By Rosie Dawson
“We are Andrew and Gerhard and we are living together in love and faith.”
The Church of England has published its long- awaited resource, Living in Love and Faith, with the publication of a book and online resources aimed at enabling Christians to explore issues of identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage.
At a press conference, journalists discovered that the timetable for considering the documents and deciding on policy could be as swift as two years.
The Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Rev Christopher Cocksworth, said Living in Love and Faith (LLF) represented a whole new approach to the church’s disagreements and was believed to be the most extensive work in this area by any faith group in the world.
“We needed to get away from a single-issue approach [same-sex relationships]. We need to remember we are talking about people so that even at points of intense disagreement we treat each other well; and we need to learn together about what it means to be a human being and how God wants us to live.”
He stressed that LLF was not a policy document, a set of recommendations or a debate but “an appeal to join an unprecedented human journey”.
The resources include 16 podcasts and 17 short films featuring personal stories. They included Andrew and Gerhard, a married gay couple; Phil and Ici, a mixed-race heterosexual couple with biological and adopted children; and Debbie and Stephanie, who married before Debbie had transitioned to be a woman.
The LLF process began more than three years ago after a highly unusual decision by General Synod in February 2017 not to take note of a House of Bishops report on same-sex relationships.
The Rev Giles Goddard is one of only two members on the co-ordinating group who openly identifies as part of the LGBTI+ community. “What’s new about this process is the way it has brought us into the heart of the Church of England’s conversation,” he said. “I always felt I’ve been on the outside knocking on the window. You can hear the voices of people in a way they haven’t been heard before.”
The Rev Alex Clare-Young, the other LGBTI+ member on the co-ordinating group, acknowledged criticisms by some who felt they were under-represented in the group and in the wider working party of which five out of 40 members are openly LGBTI+.
“Of course there could have been more LGBTI+ people, he said, “but if we focus on that we risk shutting out our voices going forward. A lot of LGBTI+ people didn’t feel safe speaking openly but now feel that we are really being heard. It isn’t the experiences of the co-ordinating group or working party which is heard in these resources but the voices of many many more.”
Dr Eeva John, the Church of England’s enabling officer for LLF, said the resources were an invitation to the church to understand the roots of its differences and to listen to each other well, something that was easier said than done. “The divisions between us are deep and painful. The church has not done this well this in the past. We’ve caused hurt and offence.” She spoke of the need to acknowledge prejudice, address ignorance, admit hypocrisy and pay attention to power.
It will fall to the Bishop of London, Dame Sarah Mullally, to convene the Next Steps Group, made up entirely of bishops, which will oversee the future direction of the process. Bishop Mullally, who also chairs the Church of England’s Covid Recovery Group, said that dealing with Covid must be the church’s first priority but that once the pandemic has passed it must face its divisions over identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage.
She believes that the LLF process “holds the hope of a new approach [but] it will not succeed without love and grace, kindness and compassion. I know that the church has not always been a safe space for the LGBTI+ community. We must embark on a process that is as safe as possible.”
Regarding a timescale for any next steps, Bishop Mullally said she hoped individuals and churches would engage with Living in Love and Faith and respond to it through various channels by the end of November, 2021. She said the House of Bishops would then spend a year considering possible outcomes before bringing them to General Synod.
However, she would not be drawn on what the proposals might be or whether one of them might be to allow same-sex weddings to be conducted in church. “If we focus on decisions we will be closed down in our conversations,” she said.