By Andrew Goddard
The end of April marks another milestone in the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith (LLF) project relating to identity, sexuality, marriage, and relationships. Since the suite of teaching and learning resources was launched toward the end of 2020, the church has been engaging with the materials, particularly the LLF Course. The whole process has, of course, sadly been disrupted by the restrictions arising from COVID, but already by October last year there had been 11,000 people registering on the LLF online hub, 800 completed surveys, and nearly 6,000 people participating in LLF Taster Events across the dioceses. Anecdotally many more groups have been using the materials since January, and the window for feedback from these closes on April 30th.
The feedback submitted by those who have used LLF as part of this “Listening to the Whole Church” process will then be analyzed and published in September along with a resource exploring ecclesiology entitled “The Gift of the Church.” This whole process of encouraging people across the church and across the range of perspectives to learn together and then to share their insights and reactions for consideration by the bishops is unprecedented within the Church of England, though perhaps has similarities with developments in the Roman Catholic Church and how it prepared for its Synod on the Family.
Having been involved in the preparation of the LLF materials, it has been fascinating seeing the different reactions. I have led groups using the course in various contexts: with members of the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC), ordinands at Ridley Hall in Cambridge, and the leadership here in the parish of St. James the Less in Pimlico. It has also been good to hear from others who, because of LLF, have often had discussions for the first time about these matters with those alongside whom they regularly worship and serve. Some — from both ends of the spectrum — have found the fact that the materials set out different views without offering evaluation of them a problem, preferring to adapt the course or use alternative resources, but many have found that the structure and format enables a fruitful conversation across sometimes deep differences.
Beginning in September, the bishops enter a period of discernment, guided by The Next Steps Group chaired by the Bishop of London. This will require consideration of the findings from the feedback and, unlike LLF itself, evaluation of the different theological perspectives set out in the LLF book. They have committed themselves to bring to the February 2023 General Synod proposals for a way forward that will “agree a clear direction of travel.” One of the interesting recent developments is that it seems clear that the election of a new General Synod last summer has resulted in a more conservative body. Among the various signs of this was that those elected as the new Chairs of the House of Clergy in both Canterbury and York hold traditional views on sexuality, whereas both their predecessors were partnered gay clergy.
The whole LLF project arose, of course, after the previous Synod’s House of Clergy rejected the proposal (of no change in teaching and no new liturgies) brought to it in 2017 by the bishops after the last, much smaller-scale, church-wide discussions in Shared Conversations. Six years on it may be that the LLF process, the data from feedback, and the process of intense episcopal discernment reveals a greater emerging consensus, but all the evidence is that the Church of England remains deeply divided over what its “direction of travel” should be, and not just the speed of that travel.
One interesting consequence of Covid is that the bishops’ discernment for England will be taking place in the aftermath of the Lambeth Conference this summer. It appears that Archbishop Justin realizes that these matters cannot be wholly avoided but that he will do all that he can to prevent them having a significant profile at the gathering. The reality is, however, that the mind of the Communion as a whole still seems to be as expressed in the 1998 Lambeth Resolution I.10. Any attempt to forget or revise that teaching or to resile from its implications (in terms of prohibiting blessings of same-sex unions and requiring those ordained to live in accordance with church teaching) is likely to be strongly resisted by the Global South. They are likely to seek to reaffirm it, thereby limiting the room for maneuver in the Church of England without serious implications for the already fractured Communion.
There is, however, a growing consensus in the Church of England that this LLF process needs to result in a new settlement that acknowledges the Church of England is a microcosm of the wider Communion. This means that some form of ecclesial space needs somehow to be created for different visions to shape Christian communities. There are many (nobody knows how many) who wish to go down the path of Wales (blessing same-sex unions including civil marriages) or Scotland (solemnizing same-sex marriages in church) but there are many strongly committed to Lambeth I.10 teaching and opposed to those developments. The question is therefore what this means for how we structure our life together given the significance and depth of our differences. This is of course the question with which the Communion as a whole has been wrestling since at least the 2004 Windsor Report, although under Archbishop Justin there has been limited focused theological or ecclesial attention to this question, especially compared to that given to it under Archbishop Rowan.
This limited attention to the ecclesiological questions is also a hallmark of the Church of England, but will hopefully begin to be reversed with the publication of “The Gift of the Church.” For some years now, however, the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) has been giving these matters serious thought. First in “Guarding the Deposit: Apostolic Truth for an Apostolic Church” (2017), and then in a more focused theological statement entitled “Gospel, Church & Marriage: Preserving Apostolic Faith and Life” (2018, summarized here), they have presented the case for some form of structurally visible differentiation between the contrasting visions for human flourishing as sexual creatures which are found among Anglicans. Recently this position has come to be understood and presented as encompassing a range of possible structural forms situated between two alternative approaches: continuation and separation. Continuation argues that whatever changes may occur after LLF, the structures of the church should continue as before, whereas separation argues that any changes should bring about a separation (akin, for example, to that of the ACNA in relation to TEC). Differentiation, in contrast, seeks to maintain some degree of shared common life while developing alternative episcopal and perhaps provincial structures related to the incompatible visions of God’s call to holiness.
This three-fold form of response maps reasonably well onto the analysis found in the Church of England’s last major work on “communion across difference.” This is the important 2016 Faith and Order Commission (FAOC) report, Communion and Disagreement, which delineated three levels or forms of disagreement. The LLF course summed these up (they are also explored in the LLF book at pp. 230-4) as follows:
It can help to think of three broad types of disagreement. In the first kind, some Christians warn others they’re contradicting the good news of Jesus or the Bible’s teaching. In the second, the differences are seen as less serious, but still sharp enough to make living and working together as one church difficult, perhaps impossible. In the third, Christians still view each other as wrong, but accept this as a diversity that can be held within a church’s shared life.
The first kind of difference presses us toward separation and the third toward continuation while the second is likely to lead — as seen, for example, in relation to women priests and bishops where our differences have already resulted in C of E bishops no longer being in full communion with each other — to some form of visible differentiation.
The challenge we now face in the Church of England is whether we can agree, across our differences on sexuality, that we need some form of visible differentiation and what form it should take. The Lambeth Conference reminds us that already some have largely separated and so will not attend or have not been invited as bishops of the Communion. It is highly unlikely that the Conference can embody a “business as usual” model of continuation, although some may wish to squeeze it into that mold. One of the challenges will be whether and how the Global South bishops are able to visibly differentiate themselves within the gathering and whether the “consequences” of non-participation in relation to differentiation concerning matters of faith and order will be implemented. The recent Covenantal Structure for the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GFSA) adopted in 2019 and updated in 2021 shows the seriousness with which many provinces are taking the need for “visible differentiation” within the Communion. The year ahead is likely to reveal a similar seriousness among many, particularly evangelicals, in exploring some form of visible differentiation within the Church of England as the regrettable but possibly best outcome following the Living in Love and Faith process.