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Called to live together, not apart  

28 June 2024

LLF proposals that make space for conscience should be welcomed, says Neil Patterson


Nemo performs for Switzerland at the Eurovision Song Contest in Malmö, Sweden, last month

Nemo performs for Switzerland at the Eurovision Song Contest in Malmö, Sweden, last month

PEOPLE who sang along to the entries during the Eurovision Song Contest final last month included members of the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) working groups.

As the lead bishop on this subject, the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, observes in a General Synod paper (GS 2358), the working groups’ weekend meeting, in a hotel in Leicester, coincided, surreally, with the Eurovision final.

The division, I observed, between those who watched and those who avoided Eurovision was only partially aligned with the spectrum of theological opinion.

Joining in, for example, as Switzerland’s non-binary Nemo sang about how they had been “to hell and back” before discovering their identity, which was their “Kingdom come” — words of Christian redemption expressing a journey that makes nonsense of all our LLF wrangling — were some of the conservatives, for example.

For increasing numbers of us, especially if we are LGBTQ+, Nemo’s song rings true. It is clear to us that a simplistic binary understanding of male and female roles, so often challenged by scripture (in which there are no nuclear families), is a barrier to the Church’s realisation of the full inclusion of all people in the redeeming love of God.

Yet, as was abundantly clear in Leicester, many others see a firm gender binary in scripture. This, for them, is essential to the Christian doctrine of marriage.

Over that weekend, there was genuine listening and growing understanding, aided by the LLF team’s skilled facilitation; and this built on previous work, such as the St Hugh’s Conversations, facilitated by the Bishop of Oxford. This helped us to reach the compromise that is now offered to the Synod.

FOR those of us seeking a more inclusive Church, GS 2358 is still frustrating in many ways: the tone of caution and provisionality; procrastination over clergy same-sex marriage until more theology can be done, as if there were not enough already; and, most of all, the painful need to compromise again (as happened over the ordination of women) on the credal unity of the Church embodied in the episcopate, so as to offer space for conscience to conservatives — conservative parishes and clergy reluctant to accept ministry from a progressive bishop, or conservative bishops needing to delegate ministry to progressives.

But, if the Church as a whole is moving towards inclusion (perhaps symbolised by Canterbury Cathedral’s recent decision to offer the Prayers of Love and Faith), then it is right to offer a space for conscience.

Unlike some who seem to hanker for a “pure liberal” Church, I believe deeply in our calling to live together with the tension of different views. As we challenge one another’s assumptions, we discover how God eludes our definitions by an inexhaustible mystery that will sustain us in eternity.

On the conservative side, I experienced in Leicester a running tension between a genuine and welcome desire to explore ways for all to flourish, and a saddening vulnerability of faith which feels safe only behind a “doctrinal firewall”.

That tension is really for insiders to resolve; but it is puzzling that Evangelicals need a hard separation on this when they have long co-existed in a Church with those who prostrate before the Blessed Sacrament, or who hold a non-realist understanding of God. I pray sincerely that those, especially bishops, who see that all can flourish under the proposals will say so with increasing clarity.

Conservatives are questioning the security of any new arrangements and insisting that they must be statutory. The Church of England has a diversity of legal and quasi-legal instruments: Measures, canons, Acts of Synod, codes of practice, and more. They are all, ultimately, creations of the Church, made by vote or resolution — and they can be unmade by the same means. The security of a future mixed ecology under LLF, as with the Five Guiding Principles, depends not on legal form, but on our collective commitment to one another.

A GREAT deal has been said and written about the part played by bishops in the unity of the Church of England, and it will undoubtedly be put under strain by these proposals. Many — including, understandably, the Bishops themselves — are concerned that they should not go too far. But the LLF process, sometimes resembling a theological dialogue of the deaf, has made me wonder whether we need to begin to pay more attention to other ways in which the unity of the Church of England is sustained.

In theological education, wildly different understandings of scripture and the basic framework of the gospel are taught in different theological-education institutions, each promoting a particular tradition. The need to reform an over-large sector offers an opportunity to increase coherence.

The Revd Dr Christopher Landau has written about the abandonment of liturgical unity (Comment, 19 May 2023). Perhaps intervention by bishops where even the framework of a Liturgy of the Word is absent for informal worship is now needed. And the Strategic Mission and Ministry Investment Board could deploy some of its considerable resources to support work to understand and defend the identity of the Church of England.

At ordinations and licensings, in the Preface to the Declaration of Assent, the Bishop declares “The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” Let us live as if we believed it.

The Revd Neil Patterson is a member of the General Synod for Hereford diocese and a member of the LLF working groups. He chairs the campaign group Together for the Church of England. He will be installed as a residentiary canon of Bristol Cathedral next month.

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