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’.