General Synod, LLF and the mind of the church
In November General Synod will be asked to vote on the way ahead for the Prayers of Love and Faith, and all proposed with it. That is their task as the formally elected body for decision-making in the national church. If they are to do this faithfully and wisely there needs to be some discussion about the relationship between Synod, the LLF process – and what that process has revealed of the ‘mind of the church’ on this.
"there needs to be some discussion about the relationship between Synod, the LLF process
– and what that process has revealed of
the ‘mind of the church’"
The Living in Love and Faith project.
Over the last six years the Church of England has, as a whole, undertaken a quite unique discernment process involving the most extensive theological and pastoral consultation it has ever conducted. This has been a radically new discernment process for seeking the mind of the church, particularly over conflicted issues. It is not surprising therefore if we are now struggling over how take this forward. It is challenging our more familiar, established ways of doing business.
LLF has also presented a challenge to familiar approaches learning in ways we have perhaps yet to recognise. The project, based on shared study, testimony and consultation at every level of the church, was founded on the theological conviction that the Holy Spirit speaks through scripture and the reflections of the whole people of God. Who would actually dispute this principle? But we now have the task of working out the practical realities of this belief. LLF has also been a challenge to traditional expressions of leadership. Here is not directive ‘front stage’ leading, guarding received understandings, or ‘telling’ people what the truth is. It requires standing in the midst, enabling others to think, being alongside them, journeying collaboratively, facilitating the discernment of the mind of Christ within it all.
Recapping – the outcomes of LLF
Feedback was sought and gathered from all those involved in the LLF courses and discussions. These were professionally summarised, and the results published in September 2022. Four things were very clear.
i. The majority want the acceptance of same-sex marriage or blessing of same-sex partnerships.
ii. There is a strong desire across all traditions and perspectives for the Church to be more welcoming and inclusive.
iii. There is a willingness to acknowledge a diversity of views and a desire to keep the church together.
iv. The church is seeking clear leadership from its bishops for to take us forward in the light of these convictions.
This was one of the largest consultation exercises the church has ever held with its members. Around 6400 responded through the questionnaire – a highly significant level of response (for comparison, professional polling companies normally use a base of 1000 people to accurately represent the views of thousands or millions, or up to 2500 when seeking further accuracy). An analysis of the feedback can be found here: https://cofe-equal-marriage.org.uk/llf-what-the-c-of-e-really-thinks/
It was in response to those outcomes that the bishops brought their Pastoral Letter, their apology to LGBTQi+ folk and the Prayers of Love and Faith proposals to Synod (a bundle called G2289 in Synod speak). After a long debate in February 2023, Synod welcomed these proposals by a clear majority (57% in favour. 41% against). It is worth re-reading at least the bishop’s letter again and noting the repeated expressions of joy and welcome in it. “Bishops joyfully affirm, and want to acknowledge in church, stable, committed relationships between two people – including same-sex relationships.” (follow the link at the end of this article).
"It is worth re-reading at least the bishop’s letter again and noting the repeated expressions of joy and welcome in it."
So here we have it. This is the first time that the Church of England had said anything that publicly affirms same-sex marriages, and the first-time liturgical provision has been made for same-sex couples (whether in celibate covenanted or after civil marriage).
The task now facing Synod is how to respond to, and truly represent, the mind of the church expressed through the outcomes of LLF.
The tensions this is throwing up lies behind the debates about the proper route for commending or authorising The Prayers. There are claims that the bishops are by-passing Synod in this process. This can be overstated. It was, after all, Synod who triggered the whole LLF project when they refused to ‘take note’ of the House of Bishop’s paper on sexuality in 2017. We are at this point because of Synodical involvement, not through by-passing it. In fact, Synod has had very considerable input into this issue over an extended period of time. This has included Indaba and shared conversations as well as more formal reporting and regular debates.
The bishops have set out to do what the church required of them. Predictably, it is too little for some and too much for others.
It should also be noted that the mood of LLF was actually for greater change than is reflected in the proposals under discussion.
"the mood of LLF was actually for greater change than is reflected in the proposals under discussion"
There are also claims that this process is being unhelpfully rushed. Well, it is worth remembering that in every one of the last six decades the church has published a major report on, or held significant debates in Synod on, this issue. We have also just completed an extensive six-year churchwide discernment process. It really is very hard to claim anything is being rushed here! But we are now at the point of needing to make some decisions and move forward. We are feeling the pressure of that. So we should be. And there are real time pressures at this point. Though contributory factors include repeated attempts to unhelpfully slow all this down.
We need to move forward in the way the church is asking us too. We need to do this now. We will not get a second chance at this.
There is one other issue. It is widely recognised, and often lamented, that General Synod struggles to be a body that accurately represents the mix and diversity of the Church of England. This is not to deny, for a moment, the undeniably sacrificial commitment and sheer hard work of elected members on our behalf. But the point remains. The time commitments alone means that only certain people are able to offer themselves in this way.
The LLF project represents a much larger, more extensive, pastorally and theologically grounded process of discernment than Synod could ever claim to offer. When has Synod ever had such an extensive and informed resource with which to approach its decisions? It is an offering of the whole church, with love and faith no less sacrificial and demanding.
"When has Synod ever had such an extensive
and informed resource with which to approach its decisions? .... an offering of the whole church, with love and faith no less sacrificial and demanding."
The challenge facing Synod is how to honour and give due weight to the mind of the church expressed so clearly by the people of God through this extraordinary project.
*GS2289 https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2023-01/gs-2289-living-in-love-and-faith.pdf. The pastoral letter from the bishops starts on the third page in.
by David Runcorn. Author of Love means Love - same-sex relationships and the bible (SPCK) and co-convenor of Inclusive Evangelicals. www.davidruncorn.com