‘Living in Love and Faith’ should be seen as the Church of England addressing its own people - Adrian Alker, Chair PCN Britain
But what is the end? I think there might be four broad categories of response
In April of this year I tried to summarise where the mainstream churches in the UK stood in relation to the vexed issues of same sex marriage, matters around transgender and related questions. In the Spring of 2020 we had arrived at a point where gay and lesbian people were able to be married in the Scottish Episcopal Church, the URC, the Quakers and Unitarian and some Baptist churches. The Methodist Conference (now postponed because of the pandemic) is due to vote for a second time on proposals to allow same sex marriage in its churches and chapels.
And now for my own denomination, the Church of England. In my previous blog I reminded readers that until the twentieth century the Church of England, as the established church, largely set the framework of marriage in its own canons and articles of faith. Civil legislation accepted this framework of life-long heterosexual marriage within which children would be conceived and raised. Since then of course governments in the UK has gradually unshackled itself from the ties of the established church and enacted legislation which allows for same sex marriage, civil partnerships and greater support for those who transgender. Meanwhile the Anglican Communion and the Church of England has been awash with reports, theological discussions, Lambeth Conferences and national synod debates since the late 1970s. Progressive dioceses in the Episcopal Church of the USA have ordained homosexual bishops, leading to splits in the Communion, with many Provinces across the world refusing to associate with those who have ordained gay people to the ministry. This has affected the Church of England as the ‘mother church’. Archbishops of Canterbury have found themselves in impossible situations in trying to hold together the many Provinces with their wide difference in practice in regard to gay and lesbian churchgoers and the willingness of the church to marry them.
Three years ago, the General Synod of the Church of England set up yet another process of consultation and debate under the title of ‘Living in Love and Faith’, with the stated intention ‘that the resources make connections with the questions, faith stories, views and experiences of people who span a range of ages, ethnicities, theological convictions, sexualities and genders’. Now the report, which is actually a book running to 468 pages, plus digital resources and a course book, has been published and commended to the parishes of the Church of England for study, reflection and a way forward. I want first to comment on Living in Love and Faith and then to comment on reactions to it, and in particular the newly produced video by the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) entitled ‘A Beautiful Story’.
‘Living in Love and Faith’ should be seen as the Church of England addressing its own people – churchgoers across the parishes of England. The book chronicles the many Church reports on sex, marriage and relationships over the years and the archbishops once again see their vision as keeping the church in graceful union despite and cutting through the disagreements. In general the stating of the Church’s understanding of ‘God’s story’ (Part Three) is standard orthodoxy – the Story of Salvation, of the creation, fall and redemption through Christ, of its creedal affirmations to this inheritance of faith. This perhaps is to be expected. However those of us who seek a more progressive faith can at least be heartened by the way in which the book tries openly and honestly to outline in some detail the contexts of societal, scientific and cultural influences. Part Two asks us to pay attention to ‘what is going on’. For churchgoers seeking to make sense of these matters in the context of faith, Part Four seeks to look at different ways in which we handle biblical texts and how we assess the Bible’s authority. Similarly how do we evaluate the church, the surrounding culture, our experiences and conscience?
Living in Love and Faith asks 585 questions, more than one a page. In the sections entitled ‘Encounters’, true life stories are told without comment. Different perspectives on all these sensitive issues are handled with clarity and respect. There are many pages of useful factual information , gleaned from secular sources such as British Attitude Surveys, government departments, alongside numerous church reports and commissions. All in all the book is clear about the disagreements over matters of sex and relationships, both from a very conservative viewpoint right through to progressive folk like myself and many PCN members. The book inevitably reflects the broadness of the Church of England and its range of views over these matters.
And that is the problem, for in a way nobody will be satisfied until this journey reaches an end! But what is the end? I think there might be four broad categories of response and positioning to LLF.
1. Perhaps for those PCN members who are church goers and who want to see the church thrive, the goal must be the full acceptance in the Church of LGBTI+ people, the celebration of same sex marriages, the positive understanding and acceptance of gender identity and transition. Progressive members of the church seek a more critical way of reading the Bible and a way of seeing the story of Christianity, not one primarily of fall and redemption, but of love, compassion and inclusivity. The God they might believe in is less an external Being exercising judgement and a keeper of morals and more a dynamic power of love and transformation, compassion and healing as that power is seen in Jesus.
2. But for many others such church reports and all the synod motions in the world have become irrelevant, just as irrelevant as the church itself. Churches (as in this LLF book) are attempting to put these personal issues around sex and relationships into ‘the Christian story’, into the orthodox understanding of God, Christ and the Bible. For many this remains an unconvincing avenue, people have moved on in their thinking about what the word ‘God’ denotes. What does it mean to say that we seek to be ‘in Christ’? Why are humanly written ancient books which comprise the Bible prescriptive for our society today? For many, the churches have inflicted such harm and abuse that they feel society can do without this kind of religion. Young people especially are no longer concerned with the church. The British Attitudes Survey of 2018 revealed that only 2% of young adults identify at all with the Church of England and 70% of under 24’s stated that they have no religion.
3. Then there are those who attend churches and in general are reasonable folk, working hard in their communities and churches to show love in action. Many of these people have become more tolerant and open hearted to matters of same-sex relationships than in previous decades. A YouGov poll recently found that 48% of self-identified Anglicans in the UK thought same -sex marriage was ‘right’. There are now openly gay bishops and clergy. The talk is of welcome and inclusion. A harsh judgementalism is not to be found in the majority of our churches. I have the feeling that for many in the churches change will come and be accepted, as indeed it did in regard to the position of women. There is, I suggest, a high degree of tolerance and pragmatism in the British churchgoing public. Most church folk do live in a puritanical bubble. They live and work and have families in which sex, marriage and relationships are discussed in ordinary everyday life. They may have gay sons or lesbian daughters, they experience the pain of divorce, they may attend civil partnership celebrations and they bring all of these experiences into their Christian lives and religious understanding.
4. The final category of response however is the most hostile and intractable group of people, who have a literal understanding of the Bible, a belief that doctrines and teachings have been so handed down from Christ through the apostles that no change is contemplated which will seem to bring danger to the Church and its mission. We have seen this before, played out in opposition to the ordination of women, resulting in organisational apartheid within the Church of England with some Bishops seen as ‘untainted’ and able to preserve an all-male priesthood, separate from those dioceses and bishops who have laid hands upon female ordinands. The Church of England has learnt to live with such ‘diversity’, whatever the cost to its reputation and relevance in the eyes of many.
And so when it comes to matters of sex, marriage and relationships, the battle lines are drawn yet again, this time with a ferocity which threatens to break up the Church. Living in Faith and Love acknowledges the distress caused to conservative evangelicals through, for example, the ordination of gay and lesbian people to the episcopacy, especially in the North American Anglican provinces. This group of evangelicals sees in this long report a willingness by the Church of England to consider the merits of different opinions, to seek to ask questions rather than give firm directions and the group fears that this will lead in the new Synod of 2021-26 to legislation which will permit, amongst other things, same sex marriage in church.
This is why they have taken to the media airwaves with a half hour film entitled A Beautiful Story. Evangelical clergy and lay people from across the country are interviewed and share the same outlook, that the Bible is ‘crystal clear’ in prohibiting same sex relationships, that the Church of England is bending to the contemporary ‘permissive society’, that God’s people must be ‘protected’ from the evil ways of this world and that liberal scholars simply abandon any of the biblical teaching in this area. These evangelicals threaten to break away from the Church of England and create their own Province.
These then are some of the reactions which Living in Faith and Love has provoked. I trust that PCN Britain will work alongside sister organisations like One Body One Faith, Modern Church , Open Table Network and others, and continue to call for a fully inclusive church, fit for this third millennium.
Adrian Alker, Chair, PCN Britain
For a personal view of lived experience of the issue see the PCN Britain film: