Note from the author: For over three years I’ve had the privilege of being a consultant on the Co-Ordinating Group of Living in Love and Faith (LLF) which released its work on 9th November. It’s been a fascinating, often challenging, but overall positive experience. I’ve been asked by Fulcrum to respond to some questions about it all. Although I have tried here to express as far as I can the shared vision behind LLF, all the answers – some more than others – are obviously personal and not on behalf of LLF.
1. What is LLF?
LLF – Living in Love and Faith – is an unprecedented suite of teaching and learning resources to equip the church in discerning God’s will in relation to identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage.
LLF arose out of the refusal of General Synod to “take note” in February 2017 of the House of Bishops’ proposed way forward for the Church of England (GS 2055 which I discussed at the time here and here on Fulcrum). This followed the Shared Conversations recommended by The Pilling Report in 2013. The Bishops had proposed issuing a Teaching Document but it soon became clear that, following Synod’s decision, something else, something new, was really needed and desired by the bishops and the wider church. We couldn’t just do what we had always done.
A large and diverse team of scholars set to work in summer 2017 in four groups (covering Bible, Doctrine and Ethics, History, and Science), each chaired by a diocesan bishop, overseen by a Co-Ordinating Group of bishops and consultants. This was chaired by Bishop Christopher Cocksworth and served by Dr. Eeva John as Enabling Officer, both of whom have provided outstanding leadership of the team. These scholars produced an enormous number of papers which were then drawn upon from 2019 onwards to draft (and re-draft and re-draft in the light of feedback from the large LLF group, bishops, General Synod, and others invited to read and comment) what has become the LLF book. From early on we conceived of our products as a tree with:
branches and leaves in the form of films, podcasts, and a course for group study
the book as the solid trunk combining detailed analysis interwoven with stories of individuals and churches interviewed during the project
roots going down deep (those initial papers now part of an Online Digital Library)
All of these are now available free online in an online learning hub.
2. What does LLF say?
Because LLF makes no formal recommendations and is such a diverse range of teaching and learning resources, it is really impossible to sum up “what LLF says”. The heart of its message, however, is well captured in the book’s opening Invitation and closing Appeal from the bishops who commissioned LLF and have worked with its team throughout the last three years. Central to these is the need to find a new way of addressing these issues together as a whole church. This is embodied in the unique formats and wide scope of the LLF materials compared to any previous church engagement with this issue, certainly in the CofE and perhaps across the whole church. Key here is that we all need to engage our hearts and minds afresh to listen to God and one another. The Pastoral Principles (see more details below) are intended to help us examine our hearts, and the LLF materials – most fully the book – call on us to apply our minds to the complex questions we face, guided supremely by Scripture which “holds the central place in our accounts of how we hear the voice of God” (p. 274).
What follows is my personal attempt to summarise the different components and some of what I believe they are “saying” to us.
Between the bishops’ opening Invitation and concluding Appeal the book falls into 5 parts. Between these parts are “Encounters” where readers get a glimpse of the lives of 20 individuals and congregations from across the church who shared their experiences with LLF.
Part One (“Reflecting: what have we received?”, 8-50) explores the gifts of life, life in relationship, marriage, and learning. It sets out the church’s teaching on marriage (23-37) which we have inherited and its biblical basis. It gives a sense of the bigger picture of God’s purposes while also introducing the book’s approach to the questions it addresses.
Part Two (“Paying attention: what is going on?”, 58-154) looks at what is happening in society, science and religion as our context before Part Three helps us in “Making connections: where are we in God’s story?” (162-259). This is where much of the substantial theological work on matters of identity, sexuality, relationships, and marriage is to be found. It maps out areas of agreement but also disagreement and shows the complexity of the issues and their relationship to wider questions (and disagreements) concerning who we are as human beings and who we are as the Church.
Faced with these complexities and disagreements, Part Four (“Seeking answers: how do we hear God?”, 266-368) looks at the process of theological discernment and reflection with six chapters exploring how we hear God through the Bible, Church, Creation, Cultural context, experience and conscience, and prayer and guidance. Here again we have to face the diversity found within the church both in relation to each of these in their own right and their inter-relationship, consider how this relates to both our established doctrine and the presenting issues we are discussing, and the implications of all this for our life together.
The fifth and final part (“Conversing: what can we learn from each other?”, 376-413) presents edited transcripts of four conversations among (now anonymised) LLF members covering marriage, sex and relationships, gender identity and transition, and the life of the Church. As well as drawing together some of the key issues explored earlier these also illustrate the sort of honest but civil conversation it is hoped LLF will generate in the wider church.
For me, part of the book’s message is the need for the church to explore much more holistically, theologically, and biblically both our shared understandings and commitments and also our serious disagreements. To help with the latter, the book seeks to enable different perspectives to be heard in ways those who hold them will recognise as fair. In so doing it draws out the complex connections between the various contentious issues explored. It also explores the deeper underlying theological questions which so often make even dialogue – let alone agreement – about them so difficult. Although it does not propose an agreed way forward it opens up the possibility of recognising, understanding, even respecting, why other Christians see things differently and asks us to face the questions of how serious our disagreements are and their implications.
The LLF Library is there for those who want to dig deeper still (the “roots”). It provides links to over 300 varied resources including over 60 papers written from within the LLF team and previously unpublished.
There are 16 podcasts, each 30-40 minutes in length. Following a similar pattern to Part Five of the book, these are each recorded and edited conversations between four different members of the LLF team, all chaired by Stewart Henderson. Mapping closely the 18 chapters of the book, they give a flavour of both the substance and the tone of the work of LLF over these past three years and the diversity of views found among the bishops and academics who were part of it. They thereby enable engagement in a different, more dialogical way with many of the areas covered within the book.
These 17 five-minute films, even more than the Encounters in the book, enable us to listen to the journeys of individuals, couples, or families as told in their own words. Here, perhaps above all among the resources, care needs to be taken not just to sample and react but to explore and ponder, reflect and pray, listening to different, especially unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable, voices. Those who so graciously share so personally in the films put flesh and blood on many of the “issues” explored elsewhere. They remind us that, in the title of Preston Sprinkle’s excellent book, our focus needs always to be on “people to be loved” and that all our discussions and study of Scripture need to be in order to understand better what it really means to love one another and to learn in practice how to love better.
Across a range of ages, ethnicities, and churchmanship we meet couples, single people, those who have experienced divorce or bereavement, those who identify as gay, lesbian, trans, intersex, same-sex attracted. Here, in the words of the website, “we encounter people seeking to follow Christ, allowing them to take root in our hearts and prayers. While not necessarily reflecting the teaching of the Church of England, they enrich our learning and invite us to acknowledge the diversity found in the Church today”. For many of us, watching these films has been one of the most powerful parts of LLF. We hear of people’s joys and pains and their experiences of God and the church as they seek to follow Jesus and live in love and faith. We are moved to think further, drawing on the other resources, about their different and often seemingly incompatible accounts of their respective journeys and understandings of God’s will. We are brought face to face with the reality that these many voices are all part of Christ’s one church which helps explain why our disagreements are so painful and seemingly intractable. We are challenged to consider how we would respond to these people in our own congregations, how their stories might cause us to reflect further on our attitudes (the evils of prejudice, fear, ignorance, hypocrisy etc), our pastoral practice, our local church life, our way of teaching, and our understanding of God’s will.
The LLF Course is in five sessions which can be followed, and responded to, online. There is also a course booklet available. After an opening session exploring what it means to learn together as followers of Jesus, the focus in each broadly correlates with the conversations in Part 5 of the book: how our identity in Christ relates to sex and gender, the kind of relationships including marriage which God calls us to, where our bodies and sex fit into all this, and how diversity and difference affect our life together as church. The course videos are each about 30 minutes long so, allowing time for reflection and discussion, each session should last about 75-90 minutes. The sessions include a mix of Bible study, teaching sessions summing up key elements from the book, and two story films.
3. What is the relationship between Issues in Human Sexuality and LLF?
These are very different documents. Issues was a statement from the House of Bishops in 1991 setting out their teaching and policies and it remains the current episcopal teaching and practice. LLF is a suite of teaching and learning resources requested by the bishops and developed in regular interaction with them. In an opening invitation and closing appeal in the book the bishops invite the whole church “to join us in using this book and its accompanying resources to learn together about how the Christian understanding of God relates to questions of identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage” (1). This is therefore very different in style from Issues or earlier statements.
4. Is the Church of England homophobic?
It is increasingly recognised that the Church of England in various ways has failed – and continues to fail – always to embody the good news of Jesus Christ in its relationships with LGBTI+ people, both inside and outside the church. Hugh Palmer, as Chair of CEEC in their initial response to LLF, acknowledges that “the way Christians have treated LGBT people is shameful, and we all want to recognise that”. The bishops’ opening invitation includes an invitation to examine ourselves, confessing:
The sobering truth, however, is that we, the people of God, are not always good at living in love and faith or being a beacon of God’s love in the world. Many of us do not experience our own Church – the Church of England – as a welcoming and safe environment in which the fullness of the love of Christ is manifest. Many of us in our church communities have not always experienced the unconditional love of Christ. Indeed, some have experienced outright rejection, homophobia, transphobia or other unacceptable patterns of behaviour. Some have experienced hostility, scorn and demeaning accusations because of their convictions. Some have been subjected to sexual abuse (4).
They proceed to reaffirm the “Pastoral Principles for Living Well Together” which were developed by the Pastoral Advisory Group (PAG), working alongside LLF. These pastoral principles – address ignorance, acknowledge prejudice, admit hypocrisy, cast out fear, speak into silence, pay attention to power – play a central role in the LLF Course and are introduced in this video and discussed by two members of PAG in this video.
5. Is the Church of England changing its views on gay marriage and is it inevitable it will accept it?
LLF does not bring about any change in CofE teaching. Chapter 3 of the book clearly sets out the Church’s teaching on marriage. This, and the arguments of those wanting to change it, are explored in various places in the book and in session 3 of the course.
My own sense is that while a growing number within the church now support same-sex marriage they are still a minority and very few bishops support such a development. It’s therefore not likely to happen in the near future and far from inevitable that it will be accepted. The more interesting and pressing question perhaps is that any move to recognise or bless same-sex unions will have to come to terms with the fact that many of these unions will be marriages in the eyes of the law even if not in the eyes of the church.
6. Is the report saying that the Bible is unclear on sexuality?
No, it does not make that judgment. It is, however, acknowledging that many of our disagreements on sexuality often relate to disagreements about the Bible. It therefore gives an account of these in the belief that we need to understand this connection and the inter-relationship between these two areas. The book engages with Scripture throughout and has a helpful index of biblical references.
One of the longest chapters in the book – looking at the Bible – contains a discussion of the different approaches to the classic texts appealed to in relation to homosexuality (283-94), and the online library contains an important paper of exchanges about them from within the Biblical Group between Chris Wright and Walter Moberly. The book’s discussion is then followed by a crucial description of different perspectives found among Anglicans concerning Scripture’s unity and authority and their relationship to the Church of England’s official teaching in this area (294-308).
As the conclusion says – “This chapter has tried to describe the different approaches to the Bible that shape the Church of England’s debates about identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage. We have begun to see how they might be evaluated but have not reached the point where we are able to resolve them” (308). One of the many key questions which the process that now follows LLF will have to wrestle with is how these “deep disagreements” (302) about the Bible and its teaching in this area can best be resolved in the life of the church.
7. What next?
As set out in the bishops’ appeal (420-4), the various LLF materials are intended to resource a church-wide period of learning and discernment from now through 2021 and perhaps into early 2022. It is hoped that, in various ways, groups will gather within the church to learn together drawing on the LLF resources and perhaps doing its 5-session course. Ideally these groups will bring together people of different views, identities, and life situations, both clergy and laity, as LLF has done.
A new group, chaired by the Bishop of London and comprising only bishops, will oversee the use of LLF across dioceses, deaneries, and parishes and receive feedback from those who engage with it. This will then help the bishops, guided by that new group, as they enter into a period of decision-making where they will “lead the Church of England into making whatever decisions are needful for our common life regarding matters of identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage” (420).
8. How should evangelicals respond to LLF?
My hope is that as evangelicals we will take time to explore and, in the words of CEEC, “look closely”, at all that is to be found in LLF before rushing out instant, knee-jerk responses. There is much here we can welcome but also much which will disappoint or disturb us. I believe there is an opportunity provided by LLF to engage graciously and confidently with others in the Church of England, eager both to share what we believe (remembering that many in the church will sadly not have heard this in their churches) and to listen to our fellow Christians who hold different views. There will be temptations either to absent ourselves and get on with more important ministry and mission (having to do this in the time of COVID is obviously an added, unwanted challenge) or to get involved simply to defend our cause and oppose others. While we may instinctively want to protect our flocks from some of what is in LLF we also need to face the reality that many in evangelical churches are wrestling with these questions and that LLF is holding up a mirror to help us all see the complex, messy reality of the current Church of England of which we are part.
There will be concerns that the process, the largely descriptive rather than prescriptive and evaluative nature of much of the material, and the diversity of views explored and stories told within the LLF resources, are a sign that we are inevitably, perhaps by default, headed to a form of postmodern, “good disagreement” theological relativism. Although that response is clearly a danger in the face of our deep differences, I do not believe that it is either the only or the intended outcome of the LLF process whose fundamental rationale is to enable a corporate seeking together after God’s life-giving truth. The risk of us heading down such a relativist path will be much reduced the more that evangelicals engage and engage well with the discernment process and the wider church.
The LLF resources will inevitably and rightly come under scrutiny across the church. In addition to here on Fulcrum, CEEC and Church Society, and doubtless others, will be offering analysis and advice in relation to the LLF resources. Some networks will produce their own useful resources for teaching in these areas, complementing and perhaps engaging with those of LLF. All this will be of help to evangelicals as we respond.
9. Is there any way I will be able to stay in the Church of England after all of this and will it divide the Church of England?
Sadly, this is question is a very live one for many – not just for evangelicals but also for many LGBTI+ Anglicans who want the church to change. The short answer of course is that nobody knows. The Archbishops in their Foreword and the bishops in their concluding appeal understandably and rightly stress Christ’s call to unity even as they acknowledge, even among themselves, “the depth of disagreement between Christians on exactly how we are called to be distinctive in our ways of life in obedience to Christ, and about what it means to be those who, according to Jesus’ prayer, have received his ‘word’ and have been ‘sanctified in truth’” (422).
Overall, LLF does not focus on the complex and challenging ecclesiological questions we face concerning how the deep differences it explores will impact our unity. That will, though, become a crucial question in the next 18 months or so of discernment and decision-making. There are, however, brief and I believe helpful discussions to be found on the different responses among Christian churches to these disagreements (130-5) and on “disagreement and communion” (231-4) drawing on the earlier work of FAOC in this area. These are then drawn upon in the conversation about the life of the church (406-12) and highlighted in the fifth and final session of the Course. In considering these matters there is already important work from the Church of England Evangelical Council about possible ways forward set out in “Guarding the Deposit” and given more of a theological rationale in “Gospel, Church and Marriage: Preserving Apostolic Faith and Life” (summary here).
10. What have you gained from working on LLF?
Having spent many years reading, writing, talking and debating about the issues covered by LLF I have to confess I joined it with some weariness and trepidation but also some excitement and expectation given the people involved. Thankfully, those latter positive hopes far outweighed the negative fears and I hope and pray that the same may be our wider experience going forward using LLF.
Personally, although my core convictions as to the Bible’s clear witness and the wisdom of the tradition’s teaching have not changed, I’ve recognised even more the complexities surrounding these questions and how our differences relating to them grow out of much deeper, long-standing disagreements. I’ve made new friends and deepened existing friendships, including with those with whom I strongly disagree. I have come to appreciate them more as we have worked together to produce these resources for the whole church. I am especially grateful that I can see across LLF’s resources some of key qualities I have experienced in its processes, qualities which I hope will mark our ongoing discernment as a church. Honesty about the often painful and sinful reality of our common life and our disagreements. Humility before God and one another as we study Scripture together and listen to each other and to God. A focus on humanity which frames our more heated discussions within the bigger questions of who we are as human beings according to Scripture. Commitment to hospitality in which we all open ourselves up to others rather than closing down and we remember that, as followers of Jesus, called to live in love and faith, we will only find a way forward through our conflicts as a church when we seek to do so relationally, recognising we are all precious image-bearers of God who are also all sinners in need of his transforming grace.