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Living in love, faith — and reconciliation

25 January 2024

Viewing the process in terms of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ cannot go on, write Helen-Ann Hartley and Martyn Snow

THE results of a recent study carried out in the United States, which were published in The New York Times, suggest that approximately 42 per cent of both Republicans and Democrats viewed members of the opposing party as “evil”. The same study reported that 20 per cent from each party said that the opposition “lack the traits to be considered fully human”.

Considering this, two politicians in Seattle — one a Republican and one a Democrat — have begun a programme, Building Bridges, which gathers people together across political differences. They write: “Our country doesn’t need a divorce; it needs marital counselling. It occurs to both of us that the vast majority of Americans who don’t find themselves on the political fringes are yearning for national healing.”

The parallels may not be exact, but we, as joint lead bishops for the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process, believe that it is time for a reset of the process. We are at a crossroads: either we have reached the point of separation, accepting that different views cannot co-exist within the same Church, or we must shift the debate to the question how we live well with difference. We believe firmly in the latter approach, and, therefore, we are issuing a call for reconciliation and bridge-building.

THE past few meetings of the General Synod have not been edifying. Some contributions to the hours of debates on LFF have been thoughtful and eirenic, but many more have been so focused on “winning” the debate that they have implied that the “losers” should simply leave the Church. This cannot go on.

And so, the two of us, who have differing views on relationships and sexual ethics, will together bring a set of “commitments” to February’s meeting of the Synod, which, we hope, will form the basis for a settlement that allows as many people as possible to remain within the Church of England.

These commitments will honour the votes already taken by the Synod and the general sense of direction, while also inviting the whole of the Synod to make a commitment to the principle of being a broad Church in which different views are not just accepted, but honoured as part of what it means to be the living, dynamic, and beautiful body of Christ. This is an example of what Alasdair MacIntyre described when he wrote that “traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict.”

So, our commitments will cover basics, such as the need for reconciliation, humility and repentance, honesty and transparency, and freedom of conscience. They will support the process of authorising the stand-alone services of Prayers of Love and Faith, and the exploration of the question whether clergy and lay ministers can enter into same-sex civil marriages.

But they will also commit us to a detailed examination of legal safeguards and appropriate structures that will enable as high a degree as possible of unity and communion in the Church, while providing the reassurance needed for those concerned by the changes (learning from recent ecumenical studies that suggest different degrees of unity). They also acknowledge that more time will be needed to agree the details of a settlement, while doing all we can to ensure that this is in place before the next elections to the Synod, thus ensuring that the elections are not shaped by this one issue alone.

In the first instance, these commitments are being made by the two of us as lead bishops for LLF. They were discussed at the College and House of Bishops last week, and, unsurprisingly, everyone found something in them that was uncomfortable.

YET, broadly, the Bishops were appreciative of the attempt to reset the debate. So, we will bring them to the Synod in the hope that members will view them not through the lenses of “red lines”, or “winning” or “losing”, but through the lenses of “living with difference” and “gift exchange”. No Christian group or church is complete in and of itself: we need the gift of “the other” if we are to grow in grace and love.

At last week’s meeting of the College of Bishops, we heard from Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s Chief International Correspondent. She spoke of her concern at the way in which violence is once again spreading around the world, and of how “it’s getting harder and harder to be a peacemaker.”

It is our belief that the primary witness of the Church at this point in history is reconciliation. Can we show to the world what it means to be reconciled with God through Christ, and can we embody this reconciliation in our own life?

We are not naïve about the scale of the task before us, but we remain hopeful that God’s power is at work in us, and among the whole people of God — indeed, particularly among those with whom we disagree.

Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, the Bishop of Newcastle, and the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, the Bishop of Leicester, are the co-lead bishops for the Living in Love and Faith process.

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