Jane George attended the LLF course back in the summer... here she reports on what the course has to teach us about learning, identity, relationships, sex and life together, as the Church of England asks itself what it means to be people "Living in Love and Faith".
Living in love and faith October 2021
Dear St Paul’s Church
During the summer, a small number of us worked through the Living in Love and Faith course published by the Church of England. Here are a few things we discussed and reflected upon to share with you. The course is not about changing people’s opinions but about listening to others and acknowledging the validity of their views and experiences. There were a number of short videos in which various people shared their stories. May be if the course ran again you would like to attend?
The Gospels describe Jesus’ followers as disciples. “Disciple” just means learner. As followers of Jesus, we are called to be learners. When we learn together, we are called to listen to God and each other and to speak about our own experiences and understanding. We must be open to learning from each other and from God.
The Bible is central to the life of the church. Christians understand the same texts in different ways and this raises questions about how the Bible is to be interpreted. The Bible encourages us to learn from history and from nature. History can be complex and depend on whose history is being told and who is doing the telling. We know from science that nature has amazing complexity and diversity. Listening to the science does not always provide simple answers to our questions.
The Bible is our source of Jesus’ teaching. His teaching is rooted in its own time and place but we believe that his teaching relates to all times and places and has authority for us today. We need to understand the context that Jesus was teaching in and our own, to grasp what he is asking of us and we need each other’s help to think about these things. By listening to the real-life stories of followers of Jesus today, especially those who have very different lives and sometimes opposing understandings, we can take a step towards being a community of believers who love one another with the love of Christ.
Identity is who we are. The Bible tells us that we are made in God’s image. We are God’s children, members together of God’s family. From the moment of our birth, we are shaped both positively and negatively by relationships, first within our family and then with an ever-wider circle of people. The creation story speaks of the God-given diversity of creation. Human beings are unique. Our bodies, personalities and abilities differ. Yet each of us is created and loved by God. Some of the differences between human beings are not matters to celebrate, but fractures or distortions. The difficulty is that, in the church, we disagree about how this applies to sexuality and gender. What some see as God given diversity, others may see as forms of brokenness. The subject of sex, gender and sexual orientation is complex and language in this area is controversial. We agree that all humans are equally loved by God and we rejoice in our diversity but it can be easy to hurt and offend each other in our discussions forgetting that God says to each of us ‘you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you’ (Isaiah 43 v4).
Life is full of relationships. Good relationships help us flourish and grow. Bad relationships harm us. They can be disabling and destructive. At its most fundamental, a good relationship is based on love. Love is expressed differently in different relationships. The church’s understanding of marriage has varied over the centuries. St Augustine highlighted three aspects of its goodness: faithfulness, children, and sacrament. Marriage is often used as a picture of God’s covenant with Israel. In the New Testament, Paul relates the union between husband-and-wife to that between Christ and the church. Committed cohabiting relationships, civil partnerships, and same-sex marriages are not regarded as marriage in the church’s teaching. The church aspires to welcome and provide pastoral support to all but does not have approved services to celebrate any relationship other than marriage between a man and a woman. Many Anglicans support this view, but others point out that Christ-like, self-giving love can be seen in other committed relationships and argue that there are different ways to interpret the Bible. A refusal to recognise this, especially in relation to gay and lesbian couples is often experienced as deeply hurtful. Many believe that the Church of England should affirm faithful, committed same-sex relationships whether as marriages, or in some other way.
Sex is such an intimate part of our humanity that it can be hard to talk about even with our partner or closest friends. Staying silent out of fear or shame when we experience problems can rob us of the joy and healing that God wants for us. Enforcing silence in others can also be a way of oppressing people when sex is abused. Jesus calls the church to be a place where people can be themselves without fear. This means giving people space, permission and opportunities to speak, if they want to, about sexuality and gender identity.
Both the Old and New Testaments contain teaching about sexual morality. Ongoing scholarly discussions today highlight deep disagreements about how to interpret the Bible and the relationship between its cultural settings and our own. We should not lose sight of how much remains shared. We agree that God gives us the Bible to tell us the good news of God’s saving love and to call everyone into holy ways of living and we agree about the importance of intimate relationships. Seeking to be faithful to the rich foundations of Scripture, we are called to discern together the patterns of costly discipleship in relation to sex, and in all our relationships
The church is called to be a community where everyone is welcome and where no one is made to feel excluded simply because of who they are. It is a community called to follow Jesus’ example by welcoming the poor, the marginalised, the excluded, and the despised. The church often fails to live this distinctive life. All kinds of unholy, unmerciful, unloving life can be found in what it says and does. So, the church itself always relies on God’s mercy, forgiveness, and transforming help.
The Church of England has a long history, tested and tried over recent decades, of making every effort to maintain “the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4.3). Many have struggled with the compromises that have been made and the church’s attempts to find a way forward.
There are 3 broad approaches to questions of sexuality and marriage. One approach maintains the church’s traditional teaching but stresses listening to and walking alongside individuals who live differently. The second approach permits local churches to respond in different ways. For example, some might bless or conduct same-sex marriages whilst others might continue to view them as wrong. The third approach is to change the church’s doctrine on marriage.
Our task is to listen to the voice of God as we seek a way forward for a life together as the Church of England. We need to keep on reading the Bible, listening to teaching, hearing stories, learning and discussing together. We need to remember that the church is the body of Christ. Our quest for answers needs to be rooted in prayer which is the heartbeat of this process.
The course concludes with this prayer:
Grant to your people, good Lord, the spirit of unity,
that we may dwell together in your love,
and so bear to the world
the ointment of your healing and the dew of your blessing;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.