I had a bit of déjà-vu today. Meeting with an outside facilitator at the General Synod in small groups of around 20 reminded me of the indaba groups at the 2008 Lambeth Conference. And then, as now, people excluded from the conversations complained about 'secrecy' – clearly unable to distinguish between sinister scheming in the shadows and private conversations.
Sometimes people need to create the space in which to have a different sort of conversation than the ones normally conducted in public. When the General Synod comes to re-ignite the women bishops process, it clearly needs to begin in a different place from where it ended last November.
One of the problems for the Synod is that it is shaped by parliamentary models that are essentially adversarial, charging debates with a win-lose goal. This (a) means that parties establish and bolster their line before the debate and (b) leaves no room for individuals to change their mind on an issue in the course of an informed debate. It isn't a healthy way for the church to discern and shape its future.
The culture change requested by the Archbishop of Canterbury in his Presidential Address yesterday clearly needs to begin here.
So, today we met in groups and explored the experiences of the failed process of the last twelve years (and last November in particular), asking what might be learned for the process going forward. In my group we were honest, frank, respectful and, I think, courageous in facing reality. It has been an intense, but helpful day in general. And at least we weren't asked to do role-play…
Behind the emotive questions about experience and perceptions, however, there lurks a really hard question: can this circle actually be squared? Is it possible for the church to have bishops who are bishops who are bishops – rather than some bishops (female) who are, however politely expressed, less episcopal than other bishops? Is it possible to discriminate and not discriminate at the same time? Can a yes be simultaneously a no?
In one sense, we live by paradoxes, and a way through this conundrum should be detectable. At the moment it is not clear where this way might be found. And some think it is now time to be clear and honest about what is possible, what is achievable, and what might be regrettably necessary. This is a debate between a vision of a clear church with clear lines and identities… and a fuzzy church that can live with inadequacy and mess.
The beauty of indaba and what we did today is simply that it offers the space in which honest conversation can happen and we don't have to be watching over our shoulders to see how what is ventured might be reported. I can't yet see how we can square the circles regarding women bishops; but, I do think November's shock and today's process have a chance of creating a refreshed culture in which the sensitive issues can be addressed with humility, generosity and greater clarity.
We will see in Monday's debate if any difference has been made. I hope so.