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General Synod: presentation on process of sexuality group Living in Love and Faith

01 March 2019

Geoff Crawford

The Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth

The Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth

A PRESENTATION on the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process was given on Thursday afternoon.

Beginning it, the Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman, introduced the fruit of the Pastoral Advisory Group (PAG), which she chaired. Some members of her group then joined her on the stage to read a “living letter” to the Synod. Despite requests, the group had decided not to issue guidelines on public prayer or other formal liturgies, which could be seen as attempting to influence the teaching of the Church, they said. Instead, they had identified things that were barriers to “good pastoral practice”.

“Our hope is the pastoral principles will shape the life of the Church in such a way that when the time comes to discern the way forward the Church can do so together, unimpeded by defensive impulses,” the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent (Southern Suffragans) — one of the PAG members — said.

Towards this end, the group had identified six “evils” that needed to be confronted: ignorance, silence, fear, hypocrisy, misused power, and prejudice. It could not be right that some with pastoral responsibility in the Church were ignorant of what it was like to be LGBT, Bishop Hardman noted. LGBT people must be allowed to speak out and be listened to. Fear of one another was also unacceptable, the group said, particularly fears that should one’s “personal circumstances”, become known a cleric could lose their home or office.

Jesus often called out hypocrisy, and so must today’s Church, the PAG also said. People who wanted to be open about their sexuality must not feel forced to “dissemble”. Power must also be acknowledged, and exercised with care and awareness.

These “prevailing evils” were exposed by reflecting on the experience of LGBT people in the Church, the group told the Synod, and were a “bittersweet” gift for the broader C of E. The pastoral principles that the PAG was now publishing would address them and, it was hoped, establish a new “transformative ethic” around which people of different theological principles could agree. “This ethic will not resolve the theological issues that relate to questions such as same-sex marriage,” Bishop Hardman said. “But they will help us to stand on extended common ground and place us in better relationship with each other, where we could try to solve these issues.”

The principles were not a covert attempt to smuggle doctrinal change into the Church, but a “genuine invitation to each one of us to examine our own behaviour”, she insisted.

The Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, then updated the Synod on the progress of the main LLF team, which he was chairing.

He handed over to Dr Eeva John, the LLF enabling officer. She explained that the programme would produce resources to enable the whole Church to engage with the biblical, historical, and scientific thinking on sexuality, marriage, and relationships; both the Church’s inherited teaching and “emerging views”. These should speak into “everyday Christian discipleship, in all its diversity, physicality, and grittiness”, she said. All were “sexual beings”, after all.

The LLF team had now gathered all its “raw ingredients”: biblical, theological, historical, and scientific information, as well as oral histories of LGBT people in a variety of contexts. They had produced 80 academic papers and more than 200 stories. The task for the next 12 months was to mix these ingredients into a finished product. The final resources would begin by describing the context, in society and in the Church. Then it would explore how God spoke to people, and then how Christians saw themselves as human beings.

“What does it mean to have been created in the image of God? How does that relate to our bodies and sexuality and relationships?” Dr John asked. “Then and only then can we begin to think about what it is we might be discerning God to be saying to the Church of England today.”

The LLF resources would be in book form, as well as podcasts, videos, and online resources. The challenge was not just to find “appreciative disagreement”, but to find something to learn from those one disagreed with. This would not lead the C of E to a final decision on sexuality, but it would put the Church in a position to “live and hope together in love and faith”.

Some members of the LLF group then formed a panel to take questions from the floor of the Synod.

Canon Judith Maltby (Universities and TEIs) said that, when the LLF project had begun, it was due to produce an “episcopal teaching document”. Would it be fairer now to describe this as a “learning document”, she asked.

The Revd Dr Jason Roach (London), part of the LLF co-ordinating group, replied that the document would be a bit of both. Each of the different work streams brought together people with different views; so they came together they learn as they worked.

Canon Giles Goddard (Southwark), who also sat on the co-ordinating group, noted there had been seven reports on this topic over the past 40 years, and “none had made their way into the heart of the Church.” The LLF document would, instead, be about “how we reach the positions we reach”, even if those positions were all different.

Chris Gill (Lichfield) asked whether the PAG had considered pastoral work among single people, and if not why.

Bishop Hardman agreed that the Church had often let down single people, but that the pastoral principles were specifically for LGBT people. But they would also challenge everybody, because they examined how the Church unintentionally excluded people.

The Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone (Oxford), who was part of the historical work stream, said they had examined how the Church had reconceived the nature of the family over different generations, but admitted that singleness had not been explored as much as it should have been.

Canon Rachel Mann (Manchester) asked whether another trans person would be recruited to the LLF team after the recent resignation of the Revd Dr Tina Beardsley from the co-ordinating group (News, 1 February).

Dr Cocksworth said that the group was grateful to Dr Beardsley for her contribution, and was pleased to have recruited Alex Clare-Young, a trans ordinand, to the group.

Debbie Buggs (London) asked the panel to expand on the concept of “costly, self-denying discipleship”.

The Revd Dr Isabelle Hamley, Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury and a member of the LLF group, said that the topic was something that they came back to again and again. “Can you deny something which is part of your core identity?” she asked. “Which parts of us fall under what we can change, and what we can’t change?” There were no easy answers, she concluded.

Sir Tony Baldry (Oxford) asked whether the group thought sexuality could be chosen, any more than eye colour could.

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, part of the scientific work stream, said that her group had worked hard to collect evidence but not cherry-pick. There was a great deal of data on this particular question, and they had concluded there were things that contributed to sexual and gender identity. “There is a lot of evidence you can’t change, which is part of the work which has gone into conversion therapy,” she added.

Dr Susannah Cornwall, part of the theological work stream, said that the different speciality groups had been communicating their findings with each other. But they were not trying to pretend that there were not deep differences between different members’ views, which “might seem intractable”.

Bishop Mullally also expressed the hope of understanding the science better, even when it was unclear. People on both sides of the debate could point to a huge number of studies that supported their stance. “Scientists are very clear they don’t know the answer. What they know is given the evidence they know today; this is the probability.”

The Revd Kevin Goss (St Albans) asked the PAG how the Synod’s vote to ban conversion therapy had featured in its work.

Bishop Hardman said that there was “general agreement” with her group that conversion therapy was wrong, and their work focused on the dignity of every person. “Conversion therapy starts with the premise there is something wrong which has to be changed. That presumption cannot accord with our core value of the innate rightness of people in their essential identity.”

Andrea Minichiello Williams (Chichester) said that she was “grateful” to be converted, away from her sin to God. She then asked whether the groups sought to reach one coherent theological position, or instead reflect “two mutually exclusive, irreconcilable, and contradictory visions and versions of the gospel”?

Dr Atherstone said that the project was working hard to understand scripture better, and listen to others’ reading of the Bible, both globally and down the centuries. They did not want to produce a document that had a menu of “100 different ways of thinking as an Anglican”. Neither did they agree that there were just two polarised positions.

Dr Hamley agreed, and said that it was helpful to move beyond the idea of two polarised views. Her biblical-studies group had, instead, asked what it meant to be human, have a body, be in relationships, experience God’s grace, read scripture together, and hear from God. “All of these have yielded quite a lot of consensus.”

Dr Cocksworth said that his favourite moment of the process was when they had decided not to start by asking “Who are we?” but instead “Who is God?”

Canon Goddard said that he hoped that the final document would reflect how Christians had changed their minds on some things, and not on others, continuing to live in diversity, for hundreds of years.

Dr Cornwall reflected that everyone was also a transmitter of the church tradition as well. “No one in the process is saying you can have this and that position,” she said. “We want to interrogate a range of positions in good faith and get past the tribalism that has been part of these conversations in the past.”

The Revd Andrew Lightbown (Oxford) asked whether the group had tried to divorce liturgy from pastoral practice and doctrine.

Dr Cocksworth said his team had not yet moved on to liturgy, as they were still trying to find answers to contested issues.

Dr Atherstone said that the way one worshipped reflected how one thought about the gospel and God, but the LLF project had not yet engaged with this question.

The Revd Dr Ian Paul (Southwell & Nottingham) said that the clergy had vowed to teach the doctrine of the Church; so there was not much space to agree with some positions, even if they were disseminated as part of the LLF resources. Second, the group had “alluded” to the fact that at some point a decision would have to be made in the C of E. What decisions were these, he asked: to change doctrine, or to say they needed to start thinking about changing doctrine?

Canon Goddard said that the answer was “both”. The group was not avoiding difficult questions, but it was for the House of Bishops and the Church at large ­— the Synod, dioceses, PCCs — to consider what the LLF project had produced, and decide how to move forward, or not.

Dr Hamley said the group was discussing what it could agree to disagree on and where it had to find consensus; to differentiate between first- and second-order issues. This included looking historically at where the Church had previously drawn these boundaries.

Anne Foreman (Exeter) thanked the PAG for the six principles, and asked whether they could offer some more thoughts on how those in the discernment process could value holy living and combat hypocrisy.

Bishop Hardman replied that this was an area that the group was exploring, and was convinced that naming hypocrisy and holding on to integrity “really matter and cannot be separated”.

Click here to read about other General Synod debates and motions

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