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Living in Love and Faith: it’s out, it’s long, it’s good

09 November 2020

ON PAGE 307 of Living in Love and Faith (the book), the authors complain about its “frustrating brevity” — although there are 150 pages still to go. It is an insight into the size of the task that the LLF committee set itself. It was not enough to outline the arguments about same-sex relationships, which is the minimalist approach that critics of the project feared. The authors lay these out with care, but also attempt to look at the sources of these arguments. But this is not enough, either, illuminating though it is. Like peeling off the layers of an onion, they look next at the topic not as an argument at all, acknowledging that forces other than logical debate inform people’s positions. They look at authority structures, examining the Anglican formularies and asking who should decide contentious issues of this kind, remembering that the traditional councils and leadership structures have drawn their membership from a narrow male elite. They look at culture, which, even in those who purport to eschew secular influences, plays a significant part. They quote St Augustine, John Calvin, and John Stott on the need to attend to wider factors in what is often depicted as a narrow, binary set of decisions: to allow, to disallow; to approve, to disapprove. Science is fully included, seen as humanity’s imperfect grasp of God’s divine plan of creation. But so is sin, and the need for all aspects of human life to be redeemed by God. Scripture and the different approaches to its interpretation run throughout the book.

Just as we prefer our book reviewers to review the book in front of them, not the one that they would prefer it to be (and would no doubt have written themselves), the LLF committee were acutely aware of the expectations, hopes, and fears that swirl around the topic of sexuality, and from early on have attempted to damp down the impression that this is the book that will solve everything. In one sense, it clearly won’t. There are no prescriptions, or proscriptions, here of same-sex weddings in church. The authors do not judge between the opinions that they list. If anything, they complicate matters further by explaining those opinions better than some of their proponents have. (They identify seven gradations of approaches to scripture, for example.) They also ignore our instruction to comment writers: that they avoid asking questions instead of stating an opinion. There are 585 questions, more than one a page. It seems like more.

In another sense, however, Living in Love and Faith is a solution — to the bitter, defensive, and ossified situation that the Church of England has got itself into over sexuality, in which taking a particular stance on the subject gains you admission into one of the factions that exist, and any deviation from its line is inadmissible — regardless of one’s views on any other topic. It is hard to do justice to the thrill of seeing here the different perspectives on sexuality rehearsed with clarity and respect, but interrogated with a thoroughness that even the shared conversations of recent years failed to sustain. Yet even these last are honoured: the final section, “Encounters”, comprises individual stories and conversations, and is an important corrective to the theoretical, issues-based discussions that precede it. We should like to see this approach adopted for other divisive issues, such as politics and social justice. At times, while reading LLF, it comes as a jolt to see questions about scriptural interpretation, for example, related only to sexuality.

For LLF to work as a solution now depends on whether enough people read the book, watch the films, or sign up to the course to change the tenor of the debate. The level of buy-in is crucial, and depends on an openness to the suggestion that there are more things to solve in our relationships with scripture and with one another than mere disagreements about same-sex relationships or attitudes to transgender or intersex issues. The LLF authors refer to St Paul’s approach that some solutions involve living with difference (though, true to type, they recognise, too, that St Paul took a different line on some matters).

It is important not to affect neutrality. The Church Times has sought to cover the debate fairly, while supporting the vision of a Church that can include absolutely everybody and allows them to thrive absolutely. We recognise the temptation to unchurch those who hold contrary positions, especially those who would unchurch others; yet we are corrected constantly by signs of God’s apparent eclecticism. These views make us naturally sympathetic to the attempt to widen and deepen the debate that we see in Living in Love and Faith. Yet our position makes us acutely aware, also, of the need to move swiftly towards more visible and more practical solutions. The Church cannot affect neutrality, either. It has chosen, partly consciously, partly by default, to exclude same-sex couples from marriage in church; it looks askance at clergy in same-sex partnerships; it is seldom a safe space for those struggling with issues of gender to seek support; it is seldom somewhere for those confident in their non-binary identity to find affirmation; nor is it somewhere where those who have opted for celibacy always feel honoured. These are not matters that can be left. The language of “journeying” is over-used, but the best reception possible for the LLF material is an acknowledgement that progress is a compulsion laid upon every one of Christ’s followers. Its authors have provided, not a roadmap, but a vehicle; and it is an accommodating one.

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