The Church of England has published the resources for “Living in Love and Faith” (LLF), a project which will see the Church at all levels talking, listening and discerning possible ways forward as we seek to walk faithfully in the modern world.
Where previous top-down methods of forging a way forward on sexuality and gender have not managed to arrive at a workable consensus, now the Church is trying something more bottom-up, building on the “shared conversations” from 2014-2016.
Engaging with this process will require spiritual preparation, and I suggest that for all of us this will require three things. (1) Accepting that it will have unknown and unavoidable costs for each of us. (2) Committing to the rhythms of devotion which anchor our faith in Jesus. (3) Reframing our hopes and fears for the outcomes of this process in eschatological terms.
At the start, let me say that this is not an essay with easy tips for increasing your resilience by saying your prayers, having sleep, avoiding alcohol and having candlelit baths (although those may all be good things). My hope is that this essay might help us to understand the roots of our strong reactions to LLF, in order that they may not govern us, but that we may approach these things with as much of a calm and sober mind as is possible.
Our Range of Responses to LLF
Initial responses to LLF have been mixed. At one end has been delight at the quality of the resources offered, particularly in their personalising (de-abstracting!) of the questions at issue, and the serious attempt they represent to engage all parts of the church in this discernment. I have been delighted by the way in which these resources attempt to get to the roots of our disagreement: the different mechanisms by which we interpret the bible (biblical hermeneutics) and the tradition of the church (theological hermeneutics). It is not that some people use the bible and theology and others don’t. It is that we interpret scripture and the tradition in very different ways.
What has struck me particularly, however, are two other responses to LLF. In the first case, many people are saying (quite honestly and reasonably) that they don’t have the spiritual and emotional resources to go through this sort of openness and painful discernment again, or right now. And in the second case, a defensive “here I stand” response, drawing a line in the sand and stating at the outset that we shall not negotiate. Anyone on the internet over the past week has seen both of those.
This may surprise some people, but I don’t think these more negative responses are at all unreasonable in themselves. Both the “I just can’t right now” response and the “I guess I can but on these conditions” response (however strongly and unchastely we might express them) are both at their root expressions of our frailty, our lack and our vulnerability. They are both responses rooted in fear. “Please don’t make me do this.”
I have had both these responses in turn over the last few days, as well as my more positive ones. And this has revealed to me that, if I am to obediently engage with this process as our Bishops call us, I need to aware of its spiritual and emotional cost, and I need to prepare myself before beginning to engage with these resources.
So how do we prepare ourselves?
1) Matthew 8.18-22 – accepting an unknown and unavoidable cost
Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. A scribe then approached and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Another of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’
Perhaps the most spiritually and psychologically dangerous approach to LLF would be to mimic that of the scribe who approaches Jesus. It isn’t the fact he wants to be obedient that is a problem. It is his blind enthusiasm. At the very start of this process, it is vital that we acknowledge that we cannot simply choose (as a matter of willpower) how we are going to engage, how we are going to feel, and what questions might be thrown up for us. None of us know how this process is going to affect us, and so we must not commit with enthusiasm, but with gentleness, towards the process and ourselves.
And second, there will be a cost to each us, even if we do not know what it is. The other disciple who wants, quite reasonably to bury his father, discovers he won’t be able to. There is a cost for him, one he didn’t expect. From the outset, we must expect the unexpected. By God’s grace that will include positive surprises, but it is important that we also expect hidden and surprising costs to each of us personally as this process unfolds.
2) Matthew 8.23-27 – let our faith in Jesus anchor us
And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A gale arose on the lake, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, ‘Lord, save us! We are perishing!’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, you of little faith?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?’
What is the stable foundation of your faith as you prepare to engage with LLF? What centres you when you are thrown by circumstance? The hardest task which LLF asks of us is that we open ourselves to have elements of our faith reshaped, to allow the process to engage meaningfully with the horizon of belief that lies behind and beneath our living faith. All those things which affect how we read scripture, how we pray, how we exercise discernment: these are things we are called to reexamine. LLF calls us to the remembrance that they are not themselves the eternal and unchanging God.
But they matter to us. And they are ways we have come to know the eternal God. So unless we take time to centre ourselves, time and time again, on the face of Jesus revealing the Father and pouring out the Spirit on us, we will find ourselves grasping for things that are not Jesus in order to steady ourselves. The ship of the Church, its learning and all the apparent intellectual securities we have built up for ourselves are on choppy waters. Come back to the spiritual rhythms which cast you back to the anchor of your faith, the face of Jesus, his cross and his risen body.
3) Matthew 8.28-end – take the eschatological view
When he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. Suddenly they shouted, ‘What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?’ Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. The demons begged him, ‘If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.’ And he said to them, ‘Go!’ So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and perished in the water. The swineherds ran off, and on going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the demoniacs. Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighbourhood.
There are many good reasons for our wanting to get things right NOW. People are suffering now. People are confused now. Evangelistic efforts are being undermined now. The institutions of the Church are failing us now.
But was it ever different?
I don’t say this to make an argument that, since there has always been doctrinal and social conflict in the institutional Church, we should accept it now. Rather, we must remember that the Church is more than the institutions, more than our social community. The Church is the Body of Christ, which is true because Christ is true. The Church is the communion of saints, which is gathered around one table because Christ is calling them to one heavenly table. The Church which is both of these things can be sure in its calling because the one who calls us is faithful, the eternal, the living God.
The demons’ acknowledgement of Jesus as Son of God point to the certainty of the hope to which we are called. The one in whom we put our trust is one whom even the demons can beg and be heard. The one in whom we put our trust is the Lord of all that was and is and is to come. The anchor of our faith holds true even when the bricks of the institutional church are raining down around us.
Our abiding in love does not fundamentally come from our getting on with one another. It comes from our continual casting ourselves on the love of God, who loves us even on the cross. It comes from the reality that this God abides with us even though we fail repeatedly to follow him in Spirit and in truth. We love one another because God loves us: we abide with one another because God abides with us.
This is the eschatological vision, the hope, to which we are called. To remember that we are not going to get along perfectly, that we are not going to agree perfectly, that we are not going to come up with a statement which makes us all happy at the end of this.
But we just may be able to remind ourselves of the one for whom we do live and have our being. We might just be reminded that the God who calls us is faithful even when we err. We might just be reminded that the God who died for me died for my family in faith as well, and that I didn’t choose them. We might just be reminded that, instead of being lukewarm in doctrinal dispute, we can burn with liberating confidence in the grace of Christ, in the power of the Gospel, and in the mercy of God, whose purposes for us are good and sure.
Our hopes and fears for LLF are very real, and they may threaten at times to destabilise us.
But the one who calls us is faithful. He has prepared a place for us. And at the end of the day, that is the thing that matters most of all: casting out fear and growing in faith.