Program Director, Public Conversations Project, Watertown, Massachusetts
Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003
This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).
Q: What experience in your work has especially touched or inspired you?
A: There are two in particular that stand out. There was work that we did with the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts back in the late '90s where we were asked to facilitate conversations around sexual orientation and human sexuality.
What was particularly inspiring about this was that people were very deeply divided and very suspicious of one another. They were frightened in many ways, as well as hopeful and faithful that they could achieve some level of understanding. To see them come together and reach deep levels of understanding, really really grapple with their deepest beliefs and the differences in thier beliefs, and then want to do more is what was really inspiring. I think that there are these situations that happen quite a bit, where people want to do more than we expected them to do, or than they signed onto. In this case they came together for a series of meetings, the end of which was to just be conversational.
At the end of the third meeting, they decided that they wanted to create a manual for all congregations in Massachusetts to be able to have similar dialogues. So they formed a work group and created a really great study guide and manual for individual congregations to use and we've been able to send it all over the country, and to other countries for use in churches, which has been really exciting. So that was one thing that really touched me and inspired me.
Q: What kind of resolutions were they able to come up with? Or what did they agree to say? I understand language is often a large problem when you're talking about very divisive issues, the very words you can use. Discussing sexual orientation in a religious setting is very provocative. How did they agree to write anything together?
A: Well, it's really astonishing, because they didn't just write a manual, they also wrote a statement of convergence and divergence. There were areas that they realized that they agreed in and believed together, and areas that they disagreed in. Then there were areas that they have yet to come to an understanding of where their agreements and disagreements are.
For example, one of the areas that they were surprised to find a high convergence in is that both sides had a high view of scripture. Both sides are very deeply concerned that people have a high view of scripture and of deep and ongoing prayer life. Both sides had similar ideas about pastoral ideas about people who are homosexual. So things like that they were able to say that they agreed upon, and other things they were able to say that they agree that they disagree about different passages in the Bible and what they had to say about homosexuality. Then there were some areas for further discussion that needed to be carried on as time went on. Our Anglican group did a similar process. They identified areas of convergence, areas of divergence, and then areas for continued conversation.
Q: This conversation led to a greater degree of comfort with the other side, a little more knowledge, clarification of the issues, things like that?
A: Much deeper respect, deeper levels of understanding where people were coming from. I think there were misconceptions and stereotypes that both sides held of one another which were washed away. So they were able to interact with each other free of all that sort of baggage and able to interact only on the issues that they disagreed about, but from a position of respect and understanding and empathy, even though they disagreed.
The Episcopal work that I referred to later led to working with 12 archbishops and bishops around the world for three week long meetings over three years. They, like the other group, decided that they wanted to do more than just talk, although they thought that was extremely valuable. They saw some systemic supports for dysfunction in the Anglican communion, in the way that it handled conflict and they wanted to name those and suggest alternative ways of dealing with conflict.
They wrote this book called The Final Report of the International Anglican Conversations on Human Sexuality. They published it and distributed it throughout the Anglican community. It bears witness to their conversations, as well as their ideas about what should change in the way that the communion around the world handles conflict. Again, I felt unworthy to be in the presence of such greatness and that these people were rising far beyond the call that they had been given to create something that was a gift to the world. Those two things really stand out as experiences that I've been really proud to be a part of as part of the PCP team.