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.