People ‘feel they can contribute’

Published May 8, 2009

Stephen Lyon

At the 2008 Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, England, the buzz word was indaba, a Zulu word that means “purposeful discussion.” The conference design group elected to use a process that was starkly and historically different from past meetings that adopted Western parliamentary procedure. At an indaba, everyone is supposed to get a chance to speak and a consensus, achieved.
At this year’s meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) in Kingston, Jamaica, organizers also decided to use the concept of indaba, but have decided to use the term “discernment groups.” ACC delegates were divided into “discernment groups” where they were given a set of guide questions; they talked not just about the issue that has gripped the Anglican Communion in recent years – human sexuality – but also other matters in the life of the Anglican Communion, including ecumenism. The groups also discussed proposed resolutions on controversial issues before the ACC.
In order to understand the workings of “discernment groups,” Anglican Journal staff writer Marites N. Sison talked to Stephen Lyon, partnership secretary of the Church of England’s Partnership for World Mission, who helped design the process at the ACC. Mr. Lyon was also involved at the 2008 Lambeth Conference’s pre-hospitality initiative and conference planning process.

Q: How did the idea to have “discernment groups” come about?

A: One of the things that the (2008) Lambeth Conference was trying to achieve was to create a process within the conference itself to enable every voice to be heard and we felt that there were two or three things that needed to happen. First of all, there needed to be trust. Secondly, there needed to be groups that were small enough for people not to feel that they had too large a group of people they were talking to. And thirdly, a process where they didn’t have to have everything very clearly worked out in their minds before they could speak and talk.
The way we did it at the Lambeth Conference was, first of all, we put people into Bible study groups, and those were groups of eight or nine people that met every day. And so, there was a sense of trust growing out between those Bible study groups. Then, we put five Bible study groups together to make an indaba group. So we were building on units that were already getting to know one another.
We took that same principle here. We created Bible study groups of eight or nine people with a cross section of people across the Communion, trying to make sure that all the groups had bishops, clergy and laity within them. And then we combined three Bible study groups into the four discernment groups.

Q: Why not just call them indaba?

A: There was quite a lot of confusion about why the Lambeth Conference chose the word indaba. My reading of the way it came about was that when indaba was introduced as a way of describing what was going on at Lambeth, it was actually describing the whole process at the Conference, not just what happened in those two-hour groups, the second half of each morning. Those were the ones that were given the name indaba groups. But in fact when you look at the minutes or go back into the design of the Lambeth Conference, originally the Bible groups were going to be the indaba groups of eight. Then they were going to call those bigger groups of 40, extended indaba groups. And then they were going to call the self-select groups, as self-select indaba groups. And we decided quite rightly, our decision was vindicated, that actually that would only lead to confusion … So we had Bible study groups, indaba groups, and self-select groups … And because of that confusion, and because not everybody at the ACC was at Lambeth, we dropped the name indaba, but the principles of indaba lie behind the design of the ACC.

Q: What’s the rationale for using the discernment groups at this meeting?
A: The aim of it is, first of all, to have groups where the numbers are not as intimidating as everybody meeting together. It’s been interesting that when we’ve had the opportunity to come to the microphone, there has been a limited number of people because of the time we’ve got. And it has been some of the same people that kept reappearing at the microphone. I think some people, addressing a group as large as the ACC, find that it is difficult and intimidating. It was wanting to find ways in a more informal and relaxed way, where people could contribute to discussions that were going on. The second thing is if you’re going to speak at one of the main sessions, you’ve really got to have what you want to say really sorted in your mind. A lot of people like to contribute to the conversation, but haven’t completely sorted what it is they want to say and therefore, sharing in small discussion groups allows people to be able to say things and build up their positions or understandings if they want as the discussion goes on.

Q: What feedback have you been getting? Do delegates feel that it’s working?
A: We’re getting very positive feedback from people who feel that they can contribute, have been invited to contribute, have an opportunity to get to know a smaller group of people more intimately and be involved in actually molding and creating the resolutions particularly on the Covenant and the Windsor Continuation Group that will actually be placed before the ACC tomorrow (Friday, May 8). We started with the draft resolutions that were laid on the table on Monday and Tuesday, and the discernment groups were asked to explore and discuss those. And so the resolutions that will appear (Friday) will be as a result of the work that the discernment groups have done. There’s a real sense that they are discerning together what the ACC will be asked tomorrow.

Q: Can you describe the mood in these discussion groups?
A: I haven’t sat in on them. What has been reported back to me is that there has been open discussion, frank discussion, at times fairly painful discussion, in the sense that it’s becoming clear that there are differences of opinion. But there has been an ability to be honest and open in terms of what people want to say. There doesn’t appear to be, at least what’s being reported to me, any kind of sense of people not being able to speak up or say what they want to say.

Q: No one’s refused to participate or walked out?

A: As far as I know, nobody’s walked out. And as far as I know, nobody’s refused to participate. As with any group there are going to be some that would be more talkative than others. Even within the discernment groups quite a bit of discussion has taken place in smaller groupings in three or fours so that everybody has a chance of contributing in one way or another.


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