Living in Love and Faith? The Church of England’s discernment process on marriage and sexuality owes too much to the spirit of this post-modern age

Feb 23, 2021 by

By Tom Parsons, for Anglican Mainstream:

The Church of England has just embarked on a denomination-wide process ‘to learn together about how the Christian understanding of God relates to questions of identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage.’

The Living In Love And Faith process (LLF) was announced in 2017 after clergy in the General Synod voted down a House of Bishops report that affirmed the biblical and traditional view that a marriage can only exist between a man and woman. Chastened, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, called for ‘a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church.’

A co-ordinating group, along with four working groups, has since produced resources to facilitate study and prayer throughout the mother province of the global Anglican Communion. Discussions will take place across the dioceses before the issues are formally debated during the 2022 General Synod.

The resources were launched in November 2020. They amount to a vast repository of contemporary thinking on the relevant topics. The subject focus of the four working groups gives a sense of the breadth of approach: Biblical Studies, Theology, History, and Social and Biological Sciences. All the materials are freely available online – scholarly articles, podcasts, videos, a course and a 450-page book. They range from personal testimonies to academic papers from scholars as senior as Judith Lieu and Walter Moberly.

I’d like to highlight some positive features of the process, raise a concern, and then explore some implications.

There is something admirable about LLF as a concept. As far as I know, no other denomination has intentionally involved so many in its attempt to resolve these sorts of disputes. This is evidence of a passionate concern for unity.

The process is guided by six pastoral principles: ‘Acknowledge prejudice; speak into silence; address ignorance; cast out fear; admit hypocrisy and pay attention to power.’ These have evidently been applied. All views are treated with respect. The book is even-handed in its presentation of diverse arguments. The videos give voice to a wide range of opinions and the podcasts demonstrate the possibility of gracious discussion among people who hold opposing convictions.

I often look to that great Anglican Evangelical forebear, John Newton, for wisdom. In a letter addressing the hazards of controversy, he comments, ‘Controversies, for the most part, are so managed as to indulge rather than to repress [the] wrong disposition…’ But LLF appears so managed as to foster a humble disposition. In presenting all sides of the various debates and urging us to listen to those we disagree with, it challenges us to silence the self-congratulatory inner voice. LLF is a summons to humility and unity in a conflict that could easily enflame the opposite. Is this a holy audacity, inspired by the Spirit of God?

Or is the process animated more decisively by the spirit of this post-modern age? Post-modern principled uncertainty can look very much like Christian humility. My concern is that, as a project, LLF owes too much to that relativistic impulse, even if authentic Christian virtue inspired many of its individual contributors. I suggest that the process relativises all views, deconstructs ethical certainty and forecloses the possibility of a definite outcome.

All views have been well represented. I am satisfied that my position is accurately described. But the cumulative effect of setting out all opinions with painstaking even-handedness, without evaluation, is to relativise them all. By implication, no argument advanced so far can be considered sufficient to carry the day. The Church has been unanimous for nearly 2000 years that the Scriptures define marriage as the union of male and female. Yet this ‘view’ is presented as one partial, provisional, relative insight alongside others.

There is, however, one viewpoint that escapes the relativising treatment. One unarticulated agenda sits above the fray, unexamined, holding court. I’m referring to the stance of the LLF convenors. I feel I am grieving the spirit of the project by suggesting that they have one. (I think that’s how I am supposed to feel). But the pastoral principles encourage participants to be attentive to power. And if post-modern hermeneutics have taught us anything, it’s that it would be naïve not at least to wonder whether there is more on the author’s mind than is explicitly acknowledged. An assertion of power, perhaps? We will return to this theme.

The process presents itself as a journey of discernment that seeks God’s guidance towards a point of resolution that lies beyond any position yet advanced. But there is little to suggest that such an outcome is conceivable, let alone possible. True resolution will depend on hearing God’s voice. But the LLF book doesn’t address the crucial question of how we can be sure we have heard it. This silence may reveal more about the process than its tens of thousands of words.

Six chapters are devoted to the ways the church can hear God speak to us: supremely in the Bible; in the Church; through creation; cultural context; experience and conscience; and through prayer and guidance.

The chapter on the Bible ends with an extended reflection on Romans 14 in which St Paul instructs church members to cut each other slack over practices that some deem acceptable and others don’t. Why did the LLF process leaders offer this biblical text for reflection? Paul wrote other passages that relate to differences of opinions among believers. They could have offered an exposition of Galatians 2 instead! Arguably that high-stakes Bible chapter better reflects the significance the apostle attaches to sexual purity. But the choice of Romans 14 reveals a prior assumption that our current dispute is not of such great consequence. It would be legitimate, therefore, for the Church of England to exercise gracious mutual tolerance, or ‘good disagreement,’ in these contested ethical matters.

The chapters that follow the one on the Bible make it clear why the Romans 14 approach is not only legitimate, but inevitable. They give the impression that certainty about sexual ethics is unattainable. Each concludes that there is ‘no short-cut’ to hearing God’s voice, ‘no quick route’. We must commit to an ongoing re-reading of Scripture in ongoing dialogue with others and ongoing attentiveness to all modes of revelation. It begs the question, for how long? The prospect of hearing Christ’s authoritative voice is postponed indefinitely. In the meantime, we ought lovingly to disagree.

And this ‘ought’, though implicit, has considerable force. Who dares claim to have heard God’s voice for sure? Certainty can only reveal an insufficient grasp of the complexity of the issues and/or a failure to love and to listen attentively to others. That’s a double shame to bear: an intellectual and moral disgrace. It’s a high price to pay for holding a definite position. Many good and thoughtful people will read the resources and, fearing the shame, opt for nothing more definite than a tentative opinion and a willingness to move forward in ‘good disagreement’.

I’d like to return now to the theme of power, and specifically to suggest what might be on the minds of the denominational authorities behind the LLF process. It would be disingenuous to overlook their expressed intention to discern God’s voice. But it would be naïve not to suspect that they are hoping that God will guide us to embrace an ongoing state of ‘good disagreement’. It seems they believe that they can only hold the Church of England together if everyone accepts the impossibility of knowing for sure what God thinks about these matters. Some will perceive in that a supreme concern for spiritual unity, others, a managerial agenda. Whatever their motive, the method they have employed owes at least as much to a post-modern ethos as to the Holy Spirit.

That is my concern with LLF. Before drawing some evaluative implications, integrity requires that I explicitly state that I am certain – yes, I admit it! – that Scripture calls all believers to one of two honourable estates: to God-focused celibacy or to Christ-serving marriage with a member of the opposite sex. With that out in the open, here are three implications that arise from using this post-modern means to secure the Church of England’s future, the first ethical, the second political and the third theological.

First, embracing post-modern uncertainty as a means of uniting the church undermines future ethical clarity on any controversial subject. More pointedly, it begs the question of whether it will ever be possible to maintain the church’s received biblical stance when the prevailing culture of the educated elite challenges it.

As culture changes, new visions of human flourishing gain emotional power. Particular personal stories, viewed with little sympathy in one generation, may resonate with authenticity in the next. And there will always be voices within the church calling for received biblical interpretations to be revised and brought in harmony with the new cultural mood music. That is not to prejudge the rightness, or otherwise, of these future developments. But it does highlight the danger of the LLF approach. If we must resort to a studied ethical agnosticism in the face of today’s culturally resonant issues, is there any point at which the Church of England could conceivably stand with conviction against powerful cultural movements? For example, polyamory looks set to gain increasing societal sympathy. Once that becomes a matter of heartfelt conflict in the church, will we be so certain that having multiple sexual partners is against the will of God? The LLF precedent will make that certainty hard to sustain.

Second, the political outcome of the process is likely to be the opposite of the one intended. LLF fosters uncertainty, and thereby implies that the truth of these matters is – at best – beyond our grasp. The process’s convenors want to settle this without determining precisely where the truth lies. Nietzsche tells us what’s left behind when there is no truth to play for: a power game. The LLF strategy all but guarantees that the issue will be settled by acts of political power, organisational influence, legal threats and emotional manipulation. It’s ironic that LLF has sought to prevent a political power struggle in the Church of England by means that make this outcome more likely.

Third, there are profound theological consequences: can the Lord Jesus Christ meaningfully be said to govern a Church that has embraced post-modern epistemology? He could conceivably comfort, heal and enrich it. But challenge, confront and rebuke it? Can he command its obedience? Is he Lord of a church that has adopted a principled reticence to admit even the possibility of being certain of what he requires?

At one point the LLF book describes ten complementary ways Christians think about sin. Strikingly, that list does not mention the structure of the first sin. It was a defiance of God’s spoken word. When the serpent asked, ‘Did God really say?’ he was inviting Adam and his wife to deliberate on a command that was clear enough already. It awaited obedience, not further clarification.

Scripture’s basic teaching on many of these controversial topics needs little further clarification either. Therefore, the conversation we should be having is about how to help one another find joy in obedience. What can we do to address marital problems in the course of ordinary church life? How can we best enable celibate same-sex-attracted sisters and brothers to flourish? What can we say to help those struggling with their gender to find their God-given identity, body and soul, in Jesus?

Instead, we are embarking on the LLF process to discern God’s will. I intend to take a constructive part. I fear, though, that the Church of England has been in ‘Did God really say?’ territory on issues of sexuality and marriage for some time. Despite many positive qualities, LLF risks extending that ill-fated dialogue indefinitely.

Tom Parsons is Vicar of Christ Church, Sidcup



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