This week saw the publication of the material in the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) project of the Church of England. The result of nearly three years’s work by a series of working groups under a coordinating group led by Chris Cocksworth, bishop of Coventry, it arose from the refusal by General Synod to ‘take note’ of a statement by the House of Bishops which prompted the archbishops to call for a ‘radical new Christian inclusion rooted in Scripture and historic Christian teaching’. It comprises a main book of some 420 pages (though the layout is very open, so it is not as long as it looks), a study booklet, and a whole series of videos which explore the issues around sexuality and faith from a wide range of perspectives. The content will take some time to digest; individual book chapters are available online to download for free, and you can also download a PDF the whole book [correction to my original post], though I have yet to receive my own printed copy.
In this piece, I don’t want to comment on the content itself (though I have read some sections, and from this sampling would agree with a view from outside the Church of England that it is something of a proverbial curate’s egg), but on the context in which we find ourselves. In doing this, I don’t want to be negative or disparaging; a lot of people have put an enormous about of time and effort into producing this, and I think it is possible that they have produced something unusual and even unique in enabling a level of respectful engagement that does not happen often in the discussions on this subject.
But I do want to be realistic, and so I am here offering five observations about the context that we are in, because I think these form, in their different ways, an understanding of the dynamic that will shape the outcome of future discussion.
1. We have been here before…sort of…
Depending on how long you have been involved in or following these discussions in the C of E, you might be thinking either ‘This looks interesting and new’ or ‘Oh no, here we go again!’ The reason for the second view is illustrated by the trail of reports (producing reports is one thing the Church of England appears to be quite good at) over the last 40 years or more.
- The 1979 ‘Gloucester’ report on Homosexual Relationships from the Board of Social Responsibility was written as a resource for the House of Bishops, but was generally considered ‘too liberal’.
- The 1987 ‘Higton notion’ at General Synod, which reiterated a ‘traditional’ approach to sex and marriage, and was passed with a clear majority.
- The 1989 ‘Osborne report’, chaired by June Osborne, now bishop of Llandaff, which was the first to incorporated the testimony of gay Christians; it was not published, but the report was leaked in 1990.
- 1991 Issues in Human Sexuality, a short document from the House of Bishops which I well remember debating in theological college when in training, which remains the current statement of the bishops, and it the expression of the teaching of the Church which ordinands are (in theory at least) asked to assent to when entering training and at the point of ordination.
- 1998 The Lambeth Conference resolution 1.10 again stating a ‘traditional’ view.
- 2003 The creatively title Some Issues in Human Sexuality, an extensive and theological exploration (which I remember debating in Synod), which set out five basic positions that the Church might adopt, noting that they were mutually incompatible and that the Church needed to settle on one or the other. Richard Harries, then bishop of Oxford, introduced the discussion by noting that Anglican theology was not based on a ‘three-legged stool’ of Scripture, tradition and reason but that tradition and reason offered ‘hermeneutical lenses’ through which we read and understand Scripture.
- 2005 The House of Bishops’ pastoral statement on Civil Partnerships, in response to the introduction of CPs in law, which Andrew Goddard at the time thought would lead them into an impossible situation.
- 2013 The Pilling report, from which Keith Sinclair, the bishops of Birkenhead, dissented.
- 2014 The House of Bishops’ pastoral statement following the introduction of ‘equal’ (same sex) marriage in 2013, which again reiterated the inherited, current doctrine of the Church, citing the range of documents back to the 1662 BCP which articulated that.
- 2016 The Faith and Order Commission report on Men and Women in Marriage, which does not appear to have been discussed very much as far as I can see.
Some of these, together with evangelical responses to them, can be found on this listing of historic documents.
The question from one ‘side’ of this debate is: will LLF be just another talking shop with no action, when it is action that is needed? And from the other side: will LLF be just another attempt to slide into a ‘liberal’ position despite the clear teaching of Scripture, and the largely unanimous view of the church in history and around the globe today?
In his fascinating review of the material at Living Church, retired Oxford professor Oliver O’Donovan does appear to think that this approach might be something genuinely new:
The first thing to understand about Living in Love and Faith (LLF) is that the conception is quite different. To confront the stubbornly unyielding disagreements on sexuality and marriage, there were good reasons not to follow the classic pattern. We face an emotionally fraught issue resistant to any kind of “expertise,” a synod entrenched in opposed positions, a church feeling constantly wrong-footed by a morally censorious society. The strategy, shaped by the courageous missionary and pastoral ambitions of the two archbishops, was to widen the discussion.
The question is: if keeping the discussion narrow in the past led to little agreement or resolution, what will be the effect of ‘widening’ the discussion. As O’Donovan goes on to note, the effect is actually to complicate the discussion—which might be necessary to give due respect to the different issues involved, but does not look very easily as though it will lead to clarify, unity or decision.
2. The timing could hardly be worse
The LLF material was originally planned to be published in June 2020, but was delayed because of the restrictions and challenges the came with the Covid-19 pandemic. There is a quite understandable feeling that, given the work that has been done, further delay could not be justified, and of course there is the constant pressure from those who think that the possibility of further change is just being ‘kicked down the road’ or into the long grass (can you do both at the same time…?).
The ambition of the project is that the ‘Next Steps’ group will be able to propose a way forward from November 2021, and that there will be some sort of proposal brought to Synod in 2022. But can these challenging issues really be discussed remotely over Zoom? If not, when are we likely to have the time, energy, resources and opportunity to have sensitive discussions about such a controversial issue? I would be surprised if anything much could happen before June 2021—though I could be proved wrong. I know that some diocesans are not confident of engaging with the material much before next autumn. Most clergy I have talked to simply shake their heads at the possibility of discussing this any time soon.
And what does the timing look like for the Church of England as a whole? Prior to the beginning of lockdown, many dioceses were looking into the abyss of long-term, seven-figure deficits, and needing to take radical action to address these financial problems. The challenges of the pandemic, which has seen unplanned giving fall dramatically, has exacerbated this. Immediately after Stephen Cottrell’s translation to York, Chelmsford diocese were talking about making around a quarter of their clergy posts redundant, and most dioceses are now looking hard at both their central staffing and ministry numbers.
In addition, we have the question of historic sexual abuse and safeguarding practice to deal with, as highlighted by the IICSA report on the Church of England.
And at a local level, the reconfiguration of pastoral practice forced on us by the restrictions of meeting in our buildings has, in some places, barely begun. Whilst some church leaders enthusiastically engaged with the challenge of moving to ‘online church’, with another lockdown and restrictions likely to continue well into next year (the possibility of a vaccine notwithstanding) continues to be a massive drain in time, energy and resources.
A large part of me feels that we need this debate on sexuality like a hole in the head.
3. The antagonism of ‘conversation partners’ is vitriolic
Four weeks ago, in anticipation of the publication of LLF, Simon Butler, who is Prolocutor of the House of Clergy in General Synod, commented on IICSA and linked child sexual abuse to the doctrine of the C of E on marriage. He praised those in the evangelical tradition who had changed their position on sexuality, but contrasted them sharply with those who support the Church’s current teaching:
Other evangelicals within General Synod, effectively kicked out of the Evangelical Group in General Synod (EGGS) for simply wanting to explore a line similar to Runcorn’s, have coalesced into a new group in which a different, honest expression of dissent can be aired, within a caring atmosphere far different from the stifling atmosphere of EGGS which, over my twelve years as a member, became increasingly reminiscent of a Soviet-style party meeting. It gives me no pleasure to admit I often felt afraid.
This comment, made by someone whose role is supposed to be representing clergy in Synod, about fellow Synod members, is at best disingenuous, and at worst shocking. I suppose it is one step better than calling us all Nazis, but it feels like a small step. In reality, the leadership of EGGS exercised great caution and refused to make EGGS a closed group; they showed hospitality to dissenting voices, even when those voices tried to dominate discussion, interrupting other people speaking in meetings and heckling. But it was clear, from an informal survey, that around 95% of the group happily accepted Church of England teaching on marriage and sexuality. Given that the vast majority of both evangelical and mainline scholarship has not been persuaded by attempts to re-interpret the biblical material, it was not unreasonable to clarify what an evangelical understanding of sexuality looked like. Other theological traditions are available!
In the last week or so Jayne Ozanne, a member of General Synod and high-profile campaigner change, has been reaching for the language of ‘abuse’ and criminality in the discussion about the Church’s doctrine on marriage. In response to an article about ‘homophobic’ Christian students and churches in Oxford, she commented:
I'm so glad @TheOxStu are calling out the homophobia they have experienced- we can't allow this harmful practice of telling LGBT people who are in relationships that they are 'sinful' to continue. It's damaged & is damaging far too many lives – mine too! https://t.co/0QGwzAmR4U
— Jayne Ozanne (@JayneOzanne) November 7, 2020
(In the article, there was an account of a meeting with a group of celibate, gay Christians from St Aldate’s church, who exhibited the ‘worst kind of homophobia’ by being kind whilst still believing in the Church’s teaching that marriage was between one man and one woman. ‘I felt loved and abused at the same time’.)
On a Facebook group, in response to a call to mount an IICSA-style enquiry into the Church’s treatment of gay people, Jayne comments:
Really agree Martin, but personally I think it should be a public enquiry like IICSA led by a QC. I have been talking to certain folk about this…
These two are not voices from the margins, but from people who have been pretty much at the centre of the discussions in the C of E. LLF is seeking to build bridges and encourage serious and respectful discussion—at a time when leaders on one side are comparing those on the other side to murderous autocratic dictatorships and want to see them criminalised.
4. We have bigger issues to resolve
I had a fascinating conversation with an online friend on Facebook about a popular expression of God’s love and judgement in a leaflet, which he found absurd. He is an Anglican cleric originally from London who decided he was a universalist before he began ordination training. (There is no need to name the person, but he posted publicly so I don’t think that he is shy in his views). In response to some comments about ‘an abusive God’, I asked another person ‘Is the God of the NT abusive?’, to which my friend replied:
You didnt ask me but I would say that frequently in the NT, God is described in ways that most right-thinking people would now regard as abusive, yes.
I then followed up with a more specific question: ‘So do you think the Jesus of the New Testament is an abusive religious leader?’
Yes. I think that some of the words attributed to Jesus by the NT writers are abusive from today’s perspective. I see them as reflecting human understanding not God’s. To a large extent that may be the perspective of the writers but even if we knew for certain that Jesus said (and meant) everything attributed to him, I would still say that if it sounds abusive, it is abusive and reflect’s Jesus’s human understanding not his divine.
While I’m sure that sounds heretical and may be problematic in some ways, there are precedents (Jesus telling a gentile woman to go away and her challenging him. I know that’s debatable but isn’t everything?!) And it’s still less problematic for me than ascribing abusive behaviour to God.
Now, there are any number of directions we could go in exploring this theologically—can we separate the divine and human nature in Jesus? Can we be so confident that the gospels writers distorted the teaching of Jesus so badly? If we cannot know who Jesus is from the New Testament, can we know him at all? (On the popular reading of Jesus being racist in response to the Syro-Phoenician woman, see my exploration here.)
But for the purposes of this article I simply want to note that my friend and I stand on opposite sides of a very large theological chasm. If he thinks that the teaching of Jesus we find in the NT is ‘abusive’, how are we ever going to agree on the question of sexuality and the doctrine of the Church?
To change the metaphor: it feels as though we are trying to build a second-story extension on a house whose foundations are crumbling to the point of being almost non-existent. Oliver O’Donovan hints at this rather serious problem, though in a reflective, Oxford-style way of speaking, when he points out one of the omissions of the LLF book:
First, of the various complaints that may be raised against LLF from the conservative side there is one that I would take seriously, which is the way it talks about God. The theological matrix is familiar enough from church documents and homilies of these times: Love is the sole name of God, and “whoever lives in love, lives in God.” The Bible is a book about loving community, injustice is the sole sin, and the Eucharist the sole sacrament. Though undeniably inspired by scriptural and especially Johannine sources, the presentation of God is troubling for its loss of mystery and tension.
God as hidden, God as truth, God as judge: those warnings about the distance of the divine from the human cannot be ignored without the knowledge of God collapsing into a kind of consolatory knowledge of ourselves. With the loss of depth in our conception of God, of course, there goes a loss of depth in self-knowledge. Where there is no “Repent and believe the Gospel!” — no narrow way to enter, no cross to take up — the individual subject settles down to become a unit of society equal to all other units; “every human being regardless…,” with no challenge to self-discovery. What an older generation called existence, that is, the unique and incommunicable demand of living in coherence with oneself, disappears from view.
If our understanding of God is not central to our understanding of both who we are and what God calls us to, I think we have a problem.
5. There is no obvious end-point to which we can all assent
I was involved in a Zoom discussion about LLF on Tuesday with some members of the group and others who have a keen interest in its outcome. In response to discussion about listening to different views, I pointed out that the discussion in the C of E has, probably for decades, not really been about evaluating different views, but about whether the different views are in any sense reconcilable. Can we live in ‘good disagreement’, agreeing to disagree on this issue?
I feel very clear that we cannot. It might just be possible to live in a Church which, in some parts, does recognise and value the ministry of women in certain roles whilst, at the same time in other parts, does not recognise that ministry. Possibly. But it is simply impossible to, at the same time in the same institution, both celebrate certain patterns of relationship as the wonderful gift of God which teaches us about the nature of his relationship with us, and alongside this believe that it is a sinful pattern of relating to which the right response is a call to repentance. In fact, at one point the LLF book acknowledges this:
When we consider the experiences of other Christian churches, we find three broad approaches to questions of sexuality and marriage. One approach maintains the Church’s traditional teaching but stresses listening to and walking alongside individuals who live differently. The Church of England’s current official approach is similar to this.
A second approach permits local churches to respond in different ways. For instance, some might bless or conduct same-sex marriages, while others might continue to view them as wrong. One question, however, is whether this is possible without changing church doctrine, liturgy or law. Can a church bless or marry a same-sex couple while teaching marriage is between one man and one woman?
So a third approach is to change the church’s doctrine of marriage.
There really is no ‘middle’ way—and (as we have seen in the Anglican Church in the USA), if the Church does changes its doctrine, it would not be long before those who held to a traditional view would be prosecuted and expelled—probably for holding to teaching which is ‘abusive’.
Having reached the end of this longer-than-planned comment, I can understand if some people infer that I am suggesting we should not engage in the LLF process. I don’t think I am saying that. I will be reading the material, and offering comment and evaluation on the content, as well as contributing to resources that might help people address the issues.
But I want to be realistic about what might be achieved. O’Donovan comments:
LLF deserves to succeed. Its work has been done painstakingly and generously, and if it elicits the kind of engagement it seeks, it cannot help but change the mood.
I hope that part of that change of mood is to recognise the foundations that need rebuilding, so that the end result is a Church which is more faithful to its calling—its worship of God and its testimony to the world.
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2.9–12)