The Church of England has released it’s latest big thing on sexuality. I say ‘thing’ because bluntly Living in Love and Faith is not really a report, but rather a suite of resources including a book, a course, some videos, and a library of other ‘things’. It’s not entirely clear what it adds to the ongoing conversation about sexuality and Christian spirituality, but there has been a large investment of time and resource, and so it is worth commenting on from the perspective of being a Christian and a sexual being living in the UK (Where the Church of England is the established church, and so despite not theologically being an Anglican, it will affect me in a variety of ways).
So, just in case anyone is asking (and it’s highly unlikely that you are, so this is at least in part for my own future reference), here is one non-conformist perspective on Living in Love and Faith. It should go without saying that this perspective is mine and mine alone. I think there are three things to praise God for, three things to pray for, and three things that are missing.
Three things to praise God for
- Firstly, the official teaching of the Church of England has not changed. Some agitators wanted a revision of the church’s teaching – LLF does not provide this. This, in my view, is a good thing, and Christians should thank God for preserving the doctrine of the Church of England in this.
- Secondly, the Bible is important, and largely well-handled. Whilst not exclusively a theological publication, my brief skim of the material (well, the book, and a glance at various other resources) does seem to focus on the Bible, and also to handle it well. For example, the book is honest regarding the awareness of Paul (in Romans 1:26-27) of same-sex sexual relationships – rather than perpetuating misinformation.
- Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the value and dignity of every human as being made in the image of God is key to the ‘thing’. Whilst it might not be fully engaged with the state of theological scholarship and reflection on this vital doctrine – more in my eventual review of the book, perhaps – it is good to see this affirmed explicitly, for both the LGBTI* folk who have so often been demeaned, and those who are (like me) apparently on the wrong side of history.
Three things to pray for
- Firstly, LLF reveals the deep division within the Church of England. I think it is important to pray for those within the Church of England who dissent from it’s current teaching. Personally, that means that I am praying for people to have their minds changed by the Holy Spirit, that the Church of England might come to a unity in truth around this issue, and move on for the mission it exists for: the conversion of England.
- Secondly, the evangelicals and other orthodox/traditional folk in the Church of England. Some might be tempted to leave – feeling that LLF represents a further boiling of the frog of orthodoxy in the hot water or cultural compromise – but arguably LLF does not justify that. I think Andrew Goddard’s 10 things to note are helpful here.
- Thirdly, for other movements (including my own Vineyard ecclesial home, for example) to also ‘hold the line’ on this issue, as it relates to the authority of Scripture and the counter-cultural call of the Holy Spirit to sanctification and Christlikeness. John Wimber, one of the founding figures of the Vineyard movement once said ‘come as you are, don’t stay as you are’ – and this remains, I think, a poignant and prophetic summation of what the call of Christ is to all of us.
Three things that are missing
- A positive vision for sexuality/articulation of the church’s teaching. I will hopefully be able to revise this point once I’ve read the book fully, but thus far I don’t see LLF as having clearly and joyfully articulated the church’s historic position. There is no succinct and exciting ‘better story’, which feels a shame to me, at least. As Todd Wilson shows in Mere Sexuality, David Bennett argues in A War of Loves, and Glynn Harrison invites us to consider in A Better Story, there is a distinctive Christian biblical view of sexuality: and it is good. Perhaps another movement, in or outside of the Church of England, will take the opportunity to make the positive case.
- There are two ‘issues’ (though to use the word ‘issue’ is ultimately reductive) that seem, again based on early reading and the reactions of people who know what they are talking about, which are not well handled. Just as there does not appear to be a consistent positive vision, there does not appear to be a robust discussion of consent, and also sexual violence. Given the ongoing scandals of abuse (both sexual and other forms of abuse of power) this again seems to me to be a major weakness.
- Early concerns have also been raised about the ‘ableism’, or ignorance-of-the-perspective-of-the-disabled-community of LLF. I would argue that there is always a risk in an intellectual exercise like this of not engaging fully in the reality of the human body, and what that can teach us theologically. Arguably this is because honest engagement with the body is complex – with, for example, the phenomena of intersex conditions challenging conservatives like myself, and the genetic coding of male/female challenging some revisionists. The body is a complex thing! Paula Gooder’s little book Body is excellent on this, as is Nancy Pearcey’s longer Love Thy Body.
I am not claiming to have all the answers – all I’m doing is responding from my own perspective to the LLF process and resources as I engage with them. I think it’s important to thank God for his grace in the project, pray into and about the challenges, and be honest about some of the things that need to be covered and engaged with when we talk about sex, identity, and what it means to be be human in Christian contexts.
Sometimes I play a theoretical game – if I were king of the world, what would I do with issue ‘x’? In this case, if I had a few minutes with a movement leader, what would I encourage them to do? How could LLF be made more useful? Here are some suggestions:
- take seriously the concerns expressed about issues of consent, power, the body, sexual violence, abuse, and the ongoing issue of the culture of deference.
- produce some preaching guidelines for those involved in teaching in a church context – both around content (what the teaching of the Church is) and around delivery (sensitivity to difference, awareness of the pervasiveness of complexity, tying it to Scripture both in the micro and macro sense).
- name the elephant in the room: LLF has demonstrated that there are radically different ways of understanding the Bible, let alone what it teaches about anything. I would suggest that the fragmented nature of the Church of England is already de facto schismatic – and it can be dishonest to claim unity when the reality is not unity. I’m reminded of Jesus words in Matthew 10:14, “And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town“. Schism isn’t a good thing – but it is sometimes the right thing to do.
If this has piqued your interest, you might like to see some of the things I’ve written and collected on this topic over the past seven years.
- A Bibliography on Sex and Gender, and A Bibliography on Being Human – two long, annotated lists of books worth reading/being aware of.
- DTLC: Sex. A Three-part longer blog series in which I sketch a theology of sex
- Vineyard USA’s Position Paper on LGBT Relationships – a clear statement of why the revisionist position on the questions that have provoked LLF is so flawed.
- Pondering Pastoral Principles – a blog post about LLF from earlier this year.
- Red Lines and a Better Story – another previous blog post about this sort of thing.
- Wayne Grudem on the Purity of the Church – an extract from the second edition of his Systematic Theology which is helpful for thinking through issues like this, in my view.