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"Oh, Mr Porter"

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

Oh Mr. Porter, what shall I do?

I want to go to Birmingham

But here I am at Crewe

Take me back to London

As quickly as you can

Oh Mr. Porter what a silly girl I am.

David Porter, Strategy Consultant to the Archbishop of Canterbury, must be delighted that facilitated conversations are now taking place to discuss the details of how the Church of England will live with difference over issues of human sexuality.

It has been a long road – nearly ten years since he got involved - but that is OK – David Porter has always played the long game and to give him credit, despite spending most of the time in the background, he has always been very public about his end goal and how he would achieve it.

In 2015 – at the launch of the “Regional Shared Conversations” on human sexuality - he told a packed seminar room at General Synod that,

“It is my job to reconcile. I hope that 80% of the Church of England can find a place of compromise. Fracture will happen.”

Few evangelicals took any notice. Most were convinced that they were powerful enough to stop any change taking place. In those minds any change would need to be doctrinal or liturgical – either of which would require the agreement of two-thirds of each of the three Houses in Synod. Evangelicals celebrated the outcome of the 2021 elections and believed that if all went ‘wrong’ and same-sex blessings were introduced, then there would be a “mediated settlement,” which many suggested, might offer a third province or an alternative structural position.

Instead, evangelicals find that the House of Bishops are acting as if the motion passed at General Synod in February 2023 has given them a green light to introduce prayers of blessing for same-sex couples, without any hope of an acceptable settlement. Their concerns about the process have been labelled as “legalistic” by the Archbishops; they have been told that the College of Bishops is resistant to any “structural differentiation”; and invited to take part in facilitated conversations entitled “Living with Difference,” with all the assumptions that makes.

No wonder many evangelicals are confused and angry. They just didn’t see it coming.

But to be fair, ten years ago, very few evangelicals had observed David Porter at work – there were only four evangelicals closely involved in Porter's previous round of facilitated conversations to reach a settlement over women bishops – and one of them went to glory soon after.

The process is the outcome

What many have not understood is that the genius of David Porter’s approach to reconciliation is that the process is the outcome. It is like a giant travelator – step on and the destination is fixed. And in David Porter's own words, that destination is “compromise”. Once you are on it, just like a travelator, there is no alternative route - getting off is difficult, potentially dangerous and comes with the threat of being deemed disloyal/ fractious– so most stay on.

Careful examination of Porter’s public statements and the materials that have been produced along the way reveal how this process works - .

Step 1: Set the parameters of the conversation.

Listen to David, back in 2014, as he describes the first “Shared Conversation” about human sexuality:

“And the process we have designed is aiming to bring the bishops through a series of conversations where they themselves draw on various resources, materials that have been provided, their own experience, their own knowledge, their own understanding of Scripture, to look at various aspects of this challenge about what is actually going on out there. How are different perspectives in the church being held and articulated. And then how do they as bishops respond to that, how do they see that impacts on the church’s mission, the church’s self understanding… It’s not sitting down talking about texts.”

Porter, later acknowledges that there might be some, “biblical discourse”, but that is not the focus. Similarly, when the Regional Shared Conversations took place in 2015/16 the key question was said to be: “Given the significant changes in our culture in relation to human sexuality, how should the Church respond?”

The question is not, and never has been, “What does God’s Word say about human sexuality?”, instead the fact that there are “different perspectives” is taken as given – and the only question that needs to be considered is how do we respond?

It is not as if evangelicals were not warned - in 2013, when these talks were first proposed by the Pilling Report, the Rt Revd Keith Sinclair noted in his dissenting report that such conversations were not neutral: ‘the proposal for facilitated discussions" he wrote, "rests on a false premise, namely that we cannot be sure what the Church should believe, teach and practise in the area of human sexuality.’

GS 1929 pilling_report
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Some took this seriously and boycotted Shared Conversations, others, like the Rev Dr Ian Paul, shared their exasperation afterwards:

"The fundamental problem here was the underlying approach—that there are no right answers, and no given positions, and so what is needed is a juxtaposition of different views so that mutual respect can emerge. This might be just right for a position of political conflict, where there is no ‘objective’ position which can act as a reference point. But how can this be right in a context where the Church itself already has a committed position, one that has the weight of history behind it, and a position which, in theory, all the clergy and the bishops have themselves signed up to believing, supporting and teaching."

The truth is that stepping on to the travelator means one enters into a world where God’s Word is either unclear or is not the final authority – which, as many evangelicals have found to their frustration, ultimately undermines all the arguments of those who disagree.

Step 2: Define the relationships.

During the interview in 2014, David Porter twice uses the phrase, “brothers and sisters in Christ” to describe those involved. Similarly, he points to a time when the world will say, “‘Look how these Christians love one another,’ how they disagree well.”

Later materials described those participating as “first and foremost Christians” (Grac – with a common faith, baptism, values and vision of a better world.

And in 2016, when Porter briefed General Synod in preparation for their own Shared Conversations he told members, “We begin with the story of our faith quite simply because it is difficult to have these conversations if you do not know who you are talking to, and the best way to get to know one another is to create space to share what it is we actually share, which is faith in Christ, and how that has been formed and shaped”

In her report to General Synod in July 2023, Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, spoke of the way the process had changed things: “the realisation that when we learn together, we begin to understand each other’s perspectives better and deepen our relationship with and respect for other disciples – other fellow followers of Christ.”

By defining the relationships in this way, the message is given that any views expressed are legitimately Christian and indeed the very definition of being a Christian is being able to disagree well.

As the travelator moves along many begin to ask why, if we are all Christians, any kind of alternative structure would be needed at all. The pressure to agree to disagree, "walk together"and stay on the travelator becomes almost overwhelming.

Step 3: Control the flow of information.

David Porter and his team of facilitators use a version of the Delphi method to enable groups with disparate views to appear to come to an agreed outcome. This blog explored how this worked out at the Lambeth Conference:

"A debased version of the method simply sits people in groups, asks them to appoint a scribe who then 'feeds back' to a facilitator, who reduces their thoughts to a summary. The problems are obvious - some views will never be expressed, and to be useful, those that are, must be recorded accurately and impartially and then the facilitator must interpret properly what has been written and in turn produce a disinterested and adequate report to take matters forward. Instead, by the end, groups often cannot recognise “their own” contribution."

The same could be said about the way the Living in Love and Faith process has been carried out.

It began with a promise from the archbishops of “a large-scale teaching document around the subject of human sexuality," they said, "In an episcopal church a principal responsibility of Bishops is the teaching ministry of the church, and the guarding of the deposit of faith that we have all inherited.”

Instead, the Church was first offered Living in Love and Faith – the book, the course and the films, and the ‘learning hub’ - a veritable smorgasbord of opinion without any episcopal guidance as to the relative importance or accuracy of the views expressed – just a reminder that they are all committed to walking together.

And then came Listening with Love and Faith – a glossy presentation of the ‘results’ of the responses to the LLF materials, and the accompanying "technical report". There are lots of figures about the number of people taking part, their age, their gender and sexuality. There are lots of quotes representing a wide range of views on all kinds of matters. But there is no quantitative analysis of the number of individuals expressing those different views. It gives the impression that everyone has been heard – though the quotes themselves and the way they are organised is in the hands of the authors - but no one knows if their opinion was shared with the vast majority, or a tiny minority, of other respondents.

And so the report ends with a simple conclusion: “While some advocated strongly for change and some to maintain the Church’s position on questions of sexuality, all agreed that coming to a clear decision soon is vital.” Note the placing of the word “strongly” and the impression it gives to the reader.

The travelator moves on, in fact it is beginning to speed up.

Step 4: Control who is “in the room.”

Helen King, a liberal authorised lay preacher [1] wrote about how good it felt to be invited to the latest Facilitated Conversations, because it meant, in the words of a song from Hamilton, “being in the room when it happens.”

Of course it is flattering to be invited but one of the ways that David Porter has kept momentum over the past ten years and avoided getting bogged down in intractable problems has been the use of an ever-changing procession of people – brought together in different places at different times.

Admittedly, some of this change is out of his control: less than a quarter of the bishops in the College were present at the first Shared Conversation in 2014 and about two-thirds of those elected to General Synod in 2021 were new arrivals.

However, as the smaller groups moved from Regional Shared Conversations (2015) to Working Groups (2017-19) to Next Steps Group (with Reference Group) (2022) to Implementation Groups (2023) and now to the Living with Difference Facilitated Conversations (2023), Porter, and those working for him, have had the opportunity to choose who is in the room. Very few have been part of the whole process, apart from David Porter and his team.

This lack of “institutional memory”, coupled with the use of the St Michael’s Protocol – that discussions are private but not secret (which means no one can hold anyone to account for what was or was not said at any point) - gives those in charge the power to (re-)write the “history” for each new group, while at the same time determining the shape of the future conversation.

So, for as long as there are people in the room - the travelator will keep moving towards that inevitable outcome – compromise.

Step 5: Keep the ‘decision’ in the future – until it is in the past

Back in 2014, David Porter explained, “We’re not facilitating this towards an outcome, we’re facilitating this towards a shaping of the relationship so that when people do get to the point where outcomes are important and decisions do have to be made – it is this witness “Look how these Christians love one another” - how they disagree well. [sic]”

Over the past nine years, David Porter has done everything possible to keep representatives of everyone in the room and avoid a ‘cliff edge’ decision. There have been conversations, reports, courses, surveys, more conversations, suites of resources, and what appear to be indicative votes on complex motions – but no clear ‘moment of decision’ or even clarity about what is being decided. And this is not an accident.

In October 2021 this blog set out a prediction for how the Living in Love and Faith process would work out. At the time it was criticised by some evangelicals for ‘telling the liberals how to achieve their goal’. You can read that prediction here and see how accurate it was.

But what comes next?

On the one hand, evangelicals, like Andrew Goddard, continue to question whether General Synod “will have sufficient quality materials to consider the theological, legal and liturgical questions that have now been recognised as still needing to be answered,” in November. To which the answer is obviously, "No!".

On the other hand, it seems that the Bishops have another agenda. The Co-Chair of the LLF Implementation Steering Group, the Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, told General Synod in July that, “There may be times when we need to suspend judgement in order to suspend hostilities. We may need to reimagine what it means to be fellow seekers of God’s truth in God’s Church. To reimagine what disagreement and uncertainty is in the Church – what it signifies and what God is calling us to.”

Then in September, the Church Times reported that the Living with Difference group had been told that “in response to requests for a clearer theological rationale for this stage of LLF, a theological framework is being developed focussing on measures to help the church negotiate with theological integrity a period of uncertainty about both teaching and practice.”

So it now seems likely that in November, the bishops will bring the refined Prayers of Love and Faith back to General Synod along with the beginnings of the new Pastoral Guidance (the Bishop of London told Synod in July there was a difference between, “what is needed for November and what maybe could be developed after November.”), the new theological framework of uncertainty and an informal commitment to bishop-sharing to provide pastoral reassurance for the interim period.

The archbishops will ‘consult’ with Synod, though that does not require a vote, and then introduce the prayers under Canon B5A, as experimental liturgy with a view to bringing it back to General Synod under Canon B2

As was said in July, no one will be forced to use the prayers – and clergy and PCCs will be encouraged to ,“enable prayerful discussions and come to an agreed way forward. Where such agreement is proving difficult some support may be needed e.g. a process facilitated by an archdeacon or consultant.” GS2303

There will then be what the Church Times reports has been described as an “interim period” – probably the five years agreed by Synod in February:

(f) invite the House of Bishops to monitor the Church’s use of and response to the Prayers of Love and Faith, once they have been commended and published, and to report back to Synod in five years’ time.’

This travelator is coming to a halt – in what many might describe as the middle of nowhere – but the bishops call ‘a period of uncertainty in teaching and practice’.

The ‘Living with Difference Group’ have apparently been asked to discern, “How might Pastoral Reassurance be offered a in a way which covered the period of initial discernment but did not prematurely determine the shape of the church that emerged.”

Five years of discernment lies ahead – of course it does - anyone who has ever been to an airport knows that when one travelator ends another is just about to begin. Who knows what the shape of the church will be at the end of that time?

But remember - it may be a new process - but the same goal is in mind and the same rules will apply. The question for evangelicals is will they continue the journey?

As David Porter promised:

“It is my job to reconcile. I hope that 80% of the Church of England can find a place of compromise.”

Or will fracture happen?

[1] Apologies for describing Helen King as a lay reader


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With thanks to Tomasz Frankowski from Unsplash for the photo

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Sep 19, 2023

Those who forget the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them is the phrase that comes to mind. And it wasn't really that long ago in other parts of the Anglican Communion, but then the CoE has always been very parochial.

The choice is really between the ichabod institution and the King.

And as much as the plans of man progress, it is the will of the Lord that will prevail. Don't focus on what is dead, but what God is bringing to life.


Sep 18, 2023

Brilliant analysis! And yet we see ’evangelical‘ leaders still very committed to the travelator from CEEC, All Souls and St Ebbes?!

Sep 20, 2023
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Yes the 'big' churches have a real responsibility not to be 'fortresses' that smaller churches cannot be.

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