For the past eight months, SCM members, trustees and staff have been meeting regularly to read and discuss the Living in Love and Faith resources. Here, members of the group reflect on their experience.
We started reading the Living in Love and Faith book back when it was published in November and have spent the past eight months reflecting on it as a group. The process has been a challenging, yet engaging time, which allowed us to understand our thoughts and feelings about our faith, our experiences, and our relationship with the wider Church.
I think engaging with this resource as a group has changed me, and it’s given me hope for the future of the Church. Previously, I was not feeling hopeful at all about the painfully slow progress that the Church of England seemed to be making. Having reflected on the wealth of information and stories in the LLF book, I am quietly hopeful that we are moving in the right direction. In the past I have felt like I was continuing to go to church out of spite. Almost like, “you don’t want me here so I’m gonna keep showing up just to be annoying.” Whilst this attitude felt good, it was exhausting. It’s unsustainable and people aren’t designed to be fuelled by anger. I’ve now realised, through the thoughtful and challenging discussions we’ve had as a group, that whilst this anger has a place, it can’t be a basis for my continued involvement in Church. I’ve decided to try and replace it with the hope I’ve found in the resilient LGBTQ+ people and our allies who relentlessly fight for our place in the institutions we love.
For many of my non-Christian friends, the conservative teaching of the Church on gender and sexuality is one of the first things they associate with the church and what they most frequently ask me about. I often struggle to explain to them the breadth of feeling in the church on these issues and how just because someone is involved in the life of the church doesn’t mean they agree with all its teaching. After all, the church is a massively important part of my life and has formed my views on equality, fairness and love as such that the fight for LGBTQ+ equality is important to me.
Reading through Living in Love and Faith with other members of SCM was helpful; many had more direct and personal experiences of these matters than I had. It was important to hear these to understand why cultural change in the Church is needed and not simply a matter of abstract debate, and also to see that they were still committed to the Church so the least that we could do is stand by and support our LGBTQ+ siblings.
What was also important in the book was the way it attempts to show a way that we can have this dialogue understanding people’s approaches scripture and doctrine while not pitching this in opposition to the lived experiences of LGBTQ+ people. The people writing the book clearly understand that if the dialogue is not respectful then it will go nowhere. The nature of LLF as a working Church of England process means it comes to no strong conclusions about gender and sexuality, but simply encourages us to discuss the matter across the whole Church. It is possible that such discussions will occur but no minds will be changed. What we can hope though is that if people listen respectfully and enter the process with an open mind, maybe the whole Church will be able to discern a way forward.
I began attending a Church of England church at the start of my time at university, having been brought up in the Scottish Episcopal Church. Shortly before I moved, the Scottish Episcopal Church began accepting and performing same-sex marriages, and the fact that the church that I attended and grew to love throughout my time at university did not was painful. Despite this, I was not particularly active or up to date on the Living and Love and Faith process, probably because like for many queer people it was exhausting and often demoralising. I didn’t want to engage in a conversation I felt had already been had thousands of times, in particular in my own Church at home.
I was drawn to read the LLF materials as a part of this group by the chance to engage deeply with the different points of view in this debate as a part of a fully affirming group. Whilst I know that ultimately conversations between those of differing views must be had, reading these materials for the first time in an atmosphere where my identity could be up for debate was a frightening prospect. Although this kind of conversation still feels difficult, I feel much more prepared and willing to be a part of them having done this first.
It is important to note that LLF is about much more than the issue of same-sex marriage, and while I am confident there will be points missed, I found it heartening to see so many marginalised groups carefully researched and discussed. This gave me hope that the discussions prompted by these resources will cover the underlying culture in the Church and society that has caused the inequalities we experience today, rather than becoming binary debates on individual issues.
Reading this book was at times frustrating but left me with the impression that a genuine and nuanced conversation within the church will be possible, as long as those at the table recognise the humanity in each other. I also felt the exhaustion in the knowledge that those conversations are often far more draining for people in marginalised communities than for others, and that may be something we need to accept for progress to occur. Throughout our meetings, I could feel my hope and resilience growing, and while we may not be there yet, I have faith that we will be.
Reflecting on my experience of Living in Love and Faith, I came to appreciate the fellowship I had with the other members of the reading group. We shared in a multitude of emotions and reactions to the diverse sections of the material and there was gravity in that.
Firstly, I appreciated LLFs scope at presenting those beyond the societal assumption of LGBTQ, and that the queer community is more than simply gay and lesbian people. I also appreciated the church’s look beyond its own borders to other religions and their place in the consensus of (organised) religion for guidance.
Nonetheless, outside of these two criteria LLF fails to amount to much more than a padded-out pile of waffle. Large portions of the material amounts to nothing much more than a complete waste of time. For example, chapter one fails to prime the reader for what is to come and could really have set the scene for a great piece of learning material. It doesn’t do this. Likewise, as with other publications from multiple authors, I found it difficult to establish the material’s stance on the matters discussed. A good text would expand on the points made at the start of the section, but LLF largely neglects to do so and as a result seems to read as one long soliloquy of conscious thought. I also take issue with the referencing system. There are some interesting sources referenced in the text and it needs to be properly presented in text where the data comes from.
Finally, I would like to mention the online material, and to do so I must stress that the ‘queer argument’ is NOT equal sided and there is power on the side of the church and the cisgender, heterosexual majority which is indeed expressed throughout LLF. Equally, this is no clearer than in the online material that accompanies the book. Some of the bite size audio clips are truly worrying, bringing up distressing situations and stories without any warning and with little empathy for those who might find the content distressing.
Overall, LLF is a much needed step in the right direction if the church wishes to grow in numbers. However, for spiritual growth we need diversity, and if something more substantial and firm in its position for welcoming the LGBTQ+ community doesn’t come along soon the church will find itself in trouble.
Being queer was never a ‘thing’ in the liberal church that I grew up in. So much so, that I never felt the need to ‘come out’ to people in my church or youth group. It wasn’t until I started university and started getting involved in the Church of England’s synodical structure that I began to think about how my faith and sexuality came together. Meeting together as a group of LGBTQ+ (and ally) Christians over the past eight months to read the LLF book has massively helped me to reconcile the two. I now feel more confident in talking about my faith and sexuality in church spaces, knowing that I was made and am loved by God. 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. Unlike our group, LLF suggests going through the resources or book with a group who share opposing views. Though I believe that this is important for some discussions, I am concerned about the emotional demand and strain that this places on LGBTQI+ Christians. It is rightly mentioned in the LLF book that this task requires more of some people than others. We must ensure that LGBTQI+ people particularly are pastorally supported through the process, that their stories are validated and that they are valued as individuals.
I have often felt guilty when I look at the struggles of my queer Anglican friends. While my denomination’s General Assembly still has a fair way to go to achieve equality for all the LGBTQ+ community, we did allow openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to serve in ministry in 1977 and supported the campaign for equal marriage from 2012. As a bisexual cis man, my calling to minister in the Unitarian and Free Christian Churches was never in doubt due to my sexuality. I’ve always had the assurance that my calling to ministry would not be impacted by the sex or gender of the person I might happen to be in a relationship with.
While I was eager to hear about potential changes in the Church of England, I was disappointed not to read in the Living in Love and Faith report anything about how Unitarians and Quakers had campaigned for the introduction of equal marriage legislation and have been marrying same-sex couples for over seven years already. There was recognition that “in some churches developments in doctrine and practice are taking place” but no mention that in some churches these developments took place long ago, and thus little admission that many see the Church of England as being woefully behind the curve. The House of Bishops seem to have missed the opportunity to ask faith communities who have been marrying same-sex couples what their experience of this change has been.
There are also problems with the sexual ethic the report appears to be driving at. For example, “fruitfulness” and the suitability of marriage as a relationship geared towards the raising of children and talked about at some length. However little mention is given to those who choose not to or cannot have children. Similarly, other arguments are given rather short shrift. For example, ‘friends with benefits’ style relationships are dismissed quickly due to their tendency to “involve hidden power dynamics” – an argument made using a somewhat one-sided view of the available sociological evidence (also, are platonic friendships always free of hidden power dynamics?). All is not doom and gloom though – the LLF report does contain some good insights. The fact that societal attitudes are formed by capitalism, colonialism and the global market economy (among other social and economic forces) is clearly not lost on the report’s authors.
Yet, despite this, I have a feeling that Living in Love and Faith is going to look woefully out of date by the end of this decade (if it isn’t already). I think this was a missed opportunity for much needed radical change by the Church of England. Instead, I think the House of Bishops would have been more prudent in commissioning a study about what the church can learn from queer communities, queer people, and queer families. Instead LLF seems to be another report aimed towards ‘solving the problem of the gays’ rather than offering a much needed prospective on why we need to queer the church if we wish it to survive.
Robin Arthur Hanford
This journey has not been what I expected. The prospect of LLF has loomed over us in the church of England ever since it was commissioned. In that context I had heard our bishops in the Church of England reassert traditional ways of interpreting relationships, especially with regard to scripture, and I expected the teaching document to just try and explain it to us again. So when our group of members, trustees and staff set off to read the big book that the committee had produced I saw it as a necessary discipline. In fact, it has been a good thing. I think it brought us closer together, it certainly gave us lots to talk about, and yes, parts of it made us very angry. But we also saw progressive views given room and grace. But most of all we shared ourselves, very tentatively, very slowly, we shared bits of our stories. I felt such a sense of affirmation of who I am that it ended up being a powerful experience. The Church of England is a place of diversity, LGBTQ+ people are already a part of it, learning to celebrate those people, who they are and who they love, is more than just inclusion. It is fully recognising and loving the church we are, just as God does.