A group of liberal clergy and churchgoers who want the Church of England’s teaching on marriage to change to embrace same-sex relationships have written to 34 bishops who they say are “strongly supportive of LGBTIQ+ members of the Church of England”.
The letter has been prompted by two videos, one from the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) and one from Christian Concern, posted shortly after the release of LLF in November. The two videos are of quite a different character.
The CEEC one, called “The Beautiful Story”, includes a wide range of voices, including some who are same-sex attracted, explaining the biblical vision of sexuality and marriage, which is the current teaching of the Church of England. It was produced ahead of the publication of LLF and includes some who contributed to the production of the LLF resources. It ends on a somewhat political note, in that it encourages evangelicals to aim to elect to General Synod people committed to the orthodox biblical position and discusses possible ways that evangelicals might differentiate themselves should the C of E choose to change its teaching.
Liberals have criticised it as indicating an entrenched position and a predetermined resistance to change, rather than approaching LLF as an opportunity to engage and learn. They say it shows CEEC has “set conditions in advance of seeing the book that threatened the safety of LGBTIQ+ participants”.
The Christian Concern video is shorter, and comprises staff member Ben John playing clips from the LLF trailer and commenting on them in terms of what he thinks the video’s content says about the intended direction of LLF and how it relates to the biblical position. This has been criticised in strong terms as constituting personal attacks on those in the video, though it seems to me that he is commenting on the issues the video raises rather than directing any abuse at the participants. Nonetheless, it has been reported to the police as a hate crime.
People on both sides seem to be unhappy with LLF. Liberals criticise it for failing “to propose any changes that would radically change the status of LGBTI people in the Church”. LGBT campaigner Jayne Ozanne has objected to LGBT people being asked to “listen and learn” from “conservative communities of faith”, comparing it to asking a rape victim to listen to a rapist. “It is not only ridiculous – it is downright dangerous!” she writes. She tweets: “Homophobic teaching, no matter how civilly expressed, is both dangerous & harmful. Full stop!”
Conservatives say it dilutes the message of the Bible and undermines its authority, signifying a church on a trajectory of “compromise with secularism and neo-paganism”.
Of the two groups, the conservatives seem at this point most willing to engage with LLF, seeing it as an opportunity to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints, and prevent their Church from sliding into heterodoxy.
The letter to the 34 bishops has been signed by many prominent liberals. It calls on the bishops to re-imagine the LLF process in collaboration with LGBT networks “to enable a process that is safe and constructive for us to pave the way to a resolution to be brought to Synod in 2022”.
It therefore effectively requests them to short circuit the LLF process and fix the outcome – a General Synod resolution for change – in advance. Without that, they say, they will be “unable to be involved with it or support it”.
It is notable there is no similar concerted initiative from conservatives, notwithstanding a few voices advising conservatives not to engage with the process.
The division between conservatives and liberals in the C of E on this issue is becoming very bitter. Liberals are increasingly finding engaging with conservatives intolerable, and resorting to accusing them of being dangerous and reporting them to their employer or for hate crimes. Well-known conservative scholar and commentator Ian Paul told recently how he had been taken through a formal “potentially ministry-terminating” disciplinary process over his views. No action was taken.
Liberals say LLF discussions are unlikely to be safe for LGBT people and many are refusing to engage further without assurances that it will be worth it in terms of producing the desired outcome. A good number of bishops, perhaps even a majority, are broadly orthodox on the issue, and others will be wary of the potential consequences of change. The inertia is therefore strong, and LGBT activists know it.
LLF is a mixed bag. It gives a robust explanation of the biblical view, but does also tend to relativise it as just one point of view and push a let’s-all-muddle-along vision of unity (known as “good disagreement”). The science section is also disappointing as it accepts uncritically the secular narrative that children are not disadvantaged by same-sex parenting; that attempts to change “sexual orientation” do not work and are harmful; and that a high prevalence of mental health problems among LGBT people are caused by social stigma. There is evidence that all these positions are in error (see e.g. the work of Walter Schumm, Stanton Jones and the Core Issues Trust) but LLF makes no attempt to explore this.
Conservatives are right I think to be wary of LLF, and engagement may not always be helpful for the faith of those not equipped to counter the liberal arguments. For a local church, discussions on this issue are likely to open cans of worms leaders might prefer stayed shut.
Even so, the resistance to overt change of teaching in the C of E is likely to be strong among the bishops and in Synod, and conservatives have every reason at this point to think they can succeed in resisting change once again. While engagement will not be for everyone, and there is it should be said a risk of becoming a target of abuse or worse, I think all of us in the Church of England should consider whether God might be asking us at this time to take the risk and take part. It is important to listen to those we disagree with and hear their stories. It is also important to stand up for our faith and what is right. LLF gives us a rare opportunity to do both.