Around the Connexion, Methodists are being asked to participate in conversations about the Conference Report on Marriage and Relationships, God in love unites us. For many, this is an area of discussion fraught with difficulties and they would prefer to avoid it if possible. For others, it raises very strong emotions, some of which are unreflective and can come across as intimidating, offensive or violent to others.
It is important, therefore, that sufficient preparation is done by organisers of events to ensure that, as far as possible, individuals are not put at risk and difficult emotions and experiences, if raised, are dealt with sensitively and pastorally. Most of the advice given below is well rehearsed in other contexts with resource material freely available online.
‘If we cannot as yet think alike in all things, at least we may love alike.’
Both in his Sermon 39 and his Letter to a Roman Catholic, John Wesley eloquently commended the Catholic Spirit to all Methodists. We have taken the characteristics of the Catholic Spirit as our guide to good conferring:
‘Let us resolve, first, not to hurt one another’
In setting up these conversations, organisers need to recognise that people are potentially making themselves very vulnerable. It is not possible to offer a completely safe space, whilst also seeking to hear a wide range of opinions. However, organisers and facilitators need to be especially sensitive to the power imbalance in the room and that participants will engage at different levels. It is therefore, vital, that participants agree a set of ground rules about respect.
‘secondly, … to speak nothing harsh or unkind to each other’
Words have great power, to heal and to wound. In asking participants to use words carefully, this is about being heard rather than censorship. Organisers must ensure that there is adequate facilitation of any conversations and that inappropriate language or tone is challenged immediately. This is never easy but, should someone say something inappropriately, it might be that the facilitator stops the conversation and says:
‘ I don’t know whether you are aware, but the words/phrase/tone you used is hurtful and offensive to others. I assume that wasn’t your intention, so can you think about how to rephrase that thought in ways that don’t cause offense?’
‘thirdly, … to harbour no unkindly thought, no unfriendly temper’
It may be the case that some participants may turn up to state their view without listening to others. Some may seek to disrupt the meeting or dominate it with their views. This kind of behaviour is not only inappropriate in Christian conferring, but can be intimidatory to those who are especially vulnerable.
Should this kind of behaviour occur, facilitators must be prepared to intervene quickly to close it down. If individuals refuse to cooperate with the rules of the meeting, then ultimately, they should be asked to leave.
For those who are LGBTQI+, our advice will always be to call out intimidation and bullying where it occurs, but primarily to move to a place of safety where no further harm can be done. This may mean that, where offensive behaviour persists and is not tackled, removing oneself from the conversation altogether.
‘fourthly, endeavour to help each other on in whatever we are agreed leads to the Kingdom.’
This is a conversation between Christians and should reflect the love we share. That love includes reflecting with others on Scripture and the Christian life in order to seek the Kingdom. Setting the meeting in that context is important – through prayer, worship and symbol – and it may be necessary to call participants back to that focus at times during the gather.
‘Love me with the love that is long-suffering and kind; that is patient
Ideally, organisers will help participants to see the gathering as an act of Christian Conferring, in the eyes of John Wesley, a means of grace. That involves some speaking but mainly listening to other Christians in order to discern the mind of Christ.
Using methods of conferring, such as Indaba from Africa or a Circle Conversation from the Pacific, where listening and speaking is formalised, may help participants to engage more fully in this process. Information about these cultural treasures are easily located online.
‘commend me to God in all thy prayers; wrestle with him in my behalf, that he would speedily correct what he sees amiss, and supply what is wanting in me.’
Encourage participants to pray for one another with the kind of humility that sees the log in our own eye rather than the speck in the eyes of others. It is the Spirit’s job to convict of wrong and sin, not ours! Our job is to love and one of our aims in participating in any gathering about Marriage and Relationships should be that those who disagree with us know better, by the end of the meeting, how much we love them.
‘Lastly, love me not in word only, but in deed and in truth.’
Words are important, but actions speak much louder. When we say that we love others, the way we engage with them will prove out words true or not. Setting one of the goals of any gathering, perhaps one might be how we love more?
‘So far as in conscience thou canst (retaining still thy own opinions, and thy own manner of worshipping God), join with me in the work of God; and let us go on hand in hand.’
These are not opportunities to convert or convince and that must be made clear at the outset. Our conferring begins with enough respect of the other to recognise that they have also read their Bible and thought and studied and prayed in order to arrive at their particular view. It is not that we go in with closed minds, but rather that we seek to be authentic to our own position and listen to others express theirs. As with any gathering in which the Spirit is present, we expect to be changed, but we do not predict that change.
In honouring the conscience of the other, we undertake not to ask others to do things we know they cannot. Nor do we judge others who cannot take certain steps.
Good practice would suggest that, in addition to facilitators, each meeting should make provision for pastoral support in the form of chaplains, available throughout the meeting, and for follow up. Given the sensitivity of the matters under discussion, there is every chance that incidents will be disclosed that fall under our safeguarding policy. Organisers should make clear that, for that reason, only limited confidentiality can be offered.
At the heart of Methodism is good conferring. We offer these guidelines as a contribution to that process.
Download a pdf copy: RESPECTFUL CONFERRING-draft guidelines