PCN Britain Chair reflects on ‘Living in Love and Faith’

So what do we make of this latest resource and the reactions to it?

hree years ago, the General Synod of the Church of England set up yet another process of consultation and debate about sex and relationships 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. So what do we make of this latest resource and the reactions to it?

‘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. Those of us who hold a more progressive faith can at least be heartened by the way in which Living in Love and Faith 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.

So what’s been the response? I think there might be four broad categories of response and positioning to LLF.

1. For progressives 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. LLF does try to encompass this viewpoint alongside others.

2. 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. There are evangelicals, catholics, modernists, liberals, who might be conservative in matters of doctrine and belief but who share a desire for the church to be more open and engaged on matters of same sex relationships and transgender issues. 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. But the picture is more complex amongst evangelicals, many of whom are more open to same sex relationships and who handle the biblical texts in a more nuanced and critical way. I guess we will see these disagreement amongst evangelicals being played out in the coming months and years.

These then are some of the reactions which Living in Faith and Love has provoked.

PCN will continue to work for an open and inclusive Church, affirming all who are in committed loving relationships of all kinds. We are committed to working with other sister Christian organisations who see in the life and teachings of Jesus the call for compassion, justice and self-giving love.

Adrian Alker, Chair, PCN Britain

A response from Robert Williams:

The PCN magazine and website provided much interesting reading material for the festive period, reporting on developments within the Anglican Church, the Christian Faith and PCN itself. One of Adrian Alcker’s blogs evaluates the recent Church of England report ‘Living in Love and Faith’ and formulates probable responses from church members. In respect of the future for single-sex church weddings, lack of unity and dissent whatever the outcome is accepted as inevitable. My copy of the Book of Common Prayer (over 65 years post-print) lists 3 causes for matrimony: first for the procreation of children --; secondly as a remedy against sin and fornication -- ; thirdly, for the mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have of the other -- . Acceptance of these causes could provide a basis for addressing equality within the provision of church marriage services and reducing the anticipated rift.

Not many would disagree with the primary importance of the first matrimonial cause. The weddings of couples starting married life with the probability of raising offspring and contributing significantly to community and family have always been upheld as important and joyous occasions. In 2017, over 90% of weddings in England and Wales were between couples less than 55 years of age and of these only 22% (approximately 53,500) were religious ceremonies (ONS data, 2017). Equality between those presenting for marriage could be accomplished by providing the traditional church wedding for couples likely to meet cause one and a suitable alternative service, such as a church blessing, for those unlikely to meet it. Perhaps it is necessary to take a step backwards in order to be more progressive.

Our Chair proposes to construct a list of ‘progressive friendly’ churches and seek out PCN clergy members. Demographic membership data is always very interesting. I’ve wondered for some time how many members are clergy or ex-clergy. Don MacGregor, author of ‘Christianity Expanding – Into Universal Spirituality’ (Pv35, p.8) may qualify for this list. I found myself nodding in agreement with his description of our past Christian Framework and the idea of being part of the Great Being. I was unaware of the bigger framework referenced in ancient texts and surprised that the author of ‘Brave New World’, Aldous Huxley, had written a well regarded text on mysticism and theology. It is perhaps appropriate to focus our philosophical enquiry on matters relevant to the human condition. A book review of the state of theoretical physics (Simon Ings, The Times 2021) exposes the chasm between current concepts of physical creation, as understood by leading physicists, and reality that may only be resolved by designing machines able to generate hypotheses and make interpretations.

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