Argyll and The Isles takes part in “Cascade Conversation – Listening across the Spectrum”

Each person attending from Argyll and The Isles has written their own reflection. To start, Dean Andrew (one of those attending) summarises:

In 2013 the General Synod of the SEC was offered a working group to explore the design of a process to allow discussion same-sex relationship issues in the life of the church. The extension of the definition of marriage by the Scottish government to include same gender ceremonies invites any religious bodies to decide how to respond. The SEC discussion process is intended to allow the differing views within the church to be heard in a safe environment whilst the church collectively determines how and when to respond.

The key output from the process design group has been an event called “A Cascade Conversation – Listening across the Spectrum.” This took place in Pitlochry on 29-30 April. About 60 people were present in Pitlochry for the two day meeting, with the participants meeting in small facilitated groups and input from several external (non-SEC) contributors. The delegates and contributors were a diverse range of age, gender, orientation and lay & ordained status. Four members of the diocese of Argyll and The Isles attended: Toben Lewis (Iona); Marion Mackay (Stornoway); Alan Mole (Dunoon) and Andrew Swift (the dean).

At the conclusion of the meeting, each small facilitated group (there were six groups in total) offered a short statement they would wish to be communicated that would reflect their experience of the Cascade Conversation. These six statements are on the provincial website at:

Towards the close of the Cascade Conversation, the participants met in diocesan groups to consider how the experience of the meeting in Pitlochry might be cascaded more widely. In Argyll, there have already been discussions on these issues over the past few years, and most recently at the 2014 diocesan synod. The representatives agreed that there was a need and a duty to continue these discussions, especially it was stated at the event that a motion was likely to be proposed at the General Synod in 2014 to begin a process of exploring canonical charges that would be required to permit equal marriage in those SEC churches that hold a theological understanding that would allow them to do such a thing. The state of consensus and the range of views that are held across and within charges must be explored if any sort of synodical process to broaden the definition of marriage in the SEC is likely to start at any point in the future.

The delegates agreed to return to the diocese and to discuss with the diocesan officers the form and timescale of the ongoing discussions. It was important, they felt, not to lose momentum in the process. It was also important to openly communicate what was happening. They also agreed to offer their personal reflections on their personal participation in the Cascade Conversation. These are below:

Toben Lewis (Iona) said:

In late April, a number of members of the Scottish Episcopal Church met together in Pitlochry to discuss a topic very close to the hearts of many, that of same sex marriage. I was privileged enough to be amongst them.

I went with some trepidation, not knowing how the conversation would go, what sort of opposition there would be, but most of all how people would deal with a subject that can evoke such high emotion.

I was not the least bit surprised by the variance in opinions expressed. Nor was I surprised to find that people on either end of the issue (for and against, to grossly simplify it) feel this is a subject which could make them leave the SEC. What I was surprised to find was how courteous, kind, and respectful everyone was to each other, how delicately the attendees treated both the subject and the associated emotions, and how well facilitated the entire event was to allow all of this to happen. Obviously I can speak for no one but myself, but personally I left Pitlochry feeling that I had been heard, that I had listened, and that I had learned a great deal.

We began in the large group to hear contributors have a discussion, and then broke into smaller round tables for our own discussion. We returned to the large group a few times throughout the two days, but were largely within the same small group. This was good. It allowed us to build a familiarity, rapport, and trust with each other. The conversations held in the larger group were thought provoking and led to related questions within the smaller groups. The entire thing was well orchestrated, but did not feel as though we were being led to a foregone conclusion. It felt as though the only goal was to have people speak to each other, to fully listen and engage, to learn from others experiences, and to help establish a common ground from which we can all work to move forward as a church.

In a perfect world, I would have liked to leave Pitlochry with a solid idea of which direction the SEC will take on the issue of equal marriage and in what timeline it proposes to take action (or not, as the case may be). Obviously I didn’t, but I also didn’t leave feeling despair or hopelessness. I do feel it is vital that the momentum of the work done in Pitlochry is not lost. And although this discussion was important, as will future ones within our own churches and Dioceses, it is also important that we don’t just talk; we do need to make a decision and take action.

I have heard some rumblings of discontent and a few criticisms of this event, prior to it being held, and I feel compelled to address at least one of these. Specifically, that representatives from certain lobbying/activist groups from either end of the spectrum were not invited. Although I sympathise with this point of view, and understand where it is coming from, having now attended the event in Pitlochry I can wholeheartedly say it would have been completely inappropriate to have lobbying groups at this discussion. Because that is precisely what it was, a discussion. More than anything, we spent two days listening to each other, to different points of view, to people’s feelings and fears from all across the board. To have any lobbying or campaigning present would have been detrimental. Perhaps clearer communication to the entire SEC about the nature of the event would have made this less of a concern.

Marion Mackay (Stornoway) said:

As an alternative forum for discussion to that offered by Diocesan and General Synods the Cascade Conversation held in Pitlochry on 29/30 April offered an excellent opportunity for a whole Scottish Episcopal Church discussion in which, as the Design Group framework 2014 puts it, “the emphasis is on listening, personal sharing and theological reflection, collaborating through difference and shaping a direction together”. A proposed working agreement on “ground rules” – including mutual respect, listening, openness, graciousness, responsibility, punctuality, confidentiality – was presented and adopted by all participants. We were each allocated to a particular group for the whole time. The timetable headings give some flavour – “engaging with the process and one another”, “participants meet each other”, “how will we have this conversation?”, “being better informed”, “opening conversations with contributors”, “responding to contributors”, “discussion groups in conversation”, “going deeper into conversation”, “discussion group reflection”, “contributors in conversation”, “reflecting on implications for the life and mission of the Church”, plenary reflection on Cascade process and experience” and “possible agreed statement from participants”, and finally, “Diocesan groups’ discussion on how to follow on from Cascade within each Diocese”.

A final statement was indeed agreed and can be read on

The group in which I participated contributed “we value the respectful nature of the conversation we have had and would hope that as the process continues the tone remains as important as the content of the outcome”.

Having thought over the 2 day conversation, much of the final statement highlights my own reservations. Not so much about the tone, more about the content. It is quite difficult for a group of people who mostly don’t know each other and who may inhabit entirely different worlds from each other, to sit down and discuss “how to discuss” – what exactly?

All participants were well aware that the actual topic on the table was/is “same-sex relationships within the SEC”. Trying to work out how to discuss “something” and actually discuss that “something” at the same time proved more difficult, in my view, because of the “language” of the timetable and of some of the contributors. This resulted in a blandness and confusion particularly on the first day when valuable time was lost, I felt, because of a lack of direction about applying the “ground rules” to the actual specifics of the actual topic i.e. the “nitty-gritty” (my own splendid term for what I thought we should be moving on to discuss respectfully, graciously, thoroughly, biblically, theologically, culturally etc.) – what is biblical marriage, what is the SEC view/doctrine of marriage, should it (ever) be changed, what is the nature of inclusion, what is the biblical view of homosexuality, what (actually) is the whole spectrum of views within the SEC at this time? What is scriptural authority? In a sense it was too “experience” based with too much emphasis on personal stories and on “warm words”. Perhaps it was even too conversational.
It is good that the SEC now expects those who attended to take up the baton within their own dioceses and churches, in enabling this kind of conversation to “cascade down” and produce fruitful, informed, even biblically, theologically informed discussion on this very serious topic prior to any decision making at future General Synods. It may be that the process tried out in Pitlochry needs some refining but its aims and final statement are most certainly worth building on.

Alan Mole (Dunoon) said:

Cascade Conversation, Pitlochry: Immediate reflections
Day 1
An opportunity to listen and to hear the views of others on the position of the SEC in relation to Same Sex Marriage.
Specifically hearing the difficulties/reservations which some of our group expressed.
Hearing the backgrounds of many of our group in arriving at the position they hold (both Pro and Anti)
Grateful for a challenge, early in the proceedings, to the conditions under which the conversation would operate. That the challenge was not upheld by the whole group is unimportant compared with the fact that the question was aired and debated. Not a meek acceptance of the prescribed conditions.
End of the day – some feeling of both understanding and privilege in hearing and sharing our feelings on the issue of sexuality in the church context. However also some frustration at the apparent lack of movement towards doing something.

Day 2
A new day – would this be more of the same?
Several expressions, within the group, of the need to ensure that some action arose from the proceedings. Not merely another talking shop!
Recognition of the risk of a “them and us” situation arising.
Facilitator invited thoughts and suggestions on “where/what next”
A feeling, maybe misguided, that those with reservations might be able to ‘live with’ a church which opted in to the Same Sex Marriage proposals provided a personal or local (i.e. Congregation) ‘Opt Out’ was permitted and recognised.
An agreement within the Diocesan Group that we do need to get going now and build up a momentum so that the Synodical process for coming to a definite decision on the issue will happen sooner rather than later.
At the end

Andrew Swift (Cowal & Bute, & the dean) said:

I found the two days in Pitlochry to be a positive experience, and come out of them with a mixture of hope and fear.

I hope that all in the SEC will be willing to engage with others as discussions take place, formally and informally, on matters of same relations, particularly the decision on whether to extend marriage in the SEC to include same gender partners. The gracious tone of all those who participated in the cascade conversation in Pitlochry offers hope that this may be possible. There was a wide and representative range of views held and expressed by those attending.

I fear that too little structure to the discussions that may lie ahead of us – just discussing matters of sexuality almost for the sake of discussion, will lead to frustration and a breakdown in gracious dialogue and engagement. There is a decision to be made: will equal marriage be added to the existing definition of marriage that we have as a church, with all the doctrinal, liturgical, legal and psychological implications of this decision. The timescale for the decision is within our control: I hope neither too slow not too fast. This may also affect the nature of the gracious engagement within the church. Too fast, and those who are not comfortable with such matters will be, quite rightly, fearful of the consequences. Fear will prevent open engagement. Too slow, and we risk failing to acknowledge that our church’s thoughts on matter of sexuality have been explored and debated since the mid 1990s (if not earlier). This is not a new area of discussion, even if legal equal marriage specifically is a new development in Scotland.

We had much discussion in my small group on what would be needed to hold the church together if we were to change/extend our definition of marriage. What weightly, substantive theological insight or position would be acceptable to all ‘parties’ in the SEC? We did not agree on this, or even whether this was something that might be remotely possible. The language that was used throughout the two days of facilitated discussion about the event itself was ‘what might all be able to live with.’ This may be unsatisfactory from a doctrinal or even broader theological point of view, as one should (I suppose) seek after a ‘truth’ of some kind. But in this matter, I felt and said, there were several truths or integrities that were held within out church, and to try and find a single answer may be optimistic at best. To wait to start formal discussions on equal marriage until a unity has been achieved seems to condemn the SEC to never having the debate, something that a significant minority in the church would not, I believe, find acceptable.

Without breaking the confidentiality of the small group in which I worked, I would summarise their feeling as follows: at one ‘end’, unable to reconcile a belief in scriptural authority and homosexuality, but really struggling with the pastoral implications of this. At the other ‘end’, finding it rather strange to be a homosexual person in a context where this is presented as a ‘a problem,’ as the world and many churches are now so far beyond this. Between those ends, there was a clear majority who wished to broaden the church’s definition of marriage to include same sex partners. This is a gross simplication (and I apologise to any of those there who read this!) but that is how it felt to me.

I was also rather concerned that the evangelical churches in the SEC may feel under some kind of attack or that they might become a ‘persecuted minority’ if such changes eventually are made to practice in the SEC. It seemed important that those who hold a different theology of marriage do not lose anything if equal marriage is added to the life of the SEC. Whether such churches would be willing to remain in communion with a church that embraced equal marriage is a different and very important question. What would all churches be willing to live with, theologically and in practice, in a time of equal marriage?

I left Pitlochry feeling that the engagement and tone of the discussions had been very helpful and it had been a useful activity. If this same engagement and gracious tone can be continued as the church formally explores equal marriage (as I personally believe we must) there is hope that we will remain in a strong, mutual loving communion, even if we cannot agree on the exact details of our interpretation of scripture and on the practice that enriches and nourishes the lives of our churches. More discussion will now follow.