The Bible has so much to say about sex and relationships. So much so that we could say that relationships are what the Bible is about: primarily our relationship with God and secondarily our relationship with one-another and the world around us. The Bible offers us a relational vision for human flourishing. Jesus said, ‘…I have come that they may have life and have it to the full’ (John 10:10). And yet the church (at large) has come in for some bad, and sadly justified, press about its’ treatment of those who identify as LGBTQ+.
Attitudes towards gender, sex, and sexuality have changed enormously since the 1960s. Matters related to gender and sexuality and especially to the inclusion of people who identify as LGBTQ+ are the questions of the moment. For the church, these changes in society present the most significant contemporary ethical, missional, and pastoral questions we face today. The debate within the Anglican church about these matters is divisive and intense. Consequently, within St John’s many of us have questions about this area and for some it is a painful and personal area of struggle.
Within St John’s, we have now gathered a small ‘working-group’ of people to look more closely at questions related to gender and sexuality and how they relate to our Christian discipleship, pastoral care, and witness. Below is some further background to this discussion. But, if you don’t have time to read to the end, here are the bear bones…
PCC Working Group
The PCC working group plan to meet 4-5 times beginning on Tuesday 26 April. The goal is to help shape some teaching on sex and relationships we will make available in the future. The group will be made up of:
If you have questions, thoughts, or concerns about any aspect of this area or about how we are approaching this, as a first step, please read the below material. Then, we encourage you to contact one of the people above. Additionally, if you feel you have a perspective or personal experience that you think we would benefit from hearing as part of this process, please do let us know. You can contact members of the team via: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And please pray for us!
The Conversation/Debate in the Wider Anglican Church
There exists much division with the church of England on this issue, especially within the worldwide Anglican Communion. At the heart of the debate is the question of whether marriage should be redefined to allow for same sex union in line with the passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act in 2013. But of course, there are all kinds of other ethical, pastoral, and missional questions that arise from this.
So far, there has been no change to the Church of England position on sex and marriage. Church of England Marriage doctrine is that the place for sex is marriage and marriage is between a man and a woman. It is important to note, this position is not formed as a reaction to the contemporary LGBTQ+ debate but has been the position of the church through the ages based on an orthodox interpretation of scripture.
You can find out more about the current state of play in the C of E from this concise article: Factsheet: Sexuality and the Church of England - Religion Media Centre and about what is going on with the Leicester Diocese by clicking here: Diocese of Leicester | Living in Love and Faith (anglican.org)
So far, the Strategy of the Archbishops has been to establish a body of teaching on the subject. In 2017, the Church of England began work toward a new document, Living in Love and Faith (LLF): Christian Teaching and Learning about Identity, Sexuality, Relationships and Marriage. Church of England churches were encouraged to undertake a short course of study based on the Living in Love and Faith materials during 2021 and 2022, and to offer feedback on their learning and experience. You can find out more about LLF here: The Living in Love and Faith Learning Hub | The Church of England.
From September 2022 the College of Bishops will begin to work on proposals for a way forward considering the Living in Love and Faith book and feedback from congregations. In February 2023, these will be brought to the General Synod who will then “agree a clear direction of travel.”
Pastoral Principles to Guide Conversation
Human Sexuality is a sensitive area and many people have been hurt on both sides of the debate. Before we say anything else about it, there is a need to speak words of healing, forgiveness, grace, and mercy over everyone who has been involved so far. It remains a sensitive area for the following reasons:
The wider church has not responded well to changes in attitudes and behaviour within society related to Human Sexuality. At best, the church has failed to present a positive Christian vision for Human Sexuality. At worst, the church has been guilty of prejudice, exclusion and even abuse of those who identify as LGBTQ+. This is wrong and is sin; in humility we must repent.
To a greater or lesser extent, an experience pain and brokenness with sex and relationships is common to all. This is true regardless of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identification.
Many people are the parents/friends/relatives of people who are questioning/exploring their sexuality and genuinely seeking to offer support.
Many people who are sincere followers of Jesus, for all kinds of reasons, hold a wide range of views about questions related to human sexuality. The Church of England have established principles of pastoral practice to guide how we can live well together within the parameters of its current position on marriage and the different deeply held convictions that individuals and churches hold on these matters. These are summarised in the graphic:
Further description of these can be found here: COFE_02715_PastoralPrinciplesCards-UpdateApril19_AW-NEW.indd (churchofengland.org).
Within St John’s there are people who sincerely hold views right across the spectrum. It is important that we respect the sincerity of people’s opinions even if they differ from our own. St John’s leadership and the PCC affirm these principles and will seek to use them as guide for our discussion. We believe that by adhering to them, we can reduce the anxiety and tension often experienced in such conversations so that conversation can be as grace-filled and constructive as possible.
How will we Approach the Conversation?
The goal of holding a conversation about these questions is not to produce a St John’s ‘policy’ or official ‘stance’ on LGBTQ+. Nor is it to end up with everyone agreeing about every detail. Rather, we (church leadership) plan in the future in an appropriate way to bring teaching on what our Christian Discipleship means for sex and relationships. Within this, teaching we will cover a biblical basis for how we deal with the missional, pastoral, and ethical questions raised by contemporary changes in attitudes in this area. this is a complex and sensitive area, so we plan to be careful about how we approach this. The goal of this conversation is to help us journey humbly and listen deeply to scripture, contemporary society, the personal experience of people both within and outside St John’s and ultimately to be led by the Holy Spirit.
Here are a few initial thoughts on how we frame the questions and approach the conversation. Our conviction is that at the heart of Christian discipleship is the call to ‘follow Jesus.’ This means acknowledging him as Lord and praying and working that His Kingdom will come, His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. It is therefore most helpful to frame our core question as, ‘what does following Jesus mean for how we think, behave, and treat others regarding sex and relationships and contemporary questions of gender and sexuality.
There are several important reasons to frame the question in this way:
Firstly, we identify Jesus as the source of our unity. We are the body of Christ, which means we are family and families stick together, even if we disagree!
Secondly, allowing the peace of Christ to rule in our hearts (Col 3:15) minimises angst and stress. This creates the best possible conditions for constructively considering the complex and sensitive questions in this area.
Thirdly, it enables us to consider human sexuality in its fullness rather than becoming overly focused on contemporary questions related to gender and sexuality. There is so much the Bible has to say about sex, relationships, and gender before we even get to questions related to LGBTQ+.
Fourthly, it helps us avoid becoming consumed by the conversation. At St John’s, we want to be identified first and foremost as the body of Christ and for our love for the wider community not by any perceived stance on LGBTQ+. We must focus our energy primarily on knowing Jesus and making him known.
Please pray for us as we engage in these conversations and pray for the whole of St John’s and the wider church. Pray that we may faithfully bear witness to Jesus Christ and have the wisdom to know how to proclaim afresh and anew the Good News within contemporary society.