Janet Marshall and Charley Thomas
Mission is the central theme of this book, as we noted earlier, and part of the common ground across divisions over sexuality. In addition, in the last chapter Michael Poon and Ian Douglas agreed that listening and mission are acts of love and ‘ways in which the Christian community engages the world . . . ways of being present in the real world in its broken and gifted experience’. As we prepare to approach issues of sexuality, which will be the focus of the following sections, we do so in the light of the commitment of the bishops of the 1998 Lambeth Conference to ‘listen to the experience of homosexual persons’ and of ACC-13’s commendation of mutual listening. In relation to both mission and sexuality, therefore, a central question is: ‘How can we best listen to others and learn to dialogue with them?’ This chapter is a very effective guide to the tasks of listening and dialogue written by two experienced practitioners.
Janet Marshall and Charley Thomas come from quite different parts of the Communion - Canada and Zambia respectively. In this chapter they provide guidance for those wanting to engage in listening and dialogue about difficult and controversial subjects. They offer some very useful ways of facilitating listening and dialogue processes. This help and down-to-earth advice comes from their extensive experience of facilitating listening processes, primarily for mission. The principles they offer us come from both a commitment to learning and also from practical experience. They can be applied to all kinds of situations and we hope you will be able to apply them whether you are running a Church Council or a Synod.
Listening and dialogue may seem easy but in reality it is something we often find very hard. Evidence for this is that there are countless training programs and consultants who make their living by helping people listen and speak to each other respectfully, honestly and constructively. It is even more difficult when what we are trying to talk about is a difficult or taboo subject, perceived as causing conflict, and when we speak from a variety of different cultures. Such is the case in our Anglican conversations about the place of gay and lesbian people in the life of the Church. The good news is that the necessary skills can be learnt and implemented even in the most difficult circumstances.
After introducing some biblical and theological reflections on the call to listen, the chapter highlights the challenge of cross-cultural listening. Particularly in relation to an issue like sexuality, we need to learn how to disagree in a loving, Christianmanner, and here the example of Paul’s advice to the Philippian church and some Mennonite principles are examined. An important distinction is then drawn between debate, on the one hand, and listening and dialogue on the other. Janet and Charley commend and focus on these last two as ways forward. To help with this they offer concrete, practical guidance on how to listen in a dialogue group in a receptive, encouraging and reflective manner. Such ‘deep listening’ helps us understand others and to speak for ourselves in the group. It also enables us to be hard on issues but soft on people. Good dialogue also requires good facilitation and so guidance is offered here on the role of the facilitator and the importance of agreed group norms. Tips are given as to how to facilitate well and how to respond to particular challenges that can arise. The final section focuses on how to encourage listening rather than dialogue, using the example of the ‘Sharing Circle’ from North American indigenous peoples.
This chapter precedes detailed discussion about sexuality because, as Christians, listening to God and to others is a fundamental Christian discipline and a basic expression of our faithfulness and love. It is one of the ways in which we obey the commandments to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22.37-39).
As you read through this chapter and even more as you put its many principles and tips into practice, you may find helpful the following words from Dietrich Bonhoef-fer, the distinguished German theologian writing about life in Christian community at another time of great conflict in the Church:
The first service one owes to others in the community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them. God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives us God’s Word but also lends us God’s ear. We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them. So often Christians, especially preachers, think that their only service is always to have to ‘offer’ something when they are together with other people. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people seek a sympathetic ear and do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking even when they should be listening. But Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either; they will always be talking even in the presence of God. The death of the spiritual life starts here, and in the end there is nothing left but empty spiritual chatter and clerical condescension which chokes on pious words. Those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others, and finally no longer will even notice it. Those who think their time is too precious to spend listening will never really have time for God and others, but only for themselves and their own words and plans.
For Christians, pastoral care differs essentially from preaching in that here the task of listening is joined to the task of speaking the Word. There is also a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. This impatient, inattentive listening regularly despises the other Christian and finally is only waiting to get a chance to speak and thus to get rid of the other. This sort of listening is no fulfilment of our task. And it is certain that here, too, in our attitude toward other Christians we simply see reflected our own relationship to God. It should be no surprise that we are no longer able to perform the greatest service of listening that God has entrusted to us - hearing the confession of another Christian - if we refuse to lend our ear to another person on lesser subjects. The pagan world today knows something about persons who often can be helped only by having someone who will seriously listen to them. On this insight it has built its own secular form of pastoral care, which has become popular with many people, including Christians. But Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been entrusted to them by the One who is indeed the great listener and in whose work they are to participate. We should listen with the ears of God, so that we can speak the Word of God.
Beresford, Eric. “Community and Diversity: The Role of Perspective in Debates about Human Sexuality”, in Catherine Sider Hamilton (ed.), The Homosexuality Debate: Faith in Search of Understanding, Toronto: ABC Publications, 2003
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc, 1954
Moore, Gareth. A Question of Truth, London: Continuum, 2002
Runcorn, David. “Some Principles for Meeting with People Whose Beliefs Differ From Mine”, October, 2003
Senge, Peter et al. The Fifth Discipline Filedbook, New York: Doubleday, 1994
Wright. N.T. Matthew for Everyone (Part 1), London, SPCK, 2004
“General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church 1995.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online
General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church. (1995). ‘Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love - Commitments for Mennonites in Times of Disagreement’
David Runcorn ‘Some Principles For Meeting with People Whose Beliefs Differ From Mine’ [article for resources from around the world – England]
Sue Burns ‘A Diocesan Conversation on Homosexuality’
Stephen Lyon ‘Listening with loving attention’