Theology, biblical narrative and discernment in Living in Love and Faith (part one)

Living in Love and Faith

Living in Love and Faith is a new way of discernment with respect to doctrine and practice in the Church of England. Its focus is the doctrine and practice of marriage and sexuality. There’s a long and complex backstory to this initiative, and various testimonies to a difficult process of producing the resources for the process. In this blog post, I want to focus on its key resource, the Living in Love and Faith book.

In particular, I want to examine, briefly, and commend how it seeks to guide and shape a process of discernment in the Church of England about its doctrine and practice of marriage. I’ve not space here for a detailed review of the whole book – it is long, though consistently accessible, measured and clear. Instead, I want to focus in this post especially on its treatment of theological anthropology (chapters 8-10) and then in a second post look at how it frames the handling of one key issue.

LLF as step change in the way the Church of England deliberates on its own teaching and practice.

The Church of England produces several kinds of reports. Some seek to guide and resource policy and practice in its various institutions and agencies at various levels. Some seek also to lead or influence national debate and policy formation. Some address particular problems of process. Some resource Christian living and some are the outcome of joint ecumenical commissions with other churches exploring differences and agreements in doctrine and practice. Some, finally, seek to determine and represent the Church’s normative teaching on a question.

Those in the last category, at least the ones I’ve read, tend to present the Church with a relatively finished outcome: a position, framework or structure which, once formally adopted, is to be received, inhabited, practically negotiated or subverted. The house has a given shape, however it is finished, however its inhabitants try to work with or against its constraints and possibilities. (Perhaps the remodelling of a house is more apt).

The LLF book envisages something different: the active involvement of the people of God in discerning the future shape and structure of the building we will inhabit. Whatever the next steps might be, the discernment of the people whom the Spirit constitutes as members of Christ’s body will, the book assumes, be essential to them. It seeks to guide and inform that process.

To that end, it does things very differently to previous reports on doctrinal matters. These might sift different positions and options to some extent, but usually in the course of firmly laying down the one path, with a good deal of the underlying decisions about how to think theologically about the question reflected, but not explored in depth, in conclusions and reasoned assertions. The Church’s long and painful controversies over sexuality, marriage and gender raise those underlying questions acutely but the protagonists have rarely helped people reflect on them.

So it’s really significant that the LLF book tries to contextualise and explore those matters. It takes us into the basic decisions and issues which go into re-imagining the house, and equips us to form a view on them. That seems a new and exciting prospect for a church that professes to believe in the work of the Spirit in its communities and institutions and the dignity and giftedness of all the baptised.

The LLF book offers a real service to that end. It advanced understanding of and clarifies areas of dispute and difference about the future of the Church’s teaching, correcting some factual errors, disambiguating some key terms, unpacking complexity that’s often obscured, and rejecting simplistic rhetorical oppositions. It also challenges its readers in respect of their care for one another, their reflexivity about themselves and their communities, and the institution of the church. (The call out boxes are often used well for these purposes).

A narrative doctrinal framework

But it does all these things within the offering of an overarching doctrinal framework to guide all these aspects of reflection, which comes to the fore in the chapters on theological anthropology. That framework has several interesting and commendable features, which I want to comment on here.

First, it’s significant that the book situates differences within a broader, deeply theological anthropology. That’s the right context for thinking about these complex issues, and the book wisely takes time to explore it carefully in a way that shows obvious debts to the broad tradition of the Church while attentive anew to scriptural nuance and scholarship and to the complexities of lived experience. The result is a rich statement that helps orient reflection and delimit some proper boundaries and articulate an apt ethos for it.

Second, it’s notable that this anthropology makes use of narrative, in several interrelated ways. There is, first of all, a broad, not overly tightly schematised narrative shape to the anthropology: a story of creation, fall and salvation which at once reflects the form of the creeds and a construal of the cumulative witness of the canon of Scripture. Within that framework there is room to draw on reflections of individual biblical narratives, which aren’t forced into a tight conceptual pattern, but allowed their particular textures, ambiguities and renderings of characters. It’s notable, too, that stories of Israel’s life with God play a fully constitutive part in these reflections. And there is room to relate stories of contemporary experiences to the larger story and the individual episodes without over determining their meaning or reducing their complexities.

There are a number of doctrinal emphases and tendencies that come through this account, which give it depth and help set the issues at stake against a greater breadth of theological imagination about creaturely existence in human modes.

Most fundamentally, the book ties creaturehood to an eschatological destiny of life with God. This move builds on and amplifies the tendency of the narrative construal of canonical unity. In the book, the telos of creaturely life is seen as a communion of joy with the Triune God.

The book thickens this connection by the way it invokes the well-worn theological reception of the mention in the first Genesis creation story of humans being made in God’s image. Consistent with a long tradition of theological anthropology that goes back at least to Irenaeus, the book understands God’s Image in humans as a condition of the possibility of that communion, a way in which humans display God’s glory, a foundation for the dignity of all humans and the basis for strong affirmation of goodness of human diversity in complex ways.

These structuring moves are quite traditional in their basic force, though not worked out in some of the problematic emphases and categories of past iterations. There may be better ways of structuring theological anthropology but this one at least roots the proffered framework for the discernment process in the deep grammar of Church of England’s doctrinal heritages and its continued creedal confessions, thus couching the various possible ways forward within a basic, but not uncritical, continuity.

In terms of the issues at stake, this move guides us toward thinking about sexuality, gender and forms of shared life in the context of the final affirmation of the goodness and meaningfulness of creaturely life and of its transformation toward deeper joyful life with God. We are invited to understand this end and change not as abrogation or nullification of creaturely living, but its fulfilment. It invites us to relativise earthly goods and joys in that perspective but also to see their goodness underlined by it, and to orient our enjoyment of them toward it.

The book’s centring of Jesus Christ in the narrative and its resort to the theme of incarnation intensify these effects. To understand Christ’s identity and saving work in terms of incarnation worked out in his life, death and resurrection picks up the predominant emphasis of the Church’s doctrinal heritages, ancient, reformed and modern. To affirm and think with his full humanity and divinity is deeply orthodox but also underscores and fills out the themes of the goodness of creatures, their transformation in being drawn into life with God, and the fittingness of this communion both in respect of their creaturehood, and in respect of God’s abiding disposition toward them. Above all, as Hans Frei might note, it suggests that our identities are encompassed in all these aspects of God’s action and both found and fulfilled in them. I’ll return to that in the next post.

Creation and incarnation help ground the book’s assertion in these chapters of the ontological and ethical primacy of love – intended to flow from God to and through us, and evident wherever we do love, a love made possible by trust and hope and sustained by God’s faithful love. Together with the eschatological orientation of human creatures to sharing God’s joy, this theology of love further frames questions around sexuality, gender and forms of shared life theologically and guides us to integrate their affective and erotic dimensions in our deliberations and to see those dimensions, in turn, within those dynamics of participating, in Christ and by the Spirit, in divine love and joy.

The Incarnation is usually understood, at least in part, as addressing the calamity of human evil and its disruption and distortion of creaturely goodness and the creature’s vocation to life with God. Accordingly, the book’s theological anthropology acknowledges all this. Its marked reflections on human sinfulness and its pervasiveness, emphasise helpfully its epistemic effects: the way it distorts our self-perception and perception of others, the way it’s at work in our theological and ethical judgments. Those are important cautions and prompts for reflexivity.

Above all, however, what struck me most the way the book sees human sinfulness to be evident, perhaps most evident – in biblical narrative and lived experience – in abusive relationships of unequal power, especially sexual abuse, and the use of marriage and family as means to exert male power. There’s precedent for this move in some work in theological anthropology (especially feminist and womanist accounts) in recent decades, of course, and the topic ought to be unavoidable, especially after #churchtoo and IICSA. Nevertheless, to make it thematically important in a general account of sin is still very welcome and significant in the context of such a document guiding reflection on these topics.

All these themes and their guiding force are reflected in the book’s emphasis upon and treatment of embodiment in these chapters. There’s a strong valorisation of human embodiment, and the messy materiality of our creaturely formation and salvation, despite its vulnerability, and of human relationality and mutuality. The book affirms that bodies, and what we do with them, matter intensely, including in respect of sex. (See again the commentary on sexual violence and objectification in scriptural stories).

There’s enormous significance in framing the issues in this way. It works against simplification, reduction, short cuts to deliberation and reflection, against looking away from the human complexity, from the people and their God-given dignity. And creates a particular space for clarifying differences and undoing some blocks to discussing them, as I hope to explore in the next post.

2 thoughts on “Theology, biblical narrative and discernment in Living in Love and Faith (part one)

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