Living in Love and Faith – What the Church of England Really Thinks

by Nic Tall

Photo of Nic Tall at General Synod
Nic Tall at General Synod
Nic Tall is a member of the C of E’s General Synod, and also part of The Campaign for Equal Marriage’s organizing group. In this article he analyses the recently published report on the feedback from the LLF Consultation (see here).

After years of reflecting, talking and not making any decisions, we finally know what the people of the Church of England really think about Living in Love and Faith (LLF). The process begun in 2017 has involved thousands in the Church learning together about sexuality, gender and identity, with a reluctance by the institution to make any formal decisions regarding LGBTQI+ people until LLF had run its course.  Participants in the course were invited to give feedback through a variety of means, which most did through an online questionnaire. And now the results of that consultation have been published.

Before I look at some of the detail, here are the main headlines:

  • Most want the acceptance of same-sex marriage or blessing of same-sex partnerships.
  • There is a strong desire across all Church traditions and perspectives for the Church to be more welcoming.
  • There is a willingness to acknowledge a diversity of views and to aim to keep the Church together.
  • The Church now looks to the bishops to give clear, bold leadership and bring us to a position of clarity so we know where we stand.

Whatever else is said about Living in Love and Faith and the views of ordinary people in the Church, these are the main views that have been established. The report on the LLF feedback should not be underestimated: it is one of the largest consultation exercises the Church has ever held with its members. Around 6400 responded through the questionnaire, a very strong result. Polling companies normally use a base of 1000 people to accurately represent the views of thousands or millions, moving up to 2500 when they want to sharpen their accuracy even more. While the LLF consultation is not designed as a poll, the results are a reliable representation.

I also offer a word of caution as you hear from different commentators, all with their own agendas, trying to summarise the feedback report for you. There are two reports, the main report of 95 pages and a technical report with more detail extending to 154 pages, so there is a lot to digest. The methodology does not give many hard numbers, preferring to summarise different points of view and illustrate them with quotes. It would therefore be easy for a partisan commentator to cite a quote here, a comment there and represent it as a majority finding in the report. This would not be a fair representation, and we should acknowledge most quotes are there to ensure that different opinions can say they have been adequately represented. In summing up, the text usually keeps things vague – “some said this”, “some said that” – making it hard to discern a trend. But when it starts talking about “most people” or “the majority”, contrasting with “a few”, we can be sure that a clear position has emerged, and it is those majority positions that I have drawn out as headlines above.

So who replied? Most were typical of the average church member, the majority being heterosexual, married and older (83% were aged 45 and above). This demographic tends to be more socially conservative in outlook than the average, which makes their views of wanting a more welcoming church offering same-sex marriage or blessings stand out even more.

Given the investment in time and money that the Church has put into the course, there were many questions asking about the course experience. On the whole participants appreciated taking part, although few were led to a wholesale change in their point of view. Most of the learning appeared to be refining a previously held position while also gaining a greater understanding of and sympathy with different points of view. Among the course materials, the story videos were found most helpful, once again underlining the point that it has been taking people’s real lived experience seriously that has been lacking in previous debate. Following on from the course, many felt more connected with those they had studied with, and there was an appreciation of being able to talk openly, even when there were different views present in the room.

But the LLF course wasn’t run so that we could have a nice experience of studying together, it has been trying to help us collectively figure out how to move forward from the impasse with regard to sexuality. And it’s here that we can draw some significant conclusions about the hopes of the Church of England. These are the “a majority said” bits of the report.

The Church of England wants to move on, and have a clear decision so we know where we stand. The Church has been stuck here for too long, and regardless of their theological persuasion everyone wants to move out of the impasse – can anyone want another few decades obsessing about sexuality? But it’s one thing to want a clear decision, it’s something else to say what it should be.

Here, perhaps surprisingly, there is a strong view from the majority who hope LLF will lead the church to accepting same-sex marriage or blessing same-sex relationships, with only a small number voicing opposition. Remember that the majority responding are older, married heterosexuals, who are usually more socially conservative than most. This outcome confirms previous research by the Ozanne Foundation that found 55% of self-identifying Anglicans supporting same-sex marriage, a result which increases to 72% among the under 50s.

This desire for positive change follows through in the many responses that “show a widely held desire for the Church to be welcoming to all. This desire for welcome is shared by those with otherwise diverse views.” Through hearing the LGBTQI+ experience first-hand, many have realised the hurt that has been caused and can now see that our current situation is unsustainable. While there might still be differences between those who wish to be welcoming and those who aim for full inclusion, the motivation for change in a more positive direction for LGBTQI+ people cannot be denied. This outcome of the LLF process should not be lost.

There is also a strong finding that the Church wants to stay together, that there should be room made for differences of opinion. This is important for the majority wanting greater inclusion to remember. While the church wishes to move forward, there is a small but vocal group that feels threatened by this change. Respondents hope that there will be accommodation made to allow diversity within the church, and that a mutual respect arising from learning together will be a foundation for this. I would stress, however, that mutual respect needs to be genuinely mutual, and unless traditional voices opposed to same-sex marriage can acknowledge the considered view of the majority, and the majority allow variance for those with traditional views, maintaining unity will be challenging. This widespread desire to stay together will require the bishops and General Synod to steer a careful way through to deliver inclusion for the majority while respecting the right of others to disagree. This is the position of inclusive groups such as the Campaign for Equal Marriage in the Church of England who maintain that the consciences of everyone should be protected. In practice this means that no member of the clergy should be forced to conduct a marriage they disagree with, and no member of the clergy should be prevented from celebrating the marriage of a same-sex couple.

So there is a desire for change, and to move towards a more inclusive position while respecting difference and striving for unity. One last point arising from the research is the role that the bishops have to play in all this. For five years most bishops have been silent, observing a collective responsibility not to undermine the LLF process through public pronouncements. The clergy and laity have been left to get on with it, which has given  space to engage unhindered by episcopal pronouncements, but this has also left a silent vacuum of leadership that has offered little public support for LGBTQI+ people. LLF has now reported, and there is a broad desire for the bishops to declare where they stand. The usual trope of being silent to maintain unity is no longer viable for our bishops, the whole Church is now looking to them for leadership.

In conclusion, LLF has finally reported what the majority of the church think, there has been a solid response and it is good news for those who wish for an inclusive, open, affirming church. After years of debate and engaging across boundaries there is a desire to move out of the current impasse. The Church wants its bishops to lead us to become a more welcoming, inclusive and affirming place for LGBTQI+ people. Many want equal marriage and the celebration of faithful LGBTQI+ relationships, with protection for those who in full conscience cannot walk that path. The Church of England has done what it has been asked to do and it has spoken clearly. Now it is time for our leaders to lead.