The Beautiful Story, A Serious Mis-step

As part of its series responding to Living in Love and Faith, Fulcrum is inviting various writers to express their thoughts as a way of nurturing respectful dialogue. Jonathan Chaplin writes in response to the Church of England Evangelical Council's video ‘The Beautiful Story’. A response to this article, written by Andrew Goddard, is accessible here.

The CEEC video ‘The Beautiful Story’ has evoked an extraordinarily negative reaction from many outside the evangelical community, as well as from some who identify as evangelical while favouring a revisionist view of same-sex relationships (SSR). I have seen only fragments of that reaction, but enough to know that it has included profound disappointment, deep hurt and intense anger.

The first question to ask is: was this adverse reaction foreseen? Either possible answer to that question is discouraging. If it wasn’t, what does that say about how well those who sponsored the video understand those to whom they will now need to be in extended and respectful dialogue via the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process (assuming they engage in it)? It would not be enough to reply that the video was addressed exclusively to evangelicals who could mostly (though far from unanimously) be expected to sympathise with it. Such an output is guaranteed to attract wider attention, especially when landing right at the heart of the explosive controversy over SSR currently wracking the Church of England. It even got a mention in The Guardian. But if the reaction was foreseen, what are we to make of such a willingness by the most representative body of evangelical Anglicans in England to occasion such pain and anger among their fellow Anglicans – at any time, but, especially, just at the start of a process which will demand enormous reserves of mutual charity and forbearance from all sides if it is to succeed?

The timing of the video is hard to fathom. Appearing days after the long-awaited LLF launch, it can only have appeared as an aggressive shot across the bow of the whole LLF process at the very moment it was heading seawards. Whatever the subjective intentions of CEEC, this had to be the case, notwithstanding the good intentions and warm smiles of the various presenters. It was bound to be seen as a pre-emptive strike, delivered before most people had even begun to take stock of the enormously large volume of LLF materials waiting to be downloaded to their laptops. I gather that the video had been long in the making. But that only makes the timing more bewildering: why launch what anyone with any sensitive understanding of the fraught terrain of this debate could have known would be an incendiary intervention, just when it was so likely to cause damage to an already fragile trust between different protagonists?

Obviously, there cannot be an objection to various individuals and organisations confidently advancing their particular views of SSR in this debate, knowing that others will object strongly or even be offended by them. That is what all sides have been doing for years, often graciously, sometimes hurtfully. LLF itself can only succeed if contending viewpoints are expressed not only respectfully but also robustly, as (we hear) they have indeed been during the years of preparation leading up to the launch.

The moment of the LLF launch, however, surely required a different, more sensitive and intelligent mode of engagement: expressions of gratitude to those who have laboured long and hard and at high personal cost to lay before us the remarkable range of resources we now have available to us (whatever particular limitations some may eventually find them to have); statements of commitment to enter into the LLF process in good faith, which means, first and foremost, a sincere readiness to listen attentively to those holding different views and carrying different experiences; and a recognition (or at least a working presumption) that those on other sides of the debate are, like evangelicals, genuinely seeking to be faithful to Scripture and tradition and to promote the flourishing of the lives of gay and lesbian believers according to their best lights.

There is none of this in the video. Most importantly, it offers no acknowledgement that those favouring revisionist stances might be profoundly persuaded that such a view is consistent with, even compelled by, a biblically-shaped theological ethic (even if in prima facie tension with the ‘seven passages’; most of these are reviewed helpfully at pp. 283-293 of the LLF book). There is no sense that revisionists’ stances are as much a matter of faithful obedience to Christ as evangelicals’ are for them. It thereby implies that the dense cluster of complex and contested questions addressed with great care and impressive fairness in the LLF book (especially in the 200 pages of Parts 3 and 4) are either easily resolvable or irrelevant. How is that to show respect to the LLF process? Arriving days after LLF was launched, the video makes no attempt to invite into dialogue those who do not share traditional evangelical convictions on SSR. It simply declares those convictions, without question, to be ‘what the Bible teaches’, effectively deeming those who differ from it to be rejecting the authority of the Bible and the Creator’s design for human flourishing.[1] Is it any surprise that many on the other side saw this as exactly the kind of closed-mindedness that already repels them from the evangelical movement?

Nor is such an exercise in preaching to the choir of much help to the choir itself: how are evangelicals going to be well-equipped to enter into the demanding encounters LLF will require if they are not familiarised with the complexities of the debate they are about to enter?

But what is most glaringly absent from the video is any genuine acknowledgment of the ocean of reported pain and agony of the many, many LGBTI Christians who have experienced suspicion, humiliation, condemnation and sometimes rejection as a result of exposure to churches or organisations claiming to be evangelical but, at best, uncomprehending of their experiences or, at worst, indifferent to them. Have we not all met some who, as a result of such hurtful encounters, have left the evangelical movement or abandoned the faith entirely? There is a segment recognising the need for evangelicals to repent for mistreatment of LGBTI people, but it is too brief and non-specific to sound convincing.

Of course, there are many gay and lesbian (or ‘same-sex attracted’) Christians who have had very different experiences: of acceptance, understanding and loving pastoral support on a demanding journey of singleness to which they believe Christ calls them. Certainly, one of the positive features of the video is the testimony of celibate Christians, some of them gay or lesbian, who have committed themselves to that costly vocation but who can speak of it as a pathway of blessing. Recognising that one can live a fulfilling human life without sexual intimacy is vital to this debate. But – no doubt contrary to the intentions of the producers – to remain silent on the anguish of those whose experiences are starkly different, of being deeply scarred by the ignorance and (unwitting) cruelty of some evangelicals, will itself speak volumes to those survivors. Evangelical churches who do commit to the LLF process should brace themselves to hear those reports.

Finally, in the concluding segment, several contributors raise the prospect of what they will do if the church revises its doctrine of marriage, such as by permitting the blessing of same-sex unions, warning that some form of structural separation (perhaps by new provincial arrangements) will be required if they are to retain their integrity. We already know that this is a serious prospect (and not only from the conservative side: if in two years the bishops permit no changes, some revisionists may well walk). But for CEEC publicly to announce such a scenario before it has even begun to engage in the LLF process is, on the most generous reading, provocatively premature. Some will offer the less generous reading that it reveals that CEEC’s projected engagement is insincere or merely ‘strategic’ – a move in a power play to thwart any change.

One contributor alerts viewers to the need to get the right people elected to General Synod ahead of the critical decisions being taken over the next few years. Well, several organisations will be doing this and it is not inherently illegitimate. But am I alone in thinking that this appeal to electoral politics clashes rather jarringly with invitational tone of the opening sequences which seek to testify to how God is redemptively at work in people’s lives today? Another contributor urges evangelicals to ‘engage, engage, engage’ with LLF, but at this point in the video this can only be heard by those on the other side as ‘defend, defend, defend’.

The timing and tone of the video amount to a serious misjudgement by CEEC. But it is not too late to strike a different, more irenic and constructive note – perhaps even to apologise for this early mis-step (but if there is to be an apology, let it not be a politician’s one – ‘I am sorry if some have been offended by…’ – but a biblical one – ‘I am sorry that I hurt others in these ways by…’). If, however, this approach to the LLF process remains the considered position of CEEC and the majority of its supporters, the prospects of the process succeeding in holding a deeply riven church together are slim. They may already be, but this would reduce them yet further. I am tempted to say that, in that case, the best advice for the whole church would be (to adapt the famous words of former Liberal leader David Steel), ‘go back to your parishes and prepare for separation’. I sincerely hope I am wrong.



[1] There are, of course, substantial revisionist arguments coming from those with roots in evangelicalism, such as James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reforming the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Eerdmans, 2013), or Robert Song, Covenant and Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships (SCM, 2014). I am not yet persuaded by these particular arguments, but who would claim that such authors are not sincerely seeking to be faithful to Scripture?


Views in guest articles are not necessarily shared by the Fulcrum Executive.

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