Christopher Landau writes: It is a deep, sad irony. The Archbishop of Canterbury is an accomplished peacemaker, with reconciliation as a key priority in his ministry, and yet he is now presiding over some of the deepest disquiet and disunity seen in the church in two decades.
Across the theological spectrum, the bishops’ pastoral letter and accompanying ‘Prayers of Love and Faith’ are causing substantial unease, and I believe this stems from a profound corporate episcopal misreading of how Christians are to face their disagreements faithfully and fruitfully.
I understand why pictures of fudge have been clogging my social media. The church is apparently being encouraged to exchange the notion of being led into singular truth, along the narrow way, for an uncertain future including a pick-and-mix selection of “prayers that bear a nuanced variety of understandings” (to quote the official document).
During more than a decade when I have been researching and writing on theology and disagreement, alongside other ministry, it has become abundantly clear to me that, at best, the role of disagreement in ecclesial life is routinely misunderstood; at worst, it becomes weaponised. This is about how disagreements are faced (the affective question); how the church learns to assess the factors within a particular disagreement; and how disagreement is seen as a fruitful process of revelation, rather than a holding pattern or destination in itself. I will explore these in turn.
Progress on how Christians treat each other in the midst of disagreement is arguably one of the gains made in the LLF process. Whatever the criticisms, and there have been many, churches have undoubtedly been challenged to admit the limitations of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy; potentially abusive theologies or practices have been brought into the light; and a deep sense of the intrinsic value of all members of the Body of Christ has been affirmed.
Systemic problems remain, however. In ‘Loving Disagreement, published last November, I begin the book by suggesting that Christians are in fact addicted to damaging disagreement. Like alcoholics, we are often in denial about both the addiction itself and its impact on our lives. So I invite readers to consider the twelve steps designed by Alcoholics Anonymous: it is an instructive process to replace the word ‘alcohol’ with ‘disagreement’. The first challenge is to admit that there is a problem. Another crucial step involves believing in a higher power that can bring positive change.
When it comes to disagreements concerning sexuality, I fear there has been little softening of hearts between opponents in these debates—and social media has continued to highlight toxic rather than loving approaches. We are yet to explore fully what it might mean to apply the fruit of the spirit in the context of our disagreements; and the challenge of John 13:35 that those beyond the church might discover something attractive when they see the mutual love within it, falls on deaf Anglican ears.
In my more optimistic moments, I can suggest that there has been at least some demonstrable progress in this first aspect of disagreement; at least in some contexts, including some local churches, deeper listening and learning has led to better mutual understanding. But improving this ‘affective’ approach to disagreement, which hopefully includes even a deepening love for the enemies for whom we pray, is not the whole story.
Assessing the arguments
Effective disagreement must include a second crucial aspect: doing the painstaking work of assessing all the contributory factors in a disagreement. In the papers from the college of bishops issued in the last few days, one can only conclude that this deliberation seems to have been rushed.
It is worth noting that the bishops did not end up reviewing and discussing these issues for the length of time that had originally been planned; the Queen’s death led to the cancellation of one residential retreat, removing more than a quarter of the time originally scheduled for this work. But even with that aside, a five-year LLF process in the whole church has been followed by a few short months of episcopal reflection.
Indeed the bishops’ own document reveals many areas in which it is acknowledged that more work is necessary, and many of these are surely issues that need to be faced effectively before the proposed prayers could be used with pastoral or theological coherence. Instead, it feels as though mutually contradictory statements have been allowed to sit alongside one another, because the bishops “want to continue walking together, bearing with one another in love”. But does “a gracious interpretation of doctrine”, prompting many new questions, really equate to seeking the truth that Jesus promises will set us free? Whether disagreement is described as good, effective or loving, to disagree well must involve an effective facing of the issues in question.
In my home diocese (of Lichfield), the episcopal letter circulated by email perhaps inadvertently revealed an interesting dimension to the final document – the PDF file name is ‘final draft prayers of love and faith_8’. Oh to see the tracked changes! But the assumed to-and-fro of the drafting process rather speaks to the lack of unanimity behind the scenes. Clearly, the bishops have wrangled their way through a variety of options. I am not alone in regarding the resulting proposals as being so diffuse as to risk being theologically incoherent.
So what would seeking to analyse this disagreement with a new depth, seeking a singular truth, actually look like in practice?
The key issue is that rather than being faced in its totality, a disagreement is being left unresolved, and a potentially unworkable compromise is being proposed. Few seem convinced that it is really possible to defend the doctrine of marriage as the church has traditionally understood it, while simultaneously offering blessings that by all logical estimation have an essential impact on how the church understands marriage and sexuality.
The tortuous wording surrounding some of the proposed prayers, and the accompanying report, rather illustrates this. A close reading of what is and isn’t being said is necessary, which then rather highlights why for many, ‘Anglican fudge’ is back on the menu.
The bishops commit “to welcome same-sex couples unreservedly and joyfully”. As progressive campaigners have frequently underlined, rather more than a warm welcome is desired—and indeed the Archbishop of York’s public comments have gone further than this text. But the document only suggests that the welcome is unreserved and joyful; the content of the prayers is much more circumspect, and it is only in the curious section on ‘Everyday faithful relationships’ in the report that sexual activity is named. It isn’t prayed about.
By one reading, this reflects an apparent reticence to pray unreservedly and joyfully for a sexually active same sex union. Furthermore, the criteria for blessing a same sex couple is that they are in a monogamous two person union. But the theological basis for this is unclear, beyond an imitation of the marriage doctrine that already exists—which prompts further questions. If this isn’t in fact akin to marriage, why would the bishops offer a blessing that excludes various other kinds of queer relationship? But if it is much more like marriage, for what theological reasons have they stopped short of proposing marriage equality? Or is this simply about a political consideration concerning whether doctrinal votes would pass in Synod?
For Christian Ethicists (of whom I am one, inasmuch as I have a doctorate in the discipline), the discussion of any moral dilemma often relates to ‘competing goods’. It is clear that plenty of Anglicans affirm that many, if not most of the goods of marriage can be visible in a committed, permanent same-sex union. But the creation ordinance and ‘good’ of the possibility of natural procreation is absent—and in the tradition of the church this has not been seen as a negligible factor.
Suppose that in ten years’ time, churches in Brighton are, like some in Massachusetts today, encountering families of three or more adults, living in sexually active, committed relationships, where (as the Harvard Law Review reports) legal recognition for these relationships is being developed. How might the English church respond to this? If Scripture and tradition have been set on one side, and the only argument we have for moral discernment relates to our experience, I fail to see what logical choice there would be but to continue to use an inappropriately generalised appeal that ‘God is love and those who live in love live in God,’ and for the bishops to offer a further extension to the currently proposed prayers.
So is there another way? In my days as a journalist, I was the reporter for BBC Radio 4’s news coverage of Vincent Nichols’ appointment as (Roman Catholic) Archbishop of Westminster in 2009. I remember asking him about questions of sexuality, and at the time being deeply unconvinced by his appeal to a distinctive Christian vision of same sex friendship, which overlapped considerably with the moral goods of many contemporary gay relationships, but which maintained a distinctive sense of Christian call and vocation. (The Vatican’s position on same sex blessings is a brief and instructive read.) In the intervening years, however, and through my own experience of ministerial formation, I have come to appreciate this distinctively Christian vocation as one which is both coherent with theological tradition, and alert in its critique of some of the wilder excesses found in both straight and queer contemporary sexuality.
Perhaps the Church of England has a literally foundational problem when it comes to questions of marriage, and we can’t quite shake off this wounded Tudor history. But I had rather assumed the bishops would seek to maintain a logical consistency with their previous teaching, and even if blessings were offered to gay couples, an extension of Elizabeth I’s desire not to ‘make windows into men’s souls’ might offer local churches a degree of freedom in their prayers, without compromising or undermining the stated doctrine of holy matrimony. Such an approach might not have pleased everyone, but it would have offered a way for bishops to speak with more obvious coherence about the doctrine of marriage being preserved.
The third aspect of disagreement left sadly unresolved by this process to date concerns disagreement as a fruitful process. Rather than a theologically cogent, easily understood proposal, we are offered an unresolved, ongoing holding pattern where new questions are thrown up and existing certainties undermined. Even the way for equal marriage is apparently left open (“there is further to go as we seek God’s coming kingdom together”).
The pastoral implications of this for various groups are currently left unanswered. Anyone who has previously seen some element of sexual self-sacrifice as an intrinsic part of their Christian discipleship is now left wondering what the bishops are commending, and how the church now encourages them to live a holy life. Some gay couples remain uncertain about what may or may not be possible for them in future; others remain excluded given their practice of open relationships.
I happen to believe that if the bishops had proposed pastorally generous solutions that maintained coherence with their previous teaching, they could have offered something to the church which was both more robust theologically and which would have had a much stronger chance of maintaining unity. But in this already strange scenario, a further twist involves the Archbishop of Canterbury both welcoming the developments and saying he won’t take part. One might say that you couldn’t make this up. I cannot imagine his decision will make any positive difference in the wider Communion.
It feels like we are stuck in this holding pattern, seemingly never to land at the airport—because a weak appeal to disagreement has been made as an attempt to bypass hard but necessary theological work. Those who believe in conscience that this is about waiting for gay marriage in church may hope that a few more years in the sky might result in the change for which they long. Others may fear that the plane seems likely to crash, before its planned landing.
Whatever else happens, there is certainly turbulence ahead. If some parliamentarians get their way, the Church of England’s relationship with the state will be examined afresh if equal marriage is not approved; the threat of disestablishment hangs in the air. It certainly feels as though we are entering a new period of existential reflection in the life of the church: about marriage as one of its most honoured institutions; about the definition of sin and the bishops’ freedom to redefine it; and about what constitutes holiness and flourishing in the particular voluntary calling of the Christian life.
I recognise that in conscience people of good faith come to radically different conclusions on these issues. But from Acts 15 onwards, the Christian tradition has always claimed it has the internal resources to reach singular, theologically coherent conclusions on complex issues, even with elements of compromise, which enable a united church to move forward in mission. That seems a rather distant hope in today’s Church of England. But it remains my sincere prayer.
Revd Dr Christopher Landau is the author of Loving Disagreement: the Problem is the Solution (Equipping the Church, 2022).