An Open Letter from SCM to the Church of England Living in Love and Faith and Next Steps groups
Dear Siblings in Christ,
The Student Christian Movement is a progressive student-led community, committed to putting faith in action. We represent the voices of many young, progressive Christians, a significant number of whom are Anglicans. We have spent a long time reflecting deeply on the Living in Love and Faith resources, and believe we have a unique perspective as a fully LGBTQ+ inclusive and young Christian organisation. Our voices are important in this discussion as young people are the future of the Church.
When Living in Love and Faith (LLF) was published, we decided, as a movement, that as many of us as possible should read the whole book. We wanted to honour the work of the group and make a thoughtful response. The result was a twice monthly book group, with an open invitation to our membership to join. We read a chapter at a time and discussed it at our meetings via Zoom, making careful notes of our thoughts and feelings so that we could send this letter which we share with you now.
When we started the process in December 2020 we had low expectations, feeling the impossibility of the task. Some of us felt weary of the decades of attempts by the church to engage in the debate, whereas others couldn’t see the sense of getting everyone to sit down at the table to talk. We all agreed that the process required more from LGBTQ+ people than others, since it involved debating their lived experience. We felt conflicted between the belief that LGBTQ+ people shouldn’t have to explain or justify their existence and the need to engage in the debate in order to move forward. However, the book and the process of reading through it was much better than expected.
Living in Love and Faith appears to be the first document on human sexuality to take into account and document peoples experiences, therefore giving a direct voice to people. It was important to hear the personal stories and experiences of LGBTQ+ Christians, to understand why cultural change in the Church is needed and is not simply a matter of abstract debate. Specifically, we appreciated how the book attempts to show a way that we can have this debate, without pitching scripture and doctrine in opposition to the lived experiences of LGBTQ+ people. The people writing the book clearly understand that if the dialogue is not respectful and doesn’t validate people’s theologies and experiences, then it will go nowhere. This explains why the LLF book comes to no strong conclusions about sex, relationships and marriage, but simply encourages us to discuss the matter across the whole Church.
A common theme through the book is that all people who are engaging in the debate are deeply committed to reading the Bible carefully and are seeking to following Jesus more closely. This needed to be stated. For so long, those with affirming theology have been criticised for taking a wishy-washy view of scripture. In acknowledging that all people are committed to the Biblical truth, LLF validates those with affirming theology. It also sets a framework for the debate being one about how we think the Bible calls us to live, to which we come to different conclusions.
We were also impressed at how broad the book is in terms of dealing with a wide range of issues around sex, relationships and marriage. However, we also thought that there were a number of significant topics that were simplified, skimmed over or ignored completely. Notably, we were surprised at how little discussion there was about the patriarchal structure which has shaped the conversation and how, in fact, we can even have a debate about sex, relationships and marriage without properly considering how the patriarchy has shaped those things, and the debate itself – this felt like a massive oversight. We also felt that there was little discussion of intersectionality, which is a pity, as it could have shone a light on the different experiences that people have of sex, relationships and marriage because of class, ethnicity and other identity characteristics. We wondered whether the attempt to be impartial meant that the book doesn’t explore some topics as much as it should.
On a more practical level, we were surprised and impressed at the progressive language being used and by the Glossary, which will help make the complex subject of sex and gender more accessible to those who are engaging for the first time. That being said, we were disappointed by the lack of use of pronouns through the book and the lack of content warnings for sensitive topics that may trigger a strong emotional response for people who have experienced trauma. On a similar note, there are a few occasions where the book takes a very complex and deeply personal story in the encounters section and depicts it as a teaching example. Not only may these stories cause harm to the people reading them, but also have the potential to cause catastrophic harm to the person sharing the story, on the basis that they are so specific that the people and situations could be easily identified. This was an area of deep concern.
After meeting together for eight months, some in our group described feeling more confident in talking about their identity as an LGBTQ+ Christian in church spaces. This was partially due to being in an affirming space where we could safely voice our painful experiences and stories of shame, judgement and rejection at the hands of the church. Others described appreciating the openness and honesty of the group, in which we shared ourselves and gradually parts of our stories. One described feeling such a sense of affirmation of who they are that it ended up being a powerful experience.
Unlike our group, LLF suggests going through the resources or book with a group who share opposing views. We appreciated that meeting and talking with people who share different views is ultimately needed in order to move forward, but expressed concern that in practice, this feels impossible. We also shared deep concern about the emotional demand and strain that this places on LGBTQ+ Christians. It is rightly mentioned in the LLF book that this task requires more of some people than others. We must ensure that LGBTQ+ people particularly are pastorally supported through the process, that their stories are validated and that they are valued as individuals.
Though there are things that could have been done better, we are generally pleased with the LLF book and resources, marking the start of a series of conversations about sex, relationships and marriage that urgently need to be had if the Church is to move forward. The book made us appreciate how complex the issue is and how big the task ahead is. One concern, however, was that the only people that will read this book are those who already have set views and aren’t willing to change, rather than the people who don’t really understand the debate. Another concern was that the church hasn’t used the lessons we learnt from previous struggles in the church (for example with women’s ordination) to inform the LLF process. For these and many other reasons, some in our group expressed more hope in the LLF process than others. However, what we can hope for is that if people enter the process with an open mind and listen respectfully, then maybe the Church will be able to discern a way forward.
We hope and pray that the Church of England will follow the example of the Methodist Conference by allowing same-sex couples to marry in its churches. We recognise that many have deeply held, personal convictions in this area, and that all should be treated with respect. We do not believe that any clergy should be compelled to conduct same-sex marriages if they do not wish to, in the same way that they are not obliged to marry divorcees. Similarly, we understand that many are indeed called to celibacy, whatever their sexual orientation. The extension of the gift of marriage to same-sex couples would in no way undermine this calling, and we hope that these individuals will still find a loving, welcoming community in their churches.
You, the leaders of the Church of England in these matters, have asked for conversation and for feedback. We have answered that call and we come back to you to say we want you to include and beyond that, to celebrate, the LGBTQ+ members of the church and all those beyond its walls who long to know that they are loved by God.
Revd Naomi Nixon, CEO
Louise Dover, Deputy Convenor and LGBTQ+ Lead
To read personal reflections from some members of the reading group, click here. For further information regarding this letter, please contact Revd Naomi Nixon, CEO.