The Listening Process

Listening with loving attention - Stephen Lyon - Partnership Secretary of The Church of England's Partnership for World Mission

In his Presidential address at the July 2005 General Synod, held just the day after the horrific London bombings, Archbishop Rowan suggested that “routine friendship and co-operation remains the best hope we have in any conflict of finding ways forward; nothing really can substitute for face to face encounter, when even the sharpest differences of conviction … can be held with respect”. He went on to describe such respect as giving “loving attention” to the other and suggested this should characterise the listening process that the ACC called for in relation to the present conflict within the Communion around issues of human sexuality.

What, in practice, might it mean to listen with “loving attention” ? In 2005 representatives from the dioceses of Akure (Nigeria) and Liverpool (England) met to reflect on the Windsor Report and the implications for these dioceses and the wider Anglican Communion. I was privileged to be asked to help facilitate this 24 hour gathering and out of that experience the following reflections might offer some light on the necessary ingredients that could enable such listening:    

Motivation – the conversation had a purpose that was greater than the presenting issue of sexuality. It was based on the understanding that the Akure/Liverpool link that had been carefully established and built up over many years was in danger of being undermined if the differences of opinion were not explored honestly. It was also undertaken on the assumption that if this Companion relationship was to mean anything it had to be able to confront difference as well as embrace what was held in common with equal commitment.

Preparation and Setting – the visit of those from Akure to Liverpool was focussed on this 24-hour consultation. Its purpose was transparent. The conversation took place at a Roman Catholic retreat house offering prayerful support and a ‘safe environment’ where the prayer, reflection and sharing could happen without interruption. The retreat house offered a place where the participants could genuinely talk to one another without the pressure of immediately explaining themselves to a wider audience beyond the conversation.

Participants were carefully chosen to ensure a meeting of counter-parts – both Bishops, Cathedral Deans, diocesan MU Presidents, chairs of the respective Link Committees etc. This enabled a conversation of ‘equals’ who could talk both for themselves and on behalf of others to one another.

Process – it was recognised that the conversation was not going to be easy and that in order to stand together on the uncomfortable ground of difference there needed to be a number of safeguards in place and an appropriate process to build up the necessary respect before stepping out on to this ground.

  • The conversation needed to start at a point where all participants could occupy common ground with confidence while at the same time acknowledging and respecting differences that existed .
  • The common ground that the exercise identified needed to be occupied rather than just acknowledged. It also needed to be built on enabling it to move from the personal to the corporate. The interviews exploring the diocesan understandings of mission achieved this and underlined common themes.
  • What was being heard needed to be regularly checked against what was actually being said. Differences in culture and use of language (especially where for one set of participants English was their second [at least] language) coupled with pre-conceptions of what participants thought they would hear meant that the possibilities for misunderstanding were huge. As we moved into the discussions on Day 2 we regularly stopped to check out the accuracy of the listening by all participants.


Expectations – conversations of this nature can be undermined before they even start by either over optimistic or pessimistic expectations. Nether the thought that any differences can be reconciled by ‘simple, honest sharing’ nor that certain differences are so extreme that talking, however honestly, will be of no help are “listening with loving attention”. Expectations needed to be more subtle, have a longer time-scale than most of us would want and be based on a motive that is larger than simply coming to a common mind on one issue. What emerged from the Akure/Liverpool conversation was an impressive list of new insights and learning that both dioceses acquired by means of the conversation.

The statement signed by both diocesan bishops does not offer a panacea but does highlight the nature of communion as a common commitment to partnership in mission that can handle differences with respect.

Stephen Lyon
September 2005 

Appendix -  Consultation process

Common experiences of God

The first session as we gathered was an exercise that sought to offer both space and a process to enable all participants to share – in their own words, at their own level and in their own way – something of their experience of God. They did this in pairs – a person from Liverpool working with someone from Akure. Each person took it in turns to speak while the other simply listened before reversing the process. This sharing and listening came out of reflecting on three different subjects:

  • A picture – why did the particular image chosen from a number displayed on a table attract your attention ?
  • A Bible story that was important to each participant.
  • A moment when God was real to each participant.

With each of these subjects each person shared what the picture, the story and the moment meant for them. The other person simply listened honouring and affirming what they were hearing.

Then we tried to hold all three subjects together and ask if God was saying something through them all together. This led to everyone trying to capture what that might be in a short phrase or sentence. As these were shared in the whole group it built a picture of a God who was affirming us in relationship with Him.

Common Mission with God

The second session consisted of two interviews with three participants from Liverpool and then from Akure. The interviews sought to explore what the priorities for mission were in each of these areas. Not surprisingly they differed in priorities because the contexts were different. Having said that there was a shared language of God at work in each location and of the kind of activities this God is calling us to co-operate in.

Common Ground to occupy

At the end of the first day we had said nothing about the Windsor Report or homosexuality but had discovered that in our obvious diversity we occupied much common ground of Christian experience and involvement in God’s Mission. But we did not just ‘acknowledge’ or ‘describe’ this common ground we actually occupied it together and dwelt there for sometime. This was  possible because we had created a safe place to occupy this ground but the act of occupying this ground together secured the safe place for our further explorations.

Different view-points

Sessions during the second day took us into the heart of the reason for the consultation. We used the time in the morning to address two questions:

  • Given the affirmation in the bible of love between two people of the same gender such as David and Jonathan, what is the nature of such friendship and the appropriate expression of such relationships ?
  • Given the emphasis in the New Testament, on sexual intercourse as a gift for monogamous marriage, how do Christians apply this ethic in societies with different sexual mores such as a polygamous culture or a gay culture, and does the one inform the other ?

We did this in three groups of 4-5 people. Two of mixed Akurean and Liverpudlian participants matching similar office holders in the same group e.g. both the bishops together, both the Mothers’ Union presidents together etc. The third group was made up of the Methodist participants and sought to explore their views as leaders drawn into a conversation that, for this purpose, was an Anglican one.

At a couple of points in the discussions we paused and asked group members to reflect back what they thought they had heard each participant saying. This was to check out that as well as explaining we were also understanding.

Points of learning

The outcomes from this conversation were in one sense modest in another remarkable. The final session sought to identify points of learning. We did this was forming two groups of those from Akure and those from Liverpool. The question put to them was, “What have you learned about your partners from these discussions that you did not know before ?” We listed these points of learning and spent some time checking them out with each group. “Is this learning what you thought you had conveyed in discussion or have you been misrepresented ?” We had to delete certain points because we discovered they were not points of learning but projections of prejudice. We had to change certain words because they carried assumptions and meanings beyond the discussions that had taken place. Eventually, the list of points of learning was agreed and the consultation concluded.

Held in a framework of worship

As we consulted together we moved in and out of more formal acts of worship. Evening prayer, night prayers a Eucharist but as part of the process of consultation offering a framework for all we did as holding all that was said within the larger worshipping life of the Church.

The exercise used in the Akure/Liverpool conversation is outlined in the appendix. Its value was that it enabled all participants to talk about a common experience – how they encountered God – from their differing vantage points engendering a respect that came from the authentic witness.