to have compassion, but that one nevertheless had to draw lines…and we were back in the “head space”, the territory of supposedly purely theological and rational debate about us, where people take ownership of their ideas but no responsibility for the impact these ideas have on real people’s lives. And we just have to sit back and trust these people to decide our future in the church… not easy!


Fascinating also how we all hear each other’s contributions in our own way, reinforcing our own thoughts.

Miranda spoke very clearly about the problems presented by the bible, about how the historical texts get many things wrong, about the various theologies and the diversity within its many books.

Andrew, in his final summing up, commented that one of the things he had heard that evening was that people had problems with the bible. He stressed that he didn’t have any, his church didn’t have any.

And it was clear that had heard what Miranda had said as a liberal admission of confusion rather than complexity, and of not taking the bible seriously.

We have this inability to truly hear what the other is saying and we only ever seem to reinforce our own stereotype of their views.


How can one break through this?

For a possible approach we could turn to the women bishops debate and the almost hopeless situation after the first vote was lost in General Synod. There seemed no way out, everything had been said, people were talking at each other rather than with each other, there was a sense of fatigue, and one could almost believe that it would be impossible to break the deadlock.

Yesterday, David Porter talked about that moment and about the facilitated conversations that followed.

At the start of the subsequent facilitated conversations he asked everyone to take half an hour to think about how the debate so far had impacted on them.

And everyone replied that it had damaged their souls.

With that common experience, that shared admission at the heart of the issue, it became possible to find a new way forward.

Of course, women were eventually an official part of the debate about women bishops in the House of Bishops as well as in the House of Clergy and the House of Laity, whereas lgbt people are still not properly represented in the official process. It matters, because until you can hear everyone’s voices you cannot reach a stable solution. And it matters, because while we are not included, we remain on the outside, firmly and increasingly suspicious.


But we are where we are and this is the point from which we must move forward.

So maybe it’s time to do the same in the lgbt debate. It’s time for all of us accept not only our own hurt but that we are all damaged by this discussion, and that we must find a way forward. For our sakes, for the sake of those who oppose us and for the sake of the whole church. And if official church won’t include us in its conversations, we have to continue to shout loudly from the sidelines.


The diversity is already there. We don’t need to talk about whether we can have it or not. We need to recognise it honestly and find an honest and open way of living with it.

How could that be possible? Maybe we have discussed the morality of same sex relationships to death. We won’t agree and it’s time to shift the focus. It’s time to recognise that all sides in this debate hold their views with sincerity, integrity and great faith. If we could learn to respect each other and to recognise each other’s integrity, we could follow Alan Wilson’s practical and thoroughly scriptural proposal and recognise that Romans 14 requires us to live with diversity and that it provides a blueprint for how this is possible.


Can we do that?

Yesterday’s debate didn’t offer an answer, but it did offer some small measure of hope.


 Note by editor:

-Thank-you Erika – you have brilliantly filled the gap that I was feeling. Like many people, I have been avidly listening to the podcasts and reading the Facebook discussions arising from the debates in this series. What I was really missing was the camaraderie, the human exchanges and this piece really transports me and our readers to the debating chamber

-Attempting to find a copyright-free illustration to this post, I have taken a snapshot of the blog page on the Westminster Faith Debates website, which I think and hope does not transgress copyright law. But if anyone objects, I will of course remove it.



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