Andrew Goddard writes: This is the first of three articles exploring responses to Living in Love and Faith, particularly among evangelicals committed to the current teaching and discipline of the church. This piece engages with the recent detailed account and critique of LLF offered by Martin Davie arguing that his primary objection is that LLF fails because it was wrong to do what it set out to do. A second article will examine and reject the claim that LLF is designed in order to move the church to an “agree to differ” position. In contrast it will highlight how the resources help us to recognise where and why we disagree and in so doing also show the potential significance of our differences and their possible implications for our common life. A final article will offer ten questions that might help constructive engagement with the LLF resources.
Since its launch in November 2020, there have been a range of responses to the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) resources. These have included numerous comments on social media, more detailed blog posts on places such as Via Media, Psephizo, and The Possibility of Difference, and significant theological evaluations from people like Oliver O’Donovan, John Barton, Adrian Thatcher, and Diarmaid MacCulloch (these last 3 from Modern Church). I recently discussed the book in some detail with Jordan Hylden on The Living Church podcast.
Among evangelicals committed to the church’s current teaching there has been relatively little public comment or analysis. Although Ian Paul did offer his reflections early on and generated approaching 700 comments on his blog, he was clear that “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”. He has recently offered some more reflections on the content as well as the context.
The publication in March by Latimer Trust of Martin Davie’s Living in Love and Faith: A Concise Introduction and Review and his more detailed and lengthier study in early April from Dictum Press (free PDF available here) means there is now a substantial critical evangelical response. These are based on papers Martin presented for the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) when it discussed LLF in January. What follows is similarly based on a paper I then wrote for CEEC members in response. I am very aware that my perspective is shaped by my involvement for three years in producing the LLF materials and have joked with evangelical critics of it that they probably think I’m a victim of Stockholm Syndrome. Nevertheless, I think that while LLF is not perfect and that critiques of it need to be carefully weighed, some response to Martin’s review and an alternative perspective need to be offered. The focus here is on the shorter Latimer study but most of what follows also applies to the longer study which is a significant expansion of it. That explores in more detail (in chpts 1, 2 and 4) the points made in the Latimer study and adds in chpt 3 a helpful account of apostolic teaching (focussed on 1 Peter and Ephesians) and cultural analysis (drawing on Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self) and in chpt 5 a study of Anglican teaching on Scripture and critique of LLF’s approach to Scripture.
As always in his writing, Martin provides his readers, in his “concise introduction”, with a helpful, objective summary of the structure and content of the LLF book and the background to its production. Any summary of over 400 pages is going to be selective and I have the odd quibble but the only major surprise is that there is no mention of the Pastoral Principles which are highlighted in the important invitation (LLF, 4-5), commended again in the concluding appeal (424) and play a key part in the LLF Course. It is in when he moves to evaluation in his “review” and answers the question “What are we to make of the LLF book?” that I find myself concerned about his presentation.
Martin’s critical review
The evaluation Martin offers of the LLF book is overwhelmingly negative. It does begin by setting out “the positive teaching in the LLF book” but this contains only 3 points which are expressed in just under 900 words, about two-thirds of which are quotations from LLF. This is then followed by 9 negatives expounded in almost 6,000 words in which there are few quotations and limited detailed engagement with the text of LLF. His book length study is similar with pp. 99–104 summarising his 3 points with more extensive quotations while his discussion of 9 problems covers pp. 105–24 and is supplemented by nine areas of concern focussed on Scripture (pp. 155–66).
It would be possible to comment on each of the 9 critiques Martin raises. So, for example, in relation to the first one that “The book fails to give a proper account of the contemporary world and contemporary science” it is fair to say that though there is much description of contemporary culture there is little evaluation or philosophical or theological interpretation of our context (such as that found in Carl Trueman’s recent book which appeared about the same time as LLF) as the LLF book acknowledges on p. 60. The introduction to Part Two ends by asking readers to consider their own reactions and noting the range of possible perspectives on the complex social developments explored but it does not examine these in detail or evaluate them. In relation to science, some important criticisms are raised that the book is “one-sided and misleading” but there is no engagement with the scientific evidence cited in the book or, importantly, the detailed supporting papers in the online library. In contrast to the work of the LLF Science group, most (perhaps all) of the works cited by Martin to support alternative views are not peer-reviewed, academic scientific studies.
In contrast, another serious methodological criticism strikes me as demonstrably wrong:
The LLF book does not acknowledge the need to evaluate experience, conscientious conviction and culture in the light of the witness of creation and the Bible.
Various parts of the LLF book encourage such critical evaluation and note the limits of appeals to experience, conscientious conviction, and culture. To offer just a few examples, we are told that “Our task now, as always, is to see the culture we inhabit through the lens of the gospel” (LLF Book, 46), that stories are not used “as a basis for validating a particular way of life” and are not “by themselves the means by which the church will arrive at a Christian ethic of sexuality or of gender identity” (49). In listening to the world, Stott’s “double listening” is noted so that we “might see where any particular culture could (perhaps in surprising ways) already be working with the grain of God’s purposes in creation, and where it has consciously or unconsciously rejected these” (348). Similarly, personal convictions “require processes of testing and discernment as they are related to all the other ways we have of listening for God’s voice” (356) and conscience is “not infallible” (357).
The Bible’s role in such evaluation is clearly stated in various places. The introduction to Part Four (which explores different ways we hear God) says – “God doesn’t speak through all of them in the same way, and they don’t all have the same priority for us—we will, for instance, be talking about the Bible’s unique authority” (272). The opening sentence on the Bible is “The Bible holds the central place in our accounts of how we hear the voice of God” (274) and the conclusion to Part Four explains how in listening to God (including in relation to the areas Martin says we need to evaluate), “The Bible stands at the heart of that process. The Christian faith is uniquely revealed in its pages: God uses it to witness to the saving work that reaches its fulfilment in Jesus, and to draw us into holiness” (367). The book’s reference to polygamy as an example is also criticised by Martin in this section with the claim that LLF
fails…to make the critical point that this development did not involve any change in fundamental ethics or the Church’s understanding and practice of marriage.
But the pages referred to conclude the short summary of the history by stating “while still clearly teaching monogamy on the basis of Scripture (despite famous examples of polygamy in the Old Testament) and tradition, a less strict pastoral discipline was developed” (347).
Rather than explore all the other specific criticisms in similar detail it is I think better to ask three more fundamental questions which help clarify Martin’s overall critique and enable an assessment to be made of it:
- On what criteria is LLF judged a failure?
- What was LLF trying to do?
- Was LLF right to try to do this?
1. On what criteria is LLF judged a failure?
When talking with fellow evangelicals about LLF and how to respond to it I’ve often said that I think it is important to distinguish two types of critique. One critique is that LLF fails to do what it sets out to do. Another, quite distinct critique, is that LLF fails because of what it sets out to do. In other words, it succeeds in what it sets out to do but it should be doing something very different. Martin’s critique is overwhelmingly (although not solely) in this latter category. This becomes clearer in his book where he identifies three key areas (who God is and how we know his will for us, the idolatrous nature of our society and how to confront it, how we live distinctively as Christians) and says that the key question in relation to LLF for those who hold to traditional teaching is “Does the material…offer clear teaching in these areas…?”. He then notes that “Its architects will object that this was not the purpose of LLF, so it would be churlish to criticize it for failing to accomplish what it never set out to do”. Rather than engaging with that objection he simply asserts that “the question of what LLF actually teaches is not out of place” because “the initial proposal from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York was to provide a ‘teaching document’” (Living in Love and Faith: A Biblical Response, 96).
Working with that framework, Martin’s critique is then expressed in summary statements that are stark and damning and suggest the LLF book has little or no value e.g. “The book fails to properly acknowledge what we learn from creation”, “The LLF book lacks clarity about the nature and authority of the Bible and about the overall biblical witness about human sexual identity and behaviour”, “The LLF book fails to take proper account of the teaching of Jesus”. His book-length critique adds similar statements in offering nine criticisms of LLF’s handling of Scripture each of which begins “LLF fails…”.
The more detailed discussion of these and other criticisms reveals that the fundamental complaint is that the book does not give a determinative ruling on many of the contested issues in the Church of England. Although the LLF book sets out what Martin believes, and sets out in his review, it does this alongside other beliefs. In doing this the book consistently distinguishes between what is the current, unchanged teaching of the Church and England and other beliefs present within the Church of England, but it does not offer its own argument as to why those other beliefs are wrong. It is, therefore, very different from Martin’s own “Glorify God in Your Body” or earlier Church of England statements such as Some Issues in Human Sexuality which Martin was involved in writing and which set out different views but in the context of defending current teaching and practice and so rebutting alternative perspectives.
2. What was LLF trying to do?
The key question here is what LLF was trying to do and why it was doing that rather than something else. Martin’s “concise introduction” offers a short account of “the purpose of LLF” which basically quotes, without comment, from the bishops’ invitation about disagreements existing among themselves and the wider church (LLF Book, 3) and from their concluding appeal. There they speak of the “need to go on learning from each other and from all who seek the way of truth” and state that the purpose of the Living in Love and Faith learning resources is “to help us to learn and discern together so that right judgements and godly decisions can be made about our common life” (422). Although this summary is accurate it gives a very thin account of the purpose and does not do it justice. This is crucially important as what is being done in LLF is rather novel. It does not fit standard categories of CofE reports. It is also vital in relation to much of Martin’s critique of the material. In both his summary of LLF’s purpose and his critique of its content, not enough attention is given to numerous key factors, including that:
- LLF was not designed to adjudicate between opposing views but to set them out, making clear where it was explaining “the Church’s inherited teaching on Christian living in love and faith, especially with regard to marriage and singleness” and where it was setting out “emergent views and the Christian reasoning behind them” (this from Learning Outcome 3, these learning outcomes are online here and really merit consideration in any evaluation of the materials – is the problem with these outcomes or with the failure of the resources to deliver them?)
- LLF was to produce material for teaching and learning that could be welcomed and used across the whole church and a range of different opposing viewpoints, with those holding different viewpoints seeing their own views fairly represented.
- LLF sought to avoid simply setting out fixed and opposed positions and attempted instead to explore the areas on which there are differing views and to set out the various positions and rationales for those positions.
- LLF brought together those with a range of views and sought in its resources to show respect to all those views even though clearly they cannot all be true as they contradict each other and some are the church’s teaching (or consistent with it) and others are not.
- LLF resources are to enable the whole church to listen to one another and to God and to embark together on a learning journey. The learning from that process (through 2021) will be significant in shaping the bishops’ response to this process which they will offer in 2022.
- LLF tried, where possible, to identify areas of agreement and disagreement. In relation to disagreements it sought to clarify the nature of disagreements and see if there was some agreement possible about what we are disagreeing over and why we are disagreeing (again without seeking to rule definitively on these disagreements). This will be explored more fully in a subsequent article.
- LLF was seeking by these means to enable a better informed and more theological discussion and greater mutual understanding. This in turn involved highlighting key questions that need to be addressed in the decision-making process.
- LLF goes beyond the presenting issues to apply this approach to the deeper theological issues and to questions it has identified as in turn shaping the disputes over particular pressing concerns.
Personally, through my involvement with LLF, I increasingly came to see its approach and its resources as in part a case of truth-telling about where we are as a church. This is crucial when this whole area has often been one marked by half-truths at best and at worst by hypocrisy and the other “evils” identified in the Pastoral Principles. This means being truthful about the terms of our teaching but also truthful about objections to that teaching, our very varied practice, our failings, our differences and disagreements.
Sadly, very little if any of these aspects of LLF’s work are conveyed by Martin’s introduction and review and yet it is his disagreement with these that largely drives his negative assessments. It is important to realise, however, that in a number of cases this means there is critique of LLF for not doing things which it was impossible for it to do given its task. Indeed, if it had done what Martin argues it should have done, this would have often meant LLF failing to do what it was tasked to do.
3. Was LLF right to try to do this?
So, the question is whether LLF was wrong to approach its task in the way that it did. Have the bishops, as Martin argues in his ninth critique, simply failed in their calling, in particular to ‘banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s Word; and both privately and openly to call upon and encourage others to the same’?
Evangelicals and others committed to the traditional teaching of the church will clearly believe that, in an ideal church, there should be no need for LLF as the whole church would recognise and live out the clear teaching of Scripture. It is, however, very clear that we do not live in such a church, that many (including in senior leadership) do not believe that the church’s current teaching is God’s will. In the past the bishops have set out that teaching (Issues in Human Sexuality) and defended it by airing other views but in the context of explaining why they are not held to be persuasive (Some Issues in Human Sexuality). The bishops’ attempt in GS2055, following the Shared Conversations, to reaffirm existing teaching and explore more generous pastoral practice was rejected by the House of Clergy and thus General Synod.
In the light of this, some questions in terms of whether LLF is doing the right thing are:
Is it seriously thought that
- given the realities of division within the church, another document which sought to “decide on the issues” and settle them simply by episcopal pronouncement of “clear teaching” was what was needed and would resolve our tensions?
- the group producing LLF was properly representative and had authority to propose its own resolution to the disagreements?
- if such a diverse group as that producing LLF were to seek to decide the issues it would reaffirm the current teaching as clearly and thoroughly as Martin and other evangelicals would wish?
- if it did so decide, the document would fair any better than GS2055 in Synod and the wider church?
The judgment of the bishops and those devising LLF was that this approach of thinking the church could “decide on the issues” by issuing yet another report with definitive recommendations and conclusions was not the best way forward. At no point in the LLF process, following the vote at General Synod, was it thought that the task now was simply to restate traditional teaching more clearly. What was needed was not the handing down of an “episcopal teaching document” which claimed to make a decision but an educational process for the whole church. This would use resources which through their teaching content would enable all those committed to the Church of England being faithful to God’s call, including the bishops themselves, to learn more on such matters as:
- the current teaching of the church and the basis of it in Scripture and tradition,
- the reality of the church’s current life (and the context of society and the wider church) and the lives of Christians within it,
- the alternative views on presenting contentious issues,
- how to recognise and reflect upon the deeper underlying theological questions (and disagreements) which are often left unaddressed concerning what it means to be human and to be the church,
- the areas of agreement and especially the areas and nature of the disagreements we find among ourselves in the CofE
- the different approaches to discerning God’s will, especially in relation to Scripture, that might help us understand better the different discernments being reached concerning that will on issues of sexuality etc.
- how to discuss better across our different understandings
This understanding developed through the process of LLF but that this was its goal was already clear in its Terms of Reference and in its Learning Outcomes determined and published early in the process. The hope was and is that if this could be done well then it would enable greater mutual understanding across the church, facilitate a more informed, richer and deeper theological conversation than has happened in the past (even in the Shared Conversations) and so enable the bishops in conjunction with General Synod better to “decide on the issues”. Such decision should not be by means of LLF members making those decisions and issuing a report with the answers. Nor should it be by rushing into confrontational debates leading to divisive votes for and against different positions. It should instead be by following a church-wide teaching and learning process of prayerful discernment using the LLF resources.
We might perhaps think about what is being done in LLF as learning from ecumenical conversations and adapting some principles from these into a significant intra-denominational disagreement. In the face of inter-denominational differences there is a place for restatements of the distinctives of each denomination and the reasons others are in error. In ecumenical conversations, however, there is a need for historically divided groups of Christians to be clear and honest with each other as to what they believe and to explore their agreements and disagreements, seeking to find more of the former and fresh light on the latter in the hope that such a process may enable deeper communion to develop.
In our situation we face the challenge of potentially having a reverse process. This is because within the same denomination we have a received tradition but a significant and seemingly growing group of Anglicans who have a different understanding with the risk of this resulting in impaired or broken communion between us. What LLF seeks to do is to be clear and honest about both received teaching and the alternatives, identify the continued agreements, and explore together the nature and significance of the developing disagreements, seeking to find a fresh light on them. This process is now drawing worshipping Anglicans across the CofE into this conversation.
Martin is right that
The question of teaching cannot be indefinitely postponed. Sooner or later the church will need to decide what the church of Jesus can teach in the name of Jesus (Living in Love and Faith: A Biblical Response, 96).
LLF sets out the church’s teaching (which remains unchanged by LLF) and its basis. It also sets out the alternative teachings (and their bases) which many are praying and campaigning the church will now embrace. Its expectation is that, having engaged the church more widely, the bishops will then be able to offer (as we usually find at the conclusion of ecumenical dialogues) some clarity as to the reality of our differences and the implications of these for our life together as part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.
The question for those, like Martin, who believe that the root problem with LLF is its decision to follow this sort of path, and in so doing fail to offer “clear guidance on a range of matters”, is:
What better, practical, alternative path would you offer the Church of England in order to enable us to address the divisive questions and theological and pastoral challenges we face in relation to identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage?
Revd Dr Andrew Goddard is Assistant Minister, St James the Less, Pimlico, Tutor in Christian Ethics, Westminster Theological Centre (WTC) and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Anglican Studies, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.