Andrew Goddard writes: When serving on the Co-ordinating Group of Living in Love and Faith (LLF) from 2017 to 2020 there were inevitably parallels drawn at various points between our work and the contemporaneous national Brexit debate. How was the way we were handling in the Church of the England the complex, seemingly irresolvable, and divisive issues with which we were wrestling both similar to and different from the ways Parliament, Government and the nation were wrestling with the complex, seemingly irresolvable, and divisive question of the future shape of our changed relationship with the European Union?
For me, one significant contrast was that we were not as a church rushing into a simple binary (“In/Out”) decision with limited understanding and no preparation for implementing an outcome that changed the status quo and with which many would be deeply dissatisfied. We were preparing resources to enable a serious, informed process of theological discernment by helping people to understand and engage well with those with whom they disagreed. Our remit was not to offer theological evaluation of the different views or recommendations as to the way forward. We decided not to set out either summaries of different theological positions to show their internal theological coherence or options as to possible practical ways forward for the church. Instead we concluded the book with edited transcripts of conversations which we had among ourselves about the issues we had worked together on over three years. These we hoped would draw out some of the key points and articulate them in a relational format which might help others have difficult but fruitful conversations. The downside was that this meant there remained quite a large gap to leap between the largely descriptive and educational work of LLF and the formulation and articulation of concrete answers to the contested theological and practical questions it explored.
What has happened?
A year ago, after thousands of Anglicans had engaged in such conversations, Listening with Love and Faith and a more detailed technical report appeared alongside a reflective essay, Friendship in the Body of Christ. Although some have claimed this revealed majority opinion in favour of change that must now be swiftly implemented as the mind of the church (much as people argued that the Brexit referendum revealed support for a particular form of Brexit that people must now accept and political leaders implement), as I have argued previously, this is a misrepresentation of the whole LLF learning exercise, the questionnaire participants completed, and these published materials.
The bishops then made the significant step from conversation and mutual learning to deliberation and decision-making. What has happened since then is more difficult to piece together because very little of the process and the work supporting it has been made public. However, the following appear to be key aspects of it and raise serious questions as to how fit for purpose the process has been in a number of key respects.
An already limited timeframe for reflection together was shortened by the death of Queen Elizabeth which led to the cancellation of the first 3-day residential discussions planned for September. It was therefore not until the end of October and the beginning of November that there was “the first opportunity that the bishops as a whole have had to come together and really to talk as a whole” in this discernment and decision-making phase of LLF (Bishop of Grantham in the video released after the residential). This meeting was quickly followed by the Bishop of Oxford publishing his case for same-sex marriage in Together in Love and Faith (responded to by Vaughan Roberts) and a number of other bishops developing a statement supporting the Church of England’s received doctrine of marriage (shared with bishops in late 2022 but not released publicly until early 2023).
When the bishops met again in mid-December they returned to the range of 7 options considered at the previous meeting in the light of the work of four working groups (whose structure, membership and terms of reference has never been made public) under the Next Steps Group. The initial aim was for the bishops to work towards a clear and agreed direction of travel by means of offering a small number of options upon which to test the mind of Synod in February 2023. The idea was to reduce the number of options from seven and present proposals along with theological rationales for possible ways forward regarding sexuality and marriage. These would give a clear sense of direction and Synod would be invited to indicate its views in February 2023. It was hoped that this testing of Synod’s mind would avoid a ‘binary vote’ and an impasse by instead offering Synod an opportunity to engage meaningfully with decision-making. This would help ensure that a direction of travel was reached by means of a transparent process involving both bishops and Synod.
Following conversation and decisions made at that meeting, however, a very different path and process was followed over Christmas and New Year. This has contributed to subsequent problems. Drawing on new and different legal advice, seemingly developed since the December meeting and proposing a new sharp distinction between civil marriage and holy matrimony, the bishops at the College and House meetings on January 17th signed off on a single, specific proposal. This was a mash-up of various of the original 7 options (rejecting the extremes of ‘no change’ and ‘same-sex marriage’) and did not fully cohere with some of the claims made about the implications of the various distinct options in the December briefing paper.
The proposal was released shortly afterwards, as GS2289, for debate at the February General Synod but articulated little of the reasoning that had led to this rather than some other outcome. Its centrepiece was draft Prayers of Love and Faith (PLF) which it was proposed the bishops commend for use under canon B5 once they were finalised. These were not only intended for same-sex couples but for a range of committed non-marital partnerships. In February, after very lengthy extended debate, the Synod approved a motion with only one amendment. This included the statement that Synod “welcome the response from the College of Bishops and look forward to the House of Bishops further refining, commending and issuing the Prayers of Love and Faith described in GS 2289 and its Annexes” but it set no required timetable for that process.
In effect, the bishops had discarded their earlier more cautious plan and chosen the Brexit pathway—rushing into a simple binary decision with limited understanding of the proposals and no preparation for implementing an outcome that significantly changed the status quo and with which many were deeply dissatisfied. The lack of episcopal preparation included having done no significant work at all on the Pastoral Guidance (and the fundamental theological and ethical vision which should underpin it) although Synod welcomed the plan to replace Issues in Human Sexuality. The interpretation of the prayers and the legal limitations on their use cannot, however, be divorced from this. Even more damagingly, a number of public episcopal and archepiscopal statements (e.g. York and Canterbury) have rejected previous teaching on sexual ethics, despite assurances the doctrine of marriage would remain unchanged. This inevitably shaped people’s responses to the prayers.
Synod approved the proposal in all 3 Houses but in the House of Laity the figures were, ominously for those interested in Brexit parallels, 52% for and 48% against.
After their publication and following Synod it became clear the proposals while welcomed by most of Synod were causing significant disquiet (including among more bishops than initially appeared). This was likely to extend further once elements in the guidance were discussed. A raft of new and challenging theological, legal, and liturgical questions which had not been considered within the LLF process were also identified. Initial suggestions that significant progress would be made by the July Synod therefore proved wildly unrealistic. In fact, the three groups which were set up and pushed hurriedly to progress work on PLF, the Pastoral Guidance, and what was termed “Pastoral Reassurance” produced little concrete. Some minor revisions to the wording of the draft prayers were the only developments of substance when, after barely two months work mid-April to mid-June, the groups reported in July (GS 2303). What they had primarily achieved was enabling growing recognition and awareness of the difficulties in (a) finding the best canonical route for introducing the prayers, (b) producing guidance which could have wide support (disagreement being focussed on whether clergy might be permitted to enter civil same-sex marriage if this was now being distinguished from holy matrimony and whether one could both uphold the doctrine of marriage and now approve of sexual relationships other than holy matrimony) and (c) finding genuinely reassuring responses for those unhappy with the proposals.
At the end of the groups’ third meeting on June 16th it was also announced that the three groups were being disbanded despite so much work remaining to be done, although this was not stated in the formal report to Synod. In answer to Q96 relating to this decision Synod was erroneously informed that this was happening because “when the working groups were set up it was initially envisaged that they would be in place until Summer 2023, to report back to this Synod meeting, and a commitment was sought of members on this basis” but that it had become “clear that the work would continue beyond the original commitment made by members”. In fact, the invitation letter had told those of us asked to participate that “It is envisaged that the lifetime of this work will be from the end of March to the autumn of 2023. The exact timing will depend on what is brought to General Synod in July 2023, how it is received, and what further work remains to be done after July”.
What is happening now?
The current process, described as involving “concentrated drafting work” and needing “to focus on bringing the work of the three workstreams together for ongoing drafting” (Answer to Synod Q96), remains shrouded in much mystery. The LLF journey page ends in July and gives the impression the Implementation Groups are still functioning. The process appears, however (with thanks to Helen King for her work on this undertaken “in the interests of transparency”) to now comprise at least the following five main components.
First, the “concentrated drafting work” is focussed on the Pastoral Guidance. There has been no public statement as to what this involves, who is now undertaking it, and on what basis it is proceeding. As a member of the previous Pastoral Guidance Implementation Group I have not been formally told of any new structure but understand that a totally new group was formed to assist in the drafting. A major challenge and question is that in the July paper to Synod it was reported that there were “a number of questions where clear guidance and direction is needed from the bishops” (para 17) and that although “informal steers” (para 18) have been given, “formal decisions” could only be made by the bishops “once they were able to consider the progress of all three working groups more comprehensively” (those groups already having been disbanded by the time the paper was sent to Synod). It is therefore unclear how the impasse our original Pastoral Guidance group faced in proceeding after February Synod has been unblocked in order to enable Pastoral Guidance to be written given the lack of further episcopal decisions as to its content since July.
Secondly, the wording of the prayers having been amended the major remaining issues are the rubrics (which will to an extent depend on the content of the pastoral guidance) and the legal process of introducing them. In relation to the latter, a number of significant network leaders wrote in July to the Archbishops and others arguing that Canon B2 is the only legitimate route for such controversial changes and they are now reported to have written a further letter. The bishops however appear to want to find any alternative than simply using the Canon B2 process. They began with the proposal to commend prayers for use under Canon B5 as stated in the motion which Synod passed. In July however it was reported that the bishops were “particularly weighing up the option of approval by the Archbishops (under Canon B4.2)” and “No final decision has been made by the House as to the route by which the prayers will be made available for use” (para 13). There are now reports that the favoured route could be Canon B5A, an option not even mentioned in the report to Synod in July. This would involve authorization by the Archbishops but only experimentally on defined terms and as part of submitting the proposals to Synod under Canon B2 (which would require two-thirds support in each House on Final Approval). Given these changes in relation to the canons, Boris Johnson’s statement concerning his stance on Brexit after Cameron’s negotiated deal was announced (later taken and weaponised by Dominic Cummings) comes to mind: “I’m veering all over the place like a shopping trolley”. It is not clear who is now providing guidance on this crucial next step of how to proceed with the prayers, the most developed of all the proposed changes.
Thirdly, in a press release on August 7th it was announced that “a group drawn from across different traditions within the Church will meet next month as part of ongoing work in the Living in Love and Faith process”. Helen King reported it would meet on 7th, 12th and 28th September and the Church Times reported more details including that the group is called the “Living with Difference Group”. Who selected these members (again as with the Implementation Groups, mainly bishops and clergy) and on what basis is not known. A statement was issued after their first meeting last week giving more details.
This component would appear to be picking up some elements of the work that was being done by the Pastoral Reassurance Implementation Group and is focussed more on political actors than theological experts. Given that it has been clear throughout the many years of the LLF process that any decision was unlikely to overcome our differences it is in many ways surprising that (apart from the unofficial St Hugh’s Group) no serious attempt has been made until now to have such structured conversations between representatives of different groupings about finding a settlement. In terms of Brexit analogies one might think of the last-gasp attempt of Theresa May to get her deal through Parliament by finally opening talks with opposition leaders.
The Church Times quotes from a short briefing document sent to this group and written by the Archbishops’ Council’s Director of Faith and Public Life, Malcolm Brown. It includes the statement,
in response to requests for a clearer theological rationale for this stage of LLF, a theological framework is being developed focussing on measures to help the church negotiate with theological integrity a period of uncertainty about both teaching and practice.
While a recognition that there remains a need for a clearer theological rationale for all that is happening is welcome, it is, once again, unclear who is doing this work: Malcolm Brown or another sole individual? A group chosen by someone? Bishop Pete Broadbent has been characteristically robust in offering his translation of it on Twitter, capturing the concerns of many evangelicals: “We’re changing our doctrine & practice, but we’re going to find ways of pretending we aren’t.”
The contrast with the earlier LLF theological work in terms of transparency, time to prepare materials, and perhaps varied expertise and representation of diversity of views, is stark. It also remains to be seen whether, and if so how, this theological rationale will relate to the important discussions about levels of disagreement in the LLF materials or the earlier FAOC report on Communion and Disagreement. Both of these key resources for any consideration of “Living with Difference” have, on the evidence of published materials, been given little or no attention in the bishops’ discernment and decision-making to date.
Fourthly, various groups or “stakeholders” representing different networks have been invited to send representatives to meetings with the core staff team in early October. These are only short meetings unlikely to achieve more than enabling that team to hear the views of those attending as they prepare to present to the November Synod.
Fifthly, the Faith and Order Commission has been brought into the work. This is very late in the day (following rejection of their involvement earlier in the discernment process) and it is important to recognise how FAOC works. Having served on its predecessor for five years over a decade ago, been involved for over a year now in preparing some work related to other less contentious forthcoming aspects of LLF, and knowing several other past and present members (it comprises bishops and theologians) it is clear to me that FAOC work is rarely if ever able to be done at speed or produced from scratch simply on demand. In addition, if it is to retain its integrity and high reputation not just in the Church of England but across the Communion and other denominations, FAOC cannot simply be expected to provide theological window-dressing for already determined political decisions.
The seriousness, complexity, and contested nature of the questions it has only now been asked to address (such as whether a distinction can be drawn between doctrine and teaching and whether the novelty of sharply distinguishing civil marriage and holy matrimony is theologically defensible) make it quite simply impossible for this work to be done in the less than three months (including the summer vacation) required if it is genuinely to inform bishops in either September or October or even Synod members in November. Or rather it would only be possible if FAOC was willing to sacrifice the theological quality and corporate ownership and wisdom across its diverse members that has been one of the widely-praised hallmarks of its past reports.
Ultimately, all these strands have to come to the bishops and in particular the House which will decide what to bring to General Synod. The College has its regular September residential from the 18th to 21st September and the House is due to meet on 9th October and again October 30th to November 1st. The first of these October meetings is likely where final decisions will be made as to what to bring from the bishops to General Synod which meets November 13th to 15th. The tight frame for first the bishops and then Synod members means there will be little space for people to weigh proposals or develop their current thinking.
A crucial decision is the extent to which the November Synod will be expected to take further steps beyond those already agreed and whether it will have sufficient quality materials to consider the theological, legal and liturgical questions that have now been recognised as still needing to be answered.
To take just one obvious but crucial example—what does the Church of England consider a same-sex couple to be doing when they enter a civil marriage and what opinion does the Church of England have of such an action? The answer to this determines whether, and if so how, it would be appropriate to pray publicly following such a marriage. It also determines whether the earlier decision that clergy should not enter such a marriage was an error. There is, however, nothing in the public domain which gives any hint as to the answer, presumably because the bishops have not developed one.
The legal argument that this question might be detachable from our doctrine of holy matrimony because the two institutions are mutually exclusive is recent and a reversal of all past legal advice and has failed to persuade many. But even if it is granted it leaves this question itself unanswered. To answer it requires not lawyers but careful theological reflection and then episcopal and perhaps Synodical discernment and determination informed by that reflection. Having only asked FAOC to consider this matter in July it is wholly unreasonable to expect it to produce a serious response and for the bishops then to weigh it properly by early October and Synod members to reach a decision with only a few weeks’ notice of the bishops’ conclusions. But an answer to this is surely required before prayers can be finally approved or any new pastoral guidance addressing same-sex marriage agreed. The choice is therefore
- either to insist FAOC complete its work within two to three months (despite even uncontentious matters rarely being able to be jointly authored, peer reviewed, revised, agreed and signed off by FAOC in less than nine to twelve months),
- or to accept there is little more of substance that can be decided until February 2024 at the earliest,
- or to insist we must simply “get PLF done” and so cannot wait for FAOC to report and must proceed anyway.
To return to the world of Brexit, this question has interesting parallels with the insoluble problem of the status of Northern Ireland in the UK and the EU given the Irish border: can the CofE
- continue to recognise opposite-sex civil marriages as holy matrimony and
- also say that same-sex civil marriages are not holy matrimony but
- neither (in contrast to earlier episcopal and legal statements) is entering a same-sex civil marriage indicative of a departure from the church’s doctrine of marriage?
Like Boris Johnson in late 2019 and early 2020 we can pretend this problem is not a real one (despite acknowledging that it is by asking FAOC to consider it) and press on in November to implement our “oven-ready” Prayers of Love and Faith and perhaps even new pastoral guidance. If we do that, however, we will not only be making a step that many cannot accept, one which risks dividing the church, and one which, like the Brexit deal, is likely to prove unstable and perhaps unworkable. Even more seriously, we will have abandoned one of the hallmarks of the Church of England’s historic discernment processes which was at the heart of the LLF vision: that we need to take time for serious, prayerful, corporate theological reflection before acting, particularly when altering well-established past teaching and practice, and that we have a responsibility to provide a rationale explaining our actions and changed position based in Scripture and tradition and drawing on reason and experience. We will, in effect, have succumbed to a form of ecclesial populism where, as Rafael Behr explains in Politics: A Survivor’s Guide: How to Stay Engaged without Getting Enraged:
Populism trades in bogus simplicity. It cultivates impatience and treats caution in the face of complexity as illegitimate dissent. The populist rejects the suggestion that problems are hard to solve as a lie told by an incumbent elite that is serving itself or making excuses for its failure to deliver free goodies for all.
The desire to “get PLF done” in November even when there is important outstanding work on these questions is also to reject the need “to focus on bringing the work of the three workstreams together” as the Bishop of London acknowledged was necessary in July. Indeed the Archbishop of York had already promised the February General Synod—“I won’t be able to support commending these prayers until we have the pastoral guidance and pastoral provision”. Given that assurance it is hard to see how he will be in a place to support any step in November or retain any credibility if he and the Archbishop of Canterbury jointly authorise the Prayers on their own authority before the guidance and provision is agreed.
Following the February General Synod the Implementation Group process was for too long driven by a “Get PLF done” goal in relation to July. This led to rushed and pressured processes in a flawed structure and a failure to live with the complexities we identified and take time to explore them and wrestle with them together across our differences. The danger is that the same “Get PLF done” goal risks distorting and damaging the work of FAOC, the bishops, and others, in the next two months. This will put even greater strains on our unity and further erode trust and respect in the whole process and the church’s leaders.
If “get PLF done” is the settled determination of those leading the process then it would be good for them to make that clear, explain why, acknowledge these negative outcomes, and set out how they will mitigate them. Much better, however, would be to recognise
- the range and complexity of the issues that have arisen as a result of scrutinising the hurriedly formulated and in many ways novel proposals,
- the challenges of the work that has only just started on the guidance and pastoral reassurance and cannot be detached from the PLF strand,
- the effect of the constant redesigning of the discernment and implementation processes,
- the consequences of agreeing that FAOC must bring its gifts and theological expertise to the table, and
- the need to formulate and give a theological argument for a whole package (prayers, guidance, reassurance) in order to secure as wide a consensus as possible.
All these, and other factors, mean that this process is something that takes time and cannot be rushed. Barring a miracle, we are unlikely to be ready in November. There is a widespread recognition that some form of prayers are now probably an inevitable next step but ensuring they are not indicative of a departure from doctrine in the eyes of a large number of committed Anglicans remains a major challenge. This means that, in the words of the July letter from an alliance of network leaders,
Introducing a suite of liturgical resources for those in same-sex partnerships can be done fast or it can be done well. But it cannot be done both fast and well.
Andrew Goddard has written Grove booklet E121 on whether the Council of Acts 15 offers a model for changing the teaching of marriage.
He is Assistant Minister, St James the Less, Pimlico, Tutor in Christian Ethics, Westminster Theological Centre (WTC) and Tutor in Ethics at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. He is a member of the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) and was a member of the Co-Ordinating Group of LLF, and a member of the subgroup on Pastoral Guidance, which has now been closed down.