This is an excerpt from an article by Oliver O'Donovan on livingchurch.org. The rest of the article can be read here.
In the mid-twentieth century the Church of England used to attract admiration for its treatment of challenging contemporary moral issues. The form it used was the working-party Report: a small group of members with intellectual authority would weigh the conflicting arguments and come to common conclusions that would be offered to the General Synod.
The first thing to understand about Living in Love and Faith (LLF) is that the conception is quite different. To confront the stubbornly unyielding disagreements on sexuality and marriage, there were good reasons not to follow the classic pattern. We face an emotionally fraught issue resistant to any kind of “expertise,” a synod entrenched in opposed positions, a church feeling constantly wrong-footed by a morally censorious society. The strategy, shaped by the courageous missionary and pastoral ambitions of the two archbishops, was to widen the discussion.
The theologians and other experts were not forgotten, but they were made to listen more carefully and at greater length to the strong feelings of ordinary worshippers — “the cries of their hearts,” as they are rather flowerily referred to. A network of interlocking task forces was deployed under the patient coordination of the Bishop of Coventry, Christopher Cocksworth. No formal conclusions were sought, and the extensive reflections on the consultation are presented not for “adoption” but to be “engaged with.” The engagements are meant to be as wide as possible, and the work is disseminated in multi-media format, the text of the book being supplemented by on-line and video resources. (I should mention that I have had access only to the book.) The success of the enterprise will stand or fall by whether these wider engagements succeed in building on its work or simply go round the old circles again. At 468 pages, it presents a dangerous incentive to careless skim-reading, and it will fall to the Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, to ensure that the text is engaged with as carefully as it deserves.
It is immediately obvious that LLF is conceived as an undertaking internal to the English church. From the quotation of statistics to the quotation of liturgy — and there is a lot of both — the horizon is bounded by Herefordshire on the west and Northumbria in the North. Though some notice is taken of ecumenical, even inter-religious considerations, these, too, are set in the national context. The underlying question is, of course, nothing if not international and intercultural. It is bound up, in ways that are evident, if hopelessly complicated, with the spread of global capitalism, communications technology, and human rights. Its church dimensions are globally ecumenical, and its Anglican dimensions have threatened the life of the worldwide communion. Those who look for suggestions as to how the international and ecumenical commitments of Christian faith can be reinforced in the face of this solvent will find little to satisfy them. But where there are limits, there are also opportunities. Doing things nationally has been broadly an Anglican principle, and the English church has sought to exploit its national potential for a discussion among those who belong to a common context. In place of a global overview it offers a purchase on the state of discussion as it stands in one church.
What initially promises to be a rather dispersed and ill-focused address to the question turns out, happily, to be the opposite. There is intellectual integrity to these reflections. If the paradox is permissible, they are “classically post-modern.” Reflection begins from the church’s doctrine as found, unchallenged until recent days: marriage is a lifelong union between one man and one woman. This is not presented as a problem to be got round, but as a deep-rooted existing commitment bound up with Christian faith in the place of both men and women in God’s creation.
In the opening section of the study the doctrine of marriage is presented with a clear conviction of its strengths, its adaptability to human aspirations and experience, and its sacramental openness to the experience of God’s love in Christ. That some members of the church think it “ripe for development” does not invalidate it, but neither is the suggestion of development ruled out. Our current situation simply demands that we undertake some exploratory questioning around it. The doctrine we have received affords a rich Christian starting-point for a hopeful Christian exploration of what it is possible for the church consistently to think and do.
Living in Love and Faith does not pretend to complete that exploration, only to guide its first steps. Written in a comparatively popular style — plainly, but without slumming — it adopts a reassuring homiletic tone, addressing its readers in the second person. Argumentative material is laced with constant acknowledgment of the feelings involved, and on its own account, too, it tends to emotional expressiveness. Its most striking departure from a traditional format is to interweave discussion with short personal profiles of Christian people — how many of them, I wonder, drawn from clergy families? — who illustrate different angles from which readers of the book may be expected to experience it. These profiles are called “encounters” and “stories.” They are in fact little statements of personal conviction, not directly taken up in the argument but allowed to speak for themselves and stretch the reader’s imagination to encompass the breadth of the assumptions brought by those who live and worship in the church.
The rest of this article can be read here.
The Rev. Canon Oliver O’Donovan is former Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford and Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the University of Edinburgh.