15 January 2022 (minor updates subsequently)
The story so far: this blog began as a reflection on participating in the Shared Conversations, and then – because I was asked to join Living in Love and Faith’s History thematic group – focused on how the LLF resources were produced. The shift from the originally-conceived ‘Bishops’ teaching document’, with all its subsequent confusion about whether the bishops were receiving or doing the teaching, to a ‘learning document’ for the whole Church, happened gradually over the years since we began creating the resources back in (gasp) 2017. Readers may well be wondering: what happens next?
They would not be alone in asking this. The deadlines on the LLF book, which those of us working on it were told was supposed to be a ‘gift to the Anglican Communion’ at the Lambeth Conference in 2020, moved due to the pandemic, as did the Lambeth Conference itself. The book has been available for over a year now, so the bishops who attend the Lambeth Conference can pick it up whenever they fancy a 468-page bedtime read. But the LLF ‘process’ continues to roll on, and won’t be anywhere near complete until at least 2023.
When the Church of England debated whether or not to ordain women, the legislative process required many stages of debate, with discussions at deanery and diocesan level, with invited speakers (I was one of those on the circuit) and votes on a motion. Who knows, perhaps somewhere down the line this will happen for the presenting issues which led to LLF: the question of equal marriage, and of the training and ordination of people in same-sex relationships. To put it simply: full inclusion of all of us, regardless of sexuality and gender identity. But we’re nowhere near that yet. When LLF – not the presenting issues, but the process of using the resources – comes to General Synod in February 2023 this will only be what is now being described as ‘the beginning of a new phase of work’.
Now, and in the next few months, people who do the five-session course produced at a late stage of the LLF process are being invited to record their responses in a survey. The survey has been produced by Rev Dr Fiona Tweedie and her small team; Tweedie trades as Brendan Research. Everyone is encouraged to fill in this survey, so here is my basic guide to it, and to what is involved. I’m sorry it’s so long, but I think it’s important that people share their responses with the LLF team and there are many things I find disturbing.
Before coming to the content, I do have some basic questions about the format of the survey, the results of which are clearly going to be taken to General Synod at some point. It has a mix of open (free text boxes) and closed questions. In terms of producing any quantitative data, it avoids the ‘frequency scale’ which would have a limited number of options (do you do this never/rarely/sometimes/often/always?), and instead relies heavily on the visual analogue or ‘slider’ scale, which has an infinite number of categories according to where you move the little pointer on the spectrum between, for example, ‘strongly agree’ and ‘strongly disagree’. Importantly, none of the questions ask you to give your view on equal marriage, or on any other presenting question which you may have expected LLF to address. What is instead considered interesting is whether you think you know more about the issues than you did when you started.
In more detail, then, this is what the survey asks. After finding out which diocese you are in, it asks questions about five aspects:
- Teaching from the Bible
- The inherited teaching of the Church
- Emerging Christian views on these topics
- The complexities underlying identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage
- How you relate to people with different views (specifically, after engaging with the course, can you now do this ‘more compassionately and respectfully’?)
These are taken from the learning outcomes of the LLF process. Of these five aspects, rather confusingly two of them – inherited teaching and emerging views – are combined here, so they generate just four questions which are answered using the slider scale; you are asked to move the marker on a horizontal line into a position between ‘strongly disagree’ and ‘strongly agree’. That’s tricky because if you think you have always been able to relate compassionately and respectfully to those with whom you disagree, you just put the marker in the middle, because it’s asking if you can now do this ‘more’ than before, and you don’t. If you feel you already understood ‘what the Bible says about these topics’ then what do you with the line under ‘I have a deeper understanding of what the Bible says about these topics’? Strongly disagree, because you’ve thought about it all before? I suspect Church of England people are going to want to put lots of ‘agreement’ in there (even if it’s the wrong answer) because that sounds nice and friendly and isn’t that how we like to see ourselves?
The next section is about specific sections of the formal course, so if your engagement is instead based on reading the book and/or watching the videos, you can’t answer. There are other ways available for giving feedback if this applies to you: you can email direct or you can draw a pretty picture. Yes, seriously. In the interests of involving everyone, not just those of us who like playing with words, you are invited to ‘make something’: to ‘paint, draw, sculpt, sew, knit, bake, grow, write (a song, poem, prayer etc.), compose, sing, and so much more’ either as an individual or with your family, friends, or LLF study group. Or you can submit an image which will ‘be thoughtfully and creatively curated and presented in a creative and impactful way’. I can’t share a link to you for those last two sentences because you need to register on the LLF Hub to see this page. I can think of a number of songs I would like to sing about LLF – ‘I will survive’ being a leading contender – but I obviously lack imagination, as I can’t envisage a cake that represents the themes of LLF. There are plenty of gay cakes around, but they don’t somehow fit. If I were to paint something, I think it would involve tears of sadness. I’ve now heard of one group who did the course and are knitting rainbows to send to every member of the Next Steps Group, so there’s a thought. It reminds me of the US ‘Knit your congressman a vagina’ campaign, and why not?
Returning to using the online LLF questionnaire, if you have done the course, for each of the five sections you are asked whether the material there was ‘Very familiar’ or ‘Very new’ or somewhere in between. That’s tricky too. What if all the material was familiar but one new thing jumped out at you and made you revisit your beliefs? In this case, the response should be close to the ‘Very familiar’ end, but that doesn’t really capture your experience.
You are then asked where, on a spectrum from ‘Terrible’ to ‘Wonderful’, you found ‘the experience of engaging with the course materials’. That’s another difficult one; doesn’t it depend on the group with whom you did the course? Not to mention your sexuality: but you are invited to tick a box for that later on, if you get that far with the survey, so there is scope for discovering that one group of people found the course less wonderful than anyone else.
After these slider scales, there are two free text boxes to fill in. One is about ‘the overall course experience’ and the other on how ‘engaging with this course made a difference to you’. I wonder how these free text boxes will be used. Are the team looking for key words, or trawling for quotable sentences, or both? Judging from Brendan Research’s recent report on the Scottish Churches’ experience of the pandemic, the LLF survey report will include a mixture of tables and diagrams along with a large number of assorted anonymous quotations which are considered to exemplify the answers. In the Scottish Church, these are given general attributions such as ‘Senior Pastor, Independent’ and ‘Minister, Baptist Union’. Here, perhaps, ‘Oxford Diocese, in civil partnership’? Interestingly, in the LLF questionnaire, that standard binary division in the Church of England, lay/clergy, isn’t used. And nowhere are you asked how you would classify your theological position. Later in the questionnaire they want to know how you would describe yourself: sexual orientation, marital status, gender identity, age group. There is opposite-sex married, same-sex married, and also ‘other married’ (what’s that?). As well as same-sex and opposite-sex cohabiting, there’s ‘other co-habiting, e.g. where one person is trans’. And so on.
Moving on with the questionnaire, you are then asked what else you used, besides the course – the book, podcasts, story films or learning hub library of further resources. Finally, for this section, two more free text boxes – one on ‘How do you hope the engagement with this course will make a difference in your local church?’ and the other on ‘How do you hope the church-wide engagement with this course will make a difference in the national Church?’, a question which assumes that there is, indeed, ‘church-wide engagement’. The survey then moves to ask you if you have shared what you’ve learned with others, whether you’d recommend it to a friend, and why/why not. The final box is ‘Anything else’.
But you’re not finished yet. Although question 23 includes the possibility that you did the course on your own, questions 29-32 ask about the group in which you did it; including whether you felt you could ‘participate openly and safely’ in it.
Some very basic use has already been made of the questionnaires submitted thus far. The NSG press release from the 24 November meeting includes:
The meeting welcomed an interim report on the Living in Love and Faith Questionnaire. Respondents have generally found the course positive with their understanding deepened. The story films and book proved consistently positive, with almost 75% of respondents saying they would recommend the course and over 80% saying they have shared the information with others. The Next Steps Group encouraged ongoing efforts to increase the response rate by the end of April and emphasised the importance of continuing to hear from a broad range of respondents.
Meanwhile, the even more minimal press release from the House of Bishops meeting on 13 December 2021 tells us
The House was invited to reflect on issues raised in an interim report on a set of responses to the Living in Love and Faith resources. The House took note of the interim report.
As a result of this meeting we’ve been told that 6000 people have taken part in ‘diocesan taster days’, 500 are now LLF facilitators in their dioceses, and 12,500 have registered on the LLF Hub. In an article in the Church Times January 2022, Dr Eeva John commented
People are saying “I haven’t changed my mind but actually I understand so much better why someone thinks differently, and I have met people that have moved my heart.”
This makes me wonder: how do we survey and process a movement – not a change – of the heart?
And then there are those numbers. I wonder, have there ever been any success criteria for this questionnaire? How many responses does it need in order to become a meaningful indicator of engagement? 12,500 on the Hub… Well, in 2019 there were around 20,000 active clergy in the Church of England. The number of regular worshippers was 1.11 million, and the usual Sunday attendance 690,000. I am assuming much weight will be placed on the questionnaire, as the main – only? – means of showing whether people think they have learned anything, but is it fit for purpose? We’re exhorted to focus on the journey, not the destination, but how does this seven-year (so far) process feel to those faithful Christians longing – for example – to celebrate their committed relationship in their church? For those I know: it feels interminable, and abusive. Those cakes baked for LLF, those songs written and sung and submitted as feedback … these feel like an insult, not a response. Nevertheless, the questionnaire and the opportunity to send in your comments are all we have, so I would urge people to engage before the process ends in late April.