Bishop Nigel’s recent article in Dundee Courier - Discussing the un-discussable


How can we discuss difficult topics on which people have such disparate views that they find it almost impossible to accommodate each other?

I have recently been invited to chair a group which will design a process for the discussion throughout the Scottish Episcopal Church about same-sex relationships. A poisoned chalice or a great opportunity? Most certainly the latter though I guess time will tell.

The turbulence experienced this week at the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly illustrates just how difficult it can be for people to agree a common response to changing social attitudes, ending up with an interim compromise.

Within our church we have both gay and straight clergy and members, my own diocese here in Dundee, Angus and beyond included. Nevertheless the challenge to embrace Christian same-sex marriage is now before us and marks a further stage in our thinking.

My hope is to devise an approach which will be generous and thoughtful, enabling conversations that respect different opinions across the wide geography of Scotland. Discussions tend to be better when they are not reduced to issues but are focused more on people simply speaking and listening carefully to one another.

Many churches and organisations around the world have embraced this approach – called indaba, a Southern African term for gathering or meeting where all voices contribute to an evolving outcome. It relies more on consensus than voting and gives great weight to keeping the community together and avoiding schism.

In a similar way the Scottish Government consults other bodies, the churches included, on social issues involving religious conscience or ethical sensitivities. They do so where legislation is proposed but not yet drafted and before parliament. The window for our reply is typically a rather tighter timetable than we would wish but we always respond.

In recent times the churches have responded to official consultations about human trafficking, assisted dying and same-sex marriage. Clergy and members of all Christian denominations will of course hold a range of views on these matters. In the political arena, parliamentarians too may exercise a free vote where their conscience and religious perspective are at odds with their party’s policy.

Many people wonder why the Church just doesn’t hurry up and come on side with contemporary lifestyle choices. It is argued that it would make us more relevant. However there is a fine balance to be struck between perceptions of relevance and an appreciation of what our traditions still have to offer.

The task of the Church is to be the Church. Rushing into fashionable change does not always guarantee the best outcomes, nor second guess unintended consequences. Neither can the Church bury its head in the sand and pretend that our inherited understandings cannot be improved upon.

Contemporary Christian beliefs and choices are simply what they have always been - our considered gift to society which individuals are free to discard or to explore. 

Published in Dundee Courier on 24 May 2013

The Rt Rev Dr Nigel Peyton is the Bishop of Brechin of the Scottish Episcopal Church

Categories: BishopReflections