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. Here, Martin Kuhrt writes in response to LLF.
How can Christians who claim to ground their faith on the Bible as God's Word come to such radically different conclusions about matters of identity, sex, sexuality and gender? This is a prominent question in the book produced by the Church of England's Living in Love and Faith Project. Rather than do an in-depth assessment or critique of the whole book and the resources produced alongside it, in this article I would like to give an initial impression of the project but then analyse in more detail one approach it takes to this specific question.
I've viewed the two minute trailer on the website and listened to the thirty-five minute audio recording of the discussion of four members of the working group that produced the resources, and I've read the full text of the book which is downloadable if you don't want to pay for the paperback version or wait for it to be delivered.
There are those who have already decided that the project and the resources it has produced are a further sign of the Church of England's gradual sliding into apostasy, as have various Anglican provinces around the world, or that its intent was to play for time and put off any decisions which need to be made, while giving the appearance of doing something, or that it is yet another disappointment for those who have waited long enough to be affirmed, because it doesn't make specific proposals for change.
Having experienced the 'Shared Conversations' process, I myself was wary of a further 'talking and listening' exercise because I felt that those 'conversations' were weighted towards the listening being one way and that embracing cultural change seemed to be regarded as more important than faithfulness to Scripture. The two minute video introduction would not do much to reassure Christians coming from my perspective. However, the thirty-five minute audio recording gave more of a sense of real mutual listening and respectful engagement across the divide(s).
To fully assess the value of the project it is necessary to read the book and engage with the other resources. Having read the book, I'd like to say that I think it has educational value in providing a summary of the issue as it particularly concerns the Church of England. It does show, I believe, that the Church of England structures and those within it who hold to 'orthodox', 'traditional', 'conservative', or 'biblical' views can listen to 'progressive', 'revisionist', 'inclusive' or 'liberal' views and offer people who identify as gay or trans and vulnerable, a place where they feel respected, loved and heard.
In a world of Twitter sound-bites, identity politics and culture-war sloganeering, the book sketches out in an orderly way the points of disagreement, so that the uninformed can make some sort of sense of the controversy. The 'real life stories' and recorded conversations in the book, in my opinion, evoke the issues and allow the broad range of different perspectives to be heard.
My chief aim in writing this article is to pick up on the question of how to understand the Bible's authority. The book makes use of the church's traditional idea of 'charitable assumption', that when people appear earnest in professing something, then we proceed as if that is the case. So the book is keen to say that the disagreements, at least among those on the project, were more to do with interpreting the Bible and how its authority is to be understood as connecting with our lives today, rather than whether or not it is authoritative for Christians today.
This therefore places the question “What does the Bible really say about marriage, sexuality, gender and identity?” at the forefront. I am glad about this, because I have heard campaigners say in the 'Shared Conversations' that biblical argument is not their priority because the battle will be won by cultural and political pressure and an appeal to 'what the Spirit is saying to the Church now', rather than earnest, Spirit-filled, submissive and relentlessly prayerful biblical engagement.
In chapter 13, as part of the section on 'how we hear God', the book describes a range of approaches to the Bible containing seven broad positions along a chosen spectrum. At one end, there are those who say that Bible is a straightforward, clear and inerrant 'manual for living' given to us by the God who loves us and that when people talk about 'interpretation' this is usually a cover for wanting to disobey its plain teaching. At the opposite end is the view that 'the Bible is a collection of fallible human voices, produced by people who were caught up in movements of God’s Spirit in history – but their words only do uneven and partial justice to what they glimpsed. You can certainly find some important truths in Scripture, sometimes powerfully and beautifully expressed, but they are mixed in with all kinds of other material, some of it horrific.'
The other positions 'in-between' are laid out thoughtfully, and I would say that in that chapter's commentary upon them, there does not seem to be a 'liberal bias'. It's a rather helpful summary of different perspectives on the Bible in the Church of England today.
However, in chapter 11, which is all about the buzzword 'inclusion' there is, in my view, a troubling leaning towards a view of the Bible that is too close to the idea that certain testimonies in the Bible about God's character, commands or actions are untrue because they are mistaken human ideas about God rather than God-inspired truthful revelation written down by human authors.
Rather slippery language is used in relation to the idea of a 'tension' between two apparently divergent positions. So the book says that there is a tension in the Old Testament between 'exclusion' and 'inclusion'. On one level this is fairly obvious. There are some passages in which Israel being 'separate' from heathen nations is emphasized and some passages where welcome, hospitality and inclusion are commanded or celebrated. But we need to think really carefully about the nature of things 'held in tension'.
If we imagine an elastic band held between two fixed points so that there is tension, then this is a helpful metaphor for the creative dynamic between two revealed truths which are equally grounded in God, important and valid. The two truths might appear to be inconsistent, and therefore we are tempted to privilege one over the other, but in order for the tension to be maintained, we must hold that both should be firmly maintained. If we allow one to become more determinative, more central, more influential than the other, then this is like moving the other towards it, therefore lessening the tension and eventually removing it altogether. The elastic band droops.
So, for example, if we are trying to hold the two truths of God's elective sovereign power and human freewill / responsibility together in tension, but make one of the two more 'normative' or 'in tune with the thrust of biblical teaching' or 'more faithful to the trajectory which the bible sets us on' then the tension is gradually lost and the paradox reduced to a single polarity. Other paradoxes which would be collapsed would be Jesus full humanity and his full divinity, and the 'now' and 'not yet' of the kingdom.
Chapter 11 in Living in Love and Faith sees not so much a paradox, but a contradiction between passages where there is something exclusionary happening and passages where there is something inclusive going on and suggests that we ought to privilege the inclusive one over the exclusive one. So it gives, as an example, the attitude Israel should have towards the Moabites. The five paragraphs below are quoted verbatim from pages 224-225 of the book.
“This tension between inclusion and exclusion is particularly obvious in Israel’s relationship with their Moabite neighbours. Should the Moabites, or should they not, be allowed to become part of Israel? The issue aroused all kinds of strong feelings, steeped in fear and history. The book of Deuteronomy seems clear: No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord … because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt…. You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live. (Deuteronomy 23.3-6)
This is hardly ambiguous. Not only are Moabites to be excluded from Israel, but Israel is explicitly under an obligation never to do anything for them. The book of Ruth, on the other hand, is equally clear. Ruth is from the land of Moab, and is regularly called ‘the Moabite’. Yet when she comes with her mother-in-law Naomi from Moab to Bethlehem, the Israelite Boaz not only shows kindness to her but he also eventually marries her. Through their union Ruth becomes the great grandmother of King David. She becomes a key figure in Israel’s story. The presence of two such different voices within Israel’s Scriptures suggests that the relationship between Israel and Moab was a divisive issue for some in ancient Israel.
This is a tension linked to intense questions of identity, ethnicity, faith, boundaries – and of inclusion and exclusion. So what do we do with these two texts? Deuteronomy has a strong vision of Israel as the elect and holy covenant people of the Lord, and that vision has shaped both Jewish and Christian faiths. The paragraph about Moabites, however, seems to be about revenge and resentment. It essentially tells Israel to respond to the Moabites in kind: hostility is to be met with hostility. It is a response located in a specific historical context and trauma.
The story of Ruth has a different tenor. Most famous are Ruth’s words to Naomi, when she promises the traumatized older woman that she will always be with her, care for her, and share her people and her faith. This self-giving generosity is the very thing that Boaz notices and commends, and it motivates his own generosity towards Ruth. Ruth thereby comes into the heart of Israel’s story when Boaz marries her. It is a story about the triumph of loving-kindness, a prime characteristic of the Lord himself (Exodus 34.6,7), which should characterize also those who respond truly to him (see Psalms 111 and 112).
In comparing these two texts, we could argue that the book of Ruth stands closer to the overall moral and spiritual heart of the Old Testament, and of the faith rooted in it, than does the paragraph in Deuteronomy 23.3-6. It lines up, for instance, with the prophecy in Isaiah, in which God promises to bring foreign peoples ‘to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer … for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’ (Isaiah 56.7). The judgement that Christians should privilege Ruth over the paragraph in Deuteronomy looks to be in line with the priorities of the Old Testament itself, quite apart from that of the New Testament. The question then perhaps arises whether, if the law in Deuteronomy 23 is relativized in the book of Ruth, there might be a similar relativizing or deprivileging of the Levitical prohibition of same-sex intercourse? Or does the absence of any texts commending what Leviticus condemns challenge such relativization? “
So here, I would say, we have a good example of what is claimed initially to be a tension, but is really claimed to be a contradiction and we are invited to choose the position we feel is most in line with what our faith is really all about. The words of Deuteronomy, said in the Bible to be 'God's law,' could really merely demonstrate the resentful and fearful spirit of those who had endured trauma. The message of Ruth, by contrast, is one of kindness, welcome and inclusion, backed up by some other parts of Scripture about God's concern for non-Jews. This appears to provide a way of avoiding potentially challenging texts. However, this opens the door to privileging 'nice' passages over 'nasty' ones whenever the supposed 'tension' (which is really being treated as a contradiction) occurs. Why stop at the Old Testament? There might be similar 'tensions' in the New Testament, either between texts themselves or between certain texts and modern 'understandings' which it is claimed that the Spirit or science has led us into today as we go forward.
This is where I think we have to challenge people who claim to hold the Bible as their authority but who use slippery language and ideas to say, in effect, that the Bible has internal contradictions which render some of it, unhelpful and un-authoritative, even when read in context using sound principles of exegesis, in revealing to us the nature of God and what pleases him or displeases him today.
Was the Deuteronomy passage a command from the God who is good, part of a body of law relayed faithfully by Moses, as the Old Testament and New Testament (including the words of Jesus) testify? Or was it made up by Moses, or some others, because, for historical reasons, they didn't like Moabites very much? The answer that this part of the Living in Love and Faith book suggests, is the latter.
Now of course, for those who believe that the whole Bible faithfully reveals the character of a God who is love and completely good, there will be various problems to wrestle with. (I've written a recently published book seeking to answer the criticisms of the New Atheists who cite passages where God commands or does certain things to claim the biblical God is a very nasty piece of work indeed). There will need to be proper study and exegesis of these 'hard texts' to see what God was really doing or telling the Israelites to do and why, and therefore what, in the light of God's overall plan in Christ, we can learn about God's character and purposes to help us lead holier lives today. But the incentive to do this is reduced if we can dismiss passages like this as indicative of unenlightened, unworthy ideas about what it means to be the people of God. No doubt there were plenty of unworthy ideas about this among the Israelites at various times, but if these ideas managed to creep in and corrupt the construction of the biblical narrative, does this not considerably reduce the Bible's authority as God's true revelation?
I would say that if we look more carefully at Deuteronomy 23v3-6 it does not say that Moabites are to be an exception to the laws about hospitality, not handing over escaped slaves, treating aliens justly, being kind to the poor and vulnerable, of which there are loads. The translation of this passage given in chapter 11 of Living in Love and Faith is not referenced and, while I am not a Hebrew expert, it seems very different from the NIV translation, which says, not that the Israelites must never do anything kind to a Moabite (by way of exception to all the other laws) but that they were not to make a political treaty of friendship with them as a nation. The prohibition of Moabites 'entering the assembly of the Lord' to the tenth generation does not have to be read as a racist edict or an act of petty revenge, but as a God-given didactic intergenerational ban on Moabites having access to certain political and religious rights in Israel. This solemn 'exclusion' was a just and, in the long term, a merciful decree which would have reminded Moab of its sin in wanting to starve the pilgrim Israelites of food and water and hiring Balaam to curse them, with the aim of ultimate repentance, restoration and inclusion in Christ. It does not say that any Moabite found on Israel's soil should be ill-treated or deported or that any Israelite man was forbidden to marry a Moabite woman who embraced the God of Israel as Ruth did. Had Old Testament law forbidden anything Boaz did for Ruth he would not have done it, because the book of Ruth takes pains to show that Boaz scrupulously obeyed the law of Moses in protecting Ruth, allowing her as a vulnerable widow to glean, and going through the lawful procedure for being her kinsman redeemer.
This perhaps is where the point of difference is among those who claim to adhere to the Bible but who differ over how authoritative the whole biblical revelation is for us today. My book God Is Good — Exploring the Character of the Biblical God, challenges the idea that any part of the biblical revelation shows God to be anything less than good. And that includes the full biblical revelation about marriage and sexuality from Genesis to Revelation.
Views in guest articles are not necessarily shared by the Fulcrum Executive.
The death of the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, has led to an outpouring of grief and affection from within the Jewish community and beyond. Our own Archbishop, Justin Welby, suggested that it was his ‘profound depth, and equally profound commitment to relating with others’ that made him such a great leader. ‘When you met him,’ he said, ‘you couldn’t but be swept up in his delight at living, his sense of humour, his kindness, and his desire to know, understand and value others.’
What Welby called his depth was a feature of someone trained in philosophy and Jewish theology. His PhD examined rabbinic ideas about taking responsibility for others. In his obituary for Jonathan Sacks Daniel Taub, a former Israeli Ambassador to the United Kingdom, talked of Sacks’ enormous range of erudition and his particular focus on matters of morality. He was indeed highly intelligent and erudite but his intellect and experience enabled him to have something much more profound -- the gift of wisdom. And with that gift of wisdom came an ability to communicate that wisdom to others, never to talk above them. This was a gift he brought to his Thought for the Day broadcasts; he spoke so that everyone could understand. Not only could they understand, they could also take away something for themselves. Prince Charles, in his tribute to Sacks, noted that his wisdom meant that he was able to ‘cut through confusion and clamour;’ when asked a question to which the answer might seem to be either a or b he would show how both were based on false assumptions and that the real answer was c.
What I wish to do in this tribute is to look at some of Jonathan Sacks’ thoughts and beliefs which are of relevance to us as Christians, for I believe that we too, not just his Jewish colleagues, can learn from him – and can benefit from his wisdom.
How Might Faith Communities View One another?
In 1997 Samuel Huntington’s book about what he called the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ was published.[i] Huntington’s thesis was that there was an inevitable clash between the western and Muslim worlds – between two civilizations. In 2002 Jonathan Sacks published a response in which he suggested that Huntington’s thesis was wrong – there was no inevitable clash.[ii] Instead, Sacks argued that in the modern world there needs to be an acceptance of cultural and religious difference. Accepting this would make the concept of any such clash irrelevant.
With the attacks of 9/11 in the recent background as he was writing, Sacks argues that people of different faiths ‘need to search --- each faith in its own way – for a way of living with, and acknowledging the integrity of, those who are not of our faith.’[iii] Although he says that he is an orthodox Jew, he asks whether he can hear the echoes of the voice of God in a Hindu, Sikh, Christian or Muslim. In writing about the relationship between the different faiths Sacks got himself into trouble with members of his own faith community. In the first edition of his book he wrote, ‘Judaism, Christianity and Islam are religions of revelation – faiths in which God speaks and we attempt to listen.’[iv] In other words, he was suggesting that Judaism’s God is the same as that of the Christian and the Muslim and that God can speak to each. He argues that the heart of monotheism is not what it has traditionally been taken to be: one God and therefore one faith. Instead, he posits the idea that unity creates diversity. This is why difference is to be welcomed and accepted; hence the title of his book, the Dignity of Difference.
Publication of the first edition resulted in uproar in some sections of the Jewish community. Two senior orthodox rabbis asked Sacks to recall the book. When he failed to do so an expert in Jewish law was asked for his opinion; he concluded that the book contained views contrary to the Hebrew scriptures. Sacks agreed with his publishers that a second edition should contain amendments to the first.
In the second edition of his book he ‘toned down’ the idea that God can speak through other faiths. Whereas in the first edition he suggested that Judaism believes in a variety of faiths and truths, in the second he said simply that there is not one exclusive path to salvation. Here we had someone who was wrestling with the question of the validity of other faiths from a Jewish perspective. Judaism is not an evangelistic faith, so how might God ‘deal with’ those who are not Jews? Originally in the first edition he argued that we should not see truth as a universal concept: he suggested that religions and ethical beliefs will be diverse. He argued that ‘God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims.’[v] In the second edition, however, he argued instead that God made a covenant with the Jewish people and that other people and faiths should find their own relationship with God through obeying the Noahide commandments.[vi]
Jonathan Sacks wanted to be inclusive: he was trying to demonstrate that people of different faiths need not be in conflict because there was a way in which the diversity of different faiths was held together in a unity. He wanted to affirm and value faith traditions other than his own. In seeking to hold together different faith communities and beliefs there is a challenge for us as Christians, and as protestant Christians in particular. Roman Catholic teaching embodied, for example, in the Nostra Aetate declaration says that ‘The Church regards with esteem... the Moslems. They adore the one God...’[vii] This is an inclusivity similar to that for which Sacks was calling. More recently, Pope Francis signed the Document on Human Fraternity alongside the Grand imam of al Azhar which said that ‘the pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom.’[viii] This was a statement that echoed the idea put forward by Sacks in the original edition of The Dignity of Difference; as with Sacks, the Pope too was criticised for being too inclusive.
Here then is the challenge for the protestant church. Are we able in any way to include the ‘religious other’ in the way that Sacks and the Pope suggested? Are there ways in which we might say on the one hand that Jesus Christ is God’s full and final revelation and at the same time ascribe a religious dignity to Jews and Muslims? Can we say that monotheistic faiths bear witness to the one God or that they worship the one God?
How Might Communities Relate to One Another?
One of the reasons that Sacks was such a good communicator was the way he used stories and pictures to illustrate his point. In so doing he was able to communicate clearly with everyone so that they could all understand the point he was making. One of his books is built around a series of pictures; he even had a cartoon of it made for his website. Watch it, listen to Sacks himself, and you will understand his argument immediately.[ix]
The book in question is The Home We Build Together[x]. In The Dignity of Difference he argued that we are naturally different and that unity and difference are mutually supportive. The Home We Build Together opens by saying that although we are different we must bring our differences as gifts to the common good. Unless we do that what should have been the music that society creates simply becomes noise.
He uses the picture of a country house to illustrate his first model of society. In such a model minorities who have settled in Britain are welcomed by a generous host. However generous their host, however, they remain guests: the country house, however nice, is not theirs. They are only visitors and the country house can never be their home. Sacks says that this is how many arrivals to Britain from other countries experienced Britain, including his own Jewish community, in the late nineteenth century.
The second picture or model he uses is that of the hotel. In this model the visitors are independent enough to be able to pay their own way but, as with a country house, a hotel can never be a home: it is simply a building in which to stay. In this model Sacks suggests that there is no dominant culture; it is a picture of a multicultural society. The danger is that in a hotel society becomes a series of non-intercommunicating rooms. It can soon lead to segregation. This, he argues, was Britain in the late 1950s.
Sacks outlines how, after the riots in northern towns in 2001, the Cantle Report discovered what those who lived there already knew – that different ethnic groups tended to cluster together in enclaves. Certain areas of a city were dominated by a particular ethnic minority; children often went to schools dominated by those minorities and where there was a measure of diversity families tended to mix and socialise with those who shared their background and beliefs. The report painted a picture of British society for its ethnic and religious minorities as a hotel.
Sacks’ preferred model of society is one in which those minorities who have settled in Britain together build their own houses with the help of those who already live around them. Together with those who already live there they become a valued part of a society in which everyone, early and late arrivals, work for the common good side by side. Different groups mix together as they go about their daily lives.
Here again Sacks offers a challenge for our churches. Many are beginning to look at the issues of racial inclusivity and unconscious bias within their own community, especially where that community includes ethnic minorities. How well do we reflect inside our congregations the values of the Kingdom in which, in the biblical picture, ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3: 28)? If we take on board Sacks’ picture of the house we build together we might ask whether the church, where it has the opportunity to do so, might create relationships with ethnic and religious minorities in its local community. Might churches, synagogues and mosques come together to promote what Sacks calls the common good by joining together to examine the issue of climate change? Might they come together to look at issues such as housing, as they have done after the Grenfell Tower disaster? A Jewish student said to me not long ago that she thought that many Jewish students lived in what she called a ‘faith bubble.’ Of course, there is nothing wrong in mixing with people like ourselves, whether in terms of faith, profession or interest; but Sacks encourages us to help make our local communities more integrated.
‘God Wants Us to Change Things’
Jonathan Sacks’ daughter, Gila, said at his funeral that one of the things her father taught her was that God wants us to change things. There are always problems, she said, but her father believed that all problems are solvable. As she put it humorously, her father would want us to solve the issue of anti-Semitism while the kettle boiled. In his last publication, Morality, he suggested the Hebrew Bible expressed an idea that was radical in its day: that time is an arena of change and that human beings and societies can change.[xi] It was this belief that led to his optimism and the belief that all problems are solvable. The belief that man is free and that he can change, and can sometimes change radically, is a belief that is held by both Judaism and Christianity. Neither faith has room for pessimism.
Over the last few years I have enjoyed reading a number of Jonathan Sacks’ books. I was always excited when a new one was published: now I could learn something new! Alas, that will be no more. What I will do, however, is to go back over what I have read and see if I can learn some more! As a Christian I believe that there is much that I can still learn from this wise leader of the Jewish community.
Formerly a Deputy Headteacher at Huntington School, York, David is a Licensed Lay Minister at St George’s Church, Leeds.
[i] Samuel P Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (London: Free Press, 2002)
[ii] Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (London: Continuum, 2002)
[iii] Ibid, 5
[iv] Ibid, 19
[v] Ibid, 55
[vi] A series of seven commandments based on Genesis 9:9. They are outlined and explained at https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/cjl/texts/cjrelations/resources/sourcebook/Noahide_covenant.htm
[x] Jonathan Sacks, The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society (London: Bloomsbury, 2007)
[xi] Jonathan Sacks, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2020), 292
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. Here, Andrew Goddard responds to Jonathan Chaplin's recent article on the Church of England Evangelical Council's video ‘The Beautiful Story’.
It is hard to believe that it is only two weeks ago that I was drafting my short article, The Beautiful Story, as a summary and framing of the recent film of that name (TBS below) from CEEC (The Church of England Evangelical Council). As someone on the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) Co-Ordinating Group and the CEEC Working Group I was aware that TBS was doing something different from, but I thought not incompatible with, the goals of LLF. By the time my article appeared on Wednesday, two days after TBS’s launch, there were already clear signs that it was overly optimistic, perhaps even naïve. Within a few hours of the film going public, Charlie Bell wrote a blog whose critical substance and tone would then be replicated and magnified by others and flood social media. I’m grateful to my good friend Jonathan Chaplin for his more measured - but still robust - critique (which Fulcrum has published) and I think needs to be heard, and for the opportunity to talk with him before he wrote it. What follows is my own personal response.
Rather than directly respond to each of Jonathan’s points I’ve decided to reply more indirectly by offering some reflections on what has happened and where we now are. My conversation with Jonathan was one of a number of difficult, sometimes painful ones I’ve had since the film appeared. In one of the earliest of those, with a number of other good friends, when asked to share my feelings I offered four. These, although they’ve ebbed and flowed in relative strength in the storm we are going through, continue to capture where I am and so I thought I’d use them to structure my response to Jonathan’s article. Each piece is really an article in itself in length but they need to be read together as any one on its own will seriously mispresent the whole. My apologies that makes it long but I hope people will find time, even in stages, to look at my reflections of each of the feelings.
- Pleased film has encouraged so many
- Pained it has hurt so many
- Puzzled by strength of reactions
- Concerned about what means for future
Pleased TBS has encouraged so many
I wanted to start my list of feelings then and now with this positive note which will I realise surprise, perhaps shock, many as so many negative feelings are currently dominant across the different perspectives found in the church. As I wrote in my initial piece, the film was “primarily directed at encouraging and equipping evangelicals” (so, for example, there was no press release) and it may help to give some of the background and rationale to explain that.
Like everyone, CEEC has known that the work of LLF would lead to a renewed focus on issues of identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage and to discussions as to whether/how the church’s teaching and practice may change. As a result it has, quite openly, been doing its own work to develop, explore, and explain its own perspective and concerns and to teach and equip evangelicals who support the church’s current position. In 2018, when LLF was still widely viewed as a “teaching document”, CEEC commended Martin Davie’s book “Glorify God in Your Body: Human identity and flourishing in marriage, singleness and friendship” as a teaching resource for LLF, made it available free on its website, and supplied copies of it to those on the LLF project. At the same time, aware of the tragic experience of other churches, it began working on possible future options for the Church of England given the depth of disagreement and the risk of bitter divisions leading to separation. It first addressed these in Guarding the Deposit (2016) and then offered a theological rationale for how it was approaching these matters in 2018 in Gospel, Church and Marriage: Preserving Apostolic Faith and Life (summarised here). In October 2018, a group of evangelical bishops referenced a number of these resources in their open letter to the LLF project. As the launch of LLF approached it was thought it would be helpful to communicate the heart of all this work in a more accessible, summary form by producing a film resource. Some of the main purposes of it have been summed up by CEEC President Julian Henderson in these words:
It is to give voice to the current teaching and practice of the Church of England and much of the Anglican Communion, to reveal the wide diversity of people who hold to that teaching, and to encourage confidence for all to engage fully with the Living in Love and Faith discernment process.
As we approach the discernment process using LLF, there are a number of challenges within the evangelical constituency which CEEC represents and seeks to serve:
- All are aware that their deeply held convictions concerning what Scripture teaches as God’s good purposes for us in relation to marriage and sexuality are now widely rejected, even despised and viewed as immoral, and not just in society but among fellow Christians
- All are also aware that voicing their beliefs can lead (as reactions to the film sadly have shown) to strong hostile reactions and even personal attacks
- Many have felt that they lack examples of good, clear teaching from a classical evangelical perspective that gives a sense of the big picture of biblical teaching in this area
- Many have looked for the guidance and encouragement of public voices from leaders willing to “put their head above the parapet” and model how to explain their beliefs clearly and charitably
- Some, as another film directly responding to LLF has sadly demonstrated, try to express their convictions but do so in ways that most of us find unacceptable, unhelpful, and unkind
- Some, aware of high-profile evangelicals who have changed their views, wonder if only their evangelical tribe is genuinely committed to articulating and upholding traditional teaching
- Some are wondering whether they will, sooner or later, have to follow the small number who have already left the Church of England, despite their deep desire to remain and flourish. They and others are wondering what the future might hold
- Some are concerned that LLF has a pre-determined outcome which will marginalise them and their views in the wider church
As a result of these, and doubtless other factors, as the launch of LLF approached, a good number of evangelicals were sceptical about even being part of the process, unsure how to be constructively involved with it, or struggling to know how to articulate well what they believe.
Jonathan’s critique, and that of others, appears unaware of these realities and the serious risks they represent to good evangelical involvement with LLF. This is perhaps because they are not currently attached to any evangelical organisations, but being aware of all this is, I think, essential if we are to understand and evaluate properly what CEEC was seeking to do with TBS. It was not - as it was widely portrayed - a “response to LLF” in terms of what LLF had produced. As many have noted, it was made before the contents of LLF were known. It was also, as Julian Henderson has emphasised, “not intended to shut down or derail the conversation, but to say it is a serious one”. What it sought to do was to “encourage confidence for all to engage fully with the Living in Love and Faith discernment process”.
My own first-hand experience, and second-hand reports from CEEC colleagues, confirms that the film has successfully addressed the sort of challenges listed above and achieved many of its goals. The positive reactions from many have been astonishing with expressions of joy (even confessions of tears), encouragement, relief, renewed hope, delight in the biblical vision it offers, thankfulness to all those involved. Someone I don’t know personally who I was in correspondence about with it early on wrote, “I watched the whole video and loved it. It's really well produced and explains the truth very clearly and graciously I think”. People who would not naturally have committed to the LLF process are now willing, even eager, to do so. The film is now registering over 30,000 views on YouTube less than a fortnight after release and while some of these clearly are people who will dislike it I suspect the majority are people who have been pleased and encouraged by its appearance.
Jonathan raises the question of timing and this is one of the many questions I have of course wrestled with over recent days. If it had come out in advance of LLF, or on the day of launch (as at least one bishop believes it did) then I can see it would have validly been seen as “an aggressive shot across the bow” or “a pre-emptive strike”. That is why it was not released then and why senior church leaders, including those involved in LLF, were formally notified of its appearance well in advance. The longer it was left after the launch, however, the more it would be seen as a response to the materials themselves and the less it would be effective in enabling the positive initial response to LLF that it sought among its audience. The press release from CEEC on the day of the launch, while unsurprisingly including elements similar to those Jonathan objects to in the film (such as the language of “contend”), shows, I think, more of what he thinks appropriate for that moment: thanks to those involved, encouragement “to engage and listen carefully”, a desire to “genuinely hear” those calling for change, and a recognition that “the way Christians have treated LGBT people is shameful, and we all want to recognise that”.
Pained TBS has hurt so many
Alongside, and often swamping, my sense of pleasure there has been pain at how many, including dear friends within LLF and beyond, have been hurt, upset, angered, felt betrayed, disappointed, confused. There has then also been further pain experienced as a result of how some of those feeling these emotions have reacted as a result.
Here is where perhaps Jonathan’s most challenging question for me and others is - “was this adverse reaction foreseen?”. He explores the two possible answers and can only find discouragement. I think an honest answer is that while clearly we expected criticism we did not foresee or expect, and certainly never intended, the film to produce such “an extraordinarily negative reaction…[of]...profound disappointment, deep hurt and intense anger”.
One reason for this is that the focus was on the challenges and aims noted above in relation to those who look to CEEC for leadership. This raises the question, difficult to answer, as to whether these challenges could have been responded to in a way that did not cause so much pain beyond the world of CEEC.
Jonathan has largely dismissed this response on the basis that “such an output is guaranteed to attract wider attention”. Again, CEEC were aware that some might pay attention to what we were doing but the reality is that we are not used to resources on CEEC’s website getting much attention at all, even within our own networks! As set out above, CEEC has been producing material covering all the areas covered in the film on its website for four years with little or no interest from others, certainly without anything like this reaction. One evangelical affirming of same-sex relationships commented they really thought CEEC “wasn’t a thing anymore” and another comment referred to last looking at its website when it had lots of photos of old, white men (which is many, many years ago). I still therefore think there is a plausible alternative universe where posting this video on YouTube and the CEEC website would have received little or no attention. The fact that this did not happen has made it clear either someone hostile to the film who knew of its existence in advance (as one leading affirming evangelical admitted he did) alerted others to its appearance or CEEC and its website has a higher profile among those outside its world than it realises.
One response that has been put to me is that if TBS was for evangelicals, given how much pain it has caused, it should not have been made public. While part of me is attracted by this - who does not want to minimise pain? - I think that would have been wrong. Painful as it is, there has at least been transparency. The church has seen what CEEC is saying and doing and CEEC has seen how the church outside CEEC has reacted to seeing that. It seems to me that part of what LLF is doing in the Church of England is helping us all face the truth about where we are as a church rather than hiding away in our different parts of the church and pretending others aren’t there, or even wishing that they would go away and not be there. Facing the truth is not going to be easy. It’s going to be hard and painful. But it is probably what we all need to find the courage and honesty to do.
Perhaps the last time there was a storm around sexuality of the intensity of recent weeks was the Reading Crisis in 2003. Archbishop Rowan then offered reflections to Synod about what that revealed and his address is worth revisiting now. Among his reflections was this:
I now have a really remarkable collection of letters which say, 'Every Christian I speak to, and most people I know outside the Church, agree that...' – whatever view it is that the writer holds. And these views are dramatically incompatible. It's hard to avoid concluding that most of us speak and listen mostly to those who share our world, and assume it is indeed the natural one to belong to. But the anxiety comes at this point. If this is so natural, and if everyone I talk with agrees, how is it that this picture of the Church, of holy life, of effective mission, isn't 'winning'? Because decisions are being taken by those who don't find obvious what we find obvious. What has gone wrong? We ought to be the majority but apparently we aren't – or if we are, we are being defrauded of our rights. We end up with a situation where, as I have sometimes said before, everyone believes they are a persecuted minority.
And this is not a situation that encourages easy and honest communication. It is a situation that cries out for scapegoats. It encourages indirect communication – talking to third parties, to the media, to anyone except the actual people who represent that different way of being the Church of England which seems so incomprehensible to us. And the effect is so often of different churches, with strong and serious theologies and a high degree of spiritual integrity, or at least with a case to be heard, failing to relate except at a level of destructive and often angry bewilderment and denial; which, incidentally, does wonders for the soap opera market.
Part of Jonathan’s critique is that TBS is guilty of some of this in that it fails to show awareness of the wider church - it is “preaching to the choir”. That is, perhaps, simply another way of saying what I set out earlier and what CEEC does when introducing the film on the website by saying that it seeks “to encourage and enable evangelicals to engage and contend in discussions about human sexuality”. As he helpfully notes, “there cannot be an objection to various individuals and organisations confidently advancing their particular views of same-sex relationships...knowing that others will object strongly or even be offended by them” and indeed “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”. It has sadly not always been obvious to me that all the critics of TBS share Jonathan’s assessment here.
Jonathan highlights what he sees as two areas where TBS fails and thus causes pain and I think his concern requires those of us supportive of the film to stop and take stock. These are its lack of:
- “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”.
- “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”
In relation to the first of these, I think this is a fair and significant criticism. The points made earlier about the film’s context and aims offer some sort of justification for why this is not there but I think this highlights one of the key questions for those of us in the CEEC world: can we, even while convinced our own position is clear biblical teaching, recognise or presume others are “seeking to be faithful to Scripture and tradition” and what would change in what we say and how we say it, if we did?
I think it is fair to say that this is one of the lessons many of us, across the spectrum of views, learned or re-learned during LLF. But it also opens up - as explored particularly in Part Four of the LLF book and especially chapter 13 on the Bible - deeper questions still. The LLF book proposes we can all agree that the Bible is given by God to call us into holiness and we all genuinely look to it for that. If, however, some seeking this wisdom from Scripture believe a pattern of life is holy which others believe the Bible views as sin then the fact that all are “genuinely seeking to be faithful” although important does not solve the problem of what, as a church, we should now say and do. We may be able to see others “genuinely seeking” - as they understand it - “to be faithful to Scripture and tradition” but this highlights that undergirding our differences on sexuality are, it seems, quite different understandings about what such “being faithful” means and so we need to face these as part of the LLF process.
In relation to the second point, I think that while Jonathan’s critique needs to be heard - and he is right that “evangelical churches who do commit to the LLF process should brace themselves to hear those reports” of “being deeply scarred by the ignorance and (unwitting) cruelty of some evangelicals” - there are more promising signs than he allows. The film has a section on “Right Repentance” which includes statements such as
- “we need to keep recognizing that we ourselves have got things wrong”,
- “it is completely right and proper that we need to repent, repentance is at the heart of the gospel, isn't it? We have a ministry of reconciliation and if we don't do that then actually we are betraying the very ministry that Christ has given us”,
- “there are so many areas where we've got this wrong and that we have been straightforwardly homophobic in lots of ways”,
- “Jesus managed to offer a radical welcome to all sorts of people so when the church doesn't act like that and puts up barriers, makes people feel they're not good enough in whatever way, then we're massively failing at communicating a very important part of the gospel”
These could simply be dismissed as “too brief and non-specific to sound convincing” or they could, along with the words of Hugh Palmer in the press release quoted earlier, be seen as first faltering steps and encouraged. Alianore Smith, while generally positive about the film, tweeted
It frustrated me that in the ‘real repentance’ section, plenty of people admitted the historic failings of the church with regards to sex, marriage, sexuality etc. but not once were the words ‘we apologise’ or ‘we are sorry’ uttered. Real repentance looks like saying sorry. So: I wish to acknowledge and apologise for the ways in which, in thought, word and deed, through negligence, through weakness and through our own deliberate fault, we have done the LGBTQI+ community wrong, failed to love you as Christ calls us to, and so caused you hurt & pain.
Even this may be too general. A few years ago I was personally challenged on this and sat down to write out as a confession the ways in which I, or others who shared traditional views on sexuality, had sinned against our gay and lesbian neighbours and brothers and sisters in Christ. In the season of Advent that may be a helpful spiritual discipline for more CEEC evangelicals as we prepare for the LLF discernment process.
Puzzled by the strength of reactions to TBS
Thanks to Jonathan’s article and conversations with him, LLF friends, and others, I am now less puzzled by the strength of reactions than I was initially. I have to admit though that I am still left with some real questions and deep concerns as I try to make sense of what has happened.
In my more uncharitable moments I confess I sometimes, especially initially, found myself falling prey to the same hermeneutic of suspicion of the reactions that I feel has sometimes been used against the film despite my desire to have a hermeneutics of charity:
- was the reaction because people really thought LLF was all about getting us all to accept our differences and so enable the church to change its teaching and practice and this showed that was not going to happen and so must be an attack on LLF?
- were people simply shocked to discover such a range of people (not just old, white men) participating?
- was it all just a general antipathy to evangelicals?
- did people attack it because it was actually so good and they therefore had to discredit it?
- was it just such a lightning bolt from the blue that it could only be interpreted as an opening salvo and declaration of war?
At times I wanted to respond to some of the more vehement critics of the film by adapting the Stonewall slogan and saying “Some people still believe historic Christian teaching on sex and marriage. Get over it!”. This is because the main substance of the film and the “beautiful story” it presents is not only, in its basic content, what the Church has believed for centuries and is still taught by most Christian churches today. It is actually, as the LLF book makes clear, especially in Chapter 3, the formal teaching of the Church of England. Given this, I still find it difficult to understand some of the levels of anger and outrage that have been experienced and expressed about its content.
The Christians for LGBTI+ Equality Facebook group considered it necessary to add a trigger warning (“homophobia and possible hate speech”) to the post which drew attention to TBS, although Colin Coward then commented,
I've just watched the video and I don't think it's scary. I don't think it needs a content note. I think members of this group should be encouraged to watch it. The warning that it is scary says that we are as frightened of them and an outcome that prioritises their ideas...I've engaged with people in the film and with the ideas and attitudes expressed in it for nearly thirty years...when I see people reacting to films like this with horror and panic, I wonder what depth of faith we have and to what degree we are rooted in experience of unconditional love, wisdom, truth, goodness, and justice. If we are, then small fringe groups like the CEEC in church and society should not worry us.
It is, though, becoming clear that the film (which I still think is basically a gracious, irenic statement of traditional and biblical teaching) has been experienced by some as not just painful but also offensive, even abusive. This is a serious matter and now presents a major challenge for the LLF process and the Next Steps Group overseeing it. The plan that we would be able to meet across our differences and try to listen and learn together is looking like it could now be very difficult to achieve. Clearly that can only happen if all those invited feel it is safe to be present and to speak openly and honestly. Finding adequate structures and processes to enable this is therefore now vital.
Jayne Ozanne, reacting to this plan, before the release of the CEEC film, wrote in Pink News that the problem with LLF was that
It encourages those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender to sit and “see the Christ” in those who think that their very identity is “sinful” and that they should instead “transform” themselves so that they become single and celibate – a teaching which has led many to contemplate taking their very lives! It is utterly ridiculous! Would one invite a survivor of the Holocaust to sit down and listen to the rantings of a Holocaust denier? Would one ask a rape victim to sit down with a rapist and understand why they want to rape people? It is not only ridiculous – it is downright dangerous!
It seems impossible to avoid the conclusion from this that those appearing in TBS and those who share its theological views are here being described as equivalent to self-justifying rapists and ranting Holocaust deniers. This sort of reaction and perception of those sharing CEEC’s perspective perhaps lies behind the more vitriolic comments on social media, some of which are reported in David Baker’s Christian Today article. Many of these, even from clergy, significant lay leaders, and church accounts seem to have torn up the Church of England’s social media community guidance and Digital Charter.
Alongside all this were personal attacks on individuals, or assumptions that, because of their views, they must be a danger to LGBTI+ people as must institutions of which they are part. It was also not simply a matter of verbal abuse on Twitter or Facebook groups. A number of prominent campaigners for change were quite open about making approaches to various institutions with which people in the film or on CEEC were connected, putting pressure on them to take some sort of action. Here it seemed that those who might be seen as “liberal” because of their theological views were bringing into the church the illiberal phenomenon of “cancel culture” which only increases fear and pushes people into silence.
In the face of this, it was encouraging to see that others, although unhappy with the film, were challenging this approach. Faced with attacks on Jason Roach’s integrity (for presenting TBS having been on the LLF Co-Ordinating Group) and calls for action to be taken against him, Tina Beardsley wrote
I'm going to come to Jason's defence - meeting and working alongside him was for me one of the best things about being on the LLF coordinating group and I believe - from the 15 months I was involved - that he acted entirely in good faith. I have no reason to think otherwise. But those three years of engagement are now over, the resources are out there and people are re-stating their long-held positions. It would be nice to think people's views had been changed by being involved in the LLF process - but mine weren't. There will have been change at some, maybe unconscious levels but not, it seems, about 'what the Bible says' as far as some evangelicals are concerned. This is not a surprise. It is though disappointing.
Similarly, Claire Jones responded to the criticisms of Philip Plyming, Warden of Cranmer Hall, who did not appear in the film and had nothing to do with its production but was on CEEC,
I'd always vouch for him. We worked closely together when I was the student president at Cranmer (2018-19) and he was committed to listening to and learning from LGBTI+ students, and made positive, concrete changes from our experiences. Like any of them it's by no means a perfect college, but I have a huge amount of respect for Philip personally and as a college warden, and gladly recommend Cranmer to other LGBTI+ ordinands I know.
These were positive signs, moments of light in the midst of much that felt quite dark. Nevertheless, my fourth response remains and is clearly shared by Jonathan and I suspect many others:
Concerned about what all this means for the future
The film ends by looking to the future and here again Jonathan joins others in expressing unhappiness. It is important, however, to be clear what is and what is not being said. Claims have been made about threats to separate, to leave the Church of England. CEEC has even been accused of promoting schism. What is being said I think is that we all need to face up to the reality of our deep divisions and their consequences and the problems that any change in current teaching and practice will create (but also that no change will create).
LLF touches on these matters in the book in important discussions relating to the different levels of disagreements and their consequences and in the final conversation in Part Five and the last part of the LLF Course. But its exploration here is limited as its remit did not extend to this in any great detail. If, however, bishops are to be proposing a way forward within the next 18 months then, barring a miracle mass conversion of either CEEC or those who have criticised it, these questions will need to be addressed. It is clear that if nothing changes then those wanting change will feel totally betrayed and conned by the whole LLF process even though it has never promised it will result in change. It is also clear, for example from the recent open letter to over 30 bishops, that many will be unhappy with anything short of authorising same-sex marriage. What CEEC makes clear is that an attempt to square this circle by what might be seen as minimal change, such as authorising some form of same-sex blessing, will also - unless minds change - be unacceptable to many and likely to create major ecclesiological problems, just as it has everywhere it has been introduced within Anglicanism.
This is not a case of “do what we want or we’re leaving” but rather something like “we clearly have very different and seemingly incompatible views and so, unless we are to follow the disastrous pattern of other churches such as in North America, we need to talk about whether we can find some agreement as to how our structures will need to adapt if we are to provide space for these different views with integrity”. In the words of one contributor on the film - “no one knows the answer to this and I’m not offering a solution, I'm simply saying we may have to have that kind of a conversation in order that we can create safe, sustainable space for these clearly fractured groups across the Church of England as a whole”. At present, CEEC has done more work than any other group to try and explain both why this is theologically coherent and some of the forms this might take from forms of alternative episcopal oversight (similar to but perhaps extending those already in existence in response to differences over women priests and bishops) to some form of new provincial arrangements.
There are valid questions concerning the inclusion of these sections in a film otherwise focussed on Scripture and theology but I do not think they can be dismissed as “provocatively premature” given the timescale we appear to be facing. I also know that for many of us in CEEC, far from being “a move in a power play to thwart any change”, raising these questions publicly now is an attempt to recognise that the current situation is clearly unsustainable. We must therefore give urgent consideration to what implications will follow for our life together, especially for those in the church who cannot accept whatever conclusions may be reached in 2022.
The pain caused by the film, and many of the ways in which that has been expressed in the strong negative reactions it has elicited, is why I remain concerned about the future and convinced we cannot simply ignore the sort of questions raised at the end. It is not just the various theological fault lines, explored within LLF, albeit in a more calm and detached manner, that are now being starkly exposed. These touch on deep matters of personal and theological and ecclesial identity. The very polarised reactions to the film at a gut level - acclaim and even tears of joy for many, disgust and tears of pain, fear and anger for many others - are, once again, revealing something about the truth of where we are as a church. We will need to acknowledge these and what they mean for our life together. We will need to be honest with each other, as a good friend was to me in a recent email. He described how, as a gay clergyman, he felt that those in the film, and I, in so far as I agreed with them, were now “actively hostile to my presence in the Church, thus raising the stakes hugely” but he also reflected how when we last met and I spoke about the life of our church, he was struck by the community outreach and social work and thought “I could be part of a church like that - it's very Jesus!”. Can we all learn to be this honest about the painful and paradoxical reality of seeing Jesus in those with whom we fundamentally disagree and who we perhaps even experience as actively hostile to our presence in the church?
Although I now realise it will be even more difficult than I thought, I remain convinced that the Living in Love and Faith materials and process and the Pastoral Principles for Living Well Together remain the best way forward. Despite being portrayed as mounting an attack on LLF, the concluding message of the film was in fact quite the opposite and similarly called for commitment to LLF as in these words by Bishop Jill Duff:
As one of the seven bishops who've been involved in the LLF process I would encourage you to engage with it. We've tried very much to ensure that arguments from different positions in the church are heard coherently. I think it's essential that we do what the bishops are encouraging us to and engage on this with our churches and congregations.
Jonathan is concerned that when Bishop Julian Henderson “urges evangelicals to ‘engage, engage, engage’ with LLF...at this point in the video this can only be heard by those on the other side as ‘defend, defend, defend’”. Certainly it appears that is how many heard it. Some people, from across the spectrum of views, will doubtless “engage” the process simply to defend what they currently believe. But if that is all any of us do then there is little point coming to the table as we are not going to find a better outcome because we are not going to be open to God taking us somewhere. In his recent comments, however, Bishop Julian is clear this is not simply a matter of “defend” when he said of the film
It is not intended to shut down or derail the conversation, but to say it is a serious one, where the outcome, whatever that discernment may be, might have significant consequences for the whole Church. The CEEC film encourages the Church to engage with the faith uniquely revealed in the holy Scriptures, in the way Jan McFarlane suggests, with ‘grace, humility and willingness to learn’.
This rightly emphasises the importance of engaging with “the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures” in this spirit. It is also important that we show the same ‘grace, humility and willingness to learn’ in engaging, across our differences, with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
“Advent always begins in the dark” is a refrain in a Fleming Rutledge sermon and this seems particularly fitting as we enter Advent and look at the challenges facing LLF following the storms of the last few weeks.
Rutledge reminds us of a central Advent message:
God came to earth, not the other way around. His movement, his purpose, his promise fulfilled. God’s work, not ours. We could not and we cannot accomplish this with all our learning and all our achievements. Only God can do it….Our default position since the day of Adam and Eve is to think that we can pull this project off by ourselves. Advent, however, begins in the dark, where human prospects and human hopes are confounded. As Isaiah writes, ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light’ (Isa 9.2).
It is probably no bad thing that we are now, less than a month after LLF’s launch, even more aware of just how much of a mess we are in and how dependent we need to be on God and God coming to us in our plight. The Bishop of Coventry, in presenting LLF to General Synod last week, described how challenging things have been recently and in so doing pointed to some of what is needed to find a way through:
Just last week, the very group that’s worked together for three years to oversee the project met to begin to repair damaged relationships, a task that required honesty and vulnerability in equal measure: a readiness to attend to everyone’s emotions, to clarify misunderstandings, to understand intentions. Throughout our years together, that remarkable group of people has shown an extraordinary commitment to each other and to a common vision. Never more so than last week. I pay tribute to each one of them and thank them deeply. They have taught me how we can hold on to each other by holding onto Christ, who stills the storm.
Here are some of the disciplines we need to embrace as a church for the year that lies ahead working with LLF: honesty, vulnerability, attending to everyone’s emotions, clarifying misunderstandings, understanding intentions, commitment to each other and a common vision, and holding on to each other by holding onto Christ. We appear, from recent events, to be starting a long way back, so how might we move forward?
One necessary step is for as many of us as possible to become close, even a real friend, to someone we disagree with. Close enough that we are able to be vulnerable, open, and honest enough to learn these disciplines together and even be mutually accountable for how we engage with others and the LLF process. That is part of what it seems God was teaching those of us involved in LLF. Many of us will already have someone we know well enough but sadly many of us will struggle to think of someone who we know and trust sufficiently well and holds views perhaps diametrically opposed to ours, whose hopes are our fears and vice versa. If, through Advent, each of us prayed for God to show us who such a partner on the LLF journey might be for us in 2021 and 2022, and if we committed to learn those disciplines together, then perhaps we can reduce the chances or even prevent a repetition of the damaging consequences of recent weeks.
A second step is, as suggested above, to be brutally honest about our past and present sins and failings. Advent is again a good time for such self-examination and repentance. Here the six evils identified in the Pastoral Principles may be one way of letting God bring his light into our darkness, whatever our views on contested issues. What if we each did that, even writing our own prayers of confession naming specific attitudes, events, and practices we wish, by God’s grace, to turn away from and be forgiven?
But we must not think this is simply a matter of what we can do and of learning techniques to get us out of the hole we are in. We truly cannot pull this project off by ourselves. Only God can do it and so we have to hope in God and his coming to us.
When we settled on “Living in Love and Faith” as a title for the project it was wryly commented upon that the third theological virtue - hope - was missing. In fact it is hope which has sustained LLF’s work over the last three years and which is needed, perhaps even more, as it is now received by the wider church. When, early on, we were asked to share our hopes and any biblical passages that spoke to us, God put verses from Romans 15 on my heart which I have kept coming back to again in recent weeks and will doubtless continue to do during the coming Advent:
For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God....May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Rom 15.4-7, 13).
Many of us will in future weeks be singing these well-known words which echo that call for “one mind and one voice” and which may be a suitable prayer in the face of recent events and our uncertainties and concerns as we look ahead:
O Come, Desire of Nations, bind
All people in one heart and mind
Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease
Fill all the world with heaven’s peace
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.
Transgender minister who was born female reports conservative Christian to the police for branding his marriage to a woman ‘evil and wicked’ – Daily Mail
William Cole for MailonLine. 30 November 2020
Harriet Sherwood. Observer. 29 November 2020
Church of England website. 29 November 2020
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. 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.
 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.
Chrisitan Today 23 November 2020
It Came Upon a Midnight Tier! Outdoor carol singing and nativity plays CAN go ahead in time for Christmas after lockdown ends, CofE confirms – Daily Mail
- Conservative MP Andrew Selous said carol singing will be allowed this year
- He spoke during the church commissioners' questions in House of Commons
- Told the commons everyone will be allowed to sing as long as it was outside
Emer Scully for MailonLine. 26 November 2020
The Church of England has today announced the appointment of Vanessa Morphet into the newly created position of Head of Social Impact Investment within the Mission and Public Affairs unit at Church House, Westminster.
Church of England website. 26 November 2020
The Cabinet Office issued a statement today (November 24), on the arrangements for easing the COVID-19 restrictions over the Christmas period. We understand that the Westminster Government has agreed on a common approach with the devolved administration.
Frank Cranmer. Law & Religion UK. 24 November 2020
Diocese of Oxford website. 24 November 2020
Cara Bentley. Premier News. 23 November 2020
Churches may be exempt from restrictive measures over Christmas, as part of the government's latest guidelines on Covid-19. Boris Johnson will reveal his "Covid winter plan" on Monday, which is believed to include a hiatus from restrictions over the Christmas period.
Will Maule. Premier News 22 November 2020
Archbishop of Canterbury will take a three-month sabbatical next year as Justin Welby spends time in America for ‘reflection, prayer, and spiritual renewal’ – Daily Mail
Jemma Carr. Daily Mail. 22 November 2020
Harriet Sherwood, Guardian, 23 November 2020
A social media campaign, webinars and an interview with Archbishop Thabo Makgoba are planned for the 16 Days of Activism.
Archbishop of Canterbury to take summer sabbatical for ‘spiritual renewal’ in 2021 – Daily Telegraph
Gabriella Swerling Daily Telegraph 21 November 2020
Michael Savage. Guardian 21 November 2020
Harriet Sherwood. Observer. 22 November 2020