by Erika Baker, Convener of the Christians for LGBTI+ Equality Facebook Group
The recent shockingly unpastoral ‘Pastoral Statement’ on opposite sex Civil Partnerships has again focused attention on the +2-year long Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process that is to conclude this summer. Having morphed from a teaching document to a project producing a set of learning resources, LLF is to be presented at the end of June with the express intention that these should be used to inform subsequent conversations about gender and sexuality in the Dioceses and parishes.
There are some who insist that LLF was not set up in order to bring in any change. While it does not explicitly have that aim, the history of LLF tells a different story.
In February 2017, after a public outcry and a passionate debate, General Synod refused to “take note” of “Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations: a report from the House of Bishops”. This was for a variety of reasons, including that the report offered something called “maximum pastoral freedom” but without recommending any change at all to the Church’s official teaching.
The following day, the Archbishops wrote in a letter stating that: “To deal with that disagreement, to find ways forward, we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church. This must be founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology; it must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual.”
What will happen next is rather vague and not much has been heard from the Bishops about just what shape the anticipated use of the LLF resources in the dioceses and parishes will take.
As a regional ambassador for Inclusive Church I know how difficult it is to generate interest in conversations about gender and sexuality within congregations. There are some very positive examples, but the reality in most of the churches I am aware of is that there is very little appetite for these kinds of discussions.
One church I visited last autumn had come to the end of a two-year long careful exploration of all aspects of inclusion. I had already spoken to them at the beginning of the process. This time I had been asked to come back and talk to the whole congregation about sexuality. Thinking that they had probably spent enough time looking at the theology of same sex relationships, I decided not to cover that ground again and instead chose to focus on the different types of welcome gay Christians can face in different churches. I was told afterwards that no more than 5-6 members of the congregation had ever attended any of the discussion groups during the last two years, and that of these not all had attended all of them.
Prior to that, in 2016, at the end of the Shared Conversations, I had been invited to a number of Deanery Synods to talk about the sexuality debate in the Church of England. The response in all the synods was similar: The majority of people saw the need for change and just wanted to get on with it. A sizeable group of people wanted to hold on to traditional teaching. Both were frustrated by the amount of talking that was happening in the Church – one group because they saw it as obstructing change, the other group because they feared it would be a precursor to change. Neither group saw any need at all for any further discussions.
With this background, how will the LLF resources be used?
If it is left to the individual Dioceses – can we really expect a conservative Bishop to resource a structured discussion in his or her diocese?
Can we really expect conservative priests or church leadership teams to engage with all the resources together with their congregations?
Can we really expect those progressive churches, who have spent years becoming fully inclusive, to spend much time engaging with traditional theology, upsetting their LGBT+ families in the process?
Can we really expect parishes that have never spent much time thinking about inclusion to spend much time on a topic that they think doesn’t matter that much to them?
Assuming churches do engage with the resources, by what process will they feed their conclusion back to their Bishops?
It’s all very well to say that LLF will provide the resources for a subsequent conversation. The real question is how structured this next phase will be – how well-resourced; who is responsible for the process; its purpose; its time scale and what will come at the end of it?
These questions need to be formally asked and answered.
One way or the other, something will eventually have to be brought before General Synod before it can be said that the Church of England has concluded its process of looking at its teaching on gender and same sex relationships.
In other words – what is the road map to get from where we are now to General Synod?