The recently released Living in Love and Faith (LLF) resources seek to set out “the Church’s inherited teaching on Christian living in love and faith, especially with regard to marriage and singleness, and of emergent views and the Christian reasoning behind them”. They, and the principle of listening to each other across the whole church as we discern together, will be at the heart of the church’s focussed attention to these matters in 2021. We cannot though become exclusively focussed on LLF’s framing and presentation. It will also be important to hear different parts of the church articulate their own understandings and hopes in relation to identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage in their own words.
The first such substantial offering is a film (“The Beautiful Story”) released this week by the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) on its website and YouTube. It provides a powerful and fascinating snapshot of the evangelical Anglican constituency more generally as well as in relation to the themes of LLF. As with the LLF films, this is a highly professional production, one drawing together over 20 contributors. At just over 30 minutes it is quite long and packs in a lot of material. It is, however, composed of 11 sections and so can be broken down into smaller bite-size chunks to allow individuals and groups time for reflection and discussion.
Perhaps the most immediate contrast with LLF is that this film does not seek to provide an overview of a range of opposed understandings. It has a much sharper focus. Indeed it might be possible to see its primary vision as seeking to fulfil the first of LLF’s various learning outcomes – that as a result of watching the film “it is hoped that people and church communities will be inspired by scripture’s glorious and joyful vision of God’s intention for human life”.
In setting out that vision, viewers are taken on a journey, guided by Jason Roach, a member of General Synod who also served on the Co-Ordinating Group of LLF. While all are expressing a shared understanding of the biblical vision and God’s call to the church, we meet a wide range of people on that journey. CEEC claims to be an overarching group for the various evangelical networks in the Church of England “based on common understandings of the Christian faith and its Anglican expression, and united by a common vision to promote and maintain orthodox evangelical theology and ethics at the heart of the Church of England”. This film provides strong evidence to back up that claim and in a way that will challenge some stereotypes of evangelicals. Those speaking come from across multiple evangelical “tribes” – Church Society, Renew, New Wine, Fulcrum, Junia Network (formerly AWESOME) – as well as including those in senior leadership such as Bishops Julian Henderson, Jill Duff, and Rod Thomas. There are those who are same-sex attracted, a good balance of male and female speakers, lay people and clergy serving on the ground in parishes, and an impressive diversity in terms of age and ethnicity.
The journey begins with encouraging testimonies of God and the gospel powerfully at work in the lives of individuals and communities during COVID. This leads into approaching issues of marriage and sexuality by explaining that the church has “a better story” to offer the world, rooted in a biblical vision of true humanity. Here, as with LLF, there is a recognition we must set specific contentious presenting questions in a bigger theological and missiological framework. The film’s centre is two sections which succinctly and sensitively present, as an “attractive story”, a biblical theology of fulfilled sexuality expressed in marriage between a man and a woman and in singleness. There is also honesty that evangelicals have often failed in word and deed and a call for right repentance. Attention then turns to the wider church debates. Here speakers set out a case that the biblical teaching is clear, that our differences cannot be seen as the same as those over women in leadership, and that there are harmful implications if the Church of England changes its stance. The final sections therefore look towards the future with a clear and strong commitment to the Church of England and calls for evangelical unity within it and good engagement with the LLF process. This is combined with an open acknowledgment that the depth of our disagreements may require us to rethink our church structures. Maintaining the earlier positive tone, this suggests constructive ways forward that may prove necessary to benefit everyone and so brings to the fore challenging questions for evangelicals and the whole church.
As LLF demonstrates, and will doubtless become clear in responses to this film, we currently have major disagreements as to what constitutes “scripture’s glorious and joyful vision of God’s intention for human life”. Although primarily directed at encouraging and equipping evangelicals, this CEEC film – and their forthcoming one on race – can also be of value to the wider church and not just as a powerful presentation of our inherited Church of England teaching. The Pastoral Principles for living well together relate not only to how we respond to LGBTI+ people but also to those fellow Anglicans who see things very differently from us. Central to the LLF vision is that across the church we all need to learn to understand one another better and, where necessary, acknowledge prejudice, cast out fear, and address ignorance. Like LLF, and perhaps future similar films from those pressing for change, this CEEC film, by letting the wider church hear evangelical voices, can also contribute to that important task.