Living in Love and Faith

Living in Love and Faith

As an Anglican priest I have the joy of being a member of my local deanery synod. Our deanery has about fourteen churches in it and the breadth of traditions is more or less covered, with parishes including anglo-catholics, all the way through to conservative evangelicals. The vast majority are middle of the road evangelical, meaning they probably have within their congregations both more conservative and more open or liberal evangelicals.

Like many others in the Church of England, we are starting to engage with the Living in Love and Faith project. The other week we had an introductory session, hearing about the project, the resources available and an invitation and an encouragement to engage with the materials. The aim and hope being that the deanery synod might do the course together, and then report into the diocese on how we’d fared. As I understand it, this is then fed back up to national level.

What I found fascinating was the variety of levels of engagement and awareness expressed within the group. I was expecting there to be a tiredness along the lines of ‘here we go again’. However, at least in my small group, there was both self-confessed ignorance and nervous concern. There were some who, new to deanery synod, had clearly got very little awareness of neither the theology nor the politics of sexuality in the church. Having wondered what I might learn from LLF, this was the new and surprising thing to me, that there might be people in the church not aware of the tensions. Has there been a brushing under the carpet of the issue by those churches that don’t want to face it? Is there an embarrassment of how certain views might look? Is there a fear of discussion leading to upset and disagreement? Is there a concern that ‘taking sides’ might lead to break downs in relationships, whether internally in congregations, or with other churches with whom they might otherwise have solidarity?

Fear, as body therapists know, can lead to fight, flight or freeze. Perhaps the majority in the church would rather not do the first, but the latter options are increasingly inadequate. Of course, fighting won’t help either, but the question then becomes how do we dissipate the fear, so genuine listening and conversation can take place? As I observed, for others, there was concern about this. How do we create safe places for discussion to take place? Being vulnerable in front of strangers is a risky business. How might trust be developed? Exercises, prompts, guidance can be followed on this, and I know there are the ‘pastoral principles’, but it still takes one individual to risk this transparency, and it takes very little for that to be retracted if another demonstrates they are not safe. I suspect this may be one of the biggest hurdles for the whole enterprise, if it is to genuinely lead to meaningful dialogue.   

As in the past, the whole process also raises questions around whether it will lead to a more clearly articulated stance, or whether, once again, there will be little change. Daring to trust the wider process is another element to the dilemma regarding engagement. And this needs be held in tension with some feeling a weariness that we seem to be trudging round the same circle again. My impression is that for many in the LGBTIA+ community and their allies, the psalmist’s cry of ‘How long, O Lord?’ resonates deeply. 

However, what I want to leave you with, is a picture of hope. I think the average age for a member of the CofE is now in their 60s, but not all are that old. My children, involved in our church, will regularly point out whatever is racist, sexist or homophobic, and are not afraid to do so. Recently, to mark LGBT history month, one entered a school competition to make a rainbow cake. Another time, in a school general studies class, one had to organise an imaginary wedding. Unprompted, she designed the whole thing for a lesbian couple. They do this without being self-conscious about it. For them it is straight forward: it is a simple matter of love, justice, and equality. This new generation are not so far off adulthood. There is hope, there is change, and they and their friends will ensure it is fully implemented.

Joanna Winn-Smith