by Prof Helen King and the Revd Canon Dr Judith Maltby, both Academic Historians involved with the Living in Love and Faith report
Where is the project Living in Love and Faith (LLF) going now, after the ‘Pastoral Statement’ on Civil Partnerships? That Statement which not only insisted that ‘Sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage are regarded as falling short of God’s purposes for human beings’ but also belittled situations in which children aren’t brought up by a married, straight couple? That Statement which mentioned the LLF project and its aim to ‘help the Church to learn how questions about human identity, relationships, marriage and sexuality fit within the bigger picture of what it means to embody a Christian vision of living holy lives in love and faith in our culture’ – but which did not show any engagement or awareness of the contents of the resources LLF is producing at this very moment?
As with so many other areas of Church life, it’s hard to know how the bishops work. Perhaps the Pastoral Statement was written by a small committee of the House of Bishops (the Delegation Committee), or perhaps it was drafted elsewhere and then approved by the chair of that committee. As is always the case when bishops meet, the rest of us are not let into the process. Apparently, the entire House then approved the Statement as ‘deemed business’, ‘on the nod’, without all the bishops having read it. At the recent meeting of all the bishops, the College, it was discussed, but again very little information exists about what happened. A vote apparently took place on whether or not to withdraw the Pastoral Statement but this vote was lost. Instead, the archbishops issued a very short statement in which they ‘took responsibility for releasing’ the Statement and acknowledged it ‘has jeopardised trust’. This text from the archbishops was so short that many people wondered if a paragraph had gone missing. It all seems very odd; there are a number of bishops who are actually on LLF, both in the House and the College, yet none of them seems to have noticed that the cold, un-pastoral prose of the Pastoral Statement was inappropriate when LLF is in its final stages.
How does all this feel to us? Some context here. We’ve both been on the ‘History’ sub-group from the very start of the LLF process. At first, it felt like a small seminar group, as the ‘History’ people wrote papers for each other and discussed them. We were interested in what history can add to the process, and in previous cases where the Church of England has changed its teaching and practice. We’ve all learned from each other, regardless of our gender, sexuality or theological tradition. Then the process entered its interdisciplinary phase. While we found much common ground with others from Science, Biblical Studies and Theology, it became far more difficult to navigate all the individual papers being written, and the various drafts of the book which is to be part of the output and which were sent to us for rapid comment. The imposed deadline – having the book out before the Lambeth Conference meets this summer – takes no hostages and has not helped the process.
While we’re not alone in being appalled by the tone of the Pastoral Statement, we’re also angry about its content. We noted that the Statement presents the Church’s past as static, rather than dynamic, and uses phrases like ‘It has always been the position of the Church of England’. Yet, as historians, we are well aware of many significant changes in that position, from accepting, reluctantly, clerical heterosexual marriage to accepting contraception, to allowing the marriage in church of couples where one is divorced with a former partner still living. Some of these changes happened within our lifetimes: others go back to the Reformation. The Statement uses only the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) to define what marriage is: a list which starts with ‘for the procreation of children’, rather than the emphasis on companionship of the modern rite (though the introduction of the idea that marriage might even be about companionship is one of Cranmer’s innovations in the Prayer Book marriage service). In Common Worship, for example, the wife no longer has to promise to ‘obey’ her husband. And, if the bishops are naming relationships which ‘fall short’, then so do abusive sexual relationships inside heterosexual marriage; in 2017 the Church of England produced Responding Well to Domestic Abuse which advises ‘Do emphasize that the marriage covenant is broken by the violence from their partner’.
History matters and, like everything else, the LLF process itself has a history. During 2014-2016, the Church of England engaged in a process called the Shared Conversations. Helen was one of the many hundreds of Anglicans who participated in this process in good faith; for some, this was at considerable personal risk. For all participants the process was costly in time, but there was also a huge financial cost to the Church: £384,525. This investment was felt to be worth it as Shared Conversations was supposed to express and acknowledge the diversity of views within the Church on human sexuality.
In February 2017, the House of Bishops presented a report to General Synod (GS2055) which stated that the bishops had ‘listened to’ the Shared Conversations process, offered ‘a fresh tone and culture’, but evidenced absolutely no engagement or learning from the Shared Conversations. In fact, it was such a poor piece of work that one could read the report and conclude that the Church of England did not remarry divorced people in Church, which every bishop patently knows not to be the case (see GS2055 para.42).
Judith, as a member of Synod, was there for the debate; Helen, a former member, felt sufficiently strongly that she came and sat in the public gallery, later blogging about it here. Synod failed to ‘take note’ of the report – in more normal English, it was rejected. In response to that rejection (which appeared to take the bishops by surprise), a proposal for a ‘substantial new Teaching Document on marriage and relationships’ was implemented, following a statement immediately after the defeat of GS2055 by the Archbishop of Canterbury in which he announced the need for a ‘radical new Christian inclusion’.
This ‘teaching’ document soon evolved into a ‘learning’ document, and then a set of ‘learning resources’, re-branded as Living in Love and Faith (LLF). The whole process began in earnest in the summer of 2017 and draws on the academic expertise and personal experience of many dozens of individuals. It too has been costly in terms of money, time and personal risk but many of us stuck with it in the hope that some learning by the bishops had actually occurred about the failure to engage with the learning from the Shared Conversations resulting in the rejection of GS2055 by General Synod.
Alas, we have to conclude that any learning from experience has not happened – or at least there is no evidence to suggest that it has. The archbishops’ minimalist apology and the failure of the College of Bishops to withdraw the Pastoral Statement have severely undermined our confidence in the collective ability of our Christian leaders to learn from LLF. We are left wondering if, like the Shared Conversations, LLF will come to be seen as another very costly ‘smoke and mirrors’ project, taking up the time and goodwill of many individuals (in which we would include the Enabling Officer, Dr Eeva John, who we increasingly feel has been given an impossible remit undermined by the very people authorizing the work, and who have to ‘own’ its outputs: the House of Bishops). The bishops have to approve the resources formally, and then are charged with taking the LLF process forwards after these are published; are we confident that they understand this process? Has the whole LLF enterprise been yet another delaying tactic, kicking any actual movement towards LGBT+ equality in the Church further into the long grass before it lands in the in-tray of the next generation of bishops?
Like many other colleagues and friends on LLF, we have persevered with and given considerable time to the project over several years. However, we’re no longer convinced that the House and College of Bishops are capable of breaking the repeated, destructive pattern of behaviour we saw over the production of GS2055 despite the costly investment in the Shared Conversations. History never precisely ‘repeats itself’ but we regretfully conclude that our bishops have shown a collective inability to learn from it.
Helen King is Professor Emerita of Classical Studies at The Open University, and an authorized preacher in the Oxford Diocese. She served on General Synod for seven years.
Judith Maltby is Chaplain and Fellow of Corpus Christi College and Reader in Church History in the University of Oxford as well as a member of General Synod.