A PLEA for people not to “jump to the end” of the Living in Love and Faith process — the Church-wide engagement on sexuality — was issued by the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, last month.
“Yes, of course something will come to Synod at some point, but the real risk is that, if we focus on what we think at the end, we may miss . . . that ‘God moment’ on the way,” she said. “If we are only ever focused on the end, will we really spot the movement of the Spirit in this process?”
It is now almost five years since the Archbishops announced that work would begin on a new teaching document on sexuality in the wake of a vote in the General Synod not to take note of a House of Bishops report on sexuality (News, 17 February 2017). The report — Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations — proposed “interpreting the existing law and guidance to permit maximum freedom within it, without changes to the law or the doctrine of the Church” (News, 3 February 2017).
Delayed by the pandemic, the teaching resources, the centrepiece of which is a 480-page book, were published in November 2020 (News, Leader comment, 13 November 2020). Bishop Mullally was appointed to chair a small “next steps” group of bishops tasked with encouraging people to use the material.
Speaking to the Church Times just before Christmas, she spoke of a desire to see participation from as many as possible of the Church’s worshipping community, “enabling people to contribute to discerning what God is saying to the Church about identity, sexuality, relationships, and marriage”.
It was announced last year that the deadline for engagement with the resources had been postponed to 30 April this year, in recognition of the challenges posed by the pandemic. Speaking alongside Bishop Mullally, LLF’s enabling officer, Dr Eeva John, said that the challenge of engaging the whole Church, “right down to ground level”, was “almost a revival of understanding the Church as a learning community”.
Momentum was growing, she suggested, noting a “steady upward curve” since the summer of “people not just engaging but responding through the questionnaire”. About 6000 people had engaged in “diocesan taster days”; 500 had trained as LLF facilitators; and more than 12,500 people had registered on the LLF hub.
A challenge remained, however, to “get the huge middle of the Church not just engaged but then responding: letting us know, what did they experience? What did they learn from doing this with other people, sometimes across difference?
“Lots of people have said how good it has been to talk about these things when they have never done that before in their church,” Dr John said. Among those defying stereotypes of likely participants was a 93-year-old who had said: “At last we are talking about this in our church.”
After the 30 April deadline, the responses will be be gathered and analysed, and the findings — Listening to the Whole Church — are due to be published in September. The College of Bishops will begin a discernment process in the same month, and proposals are to be finalised in December. The February 2023 meeting of the General Synod will consider proposals from the College and House of Bishops, and agree on “a clear direction of travel”.
In her diocesan-synod presidential address last month, Bishop Mullally noted that many members had been elected “on the basis of your perspectives about what you perceive the task of the Church to be in relation to Living in Love and Faith. The trouble is that if we understand our roles at synod in terms of winning and losing, then we have all lost.”
She recognised, she told the Church Times, that “for some, they want to jump to the end without taking part in the process. . . Because this is around people, around our own identity, as well as our own faith and theology, therefore it is important to people . . . which is why the Pastoral Principles (News, 1 March 2019) are so important, why we have done work to try and create safer space for people to engage in this material. . . This is about discernment, discerning what God is calling us to do.
“One of the key things to understand is that it’s not so much what we do but how we do it that’s really important.”
Dr John said: “What we are often hearing is that people are saying: ‘I haven’t changed my mind, but I actually understand so much better why someone thinks differently, and I have met people that have moved my heart.’
“So, the way one arrives at a decision can mean the difference between night and day — if the process has been good, if we have understood each other. Conflict can draw people closer together rather than push them apart, and I suppose that’s part of our deepest hope.”
While the Bishops continue to emphasise the importance of process and “good disagreement”, the election addresses of General Synod candidates who went on to be elected indicate the desire for change among many members of the new Synod. Inclusive Church reported that 131 of its candidates had been elected — up from 80 in 2015 (News, 22 October 2021).
At the other end of the spectrum are those committed to maintaining the Church’s existing teaching. In 2018, 11 bishops warned that “any change in teaching or liturgy will . . . create major problems for many of us both here and in the wider Communion” (News, 19 October 2018).
Where the balance will fall if it comes to a vote in 2023 remains unclear. During the debate on the rejected 2017 report, the Bishop of Norwich at that time, the Rt Revd Graham James, said that there was “very little appetite in the House for any alteration of our doctrine of marriage” (News, 24 February). Any authorised liturgy for the blessing of same-sex partnerships would require “substantial agreement” across the three Houses of the Synod: “While some members of the House would support such a development, few doubt it would be so contested as to fail, and deepen division.”
In the past five years, some bishops have pressed ahead with calls for change. When he was the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, warned that the Church’s stance on same-sex relationships meant that it was “seen as immoral by the culture in which it is set”, and suggested that prayers of thanksgiving for these relationships — “perhaps a eucharist” — should be offered (News, 17 March 2017).
Last July, shortly before announcing his retirement, the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, called for a gender-neutral marriage canon in the Church of England, and the universal blessing of same-sex unions (News, 2 July 2021).
In 2017, concerns about the effect that a change in doctrine would have on the relationship between the C of E and the Anglican Communion was referred to by the House of Bishops (News, 3 February 2017). The original time-frame for LLF was for the teaching document to be published early in 2020, in time to send a summary to Anglican bishops worldwide, in preparation for the Lambeth Conference in the summer of that year.
As it stands, the Lambeth Conference is scheduled for 27 July-8 August 2022, before the completion of the College of Bishops’ discernment process.
Asked by the Church Times whether LLF was a “Church of England process decision or an Anglican Communion decision”, Bishop Mullally was clear: “Of course, anything that we do is in a context, and part of the context is the Anglican Communion, but this isn’t an Anglican Communion decision: this is a Church of England decision.”
Last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury described LLF as “the most theologically sophisticated work on human sexuality and identity of any global Church” (News, 19 November 2021).
For access to the LLF resources, visit: churchofengland.org/resources/living-love-and-faith/living-love-and-faith-learning-hub.