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.
I did try one link to the Churches together to discovery which people were LGBTQIA+ affirming during the Queen’s funeral on BBC. The link did not work! In the end I did get access by using another search engine. The Church of England seems to be behind the times on the use of media and the internet.
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Talking with another Christian friend this morning, I learned that an Ulster teacher is now in jail (again) for contempt of court, over refusing to address a transgender boy as ‘she’, ‘her’ or ‘they’, on the grounds that it contradicts his Christian beliefs. And he’s prepared to stay in jail until he dies rather than recant. It seems to me that, no matter how long the bishops confer, they will never succeed in squaring this particular circle – and now we’ve got to the stage of people choosing martyrdom there is little hope of agreement and unity.
I don’t really know what to think – though I do object to being told what I should think (by anyone) on what is clearly a sensitive subject. My church admits it has yet to grapple with this; the one down the road (also CofE) has already had its mind made up for it by the vicar (and I don’t think you’d like the result). The arguments go back to irreconcilable basics about how we read, and regard the authority of scripture – and if you have no common ground, let alone willingness to find any, how are you ever going to agree?
A few decades back there was a lot of debate in some church circles about how far you could go in accepting medical or psychological insights and understanding about sexual issues (or other matters) with regard tohonouring God’s word; it seemed to vary from ‘not at all’ to ‘be very careful’ – compromise was highly dangerous, yet we all compromise in some way in order to live in relative harmony with our non-believing neighbours. So we’ve now reached the point of people choosing martyrdom for their faith principles, rather than considering whether or not there is a genuine point to other people’s views. Is there actually any room left for debate, or tolerance?
I hope there is room for tolerance, John, although after the last 7 years since Shared Conversations I am not sure there is room left for debate. Is there anything new to be said? Haven’t we moved on towards accepting that we don’t agree, with the remaining questions being about whether and how we can live together?
But I wouldn’t use the language of martyrdom. In the case you describe, reports I have read say that the teacher was suspended on full pay, and that the jail sentence was because of breaking an order not to attend his former place of work, so the version you have here is misleading.
That does not surprise me – it was relaid by a friend who had picked it up via a Christian radio station, and who themselves saw his imprisonment as the thin end of another wedge attacking our faith. Unfortunately it is how it will be seen in some Christian circles. I know one minister who openly says he expects to end his career in prison over the gay equality issue, through refusing to accept it and another (Anglican) one who describes it as a ‘flood tide of heresy’. I’m afraid that in some people’s minds the lines have already been drawn.
On a personal level I find it increasingly hard to understand the ever multiplying range of sexual variations that are being talked about. Most of the Christians I’ve known over the years are from the very ‘anti’ end of the spectrum, where it is not easy to be publicly open minded. It is a shame that something this personal has become so public a battlefield, so ‘black and white’ in it’s division but that, sadly is human nature. We shall have to wait and see how things develope.