One of my professors at KU describes ethnographic fieldwork as “attentive hanging out.” This is the phrase I repeated to myself periodically today when the convention threatened to overwhelm my senses. It’s a comforting phrase. It helps me focus when I’m staring blankly at the conference schedule without processing any of the words on the page–which, I should add, is something that has already happened to me today approximately 387 times.
My goal this morning was to make it through the first “Conversation Room” session, entitled “The Church and Human Sexuality.” (Aside: One of my larger goals is trying to understand the motivations behind this new “Conversation Room” structure–I’ve already heard some pretty interesting theories, and I plan to delve further.) The moderators were clearly not expecting the crowd that they got; they mentioned that they anticipated maybe twenty-five people, and if I had to guess the number that actually came I’d say it was at least one hundred. At the door to the seminar room every attendee was immediately given a group number and sent straight to their assigned circle of fellow participants. Most of these circles had around five people. We seated ourselves and waited for further instruction.
(Take a moment, please, and imagine the mass scale of the social awkwardness.)
After allowing us a few moments to introduce ourselves within our small groups, the discussion facilitators laid out the planned conversation structure, which was complicated enough that I’ll restrict myself to the bare bones of it here: The conversation opened with statements from five volunteers who spoke to the entire room, all of whom were allowed to speak on the subject matter–the church and human sexuality–for three minutes. After three minutes, they received a warning and were required to wrap up their statements in thirty seconds. At the end of each one of these mini speeches, another volunteer would summarize what we had just heard. By direction of the facilitators, the summarizers addressed their summarizing comments directly to the people whose comments they were summarizing. Not only did the facilitators place special and repeated emphasis on this summarizing process, however artificial, tedious or maddening it may have felt, but they enforced the pronoun rule. When at one point one of the summarizing volunteers began her comments with “She said that___,” the facilitator cut in and asked her to restate her comments, beginning rather with “You said that___.”
Are you still with me here? So after these opening statements, we received instructions for interacting with our smaller groups. We were to go around the circle twice, making brief statements about what we think about the church and human sexuality. The facilitators also asked us to summarize the statements of the person we had just listened to before proceeding with our own statements. Each group was given a small brochure with the MCUSA statement about “Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love”; we weren’t asked to read it but rather to use the brochure as a sort of “talking stick”: you have the brochure, you talk; you don’t have the brochure, you don’t talk. After going around the circle once, we were then permitted to “dialogue” with one another, still using the brochure to ensure that only one person spoke at a time.
I lost track on my watch, but I’d estimate that this small group exercise took about half an hour, at which point we turned back to the large group for several more timed statements from volunteer speakers. Then we finished. The whole thing took ninety very tightly controlled minutes.
The content of the discussion, I can only really write about in general terms. I’m guided both by my own research ethics and by the confidentiality parameters laid out at the outset of the discussion; no specifics that could be traced back to a particular person should leave the room. The “Conversation Room” is supposed to be a space where one can speak without fear of later recrimination. This is the idea, anyway.
What can I say about what was said, generally speaking? I had the impression that for the majority of the people who spoke, “The Church and Human Sexuality” is code for “LGBTQ issues.” Mennonites are very good at talking about LGBTQ interests without actually talking about LGBTQ interests. Several of the speakers did acknowledge that there were many unresolved issues in heterosexuality as well (or something to that effect), but I have the impression that it’s very hard for anyone to sort out those “issues,” whatever they are (I have a list somewhere) from the LGBTQ ones.
I don’t want to get too heavily into analysis here–this is all far too fresh for me to really go there yet–but I speculate that part of why the people in that room couldn’t sort out the queer issues from the straight ones is that straight Christians have been projecting their own various sexual dysfunctions onto queer people for years. Furthermore, to talk about sexual ethics from a queer perspective is to illuminate how much disagreement and ambivalence remains within churches about sexual ethics from a straight perspective.
Anyway, let me get back to “attentive hanging out.” There were fascinating generational and gender dynamics in the room that I’m still trying to make sense of; overall I’d say that many–even most–of the volunteer speakers were experiencing some serious straight male entitlement issues. From the men who spoke before the whole group, by and large I heard a lot of certainty and confidence. From most of the women, I heard a lot more pain at how badly the church has messed up on sexuality. Several of them expressed hope and gratitude at the opportunity for discussion. I saw a lot of gray heads and a lot of teenagers, and far fewer people of my own generation (I’m an X-er). I saw some pink shirts.
I was reminded how relative the term “safe space” can be. I’m sure by many peoples’ standards–and I would imagine by the standards of the conference organizers–the Conversation Room is a safe space. The safety, as it were, comes from the tightness of the controls on the discussion, and it’s true at least this morning, those controls kept one person from dominating from the discussion, kept voices from being raised, kept people from interrupting one another–as far as I could see, anyway. (Keep in mind that during the small group discussion my perspective narrowed to what was happening in my own group.)
But was it a safe space to be pink? It didn’t feel like it to me.