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Mapping the Terrain for Engagement on Human Sexuality

Living in Love and Faith
Christian Teaching about Human Identity, Sexuality and Marriage
The Church of England

Review by Oliver O’Donovan

In the mid-twentieth century the Church of England used to attract admiration for its treatment of challenging contemporary moral issues. The form it used was the working-party Report: a small group of members with intellectual authority would weigh the conflicting arguments and come to common conclusions that would be offered to the General Synod.

In the news, Mark Michael describes the rollout of LLF

The first thing to understand about Living in Love and Faith (LLF) is that the conception is quite different. To confront the stubbornly unyielding disagreements on sexuality and marriage, there were good reasons not to follow the classic pattern. We face an emotionally fraught issue resistant to any kind of “expertise,” a synod entrenched in opposed positions, a church feeling constantly wrong-footed by a morally censorious society. The strategy, shaped by the courageous missionary and pastoral ambitions of the two archbishops, was to widen the discussion.

The theologians and other experts were not forgotten, but they were made to listen more carefully and at greater length to the strong feelings of ordinary worshippers — “the cries of their hearts,” as they are rather flowerily referred to. A network of interlocking task forces was deployed under the patient coordination of the Bishop of Coventry, Christopher Cocksworth. No formal conclusions were sought, and the extensive reflections on the consultation are presented not for “adoption” but to be “engaged with.” The engagements are meant to be as wide as possible, and the work is disseminated in multi-media format, the text of the book being supplemented by on-line and video resources. (I should mention that I have had access only to the book.) The success of the enterprise will stand or fall by whether these wider engagements succeed in building on its work or simply go round the old circles again. At 468 pages, it presents a dangerous incentive to careless skim-reading, and it will fall to the Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, to ensure that the text is engaged with as carefully as it deserves.

It is immediately obvious that LLF is conceived as an undertaking internal to the English church. From the quotation of statistics to the quotation of liturgy — and there is a lot of both — the horizon is bounded by Herefordshire on the west and Northumbria in the North. Though some notice is taken of ecumenical, even inter-religious considerations, these, too, are set in the national context. The underlying question is, of course, nothing if not international and intercultural. It is bound up, in ways that are evident, if hopelessly complicated, with the spread of global capitalism, communications technology, and human rights. Its church dimensions are globally ecumenical, and its Anglican dimensions have threatened the life of the worldwide communion. Those who look for suggestions as to how the international and ecumenical commitments of Christian faith can be reinforced in the face of this solvent will find little to satisfy them. But where there are limits, there are also opportunities. Doing things nationally has been broadly an Anglican principle, and the English church has sought to exploit its national potential for a discussion among those who belong to a common context. In place of a global overview it offers a purchase on the state of discussion as it stands in one church.

What initially promises to be a rather dispersed and ill-focused address to the question turns out, happily, to be the opposite. There is intellectual integrity to these reflections. If the paradox is permissible, they are “classically post-modern.” Reflection begins from the church’s doctrine as found, unchallenged until recent days: marriage is a lifelong union between one man and one woman. This is not presented as a problem to be got round, but as a deep-rooted existing commitment bound up with Christian faith in the place of both men and women in God’s creation.

In the opening section of the study the doctrine of marriage is presented with a clear conviction of its strengths, its adaptability to human aspirations and experience, and its sacramental openness to the experience of God’s love in Christ. That some members of the church think it “ripe for development” does not invalidate it, but neither is the suggestion of development ruled out. Our current situation simply demands that we undertake some exploratory questioning around it. The doctrine we have received affords a rich Christian starting-point for a hopeful Christian exploration of what it is possible for the church consistently to think and do.

Living in Love and Faith does not pretend to complete that exploration, only to guide its first steps. Written in a comparatively popular style — plainly, but without slumming — it adopts a reassuring homiletic tone, addressing its readers in the second person. Argumentative material is laced with constant acknowledgment of the feelings involved, and on its own account, too, it tends to emotional expressiveness. Its most striking departure from a traditional format is to interweave discussion with short personal profiles of Christian people — how many of them, I wonder, drawn from clergy families? — who illustrate different angles from which readers of the book may be expected to experience it. These profiles are called “encounters” and “stories.” They are in fact little statements of personal conviction, not directly taken up in the argument but allowed to speak for themselves and stretch the reader’s imagination to encompass the breadth of the assumptions brought by those who live and worship in the church.

The first major aim of the document, it appears, is to complicate our view of the current discussion, to banish the accursed binary alternatives and expel the great over-simplifications that stultify the debate. This demands something serious of the reader, who must be willing, while not abandoning what he or she holds true, to absorb more information, to acquire more insight into the logic of other approaches, and so on. The result is a rewarding fulness of description, especially admirable in the second part, “Paying Attention.” That section follows the course of current disagreements along experiential, scientific, and ecclesiological lines, not allowing any of these three approaches to swallow up the others. It is hard to imagine the reader who will not discover something in the account that he or she will feel the need to take more note of in future. Great care has been taken not only in compiling the descriptive material but in presenting it. Forms of description that seem to decide other questions prematurely are avoided, or, where they cannot be avoided, their Tendenz drawn attention to.

The second major aim is to model an approach to Christian debate. The third and fourth sections (“Making Connections” and “Seeking Answers”) explore the factors to which Christians must give weight, while still stressing their complexity and insisting that a Christian view does not depend solely on the outline story, minimally understood. That story, of faith, humanity and church, must be concretely mediated through Scripture, doctrinal tradition, and complex historical experience. These lead into the short fifth section (“Conversing”), which takes the place of a conclusion. It consists of a sequence of four discussions of different focal topics, which are edited and simplified versions of discussions actually conducted among some of the participants. Their aim is to model a constructive mode of discussion, not only involving “respect” for those with different views but also the search for perhaps unsuspected affinities and convergences.

Unpretentious as this exercise appears, it is the true climax of the work, carrying the weight of the dialectical task. It seeks to unpack the “packages” sufficiently to allow the search for significant areas of fruitful common ground to emerge. No one point of view is proposed for the church’s adoption. Nor (less obvious, but equally important) are the different points of view proposed to the church as acceptable alternatives, any one of which could be endorsed. They are presented simply as a map of the terrain on which engagement can go forward, a gathering-point for Christian discussion. The need for further convergence and deeper mutual understanding is always in view.

Twenty five years ago, in the so-called “St. Andrew’s Day Statement,” I and a few colleagues informally attempted to open up a theological debate about sexual orientation (not then as complicated a question as it appears today) by offering a handful of theses with the invitation to those who disagreed to engage them and take a position in response. That initiative fell flat, partly because the strategy for debate was not understood in an atmosphere where the winner-take-all conception of debate was pervasive. Now, after an exhausting quarter of a century, comes another attempt to achieve the kind of engagement we sought, this time along more fully developed lines. Perhaps it has become obvious at last that the winner will inevitably lose everything!

What kind of “engagement” is this? Not to establish a position, but to define a field of positions that can meet and challenge each other intelligibly within the authenticity of Christian faith. It will, of course, involve being prepared to think in some detail about the document and with the document, not merely passing judgment for or against it or taking it as read. It will involve taking up the claims it echoes and asking questions like: How far could I possibly go with that? To which of these positions am I closer, and why?

LLF deserves to succeed. Its work has been done painstakingly and generously, and if it elicits the kind of engagement it seeks, it cannot help but change the mood. As the mood changes, the questions will evolve. For it is an implication of the way it has set about its work that not every question needing to be asked has been asked sufficiently. I will not, then, be mistaken for a carping critic if I identify three matters on which LLF has evidently not spoken the last, or in some cases the first, word, but which will need to be taken up as the “engagement” proceeds further.

First, of the various complaints that may be raised against LLF from the conservative side there is one that I would take seriously, which is the way it talks about God. The theological matrix is familiar enough from church documents and homilies of these times: Love is the sole name of God, and “whoever lives in love, lives in God.” The Bible is a book about loving community, injustice is the sole sin, and the Eucharist the sole sacrament. Though undeniably inspired by scriptural and especially Johannine sources, the presentation of God is troubling for its loss of mystery and tension.

God as hidden, God as truth, God as judge: those warnings about the distance of the divine from the human cannot be ignored without the knowledge of God collapsing into a kind of consolatory knowledge of ourselves. With the loss of depth in our conception of God, of course, there goes a loss of depth in self-knowledge. Where there is no “Repent and believe the Gospel!” — no narrow way to enter, no cross to take up — the individual subject settles down to become a unit of society equal to all other units; “every human being regardless…,” with no challenge to self-discovery. What an older generation called existence, that is, the unique and incommunicable demand of living in coherence with oneself, disappears from view.

Secondly, there is the question of “feeling,” which our document frequently acknowledges and not infrequently displays. There is no need to apologize for feeling these days. The reign of the clear-thinking rationalist and his icebox brain has long gone; all philosophers today interpret feeling as a way of knowing. The gift of feeling is the capacity to respond to difference, to appreciate the variety of goods in God’s created world, and to respond positively to time as a sequence of changing feelings — allowing consolation after disappointment, new excitement after old, and so on.

But precisely this gift is its limitation: we feel one thing at a time, and in feeling one thing intensely become oblivious of another. Feelings overwhelm other feelings; they cut out the knowledge of this by prioritizing the knowledge of that. The risk of privileging feelings is that we lose sight of the enduring and eternal, which, by framing our feelings, makes them accessible to us as a continuing strength. The question of how we are to evaluate feelings becomes more complex when it is not only a matter of our own convictions, but of how we may share them in public contexts. Thoughts are moderating and dialectical, seeking agreement; feelings are dialectical and opposed, at odds with one another.

The true locus for public feeling, Christians have maintained, is worship, where we are taught to rejoice and lament over the right things, and, indeed, in a unifying way. Liturgy needs the discipline of words and form and ritual acts to provide a stability that can afford unity to many and be a resource for one, in the face of shifting and conflicting feelings. In public debate we cannot be too careful about how feeling is introduced. The conviction that if I insist on my feelings long enough other people will have to share them is a truly destructive one. Not only will they not feel as I feel, but neither shall I, so I end up protecting a line of seaweed from which the tide has withdrawn.

It is a delicate matter to create a discussion in which different people with differently felt experiences can understand one another’s feelings as belonging within a common range, without experiencing an intrusive demand for feeling that they cannot meet and should not try to. Our authors have struggled to find a balanced treatment: expressive enough to allow feelings and reticent enough to permit differences among them. To say that they have not found this balance easy is to say no more than would be true of any of us.

Closely related to the question of feeling is a third matter, not much raised, though it ought to be. Can there be a successful discussion of sexual experience that is not deliberately and self-consciously inter-generational? The way a human being receives the experience of his or her sexuality, together with the range of feelings that go with it, changes importantly with the phases of life. Sexuality shares the unfolding character of all lived experience, but the discussion of sexuality seems to have lost sight of this. “Growth” and “development” are words that were once part of the discourse but have come to be dropped, perhaps out of distrust for certain claims associated with the idea of “maturity.” The various personal profiles that accompany this study, while full of biographical detail, contain no hint as to the age of the person presented, as though they had all signed up to the aspirations of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell: “London society is full of women [and men] … who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years.”

One result of this we cannot easily laugh off: the complete absence of childhood from the discussion. Children are mentioned in passing as among the sexual victims and as those who wish to assert their sexual identities. But what of “childhood,” that phase of unfearful personal self-experience that we used to believe young people had a need and a right to enjoy, until they were emotionally ready to leave it? Wordsworth’s complaint about the educational debates of his day —  “’Tis a child, no child, but a dwarf man!” — is more than justified by our current sexual debates, too.

To be sure, collective compositions like LLF can only achieve so much focus and coherence. Multiple authorship inevitably leaves gaps and creates imprecisions. But only multiple authorship can discover a route to convergence. What LLF has to offer 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.

The bishops, meanwhile, must be encouraged to give the reception the time it needs, and not to be in too much of a hurry to “lead the Church of England into making whatever decisions are needful for our common life,” as they express themselves rather busily in their concluding note. The atmosphere of “needful decisions” is not one that will help the careful pondering and mutual appreciation that LLF has sought to model. The commission has worked with admirable patience. The church is being asked to learn new skills of mutual patience. It would be a tragedy if the whole attempt foundered on impatience in the House of Bishops.

The Rev. Canon Oliver O’Donovan is former Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford and Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the University of Edinburgh.


  1. The idea of the CofE, and for that matter, other expressions of ‘the anglican way’ can operate as some kind of ‘catholic’ body is hampered by this statement from O’Donovan, which he makes in passing.

    “Those who look for suggestions as to how the international and ecumenical commitments of Christian faith can be reinforced in the face of this solvent will find little to satisfy them.”

    That is very sad. That it has come to this shows how shrunk down, and fighting for survival, are these now nationalist expressions of the Faith. We need our Catholicity, insofar as it exists, to make sense on a far wider scale.

    Already one sees the parochial squabbles inside the CofE gnawing at this massive, perhaps unreadable in its length, effort at survival.


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