Fake Participation: what is wrong with Living in Love and Faith?


The Living in Love and Faith Project of the Church of England is the outcome of the impasse that happened in February 2017 when the General Synod, very unusually, declined to take note of the House of Bishops Report that followed the shared conversations of 2014-16. This meant that the report was effectively dead in the water. In the scramble to recover the bishops’ equilibrium, the archbishops wrote the next day, committing themselves and the whole church to a process designed to handle disagreements and find a way forward. They wrote:

we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church. This must be founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it; it must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual.

This commitment was widely welcomed, not least by LGBTI+ members of the church. The archbishops’ own staff and Church House staff had no idea at the time of the archbishops’ writing of their letter what they were committing themselves to.

A project was swiftly created. It had two foci: one was a Pastoral Group chaired by the Bishop of Newcastle, designed to help on questions of pastoral practice within the current guidelines relating to LGBTI+ people. The other, a much more wide-ranging undertaking, was a study programme chaired by the Bishop of Coventry, with experts in Biblical, social, scientific, historical and theological aspects of gender and sexuality being brought together with the intention of creating what was called a Bishops’ Teaching Document. The aim was to complete this work in time for the Lambeth Conference of 2020.

Some of us who are LGBTI+ have been highly suspicious of the whole project from the start, as it stretches out into the future any possible time when the church might review its actual doctrine and practice as they relate to LGBTI+ people, but others have urged us to be supportive. Along the way the membership of specialist groups has widened, and some good work has, we are told, been done. General Synod members had an opportunity in the summer to hear about what had been achieved. Amongst the co-ordinating group of the teaching document have been two identified campaigners for LGBTI+ affirmation in the church, Canon Giles Goddard and the Revd Dr Christina Beardsley.

The two-winged project has now been given a new name, Living in Love and Faith, and we are now told that it has reached a point where the experts have done enough for the moment and participation needs to be widened. Today, the Living in Love and Faith webpages have been updated.

What is participation? What is engagement?

Before we look at what LLF (Living in Love and Faith) says about this, let us consider first some of the principles of participation and engagement. There is a great deal of reputable study of how wider participation and engagement should be conducted. These things are taught at universities and in business and in the service sector. The Church of England is not expert in this area.

For example, this page[i] from the University of Sheffield provides advice on good practice in asking questions designed to help widen participation for the purposes of research, and points out that questions with the following flaws need guarding against:

  1. Loaded questions
  2. Loaded words or phrases
  3. Ambiguity
  4. Variable meanings
  5. Questions based on implicit assumptions
  6. Shared references
  7. Double or negative phrasing
  8. Double or triple questions
  9. “Dual thought” questions
  10. Questions that rely on memory or recall
  11. Offensive or insensitive questions

Widening participation is a standard tool now used in planning and solving problems in all kinds of contexts. My own experience is from working within the NHS. Widening participation or engagement begins with listening in a very unstructured way to the views of service users. It invites service users, carers and others to share their experience – which is often painful and quite traumatic, which was why a chaplain was also always present at these public engagement meetings to provide pastoral and spiritual support.

These stories are then sifted and the lessons that need learning are extracted. It is only then that designing the questions that you would like to have answered can begin. And in that process there will be full participation by service users from start to finish. The NHS would never dream of designing any new service now without a full and thorough attempt to listen to those who use the current services related to their illness or condition and involving them in creating the solutions – doctor knows best died a long time ago.

None of this in any way negates the expertise of clinicians, both medical and nursing. But it does invert the hierarchy of knowledge. It very determinedly understands who the service is there for, and that is the patients. So, at the end of the process to widen participation, the expert clinical responses will always have in mind, not just mending bodies as machines, but also how the people who are the recipients of treatments see themselves in the process. So embedded in NHS planning is this approach that there are patients who are invited to share in the design of services because they are “expert patients” – their long-standing experience of being the recipients of treatments or therapies brings with it an expertise that can help the clinicians as service design is undertaken.

Wider Participation in Living in Love and Faith

The Living in Love and Faith project tells us that it is “extending the reach” for this reason:

The Wider Participation work is to make sure that these two projects are earthed in the lived experiences of churches and individuals. It is not a survey of people’s views on the subjects of sexuality, gender and marriage – rather a listening exercise to make sure our work connects with the stories and concerns of people and churches.

There are some good things about this. It is not about ideas or views, it is about people and their concerns. So what does LLF think needs to happen to achieve this?

We want to ask groups from churches

  • how LGBTI++ people experience welcome and inclusion in their church community?
  • what might others learn from their experience?
  • what issues remain unresolved and painful?

We want to hear from individuals about

  • the kinds of resources they would find appealing and help them to think and learn more deeply about human identity, sexuality, gender, family, friendship, singleness, relationships and marriage?
  • the questions they and their peers have about these matters in the context of our church and culture today?
  • their faith journey and life story that would help us produce resources that are relevant and meaningful?

This is interesting. But it is not wider participation in any proper sense of the term. The questions fail almost all of the Sheffield tests. They are loaded; they are ambiguous; they make all kinds of assumptions; there are double and triple questions; some questions could be seen as insensitive. Take just one example: “How do LGBTI+ people experience welcome and inclusion in their church community?” This is a highly weighted question. It wants to hear positives. But what if the LGBTI+ people have a much more mixed experience and want to tell of exclusion, discrimination, and silencing? There is no way they can. No one is wanting to hear the bad news.

Again, the questions stay safely at the level of the local church. No one is asking anywhere in this process about the experience LGBTI+ people may have of the church as an institution. But why not? Might it be that this is because the answers may not be what those asking the questions what to hear? We know that Pilling spent a whole chapter telling us that we can’t call the church homophobic. But those fine words butter no parsnips for LGBTI+ people whose lived experience is of an institutionally homophobic church. The defence against the accusation of homophobia is not to try and silence LGBTI+ Christians but to behave in a non-homophobic way so that you have a real defence against the charge.

Who is going to answer these questions? LLF tells us that “We have created a process for identifying individuals and listening to how these matters impact their lives and relationships…” but does not tell us what that process is. They say that “We invited all diocesan bishops to select individuals and churches that represent a variety of perspectives and lived experiences.”

But many LGBTI+ people in the Church of England would tell you that in their diocese one of the last people to talk with any real knowledge or understanding about these matters is the bishop. Not one diocesan bishop is publicly identified as gay or lesbian, and only one suffragan. So they can’t talk freely about lived LGBTI+ experience. The diocesans are, frankly, unlikely (with one or two honourable exceptions) to know enough about the personal lives of clergy and lay people in their diocese to enable them to fill the representative categories LLF on their behalf identifies:

  • Male | Female heterosexual
  • Married | Single heterosexual
  • Male | Female gay partnered
  • Male | Female gay married
  • Male | Female same sex attracted celibate
  • Transgender Woman | Man
  • Asexual
  • Intersex
  • Age
  • Socioeconomic spectrum
  • Clergy | Lay (with at least one third lay)

Again, they create problems for themselves. Where are the bisexuals? What of lesbian and gay single people? What of non-binary people? The publication this morning of this information on the Living in Love and Faith website was met with disbelief and howls of protest from LGBTI+ faithful that such a thing could have been written and published with, what seem to us, to be blindingly obvious omissions and exclusions.

Tackling the problems.

The whole process has an intrinsic tension written into it from the start. We are told that it is a process initiated by bishops for bishops. It is strongly under the control of bishops – with an astonishing number of them involved in the various work strands of the teaching document. Contrast this with the membership of commissions and study groups a generation or more ago (Colin Coward has a splendid blog post about this here[ii]). General synod members were told in July 2018 that:

We have also clarified the purpose of the project: it is first to provide resources for the bishops to exercise their teaching both in the sense of teaching the faith and in helping the whole people of God to engage in deep and transformative learning.

So, stripping out the Anglican adjectives, the project is primarily for bishops to help them find the answers to these problematic areas which cause disagreement. Bishops are then to teach the faith in relation to these matters, and we are to learn. The process is fundamentally top down. The answers will, by then, be known to bishops, who will then communicate them to us whose job is to learn from them. But to state it as baldly as that will be met with howls of protest. For alongside this profound commitment to a hierarchy of knowledge they want to be seen to be “listening”.

So what is confected is a process of “wider participation” which remains at all times under the control of the project, which has loaded questions, which invites pre-selected participants, to provide partial information conducive to the House of Bishops to help them write a report which must be ready for – yes! – a conference of bishops in 2020.

The presentation to General Synod used the following image to describe what is going on : “The …image is that of gathering around a table at which we feast on a rich fare of scholarship while listening deeply to stories of lived experience.” It is clear which is the main dish on offer, and what are the side dishes. Scholarship trumps lived experience. Those of us who shared our lived experience with members of the Pilling Group will know this. I remember sharing deeply and personally with a bishop and a staff member about my and my then partner’s experience. At the end of the day we spent together the bishop said to us, “Well, that was interesting, but I haven’t changed my mind in any way”. But, as his marriage had recently ended, he did want to ask our advice on dating! So, you will understand, after that experience of having our life dismissed so lightly, that I am sceptical about the value of their deep listening.

This is not wider participation in any way that anyone outside the bubble of the church would recognise. Today, on the Via Media Blog, Canon Giles Goddard, a member of the coordinating group of the Living in Love and Faith process writes a rather sobering piece entitled, C of E Risks Failure on Human Sexuality Because of Privileged Power. Giles has shown himself to be committed and loyal to a process that has been going for nearly two years. His blog is a serious warning shot that deserves reading – you can find it here[iii].

There is another problem with this process that has not yet been examined. It is the problem of anonymity. The Church of England is very neurotic about sexuality and people, especially LGBTI+ people. It creates for the hierarchy a huge amount of fear. So, the web pages today tell us, “We have followed the Church’s ethical policies and procedures throughout this work to ensure informed consent, to protect anonymity and confidentiality, to conform to GDPR, and to ensure the ethical conduct of interviews.”

That is fine for people who do want their anonymity protected. But it makes an assumption that this will be the case, and that this will be helpful. And, of course, it is, for people who do not want LGBTI+ people in the Church to have real faces and personalities. Why is this important? Let me give you just three examples: the story of Lizzie Lowe and the changes in her church in Didsbury under Nick Bundock’s leadership after Lizzie’s suicide have power because, with her parents’ permission, her story has been told. It would not have anything like the power without her name. Both Vicky Beeching and Jayne Ozanne have published much valued and appreciated autobiographies this year. They have had a huge impact, and their publication has given both of them the opportunity to tell their stories to very many different audiences both inside and outside the church. It is their courage in being public that has helped people to do some deep listening.

But in Living in Love and Faith there is still the sense of shame around. That it is not safe to talk openly about one’s life and experience as an LGBTI+ person, and that this must somehow be kept anonymised and detached from a real person. But I certainly don’t feel that, nor do most of my LGBTI+ friends in the church and beyond. It is not a shameful thing to be LGBTI+ nor to live a full and happy life. What is shameful is the way we are treated and made to feel inside the church. A concern to promote and suggest anonymity as normal is a profoundly disempowering move. It is a choice that is made for people, and it comes from a very flawed process which is not really about wider participation, but about handling expectations so that the people in charge may feel that some wider participation has taken place.

What can be done?

I am not so naïve as to imagine that anything much can be done. The Church of England will continue on its Living in Love and Faith way. If they were serious about real wider participation, they would stop trying to control the whole thing from start to finish. What they should do is to set up a lot of local meetings staffed by people who are expert listeners, and ask anyone in the Church of England who would like to participate to the process to come and share their views and stories at meetings designed to allow people to speak freely. Permission for use of names and guarantees of anonymity, if required, could be given there. From those meetings Living in Love and Faith should then start to shape the process. Knowing the names and being able to identify participants (unlike in the Shared Conversations, where nothing was recorded, and no names were ever attached to views) would make it possible to draw in people with something specific to contribute to the process of the “experts” – they would be like the “expert patients” in the NHS. This is the route that will guarantee genuine connection and real participation and engagement. It would empower every person who has something to say. It wold not discriminate against anyone’s views, and it would get round the problem of “balance”.

Balance is not achieved by Living in Love and Faith drawing up a tick list of types of people they want to hear from. Doing that just means they have variety. They have no idea if the variety of people contacted represents just themselves or many more people. Open access to engagement meetings would not only allow all kinds of people to come and be listened to, but it would also reveal in a natural way, a sense of balance. It would need to be well advertised, and people from all kinds of churches encouraged to come and take part, but once that was done across each diocese then you would start to get a sense of the strength of feeling in particular directions. All voices would be heard, but much more would be learnt than by preselecting and controlling participation. But then again, that might reveal things that the bishops don’t want to hear.

The title of this blog is provocative. But I don’t think it is inaccurate. We live in a world of all kinds of fakery. Fake news, fake goods, fake politicians, faked votes, fake blogs and postings on social media.  Living in Love and Faith is the vehicle that our church is using to forward its engagement with its own LGBTI+ faithful. For the reasons I identify, I think it is methodologically suspect and highly biased to produce results that will not be too difficult for the commissioning bishops to handle. It is fake participation. I think the whole church deserves better. I don’t dare hope for that, but I do hope that someone is listening and thinking about the kinds of concerns that I am raising.

[i] https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/apse/wp/wpevaluation/pitfalls accessed 3rd November 2018

[ii] http://www.unadulteratedlove.net/blog/2017/8/30/fifty-years-on-the-new-co-ordinating-group-meets-for-the-first-time  accessed 3rd November 218

[iii] https://viamedia.news/ accessed 3rd November 2018