Managing Group Conversations around Marriage and Relationships
God in love unites us is the Report of the Marriage and Relationships Task Group 2019, discussed extensively at the 2019 Methodist Conference and commended for study and prayerful discussion throughout the Church.
The following information and guidance will support you and your group in managing such prayerful discussion of the Report, whether you are facilitating, for example, a District Synod, Circuit Meeting or a local church house group/class meeting. You can download a summary checklist from the following information (a pdf document to print out) to support you in managing group conversations about the report.
There is also a Study Guide available, which introduces each theme in the Report and poses questions for you to consider in your discussion session(s).
The journey to date
When we consider Scripture, we find that on some subjects such as ways of relating, relationships and sexuality, there is a diverse and changing range of views and there is a wide range of ways in which Christians understand and interpret Scripture. This prompts a great deal of reflection for the Church, and we live with contradictory convictions. In short, there are some things where we disagree, and we have agreed to disagree for the time being, but we do so with respect for other people and their understanding of the Bible.
Over the last 25 years, the Methodist Church in Britain has been on a pilgrimage of faith and has come to a number of decisions, which are not to be the focus of this discussion, but are the context in which the current conversations will take place.
- In 1993, the Methodist Conference stated that it recognises, affirms and celebrates the participation and ministry of lesbians and gay people in the Church.
- In 2010, the Methodist Conference responded to the Equality Act, which stated that it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of someone’s sexual orientation, with a commitment to become an inclusive Church.
- In 2013 the Conference resolved that both ordained and lay Methodists may form a civil partnership.
- In 2014 the Conference agreed that Methodists may enter a civil same-sex marriage without conflict to our discipleship or ministry. There is also a definition of and guidance around homophobia.
Before starting conversations
- Think carefully about who in your group/community could facilitate your conversations. Gather a team of people who are good listeners, who are able to lead in a neutral way without speaking from their own perspective. The Learning Network may be able to help you identify and build the confidence of these facilitators. On the Methodist Church website there is “A model statement on Living with Contradictory Convictions” prepared for the 2016 Conference by the previous Marriage and Relationships Task Group, which offers some helpful guidelines on conferring together.
You can also read “Difficult Conversations” on the Methodist Church website, which offers information and support on listening, having effective conversations, asking suitable questions and reframing.
You may also find the content in this previously published ROOTS resource useful. However, this material makes reference to the discussion of marriage and relationships as it was framed in 2015/2016 and must be adapted appropriately for use today, to reflect how the discussion has moved on since then.
- Think about who from your ‘team’ will facilitate each planned conversation – plan for at least two people to facilitate each session, even for house groups.
- Pray together in advance. Ensure all facilitators are clear about the purpose of the session. At the session, be prepared to remind people of the aims and the ground rules, to listen respectfully to one another without interrupting and to encourage a variety of voices to be heard.
- Think about having a chaplain for larger events.
- Use the title of the Report for advertising any events, God in love unites us. Be mindful about the language used to describe events, and use phrases such as “conversations around relating well.” Avoid using words such as “debate”, which suggest binary positioning. When you advertise events, be clear about the format of the session, so people know what that are coming to.
- Be aware of the different ‘voices’ in the room and what perspectives are being shared and what perspectives are not being heard. Some perspectives might not be articulated, but that does not mean that people present do not hold them. Think in advance how a range of views might be covered without anyone feeling they have to make them – see point 6 of “Suggested outline for the conversation”
- Consider how to ensure young people are able to participate in your event. You may need to arrange a breakout space for young people, as they may not be comfortable discussing issues of gender and relationships in front of other church members.
Aim of this conversation
Our aim is for the Church to have meaningful, grace-filled conversations about the Report, God in love unites us, remembering that we are all made in the image of God (see more on this theme in the Study Guide).
The purpose of your conversation is to support and/or inform a decision-making process that will take place at District Synods. It is an opportunity for people to hear and understand one another, deepen their relationships and enable us all to move forward together as Church in communion.
The principles of such facilitated conversation are applicable whether the setting is a house group wanting to be better informed, or a District Synod who will be voting on the provisional resolutions of the 2019 Methodist Conference.
Suggested outline of this conversation
IntroductionOutline the purpose of the session, as above. Offer a brief overview to the group of the Methodist Church’s current position on relationships and marriage, or have some of the ancillary documents from the website on tables for people to look at as they arrive. (See https://www.methodist.org.uk/MandR19/)
Prayers/devotionsAdditional resources have been prepared to help you set this conversation in the context of worship and frame it with appropriate prayer. These materials are available on the Singing the Faith Plus website.
Ground rulesHave the group draw up the ground rules themselves if possible; these are an integral part of the process. They set the boundaries and tone for the conversation and give permission for the facilitator to intervene if things get difficult. However, ensure they include the following and that individuals agree to:
- listen to understand without interrupting
- respect the feelings, experiences and views of other people
- listen to different views and question in a constructive way that enables learning
- respect confidentiality (within the constraints and limits of safeguarding)
- take responsibility for their own learning and share, as well as receive, learning
- be aware of the potential impact of the subject on themselves and others
- assume no one means to hurt them
- be aware of how much they are speaking (NB the facilitator may need to give speakers a time-limit, and be aware of dominant voices that speak often, which they should gently seek to control)
- speak and act in a way that best enables others to hear and understand, even if they do not share their view
- speak for themselves without making generalisations – use ‘I’ statements rather than ‘we’ and ‘us’ or ‘they’ and ‘them’ statements.
Exercise to gauge strength of feelings
Ask the group, the two questions below separately. For each question, ask them to arrange themselves in a line across the room, with those who feel most passionately about the topic at one end and those who do not have strong feelings about it at the other. They will need to chat to each other to work out where they come in the line.
Question A How passionate are you about your relationship with God?
Question B How passionate are you about the subject of marriage and relationships?
This exercise is not about people agreeing or disagreeing with the particular topic under discussion, or a sense of right or wrong, it is about gauging the strength of their views. Their passion for the topic will impact on how they engage in the forthcoming conversation.
When the group sits down afterwards, draw out sensitively that those who are most passionate will probably have the most to say. When we feel passionate about something, it is easy to get into a more argumentative conversation or make sweeping statements and not carefully consider how we may best say what we need to say, and to do so in a way that will be easier to hear. There is, though, a way of expressing strong views that enables grace to prevail and holds together those who may differ in theological understanding.
The exact format of your group’s conversation about relationships and marriage will depend on context and timescale. It could include:
- showing and discussing the supporting film showing members of the Task Group reflecting on the process of working together on the report God in love unites us (available to download here) and or video material from the 2019 Methodist Conference
- working through the Study Guide section by section, which offers a summary of each section of the Task Group’s Report with questions for reflection.
Widening the perspective
You may want to enhance your study by considering other material to give a voice to those not in the room. You may want to offer alternative perspectives or encourage hearing the voices of those who might not feel able to express their opinions (because of prior experience of abuse or marginalisation or hesitation at voicing a minority view).
Material with different viewpoints
Books and websites
- Martin Davie Glorify God in Your Body: human identity, and flourishing in marriage, singleness, and friendship (2018) Lost Coin Books. Also available to download from the Church of England Evangelical Council’s website. See ceec.info/
- The Methodist Church: Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Toolkit, Module 7.1 Sexual Orientation case studies (See methodist.org.uk/for-ministers-and-office-holders/guidance-for-churches/equality-diversity-and-inclusion/edi-toolkit/)
- Thomas Noble Marriage, Family and Relationships: Biblical, doctrinal and contemporary perspectives (2017) InterVarsity Press
- Matthew Vines God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical case in support of same-sex relationships (2015) Convergent Books
Videos and songs
- Nadia Bolz-Weber – One Extraordinary Church film (YouTube)
- Macklemore and Ryan Lewis – song Same Love (particularly suitable for young people)
- Films such as The Imitation Game and Pride
Have conversations round the table and in pairs about the material you have studied.
You could ask questions such as:
- What have you learned that is new?
- What has surprised you?
- How do you feel about the video you have watched?
- What do you think of the section of the report you have looked at?
Ask people to record their feedback on a flipchart and share the comments with the whole group.
Give feedback on discussions as invited by your district (remind those gathered of the aim of this session, referring to the ground rules if necessary).
Close with prayer.See 2 above; also the Study Guide ends with a relevant prayer.