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Living in Love and Faith ‘is building the bridge as we cross it’

by
19 June 2021

The C of E’s document on sexuality and identity challenges old approaches to leadership and looks for a wider responsibility, says David Runcorn

LIVING IN LOVE AND FAITH (LLF) is unique. I am not talking about the content. I mean that it is unlike anything the Church of England has produced before to discern faith, doctrine, and discipleship. This means that we do not know how it will work out; we have not been here before. So, as someone put it, we are “building the bridge as we cross it”.

Its (unplanned) conception happened near the end of a long Wednesday in February 2017, when the General Synod unexpectedly rebelled on a (usually routine) “take note” vote on a House of Bishops’ report on marriage and same-sex relationships (News, 17 February 2017).

But the Synod voted not to take note. In response, the Archbishop of Canterbury called for a “radical new inclusion” in the Church, and, shortly after, announced a new initiative to offer fresh ways of exploring the conflicted issue of human sexuality. Initially called a “Bishops’ Teaching Document”, it quickly morphed into something very different in content and approach. What eventually came to birth was LLF.

 

READING LLF reminds me of time I spent in the Samuel narratives a few years ago: Fear and Trust: God-centred leadership (SPCK, 2011). In that ancient world, national history was usually recorded in epic poems, centred on semi-divine leaders. Israel did something new. The Samuel narratives have been called “post-heroic story telling”.

The result is a text that is honest, subtle, vulnerable, non-triumphalist, and undefended. Walter Brueggemann calls it “survival literature”, because, by abandoning the familiar ways of speaking of and defining what is going on, it becomes a subversive narrative with the capacity to liberate. It frees God’s people to imagine themselves in radically new and adventurous ways.

Western approaches to leadership are essentially heroic in mode: people who rise to the fore in times of crisis. They inspire, solve the “problem”, and achieve goals on behalf of everyone else.

This is our secular and spiritual default-mode in times of corporate anxiety. “Give us a king to rule us” (1 Samuel 8.6). “Heroic leadership”, by definition, requires everyone else to be helpless. As Peter Senge, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has argued: “At its heart, the traditional view of leadership is based on assumptions of people’s powerlessness, their lack of personal vision, and inability to master the forces of change — deficits which can be remedied only by a few great leaders.” This leaves leader and led in an unhealthy, co-dependent relationship.

More recent studies have been asking what post-heroic leadership might look like. The conviction is that leadership is not something imported from outside or above, but is found within — an expression of the whole community. It uses words such as “collective”, “participative”, and “dispersed”.

This approach is relational, communal, non-directive, collaborative, and negotiated. It is embedded in the community’s story, history, and vocation. LLF looks very similar: its approach is founded on a creative, trusting relationship between leading, facilitating, and learning.

Part of the challenge lies in our understanding of authority. And this also applies to our relationship to the scriptures. The late Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, observed that, while there are 613 commands in the Torah, ancient Hebrew had no word for “obey”. Modern Hebrew had to create a word for outright obedience. The Hebrew words shema and lishmoa express a call to hear, listen, attend, understand.

In his book Genesis: The book of beginnings (OUP, 2010), Sacks suggested that God seeks from us “a greater virtue than obedience” — more than submission or compliance: he seeks our responsibility. A different understanding of authority, and what it asks of us, is found here. To discern what follows means that we must first hear, listen, attend, and understand. English translations miss this by nearly always translating those words “obey”.

 

BY MAKING narrative and story so central, LLF is faithfully following the example of scripture (and Jesus himself: Mark 4.34). Eugene Peterson writes in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work (Eerdmans, 1980): “When Israel wanted to speak of her faith, she did not do it in moralistic terms, or through sociological surveys, or in conceptual essays — people simply told a story.”

This is unsettling for those expecting the Bible to be a divine route-map, with unambiguous paths to follow and a clear destination. It challenges more directive styles, and a hierarchical approach to leadership. This tension is illustrated in the Evangelical tradition, where, alongside an emphasis on external authority (Bible, leaders, preaching), it has always encouraged personal witness to authentic faith. “Tell them your story — no one can argue with your experience” was the advice at the church youth club. But what if the stories challenge the script?

LLF challenges approaches to leading and learning at all levels of the Church, and in all its traditions. It is founded on the theological conviction that leadership is the vocation of the whole Church. The stories there are essential for ensuring that a variety of voices, experience, and testimonies are in the room.

This is demanding. No part of the Church’s life is untouched. But LLF is a work of extraordinary trust “that the Holy Spirit speaks through scripture and the reflections of the whole people of God”.

To those in leadership — national, local, and all expressions between — LLF says: “Your task is not to take front stage, guarding received understandings, or ‘telling’ people what the truth is. It is to stand in the midst, to enable others to think, to be alongside them, to journey with and guide the discernment of the mind of God within that.”

It has been said that effective leaders do not produce good followers: they produce good leaders — people and communities who are taking responsibility for the gifts and ministries that are theirs. The most motivated and energised communities are those where leadership is more clearly exercised, not less. There needs to be a wise hand on tiller and tasks. But, rather than taking over, this leadership creates spaces for others to grow and flourish in the gifts and roles that are theirs.

 

NOW, while it is true that leadership can be over-powering and controlling, it is also true that “followers” can be powerful and obstructive, too. There are ways of making leadership near impossible. I have long thought that the supposed crisis of leadership in our times is in part a crisis of “followership”. It is all mutual.

LLF seeks to enable the emergence of biblically discerning and pastorally confident local Christian believers and communities, responsible and flourishing in their vocations.

So, here’s to building bridges, to survival literature, and to the freedom of the whole people of God to imagine ourselves in radically new and adventurous ways.

 
The Revd David Runcorn is a theological teacher, author, and spiritual director. His latest book, Love means Love: Same-sex relationships and the Bible, is published by SPCK.

This is an edited version of an article that was first published at ViaMedia.

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