New C of E Resource for Discernment on Sexuality

By Mark Michael

Living in Love and Faith (LLF), a set of teaching resources designed to help the Church of England begin “a new process of discernment and decision-making on questions of identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage” was released on November 9. Anglican Communion News Service suggests it may be “the largest research and consultation project into identity and sexuality carried out by a Christian church.”

Read Oliver O’Donovan’s review of LLF on Covenant

A diverse team of 40, which included LGBT people as well as noted conservatives, collaborated on a 468-page book, and a “learning hub,” which contains a five-session video course, podcasts, and films to help local parishes engage with the controversial topics. The Rt. Rev. Christopher Cocksworth, who also serves as chair of the church’s Faith and Order Commission, led the process, and Dr. Eeva John, former director of pastoral studies at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, was the coordinator.

“These learning resources are the fruit of an extraordinary collaborative process”, said Cocksworth, who is the Bishop of Coventry. “This has involved intense and prayerful study and reflection as well as listening to as wide a range of voices and experiences as possible.”

“Questions of identity, sexuality, relationships, and marriage are deeply personal with real life consequences. Engaging with these resources will be enriching and, at different points for different people, deeply challenging and uncomfortable.”

As evangelical ethicist Andrew Goddard, a member of the coordinating commission says in “LLF for Dummies” on the Fulcrum blog, the LLF documents make no formal recommendations. The book begins with a substantial presentation of traditional teaching and then surveys changes in science, society, and the teaching and practice of other religious bodies, including the case made for the acceptance of same sex marriage in the Episcopal Church.

Goddard notes that most of the book’s substantial theological work around issues of identity, sexuality, and marriage are found in its third part, “Making Connections: where are we in God’s story,” which presents areas of agreement and disagreement between members of the coordinating committee. A following section explores the process of theological discernment and reflection, considering how we hear God through the Bible, Creation, the Church, cultural contexts, experience and conscience, and prayer and spiritual guidance.

A closing portion contains transcripts of conversations between people of different views, modeling respectful and loving disagreement about difficult issues. Other resources in the teaching hub, especially the 17 5-minute story films, give space for the presentation of a variety of theological views and life experiences. Film subjects include practicing Anglicans of races and ages who are married, single, divorced, widowed, gay, lesbian, transsexual, and intersex.

LLF was commissioned by the church’s House of Bishops after an earlier series of churchwide “Shared Conversations” based on the 2013 Pilling Report led to an essential stalemate at the February 2017 biennial meeting of General Synod.

The House of Bishops issued a report before the synod meeting in response to Shared Conversations. It stated that among them there was “little support for changing the Church of England’s teaching” summarized in Canon B30, which says that “the Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is a union permanent and life-long, of one man with one woman.” The bishops did, though, believe “there was a strong sense that existing resources, guidance and tone needed to be revisited.”

An impassioned debate broke out in General Synod in response to a motion to “take note of” or approve the bishops’ report, with many advocates of same-sex marriage expressing deep disagreement. In the subsequent vote, the bishops supported the report 43-1, but lay delegates approved it by a narrower margin of 106-83, while the clergy voted not to take note of it 100-93.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was the final speaker on the motion. Noting the intense division within the synod, he said that “to deal with that disagreement, to find ways forward, we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church, with a basis founded in scripture, in tradition, in reason, in theology, in good, healthy, flourishing relationships, in a proper 21st-century understanding of being human and of being sexual.” Pointing ahead to Living in Love and Faith, he said continued, “That will require a remarkable document put together with the Bishops, but put together by the whole Church — every single part, not excluding anyone.”

The Rt. Rev. Sarah Mullaly, the Bishop of London, will chair a diverse group of bishops charged with guiding churchwide discernment using the resources over the next two years. A year of engagement with the materials is expected to be followed by a process of decision making that could lead to a vote about same sex blessings or marriages by the autumn of 2022.

Goddard said the project highlighted “the need for the church to explore much more holistically, theologically, and biblically both our shared understandings and commitments, and also our serious disagreements. To help with the latter, the book seeks to enable different perspectives to be heard in ways those who hold them will recognize as fair. In so doing it draws out the complex connections between the various contentious issues explored. It also explores the deeper underlying theological questions which so often make even dialogue – let alone agreement – about them so difficult.”

In an extended response on Covenant, Professor Oliver O’Donovan, perhaps Anglicanism’s most prominent living ethicist, expressed deep appreciative and tentative hope. ”What LLF has to offer,” he wrote, “is not another piece of clear advice from some clear-sighted individual, but rather ground on which forty members of the church from different starting points can move forward together. The good news is that that ground really exists. It has been charted with care and circumspection. Its strategic approach, modesty of ambition, and scrupulous attentiveness to the manner of execution offers the church more, perhaps even on the score of focus and coherence, than it had a right to expect. It sets us the challenge of discussing the topic in a way that leaves the old pre-emptive solidarities behind. It will become clear over time whether the church is capable of rising to the challenge.”

Bishop Christopher Cocksworth is a member of the Living Church Foundation.


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