In November 2020, the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC), which is a coalition of evangelical networks and organisations in the C of E, published a film called The Beautiful Story, offering the outline of an ‘orthodox’ response to the current discussions about sexuality in the church. It received a quite mixed response; from many, particularly evangelicals, it was well received, but others were very negative. Some disliked the timing, following straight on from the launch of the LLF material from the Church of England, not least because some people who had been involved in developing LLF featured in the CEEC film. Others objected to the content, and still others (of a range of position) disliked the inclusion in the last five minutes of discussion about the future of the C of E, and the possible need for differentiation or separation within the Church on this issue. I personally felt that this last discussion really distracted from the main content, and that the film would have been much stronger without it.
But the positive aspect of the film was that it was well produced, featured a good diversity of voices, and actually meant that evangelicals and other orthodox in the Church were speaking up in a narrative that has mostly been dominated by other voices.
This week CEEC has launched two more short films, with two more to come, offering resources for use in the local church as conversation starters (or scene setters) on this issue. Supporting notes are included. (CEEC has also produced films and resources on the questions of race and of abuse, but for some reason these have not attracted as much attention.)
The first one, ‘Can we remain silent?‘, explores why we need to have conversations about Scripture, the gospel, and sexuality, difficult though they might be, and why remaining silent on this question has been so unhelpful. It begins being rooted in one of the Pastoral Principles of the C of E, and is very well produced, with an excellent diversity of voices in terms of experience and (to some extent) theological emphasis. It notes the stark contrast between the widespread lack of conversation within the church, and the endless focus on sexuality in the discourse of contemporary Western culture and media.
There are quite a few hints from different people of the theological direction in which they are heading, and the presence of a number of people who see themselves as gay or same-sex attracted is important. I don’t suppose that this will persuade those who disagree with the theological position of those in the film (so-called ‘Side B’ gay Christians, who are clear that being a disciple of Jesus means either being single and celibate, or other-sex married, are sadly often dismissed as suffering from ‘internalised homophobia), but their voice is of crucial importance in this debate.
It is helpful that the question of the need for courage in the face of very strong views in contemporary culture is named explicitly, and there is a strong note of confidence that Scripture and (historic) Christian theological understandings of sex and sexuality are good news. I suspect, again, this sense of confidence won’t impress those campaigning for change in the Church’s doctrine—but this is primarily a film for those who are open and interested, or already sympathetic with the Church’s current doctrine. I think Ed Shaw is a particularly helpful voice in both this and the second film.
I am planning to use this as an introduction to teaching on Scripture and sexuality, as it offers a helpful setting of the scene for beginning the conversation.
The second film, ‘Starting the Conversation‘, offers key principles for how we should conduct this discussion in a positive and helpful way. The starting point is to listen well, so that the discussion begins with listening to assumptions, questions, and concerns. The second principle is to teach humbly; within this, there is quite a strong emphasis on the importance of teaching, which was already mentioned in the first film. I think some people will react against this, on the basis that we all need to make up our own minds, and we don’t want our vicar telling us what to believe! Yet it is hard to ignore the importance given in Scripture and in the Church’s liturgy, particularly in the ordinal, to the teaching role of those who are appointed as leaders. Despite all that has been going on in culture, despite the long engagement in the C of E (through the Shared Conversations and the LLF process), I do feel that there has been a vacuum of leadership and a vacuum of teaching. I wonder where we would be now if the House of Bishops had decided, early on this debate, to offer a confident exposition of the Church’s doctrine of marriage and sexuality, rather than the consultation process that is LLF. One thing that does come through quite strongly is that many ordinary congregation members are actually longing for help, direction and teaching, and avoiding this responsibility is actually a pastoral failure.
The third principle is ‘Be Patient’, not least because this issue touches on big, complex, personal questions. I have several times been asked to offer an evening’s teaching on sexuality, and my response has been ‘That is just not enough time!’ The fourth principle, ‘Seek Help’, is key for those in leadership, who often feel isolated and ill-equipped to address these issues, not least in the context of a busy and demanding schedule. The final principle is ‘Looking forwards’, though this is primarily about the wider theological context—a new day is dawning, which puts all these conversations into a much bigger context.
The two further films that are in production will address the subject of why this is an important question rather than one on which we can simply agree to disagree, and whether there is a possibility of ‘accommodation’, finding a solution to the questions that face us which will satisfy all parties. I think I can anticipate what the final answer to these questions will be! But the acid test of them will be the extent to which they manifest the principles of listening well, teaching humbly, being patient, seeking help, and looking forwards.
For me, these films represent a welcome shift of focus. In the last couple of years, CEEC has begun to work together well and to be more organised, recognising that that ‘boring but important’ questions such as who is elected to General Synod, need attending to. But these films now offer engagement with the content of the issues here, and this has to be central if we are to shift from just politics and campaigning.
But it might seem strange to be talking about ‘starting the conversation’ when the C of E appears to be on the brink of making some sort of decision about the way ahead. Yet, in my experience, this is spot on. Despite all the debate that has been happening in certain quarters, my own experience is that most people in most churches still don’t really know where to begin. And they have not found LLF to be particularly helpful; one person in my church said ‘Well, it was mostly fine, but it seemed to avoid the actual questions we are asking!’
If you are interested in my own exposition of what I think Scripture says about sexuality, see my articles here and here. On the question of same-sex relationships and the biblical texts, see my Grove booklet here. For a very helpful pastoral exploration of issues around trans, see Andrew Bunt’s booklet here.
I am genuinely interested in responses to these films from all perspectives—but only in genuine and well-intentioned observations. Moderation will be more active than usual!