LLF – Handing on the Baton?

by Helen King

Helen KingHelen King is Professor Emerita in Classical Studies at The Open University and was a member of the Living in Love and Faith project (part of the History Working Group).

These two articles were originally published on Professor King’s sharedconversations blog in July and October 2021, and are reproduced here by kind permission of the author. The original articles can be viewed here and here. Professor King casts a critical eye over the whole LLF process as she’s experienced it. She concludes that there is a wide discrepancy between what’s been promised and claimed for LLF on the one hand and what’s happened (and is happening) in real life.

Handing on the baton? Part 1

I’ve just been listening to today’s ‘Handing on the baton’ presentation to General Synod, taken by the Bishop of London (leading the Next Steps Group) and Dr Eeva John (noble facilitator of the whole LLF thing). Dr John focused on the words which began the LLF process: following General Synod’s refusal to ‘take note’ of GS2055, the Archbishops’ call in February 2017 for a “radical new Christian inclusion”.

Dr John tried to unpick that, rightly noting that for some it is “a troublesome phrase”. She insisted that it means we are all equally human, equally made in God’s image; but, as Marcus Green commented during LLF, the restrictions put on some of us – not able to marry in church, not able to offer ourselves for ordained ministry – don’t give that impression at all. As for “new”, Dr John took that to mean that in the LLF process the whole church has been invited by the bishops to learn with them; that wasn’t what I thought it had originally meant, so I went back to look at that February 2017 document. What the Archbishops wrote then was:

To deal with that disagreement and to find ways forward, we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church. This must be founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it; it must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual.

Going back to the Archbishops’ letter was, however, more illuminating than I had expected. Further down I read this:

We will also be suggesting to the Business Committee a debate in general terms on the issues of marriage and human sexuality. We wish to give the General Synod an opportunity to consider together those things we do affirm.

Now, I’m not currently a member of General Synod, although I do try to keep up with it; but I can’t remember this debate ever happening. Instead, every time there has been a private members’ motion or a diocesan synod motion coming along, or a question posed in the formal Questions section, which has concerned ‘marriage and human sexuality’, the response has been that this can’t be discussed while the LLF process is going on. The General Synod has not had the opportunity mentioned in February 2017.

As for the rest of the joint presentation today, I’m not sure what was new in its contents. We were told about the Pastoral Principles Course published in April to “create braver and safer places” but surely we all knew about that already. The shift from “safe” to “safer” seems like a sad acknowledgement that there isn’t safety; even in the earlier regional Shared Conversations, where facilitators were present to provide safety, plenty of people were bruised. In the short question session allowed after today’s presentation, one Synod member shared this (her words were “verbally battered”). I was interested that Dr John, in response to a question about particular readings of St Paul, commented that LLF “filtered out more left-field views of Scripture” and that we “take serious readings of Scripture seriously”. I’ve registered my surprise that, while queer theology is mentioned in LLF, no queer readings of Scripture are included, but there’s my answer: that these are not considered “serious” readings.

Throughout today’s presentation, though, I noticed the language of ‘we’ and ‘ours’. I have observed this at every stage of the LLF process and I find it no less revealing and no less dangerous now. From the Bishop of London: “our actions” can cause distress; we need to acknowledge “our authority and power”; “how do we as a church make space for…”. Who are ‘we’ here? Thank God, despite everything, there are already people who are LGBTI in the Church of England, including in the House of Bishops. Why is it that, whenever I hear presentations about LLF, they sound as if the cis-het majority ‘we’ are graciously allowing various ‘theys’ to enter ‘our’ space?

Handing on the baton? Part 2

Back in July 2021, I wrote ‘Handing on the baton? Part 1‘ [see above] as a response to the presentation given to the outgoing General Synod on where the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process had then reached. You’ll remember that this all started in 2017, at which point I was a member of the History Thematic Group, supposedly feeding in a historical dimension to the creation of the learning resources. Since then, I’ve been elected to the Synod myself. There isn’t any formal discussion of LLF scheduled at the November 2021 Synod, but there will be an optional briefing session from the Bishop of London and members have all been issued with a new document to bring them up to speed on where we are with the ‘journey’ (a rather over-used image), GS Misc 1306. This has a section summarising the responses to the questionnaire issued to members of the ‘old’ Synod, and the ‘passing the baton’ image is used there too.

Presumably the phrase ‘passing the baton’ was suggested, or at least agreed, by the group of bishops who are now taking LLF forward: called, in another reference to travel and journeys, the Next Steps Group. But it’s now concerning me. The idea of a race has good biblical precedent: it is used in the New Testament by the author of Acts (who mentions finishing the course [Acts 20.24]) and in the epistles, for example in 2 Timothy 4.7 on how ‘finishing the race’ is equivalent to keeping the faith, as well as 1 Corinthians 9.24, where only one runner takes the prize. In a context like that of LLF, where everyone is supposed to be heard, the idea of a prize seems out of place.

I’m not a runner, but it seems to me that there are important differences between LLF and a race. In a normal race, the course is marked out; you know where the finishing line lies. That doesn’t seem to be the case with LLF. Briefly, when we began in 2017 after the failure to ‘take note’ of the report GS2055, it was clear; the finishing line, in the sense of the date when the report was to be completed, would be summer 2020, ready for the Lambeth Conference. But even then it was less clear where the finishing line would be in the sense of the Church taking decisions on the questions which led to LLF, questions which in in GS2055 were all around equal marriage. That finishing line has continued to shift and shift; part of that was due to Covid and to the postponement of the Lambeth Conference, and it’s my suspicion that the latest timeline’s schedule for issuing a report on how participants responded to the LLF course reveals that the bishops want that to happen only when Lambeth 2022 is safely over. The distance over which this ‘race’ is run goes on being extended.

I am a realist. I know that when LLF started, we were making up the plan as we went along. There couldn’t be a clear list of topics for a publication until our discussions began, and for some time there wasn’t even agreement over whether there should be a ‘big book’ or something more accessible as the output. Over the course of 2017–2020, things kept changing. The initial concept for the book was to have something on where society and the church are ‘now’, with an explanation of how we reached that; then, a section on how God communicates – at one point, in that time-honoured Church of England tradition of things beginning with the same letter, that was going to be Creation, Canon, Church, Context, Conscience – and then a section on being human. That final section moved more and more towards being about humanity as fallen and then redeemed. You may well wonder how a document on equal marriage became such a huge project.

If there is a baton to pass on, it has changed its shape many times over the process. At one point, the book was drafted so that the story of the road to Emmaus provided the overall shape; at another point, one of the eucharistic prayers became the framing device. This all felt awkward; trying to fit everything into one of these frames obviously changed the content and its emphasis, but we were told that some bishops thought the book should tell the story of salvation more fully, and it’s the bishops’ teaching document.

When you pass the baton in a relay, you don’t change the baton and you don’t change the race length at the same time. Yet even at this (supposedly) late stage, there is the proposal to add in more resources: one of them, a resource called The Gift of the Church. What’s that? I’d no idea until I saw the document which forms the basis of GS1306, which tells me that it “encourages theological reflection across the church about what it means to be church in the light of the LLF process and the questions it raises. It also aims to ensure that the work of discernment and decision-making is biblically, theologically and experientially grounded in what it means to be church”. Who’s writing it? From the minutes of the Next Steps Group meeting of 29 September 2021, apparently the Next Steps Group and the Faith and Order Commission, with unspecified “others”.

Another addition is “an annotated bibliography relating to gender identity and transition”, even though trans Christians have argued against going ahead with this now. The letter from Revd Tina Beardsley of Changing Attitude England to the Bishop of London, summarising the current situation for trans people, has been published on the Unadulterated Love blog. Who is this bibliography for? Does anyone need it, bearing in mind that the LLF book has already discussed what it is to be trans and that, as Tina points out, the Church’s position on ordination and marriage of trans people is clear? Why problematise this group now? Tina has offered a training session to the Next Steps Group and, as for a bibliography, I’d have thought a simple recommendation to read Shon Faye’s book, The Transgender Issue: An argument for justice (2021), would suffice.

If this is a race, the losers still seem to be people who identify as LGBTQI+. The bishops-only Next Steps Group has a more diverse advisory group but it isn’t clear whether this has even met. At the moment, the involvement of LGBTQI+ people in this process has moved from minimal to apparently non-existent. It feels to me like the baton is just being passed between white cis-het people, while the race continues to be extended.