March 23, 2013

A Day of Dialogue

Today, I attended the first structured conversation on sexuality issues that Pittsburgh’s Bishop Dorsey McConnell wrote about to the Diocese of Pittsburgh last month. The purpose of such conversations is given in the bishop’s letter:
The reason for this dialogue, as a practical matter, is to help inform my decision as your bishop on how the diocese should approach two issues current in the Church: the blessing of same-sex relationships and the ordination of partnered gay or lesbian persons. An equally important purpose is for us to come together as a diocese in constructive conversation to find and follow continuing paths to healing and reconciliation.
It still is not clear what informing the bishop’s decisions means, but I can certainly say now what that dialogue looks like.

Today’s event took place at St. Stephen’s, Wilkinsburg. Twelve people were invited to participate in discussion scheduled for 9:30 AM to 3:30 PM. Bob Stains and Mary Jacksteit from the Public Conversations Project of Watertown, Massachusetts, outside consultants engaged to help design the process, acted as facilitators. Coffee, bagels, and other refreshments were available beginning at 9 o’clock. Lunch was provided at 11:45 AM.

My report on today’s activities will be circumspect, as we were asked to agree to a set of ground rules at the outset. Among the ground rules, many of which were unsurprising (only one person will speak at a time), was this:
We’ll maintain confidentiality, meaning that in describing the dialogue later we will not attribute ideas or statements to particular people or repeat personal stories.
As it happened, no one objected to being identified as a participant, but, for various reasons, it probably is best not to get too deeply into what was said. My main objective here is to suggest to participants in future sessions just what they are signing up to.

Our group was to consist of six “progressives” and six “conservatives.” The committee appointed by the bishop selected the people for the event, and I have no special insight into how that was done, but the classification seemed reasonable. Unfortunately, one of the conservatives was unable to attend—at the last minute, I assume—so the group was not balanced as intended.

Ground rules were discussed with the entire group. Bob Stains explained that we were seeking community in the dioceses, which depends on relationships. Relationships are built through conversation. Thus, we were entering into conversation.

For the rest of the morning, participants were broken into two groups, which met in different rooms. The progressives met with Bob, and the conservatives met with Mary. Of course, I can only report on what happened in my group. We began with an exercise on stereotyping and went on to talk about how saying certain things might be detrimental to conversation. It was not clear to me just how helpful this session was, though it gave me insights into the progressive participants. In any case, it got people talking, which seemed to relax people to some degree.

The afternoon session focused more on the matters at issue—the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of people in such unions. I should note that both homosexuals and clergy were well represented overall, and this was no doubt useful. It may not be true of future conversations.

Again, we broke into two groups, but, this time, the groups were to consist of three progressives and three conservatives. Lacking one of the latter, my group only had five participants. We were each asked to tell briefly—all answers today were limited to either two or three minutes—an experience that contributed to our coming to our present position. We were then asked to explain what was at the heart of our convictions on the two issues. Finally, we were asked about an experience where we were torn between different values. We were then given time to probe more deeply into what people had said. This did indeed lead to clarifications of certain stated positions, if not necessarily a full understanding of them.

We were then left alone for a time to consider this question for reflection:
What could happen in the diocese over the next year that might enable moving forward together as the body of Christ?
I think this was supposed to be a harder question than it was. I believe that parishes that want to bless same-sex unions should be free to do so and that being in a stable, same-sex relationship should not be a bar to ordination. I was encouraged that no one, at least in my group, was uncomfortable with that position. Interestingly, someone said that conservatives who stayed with The Episcopal Church in 2008 knew that such was inevitable. There was even a suggestion, in my group, anyway, that all this conversation might be overkill.

Finally, we were asked what we wanted to communicate to the bishop. The emphasis was on local (parish) option, and suggestions were offered that collectively might be characterized as ways to improve communication within the diocese.

At this point, the two groups joined, and we concluded as we began, with prayer.

Was the day useful? I think so. I certainly came away feeling less anxious about our diocese and less wary of certain individuals. I got to know other people and people I already knew better. (I knew most of the participants already.) I cannot say that my experience will be mirrored in that of others, but I encourage other people in the diocese to sign up for participating in the dialogue when given the opportunity.

The Public Conversations Project people will be on hand for the session next month, but, after that, it is intended that local people will act as facilitators. The hope is that 500 or more Pittsburgh Episcopalians will have participated by the time the project ends. (It is not clear when that will be.) In any case, I hope the dialogue will be useful to the bishop, to those who participate directly, and, indirectly, to everyone else in the diocese.


  1. Beyond the level of the diocese, I wonder what could happen in a parish, if, say, a gay couple wanted to marry but was prohibited by the rector?

    1. A priest may refuse to officiate at a wedding for any reason. I assume the same would be the case for same-sex blessings. Moreover, I would expect that the Vestry would need to authorize such ceremonies. Some priests will not want to perform same-sex blessings but may be willing to refer couples to parishes for which that isn’t a problem.


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