THE group commissioned by the Archbishops to look into sexuality will not pronounce on the rights or wrongs of same-sex marriage. But neither is it engaged merely on a mapping exercise of the different views that exist, or burying the issue in the long grass.
“Perhaps what we’re doing has never been done before,” the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, said shortly before Christmas, speaking in his office in Coventry. Dr Cocksworth chairs the coordinating group that oversees the 40-odd scholars working in thematic teams covering theology, history, biblical studies, and science.
UK PARLIAMENT – The Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth
The project was announced in June 2017 (News, 30 June 2017), shortly after an earlier report from the House of Bishops was given a hostile reception in the General Synod (News, 15 February 2017). A significant shift came early on, when the title of the project became “Living in Love and Faith: Christian teaching about human identity, sexuality and marriage”.
For a project that has sexuality at its heart, those involved use very unsexy language. “The intention of the Archbishops,” Dr Cocksworth said, “and that which the bishops need and that which the teams of people involved are most able to supply, is what I have described as a pedagogical process — in other words, it is helping people to learn how to think, and how to better understand.
“I think it would be fair to say that this has wrong-footed some people. It is not in itself a decision-making process. It will rather be a pedagogical process that will help to put the Church, and the Bishops in particular, in the sort of position by which they can develop whatever answers to particular questions are needed. And if we do it well, some of those answers may begin to emerge through this learning process itself.
“It’s very easy for everybody to think this is just about ‘Can I marry my partner, or, if we can’t marry, will you bless us?’ . . . And there’s another set of practical questions around bisexuality, transgender, intersex, and gender fluidity, some of them highly contested.
“What we’re trying to say is that those questions are deeply important, and they really do affect people’s lives — and they are to do with the character and mission of the Church.”
“But what underlies those questions are much bigger questions that affect us all, which are, effectively, to do with anthropology: What does it mean to be human, in relationship, in society? And what good news do we have to share about the art of human living with a world seriously in need of grace and truth?”
“So the project”, he said, “is as much to do with heterosexuality, where people within the Church and beyond it are in need of wisdom to order their loving and ‘sexing’ well, as it is with matters to the fore of contemporary debate.”
Dr Cocksworth recognised that questions about same-sex relations would remain to the fore. “Of course, they will be addressed — but it’s just that they might be framed in a new way, or seen in a new light as part of a much bigger picture.
“We’re also conscious that they bring with them the further complication of how we relate to the State. So we’re not shying away from them, not kicking them into the long grass.
“[But] we’re wondering, given the Church has been divided for so long, is there something we’re missing, is there something we’re not getting, is there truth that we can only find together through this sort of deep engagement?”
THE project is roughly at its halfway mark. For the past year, the four teams have worked on raw research. They have produced 70 academic papers, which have been shared with the bishops.
This month, the teams will be reformulated into five new groups, each with a question to answer:
What’s going on?
- How does God communicate?
- Who are we as human beings, as Church?
- What do we discern God to be saying?
- Where might we go from here?
The focus now will be on writing up the research, with the object of producing draft materials by the end of 2019, ready for publication in spring 2020. A booklet summarising the work will be sent in March of that year to Anglican bishops worldwide, in preparation for the Lambeth Conference in the summer of that year.
Dr Eeva John, a former tutor at Ridley Hall and Westcott House theological colleges in Cambridge, is the project’s enabling officer. She has seen the groups embody some of the virtues that she hopes to promote: “Being open with one another, being vulnerable with one another, being compassionate, being attentive — not just to scholarship but to people’s experience. . . All of that takes courage, and there’s a real sense of adventure.
“I guess my hope for this is that, while most people think that there’s just a couple of questions, and a couple of ways of answering them, that actually we might discover something really new here, that we might be surprised where this might take us.
“The constant challenge for me is to try and help people take off the blinkers which really want to see only one outcome from this process.”
The process has been remarkably thorough. As well as the academic work shared by members of the thematic groups, face-to-face or written conversations are being held with 147 individuals, 89 churches, chosen by dioceses and organisations such as the Church of England Evangelical Council and One Body One Faith.
Graphic used by Living in Love and Faith
In addition to a set of in-depth materials pitched at an academic level, the intention is to produce an accessible book, “like a beautifully produced textbook”, and a range of digital resources. Recorded interviews will help to build up an oral record of people’s lived experience.
The material will be subject to peer review in the coming months, as well as various types of road-testing — including exposure to the General Synod in February and July.
Representatives from the Anglican Communion are being canvassed for their views and kept informed about progress. And other denominations are being engaged with on several levels, as well as other faith communities.
Once published, Dr John hopes that there will be a six-to-nine-month period when parishes are encouraged to engage with the materials produced.
“Ambitiously, we’re looking for something that’s quite a landmark,” she said, “a bit like Faith in the City [the 1985 report by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas]. And our conversations with other Churches have suggested that that’s a worthwhile thing to be doing.
“There’s also a real missionary focus, to set this in a positive vision of what it means to be human, because we have that focus in the Christian faith.
“I think that there may be aspects of our culture which the Church has assimilated without really noticing, and there are certainly aspects of our culture which are not at all well.”
Neither she nor Dr Cocksworth is under any illusion about how hard it will be to sell this project to those on both the liberal and conservative wings, many of whom would be unhappy to see opposing views represented in an official document.
A letter signed by the Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Julian Henderson, and ten other bishops, has already warned against merely mapping new arguments that challenge traditional teaching (News, 19 October 2018).
“Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there are just two perspectives,” Dr John said: “conservatives who are absolutely right, and liberals who are absolutely right. It’s getting those two positions to actually say ‘What if . . ? What if there were something to be learnt from the other side?’ I guess that would be the ultimate victory for me.”
Dr Cocksworth concurred. “I would hope that, as we articulate and explain different views, that they would be framed in such a way that people can see the Christian reasoning behind them, so that they can be seen in their truest Christian light.
“Now, there’s still a judgement to be made on validity. There are all sorts of positions that I don’t necessarily agree with, but can we see what’s driving them theologically, can we discern in them a Christian character, can see what is of the gospel in them?”
To those on the Evangelical wing, who regard the matter as settled, his response, “and I speak as an Evangelical, is that those of us who are rigorously committed to the authority of scripture, by virtue of that, we must always be re-examining our understanding of scripture”.
Dr John said that there was a real sense that “scripture has to be at the heart of this project.
“A really important part of this is about reading scripture together well, and allowing scripture to exert its transforming, revelatory power.”
The Pastoral Advisory Group
Dr John was full of praise for the Pastoral Advisory Group, chaired by the Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman, which is made up of five episcopal and five non-episcopal members. The group is transitional, called on to help the Church adhere to the current guidelines and strictures.
“Part of its remit has become helping churches to examine what a truly Christ-like welcome looks like in their context, even in the here and now — and if we do that, it will plough the ground for “Living in Love and Faith”: it will put bishops and churches in a better place to be able to engage with the resources and with one another.”
The advances made by the group, which includes a partnered homosexual and a trustee of Living Out, were “remarkable — not something we saw coming. But it’s been tough for that group.”
For Bishop Hardman’s account of the group’s working, see her Synod presentation from 13 July, below. . .
Listen to more about this story on The Church Times Podcast.
The project has identified seven learning outcomes to direct the sorts of resources it produces. As a result of engaging with its resources, people will, it says:
- be inspired by scripture’s glorious and joyful vision of God’s intention for human life.This will require the resources to be “missional” in relation to God’s intention for humanity, drawing people into this vision even when they are seeking answers to specific questions.
- have discovered how to engage with rich biblical, theological, historical, and scientific thinking about human identity, sexuality, and marriage in a way that deepens their desire to know God and follow Christ.This will require the resources to feature themes of holiness and intimacy, integrating matters relating to gender, sexuality, singleness, and relationships with Christian spirituality and pastoral care; and to be produced in diverse genres, explaining technical language where needed, resisting over-simplification, and inviting readers to think for themselves.
- have a deeper understanding of the Church’s inherited teaching on Christian living in love and faith, especially with regard to marriage and singleness, and of emergent views and the Christian reasoning behind them.This will require the resources to offer faithful and fair presentations of the breadth of inherited and emergent views with proper attention to scripture, the Church’s theological tradition, and pastoral and liturgical practice.
- have heard the voices and encountered the experiences of people who would otherwise have been invisible to them.This will require the resources to reflect engagement with a wide array of lived experiences in the process of producing them.
- have learned different ways of reading scripture together well, allowing it to exert its transforming and revelatory power.This will require the resources to explain and critique different hermeneutical understandings of scripture and the different theological and ethical conclusions that different forms of Christian thought draw in relation to gender, sexuality, and marriage.
- find help for everyday Christian discipleship in all its diversity, physicality, messiness, and grittiness.This will require the resources to produce material that encourages and educates the people of God in the way of costly discipleship, acknowledging how different theological perspectives give rise to different patterns of discipleship.
- be alert to the interaction between the life of the Church and its cultural contexts, and equipped to engage in the public square about what it means to be human and sexual.This will require the resources to explore the situatedness of the gospel in culture, the principles provided by scripture, and the insights of the theological, historical, missional, and pastoral traditions of the Church, especially in relation to the power dynamics that silence people and influence the Church’s polity.
In his Church Times article of 4 January 2019, journalist Paul Handley makes clear the fact that the current work of the Church of England’s “Living in Love and Faith” Commission on Human Sexuality will not include working towards an interim definitive statement on the Church’s attitude towards Same-Sex Marriage. Nor will it necessarily bring an end to further debate and discussion of gender and sexuality issues. Rather – it seems from this article – the Commission will facilitate an ongoing process of discussion and debate that will provide a background to the Church’s upcoming 2020 Lambeth Conference.
Of the Commission process, its Chairman, the Bishop of Coventry, + Dr Christopher Cocksworth has this to say”
“It’s very easy for everybody to think this is just about ‘Can I marry my partner, or, if we can’t marry, will you bless us?’ . . . And there’s another set of practical questions around bisexuality, transgender, intersex, and gender fluidity, some of them highly contested. What we’re trying to say is that those questions are deeply important, and they really do affect people’s lives — and they are to do with the character and mission of the Church.”
It would seem proper, in view of the split within the Anglican Communion; to involve a new and radical understanding of the present-day hermeneutical process, which alone can help to accommodate the evolving scientific and social arguments for change in the Church’s outlook on gender and sexuality – that could (and perhaps should) presage a change in perspective on the doctrinal and pastoral implications of Church theology and polity on these humanly important issues. In considering the prospect of ‘What the Bible Says” about such things, we need to account for changes occurring in the outside world on matters involving the lives of many people affected by a radical change in outlook.
If the Church were close its mind to any new development of scientific, biological and sociological circumstances affecting human flourishing; this might well influence a further distancing of the Church from the world it is meant to minister to.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand