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Bishops urged to act swiftly on sexuality as Living in Love and Faith responses are collated

06 September 2022

Most comments hoped that the course might lead to the ‘acceptance of same-sex marriage’

LLF

Artwork created while taking part in a focus group

Artwork created while taking part in a focus group

THE Church of England has released three new documents about the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process and the experiences of those who have engaged with it.

Feedback shows that most people who took part in focus groups afterwards believe that the House of Bishops should be “bold, courageous, clear and honest” in its decision-making on sexuality — and needs to act swiftly to end uncertainty and division.

The opinions of the respondents are not, however, presented in any quantifiable way. The House of Bishops, therefore, are not given a clear steer about whether to favour a conservative or a liberal interpretation of the Church’s teaching on sexuality.

A new 94-page report Listening with Love and Faith brings together approximately 6400 responses gathered from those who engaged with the course, which has run, with interruptions from Covid, since 2020 (News, 13 November 2020). The course was devised as an attempt to circumvent customary divisions about same-sex relations and gender issues by returning to first principles. Participants were invited to share their own insights and reflections through questionnaires, focus groups, and even creative expressions such as artworks and prayers.

A more comprehensive 154-page “technical report” goes into greater detail on the feedback received. It also sets out responses sent in from people who either did not take part in the course or did not complete a questionnaire but submitted their feedback anyway.

Finally, there is a reflective essay with the title Friendship and the Body of Christ, written with the Faith and Order Commission and billed as “a resource for reflection and conversation”. It is an attempt to tackle the tension in the calling to be “friends of Jesus” when Christians find themselves disagreeing with others of his friends.

A statement about the new publications on the Church of England website reads: “These and the LLF resources will support the bishops in their ongoing discernment process as they seek to discern what they believe God is saying to the Church of England today.”

The reports come at the beginning of the fourth and final stage of the LLF process, “discernment and decision-making”, which follows the earlier phases of creating teaching and learning resources; learning together; and listening and gathering.

The authors of Listening with Love and Faith express gratitude for the willingness of people to take part. “This has taken time, effort and remarkable courage: learning about and discussing topics of such deeply personal nature as identity, sexuality, relationships, and marriage involves taking the risk of making oneself vulnerable,” they write.

“It involved starting conversations that perhaps had never before taken place in church communities. It involved uncovering different perspectives, lived experiences and disagreements within church communities. Some of the responses in this booklet bear witness to the pain, anger, fear, and sadness that engagement may have occasioned. However, as these pages show, the reward of encountering one another in the presence of Christ can be — and often has been — the joy of forming deeper relationships with one another and with God even across difference.”

Listening with Love and Faith is intended to reflect back “as faithfully, impartially and accurately as possible” a nuanced picture of the reported experience of participants. The report is interspersed with stories drawn from submissions that were sent in independently.

LLFCollage created while taking part in a focus group

Participants reported a range of responses. Some believed that engagement with LLF was important for perceptions of the Church, from the perspective of both churchgoers and the wider public. Some felt that the Church’s engagement with issues of diversity and inclusivity was crucial to attracting a younger generation to faith.

Many expressed the hope that the LLF process would help church members to become more open to the perspectives of others, and that diversity of opinion would be respectfully acknowledged a result. Other contributors, however, feared that LLF would lead to division.

There were differing views on same-sex marriage. Most of the comments on this theme expressed hope that the LLF course might contribute to the “acceptance of same-sex marriage” or “blessing of same-sex partnerships”. This came up in focus group discussions as well. “I hope the Church will make changes to its rules, especially by celebrating same-sex marriages and by allowing LGBTI+ priests and other ministers to live openly,” one participant said.

But a smaller number presented the opposing view, speaking against any change in teaching. Comments included: “I hope that the national Church will make a firm resolution to confirm the present situation. I also hope that there will not be any change to the form of marriage or any blessing of same-sex relationships or any watering down of responsibility so that individual ministers could agree to something in their church.”

The report concludes that, while some people felt “encouraged and hopeful” about the Church as a result of the process, “many felt that LLF saw the Church of England avoiding making a clear statement on matters of sexual and gender diversity — attempting to ‘have its cake and eat it’, or simply ‘kick the issue into the long grass’.”

For some respondents the course increased their impatience for the Church to act, and galvanised them to bring about change.

Participants in focus groups were asked what message they would pass on to the bishops. The report says that, while the majority of respondents understood that the House of Bishops had a difficult task, “a decision on moving forward” needed to be made.

“Most people in the focus groups suggested that the decisions made by the House of Bishops needed to be bold, courageous, clear and honest,” the report says. “While some advocated strongly for change and some to maintain the Church’s position on questions of sexuality, all agreed that coming to a clear decision soon is vital.”

Many of the opinions quoted in the report contradict each other. Thus on the need for a clear decision about same-sex marriage, the report quotes:

“My message would be the same — ONE VIEW for all the Church. We might not all agree with it, but you would know what is expected.”

“I hope and pray that God uses LLF to keep the C of E together. Schism would be an offence to God and a hammer blow to our mission.”

“I hope it doesn’t lead to gay marriage being sanctioned. I believe a move like this would divide the Church.”

“I pray that change will happen soon — even if it means schism.”

“Hopefully most people will come to accept that there is more than one valid point of view and see others as just as much valid Christians as they are.”

www.churchofengland.org/resources/living-love-and-faith

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