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The Beautiful Story – Reflections and Response

Fulcrum - Tue, 01/12/2020 - 01:23

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 Hope

“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.

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The Beautiful Story, A Serious Mis-step

Fulcrum - Mon, 30/11/2020 - 07:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

FOOTNOTES

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

 

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

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Gender-Based Violence: Anglican Communion plans webinar series during 16 Days of Activism

Anglican Communion News Service - Tue, 24/11/2020 - 05:54

A social media campaign, webinars and an interview with Archbishop Thabo Makgoba are planned for the 16 Days of Activism.

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