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Bishops say tone of Lambeth Conference hearings differs from smaller gatherings

Opinions, not relationships, dominate some testimony

[Episcopal News Service, Canterbury] While the 2008 Lambeth Conference's Bible study and indaba groups may have developed into places of deep conversation and relationship-building, the tone of the plenary hearings is another matter.

In their official statements, bishops who have served as media spokespeople both for the conference and for the Episcopal Church have usually spoken only about the activities of their eight-member Bible study groups and 40-member indaba groups. They generally portray those gatherings positively, while noting that there have been times when the groups have had to adjust their processes to accommodate members' concerns. They have repeatedly remarked about the quality of the relationships they are building.

At the other end of the spectrum are the conference's July 23 and 28 hearings on the "preliminary observations" of the Windsor Continuation Group and July 30 and 31 and August 1 draft versions of a reflection document due to be issued at the end of the conference.

Episcopal Church bishops described to ENS a range of experiences during those hearings. Some asked not to be identified. One bishop said he heard inaccurate statistics being tossed back and forth. Another said the hearings consisted mainly of wordsmithing interspersed with strongly expressed opinions. Some noted that they had not attended all the hearings.

Bishop Greg Kerr-Wilson of the Canadian Diocese of Qu'Appelle said the hearings he attended featured a "wide variety of opinions but expressed very respectfully."

Noting that those 90-minute hearings have featured testimony about "some of the more contentious issues" facing the conference, Bishop Coadjutor Shannon Johnston of the Diocese of Virginia said the gatherings "are not as predicated on the relationships you have around you" as are the Bible study and indaba groups, but are instead "really just about addressing the issues."

That change of emphasis meant a change in the tone some bishops have used to speak to each other during the hearings, he said. "You remove from the relationships and you see it becomes more strident."

On the other hand, Northern Indiana Bishop Edward Little said, "hearing strong viewpoints is not a bad thing for both sides." In such an "open-mike" setting, Little said, people "are only going to go to the mike if they're passionate about something."

Little said that "people expressed themselves with passion representing very different points of view" with little nuance.

Johnston said that, after some of the hearings, he encountered bishops who were "distressed, upset or became concerned about how things are going." Yet, when he spoke with them the next day after they had been back to their Bible study and indaba groups, their perspective had broadened.

Such a balance between being able to express opinions and live in relationships is "a good model for what life in the church should be like," he said. Life is about relationships, he said, "not just opinions." Johnston praised the conference design group for creating such a balance.

Little said that his greater concern was that during the first two hearings, the Episcopal Church was "perhaps the dominant voice." The situation troubled him because he wanted "to hear from the whole communion and not just us."

Yet, the bishops who attended the hearings during which many Episcopal Church bishops spoke perhaps "did get to experience the breadth of the Episcopal Church" and see that "we are not monochromatic" when it comes to the issues facing the communion, Little said.

There have been questions about whether the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada have had the opportunity to explain how they have arrived at their stances on the full inclusion of homosexual persons in the lives of their provinces. Canadian Primate Fred Hiltz told the Anglican Journal August 1 that he asked during the second Continuation Group hearing for the chance to be heard on the Canadian church's stance on blessing of same-gender relationships but received no response.

"My understanding of a hearing is obviously different from their understanding of a hearing," he told the Canadian church's national newspaper. "My understanding is if you're going to have a hearing, you sit and listen and you allow a church, a province to tell its story."

He said that while in his indaba group he found that people were "really trying hard to listen, to hear from whence the other person is coming from," he did not experience "that same kind of respectful listening in the hearing process." There is "a huge amount of goodwill here on the part of people but there's a pile of posturing that's going on at this point," he said, adding that "it feels to me like people are still talking past one another."

Hiltz said that requests made by the Episcopal Church in the U.S. for an opportunity to explain how it arrived at a decision to consecrate Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop of New Hampshire, have similarly been ignored.

Bishop Dorsey Henderson of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina said at the August 1 Episcopal Church media briefing the sense of not being understood "is generally felt with us, too."

"I think the decision that has been made is that we are trying to do that one on one rather than some resolution, some public statement … may be felt to be heavy and of American arrogance," he said. "And so we decided the best way is to do that one-on-one."

Asked the same question during the July 31 Episcopal Church briefing, both North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith and Los Angeles Bishop Jon Bruno said the one-to-one route seems to be working as hoped for. Bruno said sitting down together and looking each other in the eye while talking results in a connection "at a deeper level than we would have been able to do in a written document."

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for Episcopal Church governance, structure, and trends.

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