by Prof Helen King, Professor Emerita in Classical Studies at The Open University and member of Living in Love and Faith project
So it’s over. The resources are published, the initial reactions registered.
In the run-up to publication, there was the usual speculation on social media that this was all about “kicking things into the long grass”. Some were trying to guess the conclusion of the book as ‘let’s all reflect on this some more’, while others pointed out that we already knew this was how it would end, because the press release had said the resources only “initiate a process of whole Church learning and engagement, within a clear timeframe, that will contribute to the Bishops’ discernment of a way forward”.
This, as Colin Coward has reminded us, is also how previous reports on LGBTQI+ questions have also ended. But LLF even starts with it: the page 3 ‘stunner’ is that LLF “offers no recommendations or guarantees of an agreed way forward for the Church in relation to human identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage”.
So, what now? Or to put it another way, how long have you got?
When I googled that phrase I was interested to find that it features as a “way of saying that you don’t want to talk or think about something”. And I wonder: are all these words, all these videos and podcasts, these exhortations to talk, paradoxically saying that the Church of England doesn’t want to talk about human sexuality?
For those not in the LLF process, the last few years, waiting for the resources to be completed, have definitely been about not talking. “Waiting for LLF’ has meant not tabling at General Synod the Hereford Diocesan Synod motion asking for services of prayer and dedication for same-sex couples, and not issuing lists of resources for schools; the bishop who chairs the National Society Council said at the July 2019 General Synod that he “will await the publication of the Living in Love and Faith resources before considering next steps”. A similar answer was given to four questions on gender transition and Differences of Sex Development (DSD) at the February 2019 General Synod.
Wait… wait… wait.. wait. And now the waiting ends: only to usher in another period of waiting.
How many will use this waiting time to read the resources and to talk? I am sure that people will want to watch the videos of people who have views on sexuality different to their own: personal stories are always engaging. But will we really talk among ourselves as we wait?
We are being asked to talk at all levels of the C of E from the House of Bishops to the deaneries and parishes: to “engage with this book and its accompanying resources and, as far as possible, do this together with those who have different perspectives and lived experiences” (p.420). Personally, I wouldn’t want to sit down with those whose “different perspectives” mean that they regard my sexuality as unacceptable; is this really a safe thing to do, in a church shown by IICSA and even more recently by the independent review into the horrific crimes at Maids Moreton to be a very unsafe place for those who aren’t heterosexual? Remember, this is a church in which most gay and lesbian bishops aren’t open about their sexuality. The Maids Moreton review notes that “Attitudes towards sex and sexuality” contributed to what happened there. And, still within my own diocese, a recent story on Oxford churches described how a discussion on sexuality turned out to be a talk on how the only option for a gay Christian was celibacy.
Read the resources: yes. Talk about them in church groups: maybe not.
There are also a lot of resources to use: a 468-page book, videos, podcasts, an online library. Does anyone have the time or the heart for this? There are so many resources that the Church Society has already said that it will be issuing its own “summaries and critiques of it all” for those who can’t face reading the report or watching the videos. The Church Society’s view is that this is “about the authority and sufficiency of God’s word”, about what happens “if we take the Bible seriously”.
Not for the first time, I wonder what the point of three years spent working on LLF was; asking the church to engage with the materials, and then finding that the Church of England Evangelical Council instead recommends their own free 229-page book Glorify God in your Body (2018) and its study guide. Apparently “It covers all this ground, in a faithful and biblical way.”
Hey, people. Don’t suggest to me that LLF isn’t ‘biblical’ or ‘Doesn’t take the Bible seriously’. It is, and it does. Of course it is and of course it does. It states that the Bible has “the central place in our accounts of how we hear the voice of God” (p.274): “God speaks to the world through the Bible” (p.276).
Following on from the Shared Conversations resources, LLF acknowledges that one of the underlying questions that makes discussing sex so difficult is precisely that we don’t agree on how to read the Bible. It lays out the different approaches: the textual, historical and canonical contexts. It goes through the ‘clobber texts’. It fully acknowledges that we need to read the Bible, while accepting that there are – and always have been – different ways of doing this.
LLF recognises that, in the C of E, we all need to realise that our readings of Scripture are partial, and come from our privilege as (mostly) “white, male, middle-class, affluent, and Western”: “if privileged readers want to be challenged to recognize their own partial perspectives, and to see how those have shaped their reading and thinking, and to be enabled to read and think past them, it makes sense to engage seriously with reading and thinking from the margins” (p.328).
However, there aren’t any examples in the LLF book of such reading from the margins: as I said many times during meetings and in emails, while queer hermeneutics is mentioned and queer readings are mentioned as a concept which could cause “a transformative shock” (p.338), there isn’t a single example given of a queer reading of the Bible. If you aren’t aware of how differently the Bible was read in the past, try looking at the Church Fathers on Song of Songs.
Saying that LLF isn’t ‘biblical’ is simply shorthand for prioritising one way of reading the Bible. One of the good things about LLF is the acknowledgement that this isn’t good enough.
Already on social media I’ve encountered a number of LGBTQI+ people saying that they won’t be reading the LLF materials; maybe not until they are feeling stronger, maybe not at all. That’s hardly surprising, after the bruising they’ve already had from Christians or churches.
The take-home message of LLF is that the bishops “do not agree on a number of matters relating to identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage … Most pressing among our differences are questions around same sex relationships, and we recognize that here decisions in several interconnected areas need to be made with some urgency” (p.422).
“Urgency” is the right word. People are being belittled, damaged, rejected right now. Talking about these matters is not enough. For me, the most important question is how these “decisions” will be made.
It has long been thought that “Justice delayed is Justice denied”.
The outcome of 4 years of study that produced the Church of England’s report: ‘Living in Love and Faith’ (LLF) is a reminder that the Church is often the very last bastion of conservatism, where delays in implementing the recommendations of civilly granted human rights mark out the Church as being least able to minister to the pastoral needs of those vulnerable people who have had to live their lives in fear of being ostracised because of their innate gender or sexual identity.
Professor Helen King, herself one of that ‘hidden community’ in the Church of England, demonstrates her own impatience with the pace at which the Church’s bishops have dealt with the devastating outcome of delays in coming to terms with the reality of the lives of people whose gender or sexuality comes within the now commonly-recognised spectrum of the GLBTQI identity.
Both the scientific and the medical world have already been dealing empathetically with the reality of non-binary gender and sexuality issues; while the Church has clung to the unreality of a purely binary ‘male or female’ identity that happens to be the biblical ‘norm’ and therefore solely acceptable by thye Church, ethically, as the paradigm for all humans.
The Church now has to deal with a society which is more comfortably in synch with the biological reality of a much more variable gender/sexual identity than was understood by the biblical authors. One only has to come to terms with the fact that the cosmos is a much more complex creation that the three-tiered (heaven, earth and the underworld) version depicted in the Old Testament. So, also, the wonderful variety of the human condition – uninvestigated by the biblical writers – is a much more complicated reality than they were able to comprehend before the advent of the evolving biological and medical science available to our modern world.
The problem for the Church is that, delaying the recognition of these differences in the created order of humanity – which society has come to accommodate as ‘normal, and has granted legal recognition of, for instance, the solemnisation of same-sex marriage as being socially and morally equal to that of heterosexual partnerships – creates a climate of dissatisfaction with the reluctance of the Church to accept and welcome this diversity among its members. The pastoral ministry of the Church can be seen as lacking for a community of human beings whose perceived ‘sin’ is being behaviourably different from the binary ‘norm’.
As the writer here suggests; the fact that some of the bishops of the Church of England who are engaged in this cautious attitude towards the LGBT community are actually themselves ‘different’ (whether openly acknowedged or not), only serves to entrench the unhealthy and unhelpful culture of secrecy and hypocrisy surrounding this issue within the Church community itself. This is a factor not unnoticed by others in the Church – and outside of the Church – whose capacity for credibilty is severely tested thereby.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand