With the college of bishops having held their first LLF meeting and Bishop Stephen Croft publishing his views on the future last week, there is a sense that the Living in Love and Faith process is finally seeing the light at the end of an extremely long tunnel. There are hopes that by the end of next February’s General Synod that the decisions will be made and we just have to allow time to implement them.
That is the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario could be that whatever the bishops propose gets rejected by General Synod and we are back at square one, except that we would have wasted six years, lots of money and an incalculable amount of good will and patience.
It is likely that the eventual outcome will be somewhere between those extremes. There is an expectation that some sort of accommodation will be found. There has been talk of a ‘third province’ for many months. Some, like Bishop Stephen, see this as a safe haven for those who take a conservative view. Others see it as a place for affirming churches to do what they want. There are numerous ways that could play out.
Personally I hope we do not go down the third province route. I want us to be able to be one church together, despite our differences. There are many people with whom I might disagree about marriage and sexuality, but where our agreements far outweigh the disagreements and we work together in mutual respect to build God’s kingdom.
That is what it looks like from an insider perspective. From outside the cosy church cloisters things look very different.
As Living in Love and Faith moves into its endgame, the language and visibility from all sides has increased. We all want the bishops to pay attention to what we want. We [insiders] understand that some of this is just noise and power games. But in the LGBTQ+ communities, that is not the way things are being seen.
Those of us who have spent years campaigning for LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church have been very vocal in being part of the LGBTQ+ communities. Our basic message of acceptance and affirmation hasn’t changed. The fact that we are having meetings with more important people or gathering a wider audience for our work is completely unseen outside church circles.
Instead those outside the church are hearing the conservative point of view getting louder and more rejecting. The fear is growing and churches are seen as less and less safe places. Christians are seen as unsafe and assumed to be hostile unless proven to be otherwise. Talk of a third province is being heard as ‘if they can’t keep us out, are they trying to put us in a ghetto?’ People might want to follow Jesus, but they don’t want anything to do with churches full of scary Christians.
There is an irony here too. Anyone familiar with LGBTQ+ literature, whether books, films, TV shows etc will have seen an increase in recent years of the use of religious and specifically Christian themes and imagery. There is an increased interest in religion and in Christianity at just the time when Christians themselves are being increasingly seen as ‘the enemy’ to be afraid of.
This increased use of Christian imagery and themes is especially strong in WLW literature. Novels discuss religious ideas, films use religious settings etc. It is OK to use Christian characters in positive ways. To show what I mean, let me give one clear (and free, it’s on BBC iPlayer) example from the BBC TV series Fort Salem. When we are introduced to the lead character Raelle Collar, who we subsequently learn is gay, she is using prayer and Scripture to carry out what we would recognise as a faith healing. Start watching from about 3.25 minutes.
This is just one of many, many clear religious and Christian examples, but you need to buy the books or have a subscription channel to get the full impact of this shift. The spiritual hunger is real and growing.
For those, like me, who work to bring unchurched LGBTQ+ Christians and those seeking and questioning their own faith into our churches, decision time is also looming. Can we really encourage those from the LGBTQ+ communities who are seeking Christ to join their local churches? Or do I have to recognise that the Church of England has lost my trust?
After February’s General Synod, I will have to decide if I can continue to bring LGBTQ+ people into Church of England churches or do I have to step across the line and take the Christian message into the LGBTQ+ communities and bring church to them? I don’t know the answer yet. But I know God’s call on my life and I know there is a real possibility that I might have to follow that call out of the Church of England.