The future before us: Where do we go from here on LLF?


This painful and contested situation cannot continue, for the sake of the proclamation of the Gospel in England and our own integrity and peace as a Church.

These words particularly struck me in a surprisingly un-publicised but important public letter on the LLF process that was released last week. It came from 28 individuals aligned with 17 inclusive organisations within the Church of England and is very self-consciously a response to an earlier letter from 27 individuals aligned with 11 varied networks/organisations (though the size and reach of the respective networks is strikingly different). That preceding letter called for the proposed Prayers of Love and Faith (PLF) to be scrutinised by General Synod under canon B2 meaning they would require two-thirds majority in all three houses to be approved. In contrast, the latest letter rejects the B2 proposal. It urges the bishops to press on and introduce the prayers and to issue “more realistic and humane pastoral guidance” simply on their own authority as bishops. Despite their deep disagreements, I suspect most of those signing the original letter would agree that “this painful and contested situation cannot continue”. We may at last have found consensus! The problem, however, is that we then have very different understandings of where we go from here.

As this most recent letter makes clear (there have also reportedly been two similar contrasting letters written by groups of bishops), we disagree not only on what we now need to do, but how we should do it and why we are in the position we are in. As a supporter of the case for B2 it has been interesting to read and reflect on the response rejecting this pathway in order to understand the concerns of those eager for rapid change. I am struck that much of the letter is backward looking—the first three of its four headings are “Resistance to LLF”, “Misrepresentation of history”, and “The journey to the Prayers of Love and Faith”. In one sense this is helpful and illuminating. It reminds us that among our many differences is how we tell the story of how we got to where we now are. As I have set out in a more detailed engagement with its content herewhile there are some hopeful signs of commonalities I also have a number of significant problems with its account. In at least one case—the claim that “groups like the Church of England Evangelical Council [CEEC] have actively discouraged churches from making use of the LLF resources”—it is demonstrably false. Like the authors, I regret that some evangelicals (like some pressing for inclusion) refused to use LLF, Nevertheless, simply clicking here shows how difficult it is to justify such a strong critical statement as “actively discouraged churches” in relation to CEEC’s response to LLF.

As this misrepresentation—and the blaming of conservatives for the church’s problems—shows, there is the real risk of the letter being guilty of othering and even scapegoating. For example, the earlier letter arguing for B2 is reduced to a campaign “to delay and obstruct” and “simply a political manoeuvre”. That letter’s substance is largely ignored. Its genuine theological and pastoral concerns for how the way in which we proceed legally affects the well-being of the church are not mentioned. There is no recognition that a core underlying motivation is one that I think the inclusive organisations would share: that we need as a church to respect the rule of law and protect against potential abuse of power. In response it is tempting to play a similar game. For example, the letter interestingly provides support for a common conservative argument that the real reason we have ended up where we are is that for decades there has been a disregard for the church’s teaching and discipline due to “a state of dishonesty and hypocrisy in which bishops as well as candidates and those who administer the process are jointly complicit”.

Rather than looking back and rehearsing different narratives, however, I want here to focus on the fourth of the letter’s headings: “The future before us”. I want to do so building on another key statement with which I found myself in strong agreement: that a central gift of the LLF process is that it “is the beginning of a move to a more honest Church”. It appears to me that the honest way to describe how the discernment process following LLF has developed, not least between the February and July Synods, is that we are stuck. The songwriter Paul Simon once described how, when writing “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, he found himself in a situation where “everywhere I went led me where I didn’t want to be so I was stuck”. The problem we face is that it seems that while there is widespread agreement that “this painful and contested situation cannot continue” it is also the case that everywhere we might go as a church leads us to somewhere where a very significant number within the church do not want to be as a church. That is why the present situation is so difficult, perhaps particularly for those who are so eager for change. The situation is made more difficult still by growing uncertainty about, and lack of confidence in, the structures taking LLF forward set alongside wider concerns and mistrust about the church’s current leadership.

One of the reasons we are stuck is that on crucial theological questions—including those of moral theology and ecclesiology—we know that we are deeply divided but we do not know for sure quite how divided we are. The authors refer to the 1987 Synod motion which proved so determinative for subsequent episcopal responses to our rapidly changing culture. The vote there in favour of the current teaching of the church concerning sex being for marriage between a man and a woman (which the motion described as “biblical and traditional”) was an incredible 403 to 8. We do not know the mind of the current Synod on these questions and the House of Bishops itself seems significantly divided on them. In February the bishops seemed ready to proceed apace with the pastoral guidance to replace Issues which had appeared in 1991 and was therefore shaped by that overwhelming 1987 vote. This has not happened despite the earlier commitment and the clear, and not unpredictable, questions put to it by the Pastoral Guidance group to enable progress (see the update to July Synod, GS 2303, paras 16-17). The bishops have not yet provided answers but only been able “to give informal steers” (para 18). A major reason for this appears to be that they themselves are far from being of one mind and they are aware that this is representative of the wider church.

It would appear that there may now be a simple majority (i.e. over 50%) in all three Houses of Synod that wants to reject that 1987 Synod motion and the more recent 2007 one (which the letter seems to have forgotten) that affirms the need for the CofE to be seen as having an unqualified commitment to “the entirety of the relevant Lambeth Conference Resolutions”, including 1998 1.10. It is, however, clear that if there is such a majority then it falls short, probably well short, of a two-thirds majority in some, perhaps even all 3 Houses of Synod. It is also clear that there is no settled consensus as to what alternative to the existing teaching should replace it. The letter makes clear however that for many wanting change the only outcome they will not continue to contest is the introduction of same-sex marriage. Can we be “a more honest Church” and acknowledge that this is where we are as a church rather than people on either side claiming they clearly have the support of the overwhelming majority and are being frustrated by the power plays of those who disagree with them?

The letter supporting PLF is also helpful in relation to becoming “a more honest Church” in another way. It recognises that even though what is currently being proposed are for them only baby steps in the right direction, they would, if implemented, be of great consequence. They would, they note, represent “a new phase of reception”, “a crux”, and “a significant moment which will make some question their place in the Church”. It is precisely in the face of decisions which are of this form that proceeding with only a simple majority has been seen as unwise if we are committed to the unity and flourishing of the church and respect for the fact that the current CofE is only a small part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church across time and space. That is why there are processes, such as two-thirds support across Synod and/or referral to the dioceses (remember the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant?), before taking such steps. It is sad but understandable that calls for using B2 are seen as “obstructive”. The mirror image of this, however, is that the refusal to use B2 for matters which are acknowledged to be so important and clearly relate to doctrine is also seen as bypassing the normal legal and synodical means only because they will not give the desired outcome.

So, where do we go from here? What might it mean to move closer to being “a more honest Church”? 

What if those pressing for change were to acknowledge that they lack the two-thirds support which would normally be required for introducing PLF (unless the prayers were only to be used for those in non-sexual unions which did not claim to be marriage) and that they have to recognise and respect that constraint rather than rejecting the concerns and pleas of those protesting that this well-established principle is being discarded? 

What if those keen to continue to maintain the doctrine of marriage not just in theory but in practice were to acknowledge that a very significant minority, perhaps a simple majority (it seems among the bishops and perhaps across Synod) do not any longer accept that doctrine as it has been understood and applied in the past and that they have to recognise and respect that constraint? What are the implications of many in the church believing that how our received doctrine is now shaping the church’s response to our culture, and particularly how it limits the approved ways in which we “welcome LGBTQIA people”, is damaging and an affront to their consciences?

An appeal to permitting freedom of conscience here is important but it (like the “agreeing to disagree” soundbite) does not get us as far towards a solution as many seem to think or need (I sketch some of the reasons for this towards the end of this article). The letter’s handling of “Pastoral Reassurance” is therefore too limited and far from reassuring to those of us who cannot accept the proposed changes. The reality is that various elements point to the need for more much more thinking and care than appealing to individual conscience. These include:

  • the nature of the issue as touching on doctrine and the definition of sexual immorality;
  • the simple maths that we are well short of two-thirds for change but likely have a majority for change in some or all Houses of Synod;
  • the question being one of the identity of the church to which we belong and whose doctrine its leaders commit to uphold (not simply one of the subjective consciences of individuals);
  • the need to respect the consciences of bishops who wish to continue to uphold current practice in their ministries and among their clergy.

These all signal that some form of structural reconfiguration is going to be necessary if we agree “this painful and contested situation cannot continue” and we want to move beyond being “stuck”. At least one of the signatories has been part of discussions in the past which sought to address these matters and were known as the St Hugh’s Conversations. The Archbishop of York during the February Synod called for “discussions about some kind of settlement”. However, nothing further has been done since then.

Our current situation is undoubtedly “painful and contested”. Read it all in Psephizo