In an exercise intended to produce more compassionate discussions than those that sometimes prevailed during marriage canon discussion in 2016, members of the 2019 General Synod spent almost the entire afternoon of the gathering’s first official day of business hearing about and practicing ways of speaking and listening respectfully to one another.
From 1:30 p.m. until close to 5 p.m. on July 11, with one break, Lynne McNaughton, bishop of the diocese of Kootenay, and priest and psychologist Canon Martin Brokenleg led a session on “being a synod,” discussing the importance of living out Christian love during debates about potentially contentious issues, and having synod members practice respectful listening and talking skills in table groups.
Dean Peter Wall, chair of the General Synod planning committee, said the idea for the exercise arose out of a great deal of talking and praying committee members had done, in the hope of creating a “listening, learning atmosphere” at the 2019 synod, and to help it be “both a community and a body.”
Brokenleg was to have co-led the session with Archbishop Melissa Skelton, metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of British Columbia and Yukon and diocesan bishop of New Westminster, but Skelton was ill and unable to attend General Synod on Thursday. McNaughton, another member of the General Synod planning committee who, Wall said, was closely involved in developing the exercise, took her place Thursday.
McNaughton said she hoped the exercise would allow members of synod to be their “authentic selves” in their discussions while at the same time making room “for others with different authentic selves and perspectives.”
Listening and speaking well through difficult discussions, she said, is a way to “be as Christ to one another, to love one another as Christ has loved us,” and by doing this, Christians can be an example to the world.
“We are called to be a witness to a world that is hungry for civility, parched for compassion,” she said. “The world is watching how we treat each other in the midst of difference, and the world is waiting to be inspired.”
Brokenleg, too, said Christians are called to express love even to those who have very different opinions from their own—and the need for people, both inside and outside the church, to develop the ability to do this is unusually high today.
“It seems to me that one of the most pressing relational skills of our time is the ability to discuss and, indeed, disagree with one another in love and respect,” he said. “We hear in the news of the increasing intensity of extremism everywhere in the world, including in our church.”
Brokenleg said he hoped Thursday’s exercise would result in a General Synod less productive of bad feelings than the 2016 gathering.
“During the General Synod in 2016, dialogue and decision-making were not done very well,” Brokenleg said. “In fact, portions of that synod were so contentious that our church leaders were embarrassed, many people were wounded and several people I know were so deeply disturbed by what they saw that they have since left the Anglican church. This leaves us with the task of setting the right course for ourselves.”
At one point during that synod, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, delivered an impromptu speech condemning “bullying” in discussions around the same-sex marriage vote, and calling on members to show “holy manners” to one another.
In a talk spanning the New Testament, the early Church Fathers and traditional Indigenous practices, Brokenleg gave examples Thursday afternoon of the compassionate overcoming of conflict. It is in fact through conflict, he said, that progress is normally made; the key is to transform conflict by finding the pattern behind it. Emotional self-regulation, he said, is critical because we need to be aware of our own emotional states if we’re to really make room for other people in our discussions.
To practice respectfully speaking and listening, members of General Synod were asked to discuss the presentations by McNaughton and Brokenleg. In table groups, members pondered a number of questions, including what they had heard in the presentations; what was at stake for them as they tried to make room for the differences around their table as they spoke with one another; and what they felt was the biggest barrier for them as they tried to make room for these differences.
After the discussions, several participants, prompted to talk about their experience of the exercise, said they felt it would be useful in helping them speak with one another during General Synod discussions.
Later in the afternoon, members were given a set of guidelines for respectful communications devised by the Rev. Eric Law, founder and executive director of the Kaleidoscope Institute, a not-for-profit association affiliated with the Episcopal Church’s diocese of Los Angeles, and asked to discuss them also.
General Synod is expected to vote on the marriage canon amendment, which would open the door to same-sex marriages within the church if passed, the evening of Friday, July 12.