Living in Love and Faith: One - Suddenly Equal?
With the publication of Living in Love and Faith, the House of Bishops’ project on human identity, sexuality and marriage, I am going to offer three short reflections.
As a gay man and an evangelical, I was invited to be part of this project around half way through its life. This first reflection will be on the book, the main resource, and it will be very positive. My second will be on the process, or rather - on my experiences of the process. This is inevitably a personal view. It’s not going to be so positive. The final reflection will be about my hopes for what this whole project might offer LGBTQ people both
within and beyond the fellowship of the Church of England. I’ll let you wait to see how that pans out!
The main text of the book is over 420 pages long. There is no way that I can review all of that or even begin to say that I agree with everything that is in it.
I don’t agree with all sorts of things in it.
But I've already told you I'm going to be very positive.
When I was invited to join the Biblical working group in December 2018, I told Bishop Pete Wilcox that I came to this project with one question: I'm not sure he quite got it at the time; later, I couldn't have asked for more support than he gave. The following March I raised my questions at a plenary session of the whole project (over forty theologians and bishops) and I was shouted down. I was told my question was obvious, unnecessary, rhetorical, a waste of time.
But slowly, slowly, the question I brought took hold. And now, in chapter ten of the Living in Love and Faith book, it holds a key theological place in the whole enterprise.
Every Anglican report on sexuality for years has had a line on how every person is equal in some way or other (made so in the image of God, or of intrinsic value, or in the eyes of God, or using some other language) - but the content of those reports have then gone on to demonstrate that these are just words with no meaning or reality. LGBTQ people have consistently been made second-class human beings by Church reports. Barred from relationships, limited in ministry, described consistently in the language of sin in a way that straight people never are.
My question was therefore: are we all equally human? Are we all made equally in God’s image?
And chapter ten of this book spends a lot of time delving into the theology of this question in order to set before us a definitive ‘Yes’.
This is how it begins:
All human beings are created in God’s image and are objects of God’s unfailing love. That confers on each person a dignity that cannot be taken away.
In the story of salvation God brings about a glorious diversity in creation, a diversity that is reflected in humankind.
In exploring different ideas of what the image of God in humanity is, and in settling on the fulness of that image in Christ, we read:
Every human person, regardless of their situation or condition, is created in the image of God. Each and every human being comes from God and is the object of God’s care and love. Each and every person is therefore a unique and deep mystery of inestimable value and dignity. Whenever we face another, ,we are seeing a reflection of God’s infinite love and glory… We are called to see each and every person as an object of (God’s) love.
The chapter explores what this means for unequal relationships and for the question of abuse. It is absolutely right to do so. This isn’t just a question of the inequity of the way LGBTQ people are treated in the Church - it is about every inequity and every person. Inclusion does not work if it is just about me: that is selfishness, not inclusion. The equality of every person is what the Bible teaches, and it is what this chapter, for the first time in any church document on sexuality, genuinely explores.
This is everything. It’s everything because it leads to this:
In a true relationship of love, life is shared… Those involved come to understand themselves not simply as subjects, as desiring creatures, but also as the object of another’s desire; they learn to know themselves as loveable as well as loving. True love demands mutuality and upholds dignity.
The process by which we discover our identities in Christ should be one in which we discover that each one of us is loved and valued by God as fully, as lavishly, as every other… God calls us, challenges us and transforms us, because God loves us - and nobody is outside the scope of that love. There is nobody from whom Christ shrinks, nobody whom he is reluctant to touch, to eat with, to share his life with. There is nobody for whom Christ did not die.
The disagreements that have plagued the Church on what true love means for LGBTQ people are faced and then put into a simple Creation context. Diversity.
God’s creation is a dazzling explosion of diversity which speaks of the unutterable beauty, unfathomable grandeur and infinite creativity of the Creator. And so when God made human beings, they too reflected this dazzling diversity…. The existence of all this variety is not, in Christian thinking, an accident. It is not a tragic fall away from pure spiritual unity into messy physical diversity.
So we have the building blocks of equality in the image of God for all; true love requiring loving and being loved for all; and diversity being God’s gift in Creation, not a mistake.
This is followed by the most radical statement on equality and diversity that any Anglican report has ever offered. Get ready for this. If you haven’t found the bottom of page 197, you need to:
No human being is worth more than another because of their gender, the colour of their skin, their bodily characteristics, their abilities, their sexuality, their marital status, or even their stance in the church’s debates about identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage. The ideas we are discussing now, however, push us to go beyond that. Human diversity is to be welcomed and celebrated. The love of God is displayed in human lives not despite their being different, but in and through their differences. The infinite glory of God is imaged in and through the intimate pattern of human lives - in all their colours and shapes and sizes - and what we see would be diminished if that variety were to be absent. (Bold type mine)
The text goes on frankly to look at ways in which our ecclesiastical debates have found this idea difficult and then says again, clearly:
We can and must accept the equal dignity of all human beings, and we can and must celebrate their God-given diversity.
Equal dignity of all. God-given diversity. Gifts to be celebrated. Not hidden. Not excused. Not put to one side. LGBTQ people are, in this text, for the first time, fully human members of God’s church. There is here a theology of equality that changes everything.
And the text allows that some will find this hard. The text looks at specific examples where our debates fail to reach this level. And it repeatedly asks us to avoid judging and instead to learn to celebrate:
The celebration of human difference that Christians are called to is a celebration of the different ways in which people inhabit the good order that God has given to Creation.
The final part of this chapter takes an issue that is often used as a weapon against LGBTQ people and helpfully reframes the debate, along the way changing a significant word for good.
Most LGBTQ people in the church have, at some point, been critiqued for calling themselves LGBTQ. Our identity, we are reprimanded, is not “gay”, it is “in Christ”.
Normally we look back at whoever is saying this and wonder if they every wear an England rugby shirt, or consider themselves a father to their children. Their identity is not English, it is ‘in Christ’. They are not ‘a father’, they are ‘in Christ’, surely?
Chapter 10 addresses this well. Of course our identity is in Christ. But:
We are in Christ as embodied beings.
This means we all have histories, relationships, communities, gender and sexualities, and the chapter looks at how these play together rather than contradict our place in Christ.
My story may not be yours - but still it has a value and a merit and Jesus walks with me through it.
Most helpfully, it begins to reframe the story of sin which so often has been used in the church’s reports of the past to place LGBTQ people at a disadvantage. In a meeting of the College of Bishops I made a plea for them to understand what it was like to hear every conversation about me and people like me to be a conversation about sin. Did they have any idea what that did to us? They clearly listened, because in chapter 10 what we have is a move away from defining sin as moral failing generally (and sexual failing specifically) to a much more rounded and Biblical understanding.
God made human beings for love - for loving relationships with God, with each other, with ourselves and with the wider world of creation. Sin is the breakdown of all these relationships.
The text goes on to see sin as our failure to live according to God’s ordering of creation; as a failing to living well with our fellow creatures; as putting things in the place of God; as acting outside of the loving relationship God seeks to have with us; as using people rather than loving them - including ourselves; as colluding with systems and cultures that dehumanise others; as oppressing the poor; as making others less; as a power that corrupts God’s good world.
We LGBTQ people get nervous around discussions of sin in these documents because they are usually (lightly) coded messages saying that our lives aren’t up to snuff. But here the code is unravelled and re-written. It finds a better, Biblical basis. It challenges what has gone before - those reports which have simply served a system and culture that has dehumanised many of us - and finds a grace, a resurrection power that is for all. Christ died for all - and rose for all. Not to grind us down, but to offer us hope.
To be sure, the chapter ends realistically. We’ve done some heavy lifting, but these words aren’t enough. People will disagree, and not quite see what has been said here.
But what has been said here is phenomenal. It has never been said before.
We are all equal.
Diversity is a God-given gift to be celebrated.
We LGBTQ people have a story to be told that is part of our place in Christ.
And sin is no longer a word to be used as a weapon against us, but rather something we must all guard against so that we may all find hope together.
So far so good!
I almost hesitate to move on…