It was an unfortunate bit of timing. The Church of England has spent several years producing a suite of resources called Living in Love and Faith, including a 450 page book, dozens of videos, a course and over 300 linked resources for further study. The purpose is to create a constructive space for this question: How do questions about identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage fit within the bigger picture of the good news of Jesus Christ? What does it mean to live in love and faith together as a Church?
The LLF resources are a brave attempt to help the church, locally and nationally, to engage with the massive changes in culture around identity, sexuality, relationships, marriage, behaviour etc., and to bring that alongside Christian teaching and thinking. To say that traditional Christian teaching (God made us male and female, made us sexual beings and made marriage - a lifelong exclusive covenant between a man and a woman - as the good and right context for sexual intimacy) is out of step with UK culture is a bit of an understatement. The culture itself is in serious flux too, and the ongoing sexual revolution faces some fairly fundamental questions of its own: if gender is fluid then what's wrong with so-called 'conversion therapy' if people want their desires to be different to the ones they experience? Is it child abuse to give minors puberty blockers, in response to them identifying as the biological sex other than the one they were born into, given that 5 out of 6 of them will eventually revert to identifying as their 'given' sex, or is it a therapeutic act of kindness?
I say 'brave' - I can't think of a cultural moment when it would be tougher to try to create a respectful context for deep listening. But that's what the CofE is trying to do. Because most of the sides in this debate haven't listened, or haven't listened well - too painful, too sure of ourselves, too much effort to think things through, whatever the reason. It would be a counter-cultural miracle if the Church could provide a lived example of people with diametrically opposed views, on issues which cut to the core of who we are and how we live, finding a way to hear each other out and live well in one community.
However: The resources were launched last year, and the central team is currently going around the Dioceses (via Zoom), taking us through them all, and how to use them. The plan is for churches to run the course in our parishes, and report back to a national process by the end of this year. Realistically, that's November, as its too dark/cold/wet/close to Christmas to get churches together in person after that for a 5 session course.
A conversation this important isn't one you can have over Zoom, which for all its benefits isn't brilliant for intimate communication, and excludes a fair proportion of church members who haven't got, or haven't mastered, the technology. In theory we could meet in groups of 6 from May 17th, in our churches that would give me 25 groups to get round. And the social distancing review, if it retains social distancing, could completely scupper any attempt to get the whole church together at all. The earliest we could realistically plan for 'normal' church life is September, and there are more pressing things for us as local churches than LLF, after 18 months of partial or complete lockdown. The materials themselves need some fairly major adaptation - several of the sessions are pretty scattergun, some of the teaching material is very poor, and it needs a lot of work to make it usable in normal parish settings. One vicar I spoke to has several adult with learning difficulties in her congregation, and was saying it would take her months to adapt the materials to make them suitable, and that would be in normal times.
Us vicars, along with our congregations, and most of the country, are exhausted. It makes no sense to stick to the prearranged timetable. We need until Easter, or even Pentecost 2022, to have time to go through these materials face to face, with our congregations, at a time when it's likely to work well. I can already hear the howls of protest from the pressure groups, who believe that the current teaching of the CofE is abusive, and for whom the only acceptable outcome of this process is the wholesale embrace of just about everything Stonewall and Mermaids say. But if LLF is not about one side winning, but about all of us learning to listen properly to each other, then I think its foolish to pretend covid hasn't happened and stick to the current timescale.