The wisdom of Solomon (or, that was the week, that was)

‘What are you up to at the moment?’ When I’m asked that question by people unconnected to the Church of England, I tend to reply in a very vague way, because surely they don’t really want the details? But some people do, and this blog is supposed to be a reflection on what the church is doing or not doing in the areas of gender and sexuality so, dear reader, I am going to answer your question.

At the beginning of the month, I warned my long-suffering husband that, despite there being no November General Synod (other than some late-announced info Zooms, which will all be posted for later viewing anyway), we were in for a couple of intense weeks of Church Stuff. My church is about to enter an interregnum, as our vicar for the last 22 years is retiring, so there is local activity as well as national; being on General Synod also means being ex officio on PCC, Deanery Synod and Diocesan Synod. I’m still having conversations with people about lay ministry after being at a recent meeting of Ministry Council, plus being vice-chair of the General Synod Gender & Sexuality Group is about far, far more than holding a meeting at every Synod session. Just trying to work out what is going on can feel like a full-time role. Last week was pretty bad, but at least all but one of the meetings were on Zoom; the exception came because I am now also a trustee of WATCH, and with a new committee and new president there is a good deal of discussion going on, and that meant attending a full-day Saturday meeting in London.

But the week that is just coming to an end was something else.

On 4 November, my diocesan bishop – Steven Croft – published his response to the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process: Together in Love and Faith. I remain delighted by his honesty, as he recounts in this booklet his own gradual shift as an Evangelical towards inclusion of LGB people. He argues for change: for public services of blessing after same-sex civil partnerships and civil marriage; for freedom of conscience for clergy and ordinands “to order their relationships appropriately” and for them to enter same-sex marriages; and to the removal of the various legal impediments to having such marriages in churches. He sees this as happening while still recognising that it is “legitimate and honourable” to believe these relationships are wrong, and envisages individual clergy and parishes being able to refuse to opt in to these new arrangements. Plus, and this is the difficult one for many people, “differentiation of provision and oversight for those clergy and parishes who believe that, in conscience, they need to distance themselves from the parts of the Church that welcome and affirm same-sex relationships” (p.24). And all of this to happen “in the near future”.

The other three bishops in our diocese – Bishops Gavin, Olivia and Alan – moved quickly to support him on the principles, although they seem to differ from him when it comes to what to do next. Last Saturday, at diocesan synod (mercifully, on Zoom), he spoke about this and added in some very useful comments on how we use the Bible in our discernment, focusing not on the ‘clobber texts’ but on the Wisdom tradition, and what it has to say on living with paradox. The video of this talk is here. He mentions the Biblical story of the Judgement of Solomon – short summary, two women each claim a particular child is theirs. Bishop Steven didn’t say what happens next in the story, but his audience will have known it. Solomon offers to split the child in two so they could have half each. The woman who says he should not do so is by this revealed to be the true mother. I’ll come back to that shortly.

So, busy old Saturday. The following day was Remembrance Sunday and my Ukrainian friend had been asked to read a section of the intercessions at the (huge) local service, so I stood with her for moral support and then we went out with her and her family and sponsor for a meal. In the evening, I preached at another Remembrance Sunday service.

On Monday and Tuesday of this week, Bishop Steven and various combinations of the other bishops for Oxford diocese held seminars for licensed clergy, deanery lay chairs and lay members of diocesan synod, where we could ask questions. I went to one on Monday afternoon. One of the points Bishop Steven makes in his booklet concerns fruits: a good tree brings forth good fruit (Matthew 7: 15-20). Committed same-sex relationships are good because of the fruit they produce. But he also acknowledged that there are two different deeply-held positions in the C of E at the moment, and argued for diversity of practice within the church. People at the seminar spoke from various viewpoints, and overall it felt to me like we were all making an effort to be gracious to each other but that there was something less pleasant simmering under the surface. I’ve since heard that the meeting in the morning had been considerably less calm. As I know very well from doing the Shared Conversations, the range of views in the C of E on pretty well anything is far wider than some people realise. This is no exception.

A lift back from my Area Dean – like Bishop Gavin, an Open Evangelical – meant I was home for supper, then out to the first meeting with the diocesan team who will be helping us put together the parish profile as we start to search for a new vicar…

On Tuesday I did two one-hour sessions with MOSAIC, talking to them about where the LLF process is so far. That was enjoyable, meeting people who represent them in different dioceses and finding out what is happening there.

On Wednesday it was PCC in the evening but before that it was off to London for a meeting of a group which is new to me and which I am now on by virtue of my GSGSG vice-chair role: St Hugh’s Conversation. This is not a group which has sought publicity: I can’t point you to a website because there isn’t one. It was set up about three years ago by Bishop Steven with some leaders of large local conservative Evangelical churches, Evangelical Group on General Synod (EGGS) and CEEC, and gradually seems to have expanded to include others from the conservative/traditional and the inclusive/progressive end of the C of E (labels are hard). Clearly the Evangelical members aren’t happy with Bishop Steven’s statement – the EGGS website alone links to five responses saying what they think is wrong with it – but there can’t have been any surprises there, as he based his booklet on drafts of things he’d written and shared with them during the time that St Hugh’s Conversation has been running. There are hints in his booklet that the group exists – for example, “Locally … I met separately with those opposed to any change” (p.8) and “There has been a vigorous and courteous correspondence and dialogue with different groups, almost continually since [October 2017]”. Maybe I’m the only person who didn’t know this group exists! At the meeting we were given permission to mention the group and its work, but not to say who else is on it or to attribute anything that had been said.

From my first meeting, I’m not sure what to make of St Hugh’s. It’s always difficult to come into a group which has been going on for years without you and, while there are people there I know from other contexts, I haven’t been with most of them long enough to build up any sense of trust. I am sure they have done some internet searches on me – who knows, perhaps they read this blog – but they won’t know who I am in any deep sense. In more practical terms, I am not clear what the Evangelicals think would work as a solution if the C of E moves to accept blessing same-sex marriages and civil partnerships (because from their point of view this is blessing sin) let alone if marriages of couples of the same sex were to happen in any churches. Yet as is very clear from the response of Revd Vaughan Roberts, vicar of St Ebbe’s in Oxford, to Bishop Steven’s booklet, clearly they all agree that a ‘settlement’ is needed, This response came out almost immediately Bishop Steven’s booklet appeared, and both writers had shared drafts before publication.

But what would a settlement look like? I can envisage a motion coming to General Synod in February which just says something on the lines of “we disagree but we think it is acceptable to hold either view”. I am not sure that would get anywhere because it’s clear that conservatives regard this as a ‘first order’ issue or a ‘creation’ issue or a ‘salvation issue’. I’ve read the arguments for this but I don’t agree. There are those on Synod who’d be wanting to stand up and say that ‘blessing sin’ can’t happen. Even if something that initially tried to respect both ends of the spectrum was presented, would it be possible to amend the motion or to propose following motions, so that every possible variation on a settlement – more Provincial Episcopal Visitors (aka Flying Bishops, moving further to a ‘pick your own bishop’ approach which hardly makes sense in an episcopal and geographically-organised Church), a new Province, having at least one conservative and one progressive bishop in each diocese, etc etc – could be put to the vote to see if any commanded a majority? And think of the amendments to the amendments…

While I am glad that we’ve (nearly) moved beyond trying to persuade each other to read the Bible differently and are agreeing to disagree (although again I am not always sure this is for real), and that we have definitely agreed that we are fed up of this conversation and need to move on, I still can’t imagine how the December College of Bishops is going to find a way through this. Let us pray.

And that’s where we return to the Judgement of Solomon. The child is the Church of England. What about if the mothers are the progressive and the conservative wings of that Church? Is the expectation that one mother will step back, refuse to damage her child, and thus show herself to be the true mother? I know both ‘sides’ express the pain they feel. Is it possible for both to be given a safe space in which they can flourish, yet with the Church still being one body with everyone in communion with each other? How can we be a presence in every parish? Watch this space.

Posted in equal marriage, General Synod, Living in Love and Faith, marriage, Shared Conversations | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

The animal now exists: remembering the 30th anniversary of the ordination of women

On 11 November 1992, the Church of England voted in favour of ordaining women as priests. I was there, as a member of General Synod, sustained by the Bach Rescue Remedy passed along our row by a nun. It’s an abiding memory of a long day. Commentators will probably focus on the celebration outside, in Dean’s Yard, but I am more likely to reflect on how we came to that point.

To mark the 30th anniversary, I am copying below the full text of a piece I wrote back in December 1989, after an earlier November Synod which dealt with just one step along the winding road which led to the vote in November 1992. I hope it’s a reminder of how long it took, the stages it went through, and the unpleasantness of the process. Neither the title nor the subheadings were mine. The questions with which I ended are ones with which I still grapple now that I am back on Synod after nearly 30 years away from it. So… here goes.

Diocese of Guildford Herald, December 1989: TOO MUCH SIN IN SYNOD?

The November meeting of General Synod moved a small step closer to the ordination of women. The draft Measure will be sent to the dioceses, returning to General Synod in 1992 at the earliest.

I want neither to rehearse the arguments for and against, nor to discuss its possible consequences. I write as a supporter of the ordination of women who also sees herself on the Catholic wing of our church, and as a member of General Synod with serious doubts about how we operate as a synod.

The debate goes on against a background of pressure groups, threats, media appearances and articles which heighten the tension and polarise the church. However, I would suggest that our own procedures are equally to blame.

No tea…

In November, at least one of the three churchmanship ‘groups’ instructed its members not to go for tea breaks but to stay in chamber in case their votes were needed at short notice. Several times we had a call for a division, which needs 25 members to stand before it can happen. I usually find these votes – which require the ringing of the division bell, a two-minute pause, and then a strict count by houses – a waste of time, but they do provide a chance to vote and then dash out for air, tea and other necessities.

After the count, members commune with their pocket calculators. New members of Synod mean a revision of the estimates.

Some members write their own speeches; others have them checked, or even written, by other members. It is all highly parliamentary – even, regrettably, involving shouts of ‘hear, hear’ and less supportive noises politely rendered in the official proceedings as ‘oh’. Applause becomes a matter of clapping loudly for members of one’s own faction, rather than genuine appreciation of a point well made. There are times when it is difficult to remember that it is God’s business we do.

Sabotage

For me, the key speech came late on Thursday, after nearly 13 hours of debate over two days, when a priest said, ‘I believe there is nothing a bishop can do to a woman that makes her a priest; the animal does not exist’. Until then, it was possible to envisage some way of framing the legislation so that everyone could stay in the Church of England. Its very complexity reflects a sincere wish to keep within the church the significant minority who oppose it.

Safeguards are built in for bishops and priests who could not accept women priests. There is something bizarre, however, about sitting down with someone who holds the above view, and watching him and others like him tampering with the various clauses. If someone would under no circumstances support the legislation, what is the point of his changing it? Is not the intention of revision give-and-take between those who accept their differences but sincerely wish to find a compromise? But how is compromise possible?

At one point we voted to remove a clause concerning appointments of bishops after the legislation goes through. A priest known to be opposed to the ordination of women was among those speaking in favour of removing it. Only after the vote did other members tell us that its removal meant that they could no longer support the legislation as a whole. Why did they not speak out earlier?

When a known opponent of women priests asked for the legislation to cover women bishops as well, was this an attempt to make it unacceptable to those Evangelicals who favour women priests but not – because of ‘headship’ arguments – women bishops? Are some opponents of women priests deliberately sabotaging the legislation in the hope of making it acceptable to less people?

The immediate question for me is this. Are we voting tactically, or as we believe.

Other questions follow. If I vote as I believe, and then fall into a tactical trap, should I be admired for my honesty or pitied for my tactical naivety? Should a sheep among wolves wear her wolfskin coat (Matthew 10:16)? Does the end justify the means.

How far do our procedures corrupt us, and are they weighted against the Spirit of the God who makes all things new?

Posted in Church of England and gender, General Synod | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Living in Love and Faith: some thoughts on the Church Society’s report

This week General Synod members received a report sent to them from the Church Society, taking issue with the most recent documents from LLF

It was only a matter of time. It has been obvious, since the point at which the LLF process included a course survey, that the questionnaires and other responses from those who did that course were not going to be simple to interpret. Obvious, not just because not all of those who decided to ‘take the course’ would bother with the questionnaire, but also because that questionnaire was explicitly not asking about what participants thought should happen next, concentrating instead on how they found the course itself. The analysis of the data was never going to come up with ‘the mind of the Church of England’; so, to the Church Society’s (rhetorical) question, “are we really supposed to carry out doctrinal change by SurveyMonkey?”, I’d reply, “Obviously not and that was never the intention”. 

Initially, I wasn’t particularly impressed by the questionnaire and explained why here. But I’ve now read the official analysis of the responses (Listening with Love and Faith) and I think that the researchers (whose professionalism is wrongly questioned by the Church Society) have used the material from respondents as well as they could have done. They’ve produced an accurate impression of the range of views currently being expressed, and given a clear overall picture of a church in which people agree that the current situation needs to change. 

In this piece, I am going to continue giving direct quotations from the Church Society document in italics, grouping together some points made more than once, and then I’ll respond to them in turn. I’m not going to address the very small numbers filling in the questionnaire or taking part in focus groups; those doing the official analysis have already made clear that they are reflecting the range of views out there rather than trying to make numerical points. Using their experience of questionnaires and response rates, they have made a case for those apparently small numbers of submissions turning out to be a good result.

First, the Church Society challenges whether those who responded represent ‘real’ Church of England people. “There were no questions concerning church attendance or faith so it is not possible to measure what percentage of respondents attend the Church of England (or any other church) or identify as Christians. This makes it difficult to gauge to what extent this represents the view of the Church of England” and, from the conclusions, “There was no attempt to ensure that respondents were members of the Church of England.” Since we don’t have “members’, that is an odd comment, and furthermore the intention of the survey was never to discover ‘the’ view of the Church of England. As it’s a C of E course, and as you were asked to name your diocese when you filled in the questionnaire, it seems likely that respondents identified as C of E. Maybe some Local Ecumenical Partnerships did the course too? Or someone turned up with a spouse who goes to another church? I suspect the Church Society doesn’t know the answer to these questions either.

Second, while attacking the results as unrepresentative, the Church Society seems to conflate the Church of England with England; and church attenders, with the wider population. For example, “Respondents were older than the national average as can be seen from the chart above. 83.3% of the respondents were over 45 as opposed to 53.5% of the population as a whole. 40.4% of those responding were 65 or older and only 1.6% were under 25 (around 100 people).”  

And “if you live amongst the most affluent 10% of England you were over seven times more likely to take part in the survey than if you live amongst the poorest 10%. This really should give the Church of England pause: why are we mainly listening to the well off? Why were there no black or Asian participants in the Focus Groups?”

“poorer and non-white voices were not heard”

“Amongst the respondents there was a bias towards more affluent people”. 

Yet this was never intended to be an analysis of the views of the nation, so it isn’t relevant to compare the respondents with the “population as a whole”. Rather, the survey is aimed at producing a reflection of the different views held in the Church of England, and those demographics sound very much like they really are representative of the Church of England: largely white, largely middle-class, pretty old. The Church Society analysis actually goes on to admit this:“This, of course, reflects the reality that congregations in the Church of England are older than the national average.” And whiter, and more affluent…

Similar points are made about people’s level of comfort with text and with discussion groups, and about issues with access to IT:

“Arguably the nature of the resources and the course itself privileged those who were comfortable with long text-based documents and discussion groups. Moreover, to engage with the online resources, online focus groups and the survey itself required good IT access.”

Again, yes, to some extent. But, on being comfortable with text, the LLF process fully acknowledged that the materials are ‘wordy’ and I guess that’s precisely why that process encouraged artistic and creative responses. Mind you, from the selection of these responses displayed at the York General Synod some of them demonstrate access to facilities and materials which may be further out of reach for some people. The member of General Synod who circulated the Church Society report, Ros Clarke, associate director of the Church Society, is herself an accomplished crafter, whose kneeler with the words “Christ is better than sex” was featured in the official LLF analysis of responses (p.63); the pattern is published here. So she’s well aware that text wasn’t the only way of responding.

And then – since this is LLF we’re talking about – there’s sex. I have been trying to make sense of the figures being used for the proportion of the population who would call themselves ‘heterosexual’, but I’m not doing well on this. Both the LLF report and the Church Society report reference the government figures for 2020, which state that “The proportion of the UK population aged 16 years and over identifying as heterosexual or straight was 93.6% in 2020”. Yet at one point the Church Society has “Nationally, 96.1% of the population self-identifies as heterosexual and yet 89.4% of whose who took part in the survey so identify” and at another offers “it is clear that the respondents to LLF differ greatly from the population as a whole. Nationally 96.1% of those who identified their sexuality were heterosexual, as opposed to 84.5% of those who did so in the LLF survey. This either suggests that 15% of the church is LGBTQ+, almost four times the national average, or that LGBTQ+ people were more likely to participate in the survey than non-LGBTQ+ people. Given the importance of this process, and the understandable desire for those who feel strongly about this matter to have their voice heard, the latter is more likely.”

Whatever figures we are using, the message the Church Society wants to give seems to be that the questionnaire was filled in by an inordinate number of people who aren’t straight: “Amongst the respondents there was a bias towards more affluent people with a very high representation of those identifying as LGBTQ+.” So not just gay people, but well-off gay people? “This especial attention to the voices of the LGBTQ+ community echoes the high level of LGBTQ+ engagement in the online survey”.

I don’t find the figures “very high” and I don’t think they’re at all surprising. As for that “especial attention”, as the comments made by participants are not attributed in the ‘Gay middle-aged man from a northern diocese” style, but are entirely unattributed, how can the reader of the LLF reports know whether they are hearing an LGBTQ+ voice or a straight married person’s voice? Simple answer: they can’t. And, goodness, all these gay people who “feel strongly about this matter”… well, people with all sorts of views ‘feel strongly’, but for those who can’t marry in their church or whose vocations are not accepted because they have married someone of the same sex it’s about rather more than ‘feelings’. 

If you really want to know how people responded to the course, I suggest going back to the original reports on the LLF site; you’ll find a richer, more interesting and more accurate picture of people’s experiences there.

update, 26 October: the LLF team have now published the responses from the organisations who carried out the analysis of the questionnaires, and they are well worth reading. You can see those from both Brendan Research and Church Army’s Research Unit here: LLF Response to Church Society Analysis.

Posted in Episcopal Teaching Document, General Synod, Living in Love and Faith | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Extending our search for the truth: reviewing Past Cases Review 2

Today PCR 2 – Past Cases Review 2 – was published by the National Safeguarding Steering Group. It describes itself as “the most extensive review of records ever conducted by the Church of England”. “There are no possible excuses, no rationalisations for our church’s failure to share the love of God and value each and every person”. The Group writes that they “sincerely apologise for our failures and want to reach out to those who are still suffering from the pain and misery they endured. … It was not your fault and you are not to blame.” It saddens me that this still has to be said.

This blog post builds on a series of tweets I wrote as I worked my way through the document this afternoon, and uses direct quotations from the document to give a sense of it. I think it’s a good report, but its overall message of pockets of good practice existing alongside pockets of denial is depressingly familiar. Many of its comments, particularly about senior clergy who have covered up anything that they would rather not have known, and about the “culture of deference within dioceses towards the bishops or other senior members of clergy” which prevents them being challenged, repeat what we already know all too well from the IICSA reports. Again, we read of the closing of the ranks: “There is an impression that members of the Clergy do not like to upset other clergy”. That sense of déjà vu includes the sexism of the Church of England: instances of bias identified here “included misogyny, sexism and attitudes relating to women in the Church, especially as ordained priests; as well as to same-sex relationships”. A woman who is a priest and who experienced misogyny from her fellow clergy is quoted as saying “I was told I would be good for the parish with legs like that, I would draw in the parishioners”. What, I ask myself, is wrong with this church? Why must it still necessary for it to state that “the Church must promote a positive culture towards women in general”?

So, what is PCR2? It is a process which began in 2019 in which 65 reviewers looked at a total of 75,253 files from the dioceses and from other church bodies such as training institutions and religious communities. The reviewers were independent; while the “Archbishops’ Council maintained oversight of the process throughout the initiative and provided some financial support to dioceses, decision making was delegated to the National Safeguarding Steering Group (NSSG)”. They identified 383 new safeguarding cases, most of them relating to abuse by clergy, but the work included lay readers, lay employees and volunteers. As of August 2022, the Diocesan Safeguarding Advisors “were continuing to assess information relating to 208 safeguarding concerns raised by the independent reviewers”, and some of those may lead to yet more cases being identified. While “The independent reviewers were overwhelmingly supportive of the Diocesan Safeguarding Advisors and their teams”, serious concerns remain about their lack of resources and their heavy workload. And there are cases described of some bishops actively ignoring professionals: “the disdain with which the then bishop, even as recently as 2018, treated the DSA, excluding their expertise at every juncture”.

The report issues 26 recommendations, including four where the C of E “must improve”. These are that the “National Safeguarding Team must develop and deliver a national survivor and victim charter with survivors and victims”; that there must be better information-sharing about lay/ordained ministers with a Bishop’s Licence; that Ministerial Development Reviews need to engage with safeguarding; and that there should be more awareness of domestic abuse. The concerns about domestic abuse relate to “a culture of minimising the seriousness of domestic abuse”, observing that “the attitude towards domestic abuse was linked to the belief around the sanctity of marriage”. As we move forwards with the Living in Love and Faith process, that comment on the negative side of our focus on marriage needs to be kept in mind.

The majority of the report’s recommendations concern areas where there is good practice, but it turns out not to be consistent: “some excellent work completed in several dioceses” versus “examples where the engagement was poor or non-existent”. For example, there’s no “common approach to updating victims”; “referrals to support services were not always completed effectively”; “support provided for survivors and victims, once they had come forward, was inconsistent.” This is an ongoing C of E theme! The independence of dioceses and the power of the bishop mean that this inconsistency is sadly predictable. 

On this theme, a key area is inconsistency in information gathering, keeping and sharing. While the reviewers found evidence of good practice in record keeping, they noted “too much inconsistency across dioceses in how practice and recording guidelines were applied”. It is dangerous for different dioceses to have different standards in record keeping. There is some hope that this will improve, with a new “consistent electronic case management system for all dioceses”, but I wonder if that is going to work? Clergy and others (lay musicians are a particular concern here) move from one diocese to another, but records may, or may not, go with them. “The security arrangements in one diocese were described as robust without explaining what ‘robust’ meant or what measures were thought to be robust.” 

The most significant cases mentioned are “examples where concerns were reported, but processes were not considered or not followed up” which goes with “a reluctance to address issues due to the seniority of clergy and church officers”. Indeed, “In one case a bishop failed to introduce suitable safeguarding measures to manage an individual, which culminated in them controlling and influencing the Bishop, leaving the offender in a position to commit further offences.” And the report notes “how difficult it is to remove a failing and problematic member of the clergy”.

In some dioceses, information had a tendency to disappear completely, not only because files were ‘weeded’ with no record being kept of what was removed, but also because some documents were just too potentially incriminating: “In another case cited as a cause of concern, a file that was connected to a safeguarding case contained a memorandum from a bishop, stating that material would be removed from a clergy file as the complaint made ‘had no bearing on your ministry in the diocese’”. The report picks up IICSA concerns about information sharing, particularly about abuse by chaplains employed by organisations: there were cases of “little or no evidence that indicated liaison between the diocese and the employing organisation”.

So, not that much which is new here, but this review is a further step in what it calls “extending our search for the truth” about abuse within the Church of England, and the report argues strongly that safeguarding is not an “add-on” but is “at the heart of our very being”. For saying that, very strongly indeed, we should be grateful to the authors – and to all who spoke to the independent reviewers about their experiences in what is still a shamefully toxic institution.

Posted in Living in Love and Faith, Safeguarding | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Continuing the conversation: from either/or to both/and

updated 4 October

One of the things which various ‘inclusive’ groups – and no doubt other groups too! – are talking about at the moment concerns contacting bishops to put our views and our suggestions about what happens next with Living in Love and Faith. Letters can still be written. Meetings can still be arranged. On 4 October, the official Roadmap for the process was updated to show that, in addition to the various meetings of the College of Bishops, there are more meetings happening between Dr Eeva John, the convenor of the LLF experience, with a range of pairings from the nine bishops of the Next Steps Group and representatives of 21 different groups within the church.

As vice-chair of the General Synod Gender & Sexuality group, I attended one of these meetings on Friday. I asked about why, at that stage, the meetings hadn’t been publicised and, indeed, why the publication of the two new resources on 2 September had not been more widely shared. In both cases the answer, in brief, was that they should have been, and that when the notes from the most recent meeting of Next Steps Group were released, they would be mentioned there. And as of 4 October, both feature on the Roadmap! It seems like an opportunity was missed, but better late than never, I suppose (could that be the new slogan for the Church of England?!). The list of groups makes it clear that, as well as the inclusive groups, they are of course meeting representatives of those groups who do not accept equal marriage or whose opposition to Issues in Human Sexuality is because they don’t think it went far enough and that its constraints should apply to lay people married to a same-sex partner as well as to clergy (the C of E equivalent of a postcode lottery means that, in some dioceses, this is already happening).

So what about these meetings? Others will be saying more about their content since, under Chatham House rules, the existence of the meeting and the information shared can be discussed, just not the identity of the speakers. It was a long day, not least because I wanted to stay around Lambeth Palace for longer to catch up with the afternoon groups, but I thought it was a worthwhile use of my time (and money – no mention of any reimbursement of expenses…). Like many people, I belong to more than one ‘group’, so it was a real pleasure to meet folk to whom I had previously spoken only online, or who I hadn’t seen for a while, as well as new people, and to hear their stories. Although it was billed as a ‘listening’ exercise, in which ‘they’ would listen to ‘our’ reactions to the new resources, it went much further; Dr John and the bishops were willing to answer our questions and there was genuine conversation and honesty.

I would say that the two main themes of the morning meeting were transparency, and hospitality. I didn’t say this at the meeting, but really, to be in a national Church in which there is only one ‘out’ gay bishop, yet it is common knowledge that there are others, says it all; if it is so unsafe to admit to being lesbian or gay in this Church that those at the very top can’t be open about themselves, then what hope for a person in the pews? With the notable exception of those in the Inclusive Church network – represented at our meeting on Friday – local churches are often not transparent about whether or not they are safe places to be yourself. People who are brave enough to take that first step across the threshold of a church need to know whether they will be welcomed; really welcomed, whoever they are. For those of us on the ‘inside’, it is hard to realise just what that risky step into the unknown requires. When I have led groups on exploring the Christian faith, I’ve used the analogy of the betting shop: so, regular church-going person, would you know what to do if you were to go into one of those? And what would you do if someone you knew saw you going into the building??

One of the topics we discussed on Friday was the way that social media can increase the sense of opposition. This isn’t helpful when we are trying to find a way in which we can respect each other’s consciences and stay together as a church – as we already do around women’s priesthood and episcopacy, and around making Church marriages available to people who have been through a divorce. I’ve heard people talk about how, chatting informally to those from a more conservative viewpoint, they’ve found all sorts of areas of agreement; even the fact that this is a discussion about equal marriage suggests that we agree that marriage is a very important relationship for human flourishing. And it’s from social media that I pose this final question, raised in a Twitter thread published on 1 October; there, Andrew T. Draper asked “How can we as orthodox, Biblical Christians push back against the free-for-all ethic of the sexual revolution (where consent is the only acceptable moral category) but then not allow space for gay & transgender people to live holy, faithful lives in monogamous covenants?” Coming away from last Friday’s meetings, I feel that it’s the ‘both … and’ for which we need to make space: not ‘either … or’.

Posted in equal marriage, Living in Love and Faith, marriage | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

When the information flow stops: where is Living in Love and Faith?

The country, and the Church of England, return to normality today. I assume that means the country will return to the questions of economics, inequality, health and justice which have been put on hold. For the Church of England, among other things, this feels like a moment to pause and ask: what has happened to the Living in Love and Faith process?

I was away on holiday for the whole period from the announcement that the Queen was unwell until the day before the funeral so I’ve felt semi-detached from the various events. While I was away, I signed a book of condolence but, other than a local minute’s silence on Sunday and watching the funeral and the Windsor service on TV yesterday, that’s my lot, although it still adds up to many hours of viewing. I watched with an 88-year old neighbour, and felt the presence of my royalist mother who would have been useful in identifying the various minor royals, of whom there seem to be very many. In contrast, assorted friends queued in London to view the coffin, but even if I’d been home and thus within a 30 minute train ride’s distance, I don’t think I’d have felt the urge. 

Yet, maybe because I’m a historian, I’ve generally been interested in attending historic events. Back in the 1980s I went to several, including the election night in Paris in 1981 when Mitterrand became the French president. Then there was the visit of Pope John Paul II to London in 1982. Standing at the Queen Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace with a lot of Roman Catholic women, once the chat started and it transpired that I was single, one of them brought out photos of her unmarried sons and asked if I’d be interested in any of them, because surely it wouldn’t take much for me to convert? In the same year, I went with my mum to the Falklands victory parade. Later, when I was working in London, I detoured to see the carpets of flowers left when Diana Princess of Wales died, and the smell of them – not pleasant at all – stays with me. There’s a theme here; I’ve only been at these events if I was in the right city already or if I’d been asked to accompany someone else. OK, that probably makes me a lightweight in terms of ‘being there’: others clearly feel a much stronger urge to be physically present.

Even on holiday, however, I was fascinated by the livestream of the Queen’s lying-in-state and shots of The Queue. There’s an excellent thread from Professor Anthony Bale on how people’s experiences in The Queue replicated medieval practices and experiences when visiting the tomb of a saint. As for what it felt it like to be in it, friends who’ve queued for 8 hours, or 12 hours, have explained on Facebook how it was for them. People have analysed the sense of certainty and solidarity they had as they queued. Professor Keith Still, an expert on crowd behaviour, was quoted as saying “So long as people know what’s happening, what’s expected of them, how long it’s going to take, they no longer face the uncertainty” and “It’s as soon as that information flow stops that you get a degree of uncertainty and people start behaving as individuals rather than as a collective.”

As we return to normality, those comments on The Queue have made me think of where we are this month with Living in Love and Faith. In contrast to The Queue, I have been very much involved in this since the process began in 2017. And I would say that the information flow there has definitely stopped. One of the criticisms people often make of the C of E is around lack of communication; websites which aren’t updated, or urls which cease to work, or information which is too well-hidden to come up in a search of the main C of E website. Where LLF is concerned, the Roadmap on The Living in Love and Faith Journey is the go-to site for anyone wondering just what’s going on.

According to that website, where precisely are we in this particular church Queue? What’s happening and how long is it going to take? There’s an immediate difference in that we don’t know where we are going, except that there may emerge some firm proposals from the bishops, proposals which General Synod can discuss and vote on. Well, according to the Roadmap, as of September 2022 two further resources have been published (although there’s no link given on the Roadmap to the page where they now appear, which is in fact this one, and they weren’t published under the titles listed on the Roadmap). On the Roadmap, the next stage is that the College of Bishops “Begin the discernment process”, as informed by the LLF book and these new resources. But because the College was due to meet during what turned out to be the mourning period for the Queen, the dates for that have already been changed, meaning that their three rounds of meetings start on October, although there is still time to get them all in before Christmas.

But there’s something else going on, and the website doesn’t mention it at all. Throughout September, the overall convenor of LLF – the indefatigable Dr Eeva John – is, accompanied by various pairs of bishops from the Next Steps Group, meeting representatives of a range of groups for two-hour meetings. I know about this because I am one of those from the General Synod Gender & Sexuality Group due to meet them on 30 September, and I know people from other groups who have met, or who are due to meet, for these events. The purpose? To hear “our perspectives, hopes and fears”, although I can’t imagine what we can say that we haven’t said already, in questionnaire responses, articles, blog posts and emails. 

Others going to the meetings have asked what the position is with confidentiality and, although the meetings themselves will take place under Chatham House rules, the existence of the meetings is not confidential. Yet there’s no mention of them on the website, so the reader will be left with the impression that the bishops have already gone away to start their discussions and that the rest of us have no more opportunities to talk to them.

This seems odd. While there are plenty of places across the CofE where, invited to engage with LLF, people have stuck their collective fingers into their collective ears and hummed ‘la la la’, or have decided they have other priorities, or just felt too exhausted with everything else to consider running the LLF course, there are also places where people have come together within a parish or with neighbouring congregations, and have spoken honestly – perhaps for the first time – and have listened to those who think differently. It may not be like standing next to someone in The Queue for 8 hours, but meeting and talking have happened.

Anyone outside the groups selected to meet with the Next Steps Group knows nothing of what’s going on. And there is more. We do still have opportunities to talk to the bishops. We can write. We can set up meetings. We need to be kept up to date with what is happening. When information flows stop, uncertainty begins, and that does nobody any good.

Posted in General Synod, Living in Love and Faith | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Living in Love and Faith: the final documents?

Yesterday, without much of a fanfare, some more documents were published to add to the ‘LLF book’, and the course, and the videos, and the podcasts, and the papers only accessible through registering with the ‘Hub’. We’d been expecting two of them: an analysis of the responses to the questionnaire aimed at those who took the course, and a ‘resource’ called The Gift of the Church. This isn’t quite what turned up. I don’t have time at the moment to analyse these in depth; I hope others will, as these are the documents the bishops are supposed to use for their conversations over the coming autumn.

But, to save you reading it all, or to help you decide what to read, here are some basics. What we have are:

Listening with Love and Faith – a 94-page report on responses to the LLF course. This gives extracts from people’s comments and concludes: Most people in the focus groups suggested that the decisions made by the House of Bishops needed to be bold, courageous, clear and honest. While some advocated strongly for change and some to maintain the Church’s position on questions of sexuality, all agreed that coming to a clear decision soon is vital.

Friendship and the Body of Christ – 71 pages, written in conjunction with the Faith and Order Commission, taking up the LLF book’s image of ‘gift’ but adding in much on ‘friendship’. We are all ‘friends of Jesus’ (the phrase features 21 times), so what does it mean if we disagree with others of his friends? I found this pretty unimpressive, and throughly agreed with the comment on p.41 that There’s a danger here, of course, of stretching our definition of friendship beyond recognition.

As we should now expect, history is completely ignored in this book. It’s amazing, really. There’s a rich and established scholarly literature on friendship – I know of many books and articles on the ancient world and the early modern period, and no doubt there’s much more outside my particular areas of knowledge. But is there any sense of this literature? Not a whiff, beyond the statement that Classical philosophers like Cicero and Achilles mused on the nature of friendship, while great epics like the Odyssey and the Iliad explored friendship (like Achilles and Patroclus). Please… Even mentioning this relationship without noting the different ways it has been interpreted from the ancient world onwards… We can do better than this!

Finally, there’s a 154-page ‘technical report’ on the questionnaire responses.

Actually, this report isn’t only on the 6,400 questionnaire responses alone (that is, of course, a very small number, when measured against those on church electoral rolls or in church every Sunday). That’s only the first 60 pages or so. Then there are 40 pages which talk about what was said in the 9 focus groups, so these pages are commenting on what a total of around 80 people said.

There’s also a section on the 114 individual responses sent in without doing the questionnaire, so those can be people who didn’t do the course but wanted their opinions heard. 21 of the 114 were from just a single diocese, Rochester. And there’s another section on the 22 responses from churches which didn’t appear to have engaged with LLF. Almost all of these opposed any change in the church’s teaching. 12 such responses were from one diocese: Peterborough. Of those 12, 11 did their own bespoke course instead of using the LLF materials.

This means that those who did not fill in the questionnaire end up with more representation in the report than those who did. I assume the Rochester and Peterborough ‘spikes’ are because somebody decided to mobilise a particular group to write in.

Where does that leave us? We can see what some of the people who did the course, or were in a focus group, said. Are they representative of those who make up our church? We don’t know. Is any of this new information? I don’t think so.

That means I remain unconvinced that this expensive and lengthy exercise has moved us beyond the known situation: as Listening with Love and Faith (p.88) states from the focus groups, the House of Bishops have a difficult but essential task, and … a decision on moving forward needs to be made soon.

Posted in Living in Love and Faith | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Christian dating: just try it!

post updated 31 August 2022

Today on Twitter, Single Friendly Church put up one of those little polls: “Have you or would you use a Christian dating site to meet other Christians?” I was surprised to see how many said they hadn’t used such a site, and they wouldn’t; around 40% of those replying. Well, I did, and I would recommend it. As it happens, I was at a conference recently when – in the context of discussions about the theology of marriage and its importance in the Living in Love and Faith process – someone asked why we don’t have a theology of dating. It’s an interesting question, and one which Andrew Godsall has now addressed here. I am not qualified to comment on the theology, but I do have some practical experience to bring to any discussion!

For most of my life, I hadn’t seriously thought about online dating because, well, you hear stories. But in my forties, never married, I was in our local Christian bookshop and happened to pick up a magazine which featured Christian Connection, which is now a partner of Single Friendly Church. I thought, well, I can probably spot a dodgy Christian man from several miles off (bitter experience…) so maybe that would be worth doing. So I constructed a profile, found some cheerful photos, and began. I set my parameters quite tightly, in terms of distance (I don’t drive) and educational background (for some insane reason I thought that Mr Right needed at least a first degree) and waited to see what happened. Meanwhile, I found that the various discussion threads which at that time featured on the site were very good fun. They ranged from serious discussions of current affairs and theology to more entertaining topics. I started one on fridge magnets. I began to interact with other women on the site (no, the story isn’t going in that direction – although the site is open to LGBTQI+ relationships). I found a supportive community in which people shared tips, checked out each other’s sites to give advice – like, you’re sounding very needy and vulnerable so be careful as you may attract predators – and shared information about some men on the site who weren’t sticking to the rules. I even contacted some men whose profiles were just non-starters, not to set up dates but simply to give some sisterly advice.

I was having such fun in this online community that the men who expressed an interest stopped being the main reason for being there. There was (and still is) a strong emphasis on keeping one’s details private, at least until you’d had a chance to meet in person. I found people who matched the parameters I’d set up, chatted on the phone, and met two of them; both were lovely, but one seemed to be back in the water too soon after a very bad relationship breakdown and, while the other was lovely enough that we had a second date, there just wasn’t that spark.

And then I was contacted by someone who’d found me, rather than the other way around. He didn’t match all my parameters, so I wouldn’t have seen his profile; his own seemed to be ‘female, alive, no baggage, no animals, non-smoker’! But from the first email he came across as honest, happy in himself, and with an excellent way with words; those matter very much to me. We talked on the phone and couldn’t stop talking (some time later he admitted he’d been to the loo somewhere in that first conversation!). He rightly pushed for a face-to-face meeting asap as, rather than falling in love with an image of each other, we needed to connect in person. I was busy the following weekend; what was I doing, he asked? I told him I was going to a plant sale and he announced he could meet me there (despite admitting to no interest in plants whatsoever – later, I’d find that his idea of gardening was to mow the flower beds). It was a Sunday; I told friends at church I was going to meet this man, and several turned out to be attending the same plant sale, meaning that they were lurking in the rhododendron bushes to check things were going well. At the event, I managed to walk into a former student and also a colleague from a nearby university; both were clearly intrigued as to who this man may be, and I didn’t feel able to say ‘This is a bloke I met online a week ago’.

I’d taken the bus to our meeting, and there aren’t many buses round here on a Sunday. How was I going to get home? As we had tea at the plant sale, I also realised there weren’t any loos at the venue. I hadn’t entirely thought all this through, although in addition to the church people I’d notified a friend of what was happening so somebody knew where I was. Tentatively, I asked my date whether he’d see any sign of a loo. He went and asked, and once it was confirmed that there weren’t any he immediately said he’d take me to the garden centre down the road.

Tricky. A firm rule of Christian Connection was not to get into someone’s car on the first date. But… So I did. Impressively, he dropped me off at the garden centre entrance to reduce the length of time before I found that loo, and said he’d park and then find me. As I came out of the loo, I wondered whether he’d be there, or whether this was a way of dumping me… but he was there waiting for me, and has been there for me ever since.

We had more tea and cakes. He dropped me home. We had a little hug. And the rest is history; nearly 20 years of it so far.

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Alliterative Anglicans: see what I did there?*

As you’ll have noticed, we have this tool called the alphabet. As well as the whole expressing-and-preserving-our-thoughts thing, one useful aspect of this is that it allows us to group together words so that we can find what we are looking for in a long document. As a historian, when I started working on early modern printed books, I was alarmed to find that the earliest indices put together all words beginning with ‘A’ but didn’t bother with further alphabetical ordering within the ‘A’ list; still, it was better than nothing. 

And then there’s another reason for putting together words starting with the same letter: the poetic device of alliteration. The world seems to be divided as to whether it counts as alliteration if the repeated initial letter (or sound) of the words is a vowel rather than a consonant, so I’m already into controversial territory with my title. 

A personal opinion: I think Christians tend to take alliteration too far. 

In a previous blog post, I mentioned as an example the title “Winsome Witness in a Warring World”. The argument, I assume, is that such titles are memorable. Maybe it’s me, but I find that they aren’t. The Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission are Tell, Teach, Tend, Transform and Treasure; I don’t find that helps me remember them, as I end up desperately searching my brain for another word starting with ‘T’, and the results can be … well, unhelpful.

Sometimes the use of alliteration is actually doing something rather sinister in suggesting a false link between items, as in a song from the 1983 musical Poppy, ‘The Blessed Trinity’, with its line ‘Civilisation, commerce and Christianity/All go together, and all begin with C’. This musical, on the topic of the Opium Wars, was performed as a pantomime encouraging the traditional participation from the (adult) audience. I’ve only found one review online, from the Imperial College Student Union’s Felix (p.7) but I’m pleased to see that the reviewer enjoyed it as much as I did. The lead story from that issue of Felix, by the way, is ‘Peaceful picket: porn party provokes prolific protest’. It’s not just in churches that we apparently like a bit of alliteration.

My current aversion to alliteration was stimulated by noting two forms of wording (even hashtags) on Twitter in comments on equal marriage: ‘Sodomising secularists’ and ‘Sacramentalising sodomy’. As a historian I know that the word ‘sodomy’ used to mean pretty well anything that wasn’t heterosexual PiV sex, but we’ve moved away from that and today it normally means simply anal sex. Here I’d like to leave aside the strange ideas that only gay people do this – even the Living in Love and Faith book would put people right on that, if they were to read it rather than just talk about it – and that they don’t do anything else that we could possibly count as ‘sex’. Instead, let’s just think about what the alliteration is doing here. 

George Weigel, who holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote in the National Review at Obama’s re-election:

Those who booed God, celebrated an unfettered abortion license, canonized Sandra Fluke, and sacramentalized sodomy at the Democratic National Convention have been emboldened to advance the cause of lifestyle libertinism through coercive state power.

Ooh, ‘lifestyle libertinism’ too; a bonus.

Sacramentalising sodomy does seem to have originated as a phrase favoured by some Roman Catholics. Here’s another reference, from someone blogging as Damsel of the Faith, ‘Spiritual daughter of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, Faithful to Eternal Rome, Fighting with the Spirit of St. Joan of Arc for the True Faith’ (wow), commenting in 2018 on one of Pope Francis’s advisors proposing liturgical blessing of same-sex unions as part of ‘closer pastoral care’ for lesbian and gay people. Or from the same year, on a discussion board called Mother of God, ‘DeGaulle’ commenting that ‘someone who attempts to sacramentalise sodomy is equivalent to performing a black mass’. The alliteration is clearly meant to increase the impact of the phrase, maybe drawing attention away from its utter irrelevance.

Yet the place where alliteration has long reigned is in the evangelical sermon. The Dedication, Dilemma and Decision of St Paul. The Age, Appetites and Apparel of John the Baptist. The Beatitudes as Blessed are the Poor/Pining/Pliant/Panting/Pitying/Pure/ Peacemakers/Persecuted. And so on. There are even alliterative guides to using alliteration in your sermon, such as this one from a Baptist minister, which does observe that “You can become more interested in alliterating than in why you are alliterating”. Or Jared C. Wilson’s 5 Cs of Preaching which suggests checking that your sermon is Contextual, Convictional, Clear, Compassionate and Cross-Centred.

A helpful guide to when, and when not, to use alliteration in your sermons could be useful for those who like to rant about sacramentalising sodomy. On one online guide, the first rule, ‘Know what it’s for’ – to add clarity; ‘it can be harmful or wasteful if it reduces clarity’. So don’t force it. Don’t stretch words beyond what they mean. I suspect that the ‘Beatitudes with the letter P’ sermon would do precisely that.

Those ‘SS’ labels use the word ‘sodomy’ with the intention of shocking. They don’t just misleadingly focus on this one sex act; even by focusing on sex, they ignore all the other aspects of marriage. ‘Sacramentalising committed relationships’ doesn’t have the same ring to it, though, does it? Nor does ‘Sacramentalising loading the dishwasher’.

Rather than coming up with snappy slogans (oops), how about concentrating on the fullness of people’s lives, the reality of what LGBTQI+ people and their allies are asking for: being able to marry in their churches, being able as married people to be priests in the wider church? Preaching.com has not only run an article on why alliterative sermons can be really, really bad, but also a 2016 piece by Karl Vaters on how “Alliteration is no longer cool”. Nobody any longer is trying to memorise the sermon; the time spent trying to start each point with the same letter is utterly wasted and a distraction from engaging with the text; people would rather go away with one practical idea for their lives, and real life isn’t alliterative or rhyming; it comes across not as authoritative, but phony. “Pastors think it’s clever. Listeners think it’s fake”. 

And so are snappy alliterative slogans.


*A phrase apparently going back to 1989; https://www.macmillandictionary.com/buzzword/entries/see-what-I-did-there.html

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From a tree to a window to an installation: the visual messages of Living in Love and Faith

I’m continuing to process last week’s General Synod meeting, and there certainly is a lot to process; not just the very full agenda over long days, and not just the ongoing rumblings about the confusion during the elections to the Crown Nominations Commission, in which many of us were unable to vote on our iPads or phones and ended up using paper forms, and some people were apparently unable to vote at all.

As a person involved in creating the LLF resources, though, much of my processing is around the small exhibition at York University and the newly-unveiled art installation on ‘Fracture and Faith’ at the Minster. I’ve shared an image on the previous blog post but here it is again: 

Readers of this blog may recall that, when LLF began, the logo showed a tree. We were given various interpretations of this; deep roots in research, the sap as the Holy Spirit, that sort of thing. I was never convinced by that tree. Its bare roots suggested it wasn’t long for this world. The identikit leaves suggested conforming to one view. The tree changed, becoming a little more relaxed with some leaves falling off, but when the LLF book came out it had been replaced by a stained glass window, as seen here:

I wasn’t involved at all in the discussions which must have led to that logo, but I wondered when I first saw it if it was more about seeing current questions through tradition and history (unlikely when history hadn’t had much of a look-in) or more about lots of little pieces of glass making up our picture, and thus different views on sexuality, gender identity and relationships as forming the church?

The York campus LLF exhibition, which can also be seen online if you register on the LLF hub, is a sample of the creative responses people were invited to make rather than, or in addition to, filling in the questionnaire. Among the photos of people sitting in the groups in which they had done the course, poems, a kneeler, drawings, a knitted rainbow and some tapestry, there are extra items for those viewing the exhibition. These include some stained glass window frames, shaped exactly like the LLF logo, with an invitation to viewers to add a piece of glass to the picture. So there it’s clearly an image of participation. 

During the Minster service on the Sunday of General Synod, the new art installation was displayed behind the nave altar. The Archbishop of York mentioned it during the service and suggested a further spin on the stained glass window theme: that these chains of glass held together by steel looked like a window deconstructing itself – or, a dispersed window coming together. To me, though, it looked more like an almost-invisible wave moving through the Minster. I loved the shape, the colours, the way it changed depending on where you stood. At the start of the Minster service we were warned that there may be some demonstrators disrupting the worship, but that Security had it under control and if protests weren’t peaceful then they would get involved. In the event, there were no such protests, but I was told that one of the groups they had been expecting was of people opposed to the art installation. I was, and am, bemused as to why anyone would object to a thought-provoking and very beautiful piece of art being displayed in this setting. 

Later on the same day, when spending an hour sitting in a hot portakabin with a group of other members each asked to speak for c.90 seconds on ‘what the Bible means to me’ – the LLF ‘group work’ set for this session of Synod – I wondered whether it wouldn’t have been more interesting to ask us for our responses to the art installation. And that’s not just because the idea that the real cause of division is how we engage with the Bible was mooted seven years ago, way back in the Regional Shared Conversations, when one of the resources had essays by Ian Paul, Loveday Alexander and Phil Groves on this topic. It’s still available here: so why reinvent the wheel, why act like this is a new approach? Those who chose not to attend the Minster service could – and some I think did – go in to see the display. I think that would have led to less of the sincere repetition of assorted clichés about the Bible, in which it was immediately clear from what tradition each of our members came, and more engagement. Sadly, it’s too late now, but perhaps this blog post will stimulate some thoughts on what the installation means for other people?

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