Learning from the playground – lessons for Living in Love and Faith

We all know what school playgrounds are like and we know that fights can happen.  Often they stop when an authority figure appears, but sometimes both parties are so invested in the fight that they just carry on the scrap anyway.

I have broken up many fights in my time.  Once you have imposed a ‘ceasefire’, what you do next is really important.  If you just tell both parties that they simply have to behave better and even do the ‘shake hands and be friends’ trope then you solve almost nothing.  That is a playground lesson.

What you should do in breaking up playground fights is to see who has been hurt and deal with that first.  Broken nose?  Black eye?  Blood coming from somewhere?  You find out who needs medical attention.

Then you must find out from both sides why they were fighting.  If you don’t find that out and just have a ‘play nice’ strategy then the problems are just likely to go underground and the next fight might be on the way home or behind the bike sheds.  If you do not address the problem they were fighting about, then you solve nothing.  Big playground lesson.

Sadly these are the lessons that the Living in Love and Faith process has failed to learn.  After five years of the LLF process, all we have are pastoral principles (which I support), documents on braver and safer spaces and a group course to listen to each other.  Even the LLF feedback mechanisms are a carefully controlled questionnaire about how much you have learned from doing the course in a group.  But there is no opportunity to look at the underlying issues and discuss them.

The opportunity to feedback into the LLF process ends on April 30th and it is important that people do feedback into it.  But we have to be aware that all the feedback mechanisms are carefully controlled to prioritise the ‘play nice’ slider scale responses. 

LLF and the Next Steps Group seem to see the problem in terms of people disagreeing and are acting as if the causes of the disagreement are of no more consequence that choosing whether to have custard creams or chocolate digestive biscuits with the after-service coffee.  People are literally committing suicide over this.  Others are repeatedly threatening to form a third province in this country over this.

Discussing the underlying causes of conflict is the biggest playground lesson any young teacher learns.  That lesson has not yet got on to the consciousness of the Next Steps Group.

The next playground lesson that needs to be learned is about power.  Fights where one person is standing up to a bully or an older student is fighting a younger one should ring alarm bells and be treated more seriously that a scrap about a football game that got overheated.  You always step in and protect the vulnerable.  Always.  Saying ‘I must be neutral on this’ or ‘both sides must be treated equally’ just means letting those with power carry on doing what they are doing. 

What is happening in the church is not a disagreement between equals, but is about one ‘side’ with power being able to impose their views on others.

To give an example of this, currently bishops do not allow the clergy to offer blessings to couples in a civil partnership (same sex or mixed sex) or in a same sex marriage.  Some clergy believe that such blessings are morally right and Biblically faithful.  Some clergy believe that such blessings are morally wrong and not Biblically faithful.  However the power imbalance means that those who believe blessings are wrong are able to impose their view on those who believe they are right.  At their next meeting the house of bishops could simply agree to allow such blessings as a matter of conscience.  Such a decision would be about accepting that both views are valid and permitted.

The current proposals for LLF are that after April 30th, two reports will be produced based on the feedback from those who have done the LLF course.  (Those who have engaged with the materials in other ways because they do not feel safe to do a course will be allowed to feedback into the responses, but their responses will be given less weight.  No protection for the vulnerable there.)  Then there will be three meetings of the college of bishops to come up with some proposals to put to General Synod in February 2023.

The elephant in the room is what happens if General Synod rejects the proposals as they did in February 2017?  Let’s remember our history, the Living in Love and Faith process began after General Synod rejected the bishops’ proposals.   But the bishops went ahead anyway.  We could easily end up with six years and zero progress. 

The biggest playground lesson that needs to be learned is that in order to move from a strategy of ‘fight nicely’ to a strategy that finds a way to stop the need to fight is to address the reasons underlying the conflicts.  We need to address the fear, ignorance, power, prejudice, hypocrisy and most of all the silence.  In other words, the bishops need to follow their own pastoral principles. 

The fighting needs to stop.  Our mission is to take the message of the Gospel to the people of this country, but they are horrified by they way they see people in church behaving.  Living in Love and Faith started with the idea of a teaching document, so I call upon the bishops to act like teachers and address the issues and allow the church to get on with being the church for all God’s people.