This whole Living in Love and Faith thing is huge. A 450 page book, a 5 week course, and 50 or so detailed scholarly papers online in a library, plus 30 hours of videos and podcasts. Not only that, but there is already an array of initial responses and comments from various bloggers and tweeters. So it’s hard work keeping on top of all this.
Overall, I want to say this: Ultimately, there is absolutely nothing in LLF which warrants a change in the Church’s doctrine or practice. It simply fails to present a sufficient case to justify revision, if that’s what some were hoping it would do. The clearer our feedback to the process of discernment on the back of this, the better.
Chewing gum for food
At a meeting I was at with various contributors to the LLF material, a bishop said that we need to keep looking at God’s word on this subject, because “obviously we have not done a good enough job yet.” We need to climb down from our positions and listen to each other, she said, hold our convictions provisionally, and keep learning. This sounds nice, and it is obviously a good thing to look at God’s word. But I was reminded of Paul telling Timothy that some people will be always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 3:7). It is a characteristic of false teachers to always give us chewing gum in place of food.
I don’t know what that bishop teaches on this subject specifically, so that’s not directed at her in particular. But the thing is, we’ve had quite a number of reports and statements from the Church on these subjects over the last 40 years or so: Homosexual Relationships in 1979, to Issues in Human Sexuality, and Some Issues in Human Sexuality, the Pilling Report just a few years ago (2013), Synod motions, Lambeth Conferences, Pastoral Statements by the Bishops. I’ve got a shelf full of this stuff and books from various perspectives published in between. I don’t think we can be accused of not having considered the issues recently, or of having adopted positions without some thought.
Living in confusion
The LLF book does make a reasonable effort to present different opinions on these subjects in a way that is respectful and clear. It rehearses differences quite well, and helps unpack why some conversations on all this go the way they do. So I do think it can succeed in helping us have an informed discussion on issues of sexuality, if we don’t know much about it already or haven’t heard the other side of an argument articulated well.
It’s not very good at assessing the validity of different arguments though, or analysing them to see if they are true or not. So on the usual biblical texts about sexuality, we read “The traditional view is this…” We get a reasonably fair presentation of what has usually been said on Leviticus and Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 and so on. Just as it is reasonably clear that there are “deep roots in Christian thinking” for the idea that some aspects of human experience now are actually due to the Fall and our brokenness as sinners, and not something to be celebrated as part of God’s good creation. But then we are told that “But some argue…”, or “Some have said…” And we are told what Queer theologians or gay activists have said as well.
The opposing views are not referenced very well — there’s only one commentary cited in the footnotes (Augustine on Genesis), and that is not even to make an exegetical point but to urge Christians to know their surrounding culture. So it’s hardly an in-depth engagement in exegesis. This is disappointing because there are lots of footnotes elsewhere, to some very in-depth and esoteric material. If this was the answer to an essay question at theological college — “What does the Bible say about sex and marriage?” — it wouldn’t get very good marks, because it doesn’t seem to engage very deeply. In the book at least — there are some more scholarly papers in the online library of resources, which do perhaps do some of that work. So maybe we will be told that the LLF book is not meant to be for engaging with scripture in depth. Which is a bit disappointing when there are so many pages.
There’s little in the way of assessment of these apparent “He said, she said” scholarly arguments. So many readers will be left confused. You may know what it’s like when you have a homegroup Bible study on a difficult text, and everybody shares all their opinions and ideas on it, and then just throws their hands up to say “Well, how do I make a decision?! How do we make sense of all this disagreement?!” That’s how many will feel on reading the biblical engagement in the book.
That’s why many will jump on the exposition of Romans 14 immediately after the usual texts on sexuality have been surveyed.
“The striking thing is that Paul makes no attempt to resolve the difference between these groups, as though one position were right and the other wrong. Rather, he appears to recognize that certain differences among Christians may be intractable, incommensurable, irresolvable. Therefore his concern is how Christians should live with differences of principle and practice.”
So we are all meant to bear with each other when we disagree. As if all this was a secondary issue like whether and how we should celebrate Ascension Day or All Souls Day, or whether we should be vegetarians.
That’s a convenient and attractive solution: make this a Romans 14 “debatable issue” issue. It just seems to me that the Bible might say more about how we handle false teaching on issues of human salvation. Because what we do with our bodies affects our salvation. “You are not your own. You were bought at a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). The Bible says that certain behaviours such as theft, swindling, slandering or reviling others, and yes, having sex outside of heterosexual marriage, will exclude a person from the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
So we might listen to those preaching a different idea about entering the kingdom of God, and give them a fair hearing. But not simply to be addicted to hearing the latest thing (Acts 17:21) or to snigger at puerile twists on Bible verses. Rather, we must be like the more noble Bereans, and examine what people say in the light of the Scriptures to see if it is true (Acts 17:11).
LLF contains almost 600 question marks, many of which are not followed by answers. It’s good at mapping out the terrain of this discussion, in a clear way. It’s well written for the most part. But it’s good at throwing up dust to confuse and bewilder and exasperate. It’s good at stimulating, but not so great at giving solid food. Loving others means listening and learning — true. But loving means teaching and warning as well. That’s the task set before us still, on the back of this book.
With the video resources that go alongside the book, I have other worries. I worry that we are being pushed towards accepting the ultimate authority not of the scriptures, but of the self. We’re seemingly being coaxed into accepting the overpowering rule of emotions and experience. And we’re being led into a subjective and pluralist view of truth. I tell you my truth, you tell me yours, and we agree to co-exist with our value pluralism and not challenge it.
But that’s not the only response we can give this. I think it is worth engaging with the “process of discernment” in the next 6 months or so, from an evangelical and orthodox point of view — if we are clear up front that we don’t accept the presupposition that all truths are equally valid. All ways of looking at the Bible or at human experience are not equally valid.
Why engage with this discussion in our dioceses and parishes? Because the gospel is not something to be ashamed of. It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). And how can people hear the life-changing gospel unless someone proclaims it to them, with graciousness and uncompromising kindness?
Paul said to Timothy that the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome, but those who oppose him he must gently instruct (2 Timothy 2:24-25). He didn’t say “Don’t bother having a conversation with someone who disagrees with you, because that’s what they want!” I’m glad Paul didn’t do that himself, in the places he evangelised. And I’m glad people didn’t leave me in my ignorance and error, but tried to argue and persuade and teach me the truth.
At a time of national crisis with Covid-19 and the economic impact of that, as well as persistent decline in churchgoing and imminent diocesan bankruptcies, we need more arguments over sexuality like we need a hole in the head.
But LLF is meant to be different. When I asked some of those involved in it what exactly is different, the main answer was that LLF will now enable us to have healthy and much better ways of talking about these things. Maybe so. As I say, the book is well written and does help map out various issues that exist. But it is also worth noting that leading advocates of doctrinal and practical change have already taken to social media to call it homophobic and harmful, and to start raising money to put advocates of traditional teaching on trial for their abusive teaching. That is, I don’t think many of them really want to have a conversation where the gospel hope for all fallen sinners is allowed to be spoken. They want that silenced. Let’s not do what they want.
Ultimately, as I said before, there is absolutely nothing in LLF which warrants a change in the Church’s doctrine or practice. It simply fails to present a sufficient case to justify revision. The clearer our feedback to the process of discernment on the back of this, the better.
One leading liberal said last week that this is all just an attempt to delay progress on LGBT equality in the church. LLF is homophobic in its very structure and promotes anti-gay voices, they said. LGBT people should not engage with the content of LLF. It’s just a trap that leads to delay. Instead, they should expend their energy in getting elected to Synods and committees and passing motions in them to effect actual change on the ground.
For them, this is about exerting power, not searching for truth. I do think we should seek to get people on those Synods and committees who will preach and preserve the truth, for the sake of the lost who Jesus came to seek and save. Yet if we don’t speak the truth in love, but simply turn up to vote and pit our political strength against the opposition, do we not show that we have no confidence in the truth itself, and are no better than the campaigning liberals?
Hope for the church
Finally, let me say this. One thing I would have liked to see more of in LLF is original sin. The 39 Articles are quoted — Article 20 gets wheeled out a few times, and that’s good. It says the Church should not ordain things contrary to God’s word. Wonderful. But what about Article 9? This is not quoted or cited in the footnotes:
“Original sin stands not in following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk,) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of everyone who naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby we are very far gone from original righteousness, and are of our own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusts always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserves God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature remains, even in those who are regenerated… And although there is no condemnation for those who believe and are baptised; yet the Apostle confesses that concupiscence [sinful desire] and lust has of itself the nature of sin.” (Updated English)
I would also like to have heard from Article 11, which reminds us that “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort.”
Let’s bring that good old Anglican message of hope and comfort to the Church of England.
All of us have fallen short. None of us are spiritually straight — we are all bent towards sin.
We are more sinful than we could ever imagine, but more loved by a gracious God than we could ever dream.