My introduction to Living in Love and Faith at The London Diocesan Synod
22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, 24 and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
25 Shortly before dawn, Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
O Holy Spirit,
Giver of light and life,
Impart to us thoughts higher than our own thoughts,
And prayers better than our own prayer,
And powers beyond our own powers,
That we may spend and be spent,
In the ways of love and goodness,
After the image of our lord and saviour Jesus Christ.
As the chair of the Church of England’s Covid Recovery Group, I recognise that this is a difficult time to be releasing the Living in Love and Faith resources.
Our first priority at this time as a church needs to be caring for our communities, offering light and hope in what are dark times. However, this work has been in the making for over three years. We need to honour the time and commitment those involved in its creation have given.
As we live in the midst of a pandemic, we have heard much of fear. I wonder when we have been afraid in our lives? I was afraid when, a few days before my son was due, I found myself in my bath alone in the house, with the absolute realisation my son was about to arrive. Fight or flight kicks in. I was afraid when I saw my husband coming towards me in a supermarket with blood down his clothes – and with the realisation it was my son’s which was pouring from his head. Again, fight or flight kicks in. I was afraid when at a family event and one of the guests collapsed, and I realised that everyone turned to me to save his life. Our flight or fight response is there for a reason.
However, that response was not so helpful when I was afraid, standing at the top of Canterbury Cathedral after my consecration, or in the Pulpit of St Paul’s on the day of my installation. And I admit that I am still afraid as I go into some meetings, open some emails, or look at my Twitter feed. At those times, fight or flight is not the appropriate response.
Isabelle Hamley, the Archbishop’s Chaplain, spoke about fear in a recent Thought for the Day. She commented that fear is a strange thing. On the one hand it is essential to survival – yet on the other hand, it threatens to overcome us. We all face a battle between good and bad fear.
Whilst President Trump came out of hospital and said that COVID was not to be feared, as a long-COVID sufferer Isabelle said she fears the virus which for her has been destructive. She wears a mask when she is out and washes her hands so that she doesn’t put others at risk and she does this not out of fear but out of care and reasonable evaluation. To hear the words of Jesus ‘do not be afraid ‘is not to pretend that fear is not there but to carry on living in an appropriate way.
To hear the words of Jesus ‘do not be afraid’ is to hear what comes next – ‘I am with you’. It doesn’t deny fear, but it says that God walks with us.
I have reflected over the last few weeks since the publication of LLF that fear is the emotion that maybe holds the biggest risk in preventing us listening to each other. I wonder what it is that we fear because of the process? We may fear not being listened to, we may fear being marginalised, we may fear being misunderstood, we may fear for the future of the Church of England, we may fear abuse or bullying. And our flight and fight response can so easily turn to getting in our pre-emptive attack, as a form of defence, before we are attacked.
The pastoral principles have been developed to help us have difficult conversations, not just about sexuality, but they can be used for all our interactions. They help us to improve the quality of our interactions and relationships in addressing not only fear but prejudice, hypocrisy, silence, ignorance and power.
I was reminded recently of the talk I gave at last year’s Parliamentary breakfast where I reflected on the growing narrative in our society where we are either on the “right side” of the argument or the “wrong side.”
The news is framed in terms of whose political ideas are “winning” and whose political ideas are “losing”. We see it in the Punch and Judy of politics. The division means that there is little incentive to cooperate and it’s depressing because there is a constant expectation of denigration by those who oppose you.
There are ripples in wider society and community. The belief that I am right, and you are wrong can so easily slide into being, “I am good and you are bad.” Hate speak can so easily move to violent isolation of those who hold different views.
We hold the tendency to hunker down with our own and, in consolidating our sense of belonging within our own communities – of whatever kind – we differentiate ourselves from others, setting ourselves apart.
The Church is not exempt. We have sometimes been quick to form different Christian tribes. We have too often shut our doors to those we should have flung them open to. And as we do, we draw explicit and implicit categories which indicate who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. Who is right and who is wrong; who is good and who is bad.
At the Parliamentary breakfast, I mentioned Nick Spencer’s remark that “ perhaps the single most influential text in Western political history” has been The Imago Dei.
It is within this concept of the image of God – with the equality of humanity at the centre – that we find that we can disagree with our ideological or theological positions with care and respect.
Wouldn’t it be a breath of fresh air, if the tone of our conversations focussed less on showing people how right we are but on how to care for those most vulnerable or those most likely to be hurt?
Wouldn’t it be great if we could avoid a culture in which we demonise each other for dissent?
Wouldn’t it be a breath of fresh air if we allowed each other the safe space we need for all views to be expressed and discussed in an atmosphere of compassion and respect?
With the teaching of Christ, the teaching of the equality of humanity at the centre, that true love casts out fear, we have a stable base for those who hold to these views and for those who hold to completely different ones – to flourish.
LLF will not succeed without love, grace, kindness and compassion. We must ensure that what we are embarking on is a safe process for everyone.
This will not be like a Government consultation or a political focus group. It is an invitation and a process of listening, where we are seeking to hear where God is leading his Church. That means that ultimately this will be an act of faith. And we place our hope in God to lead us as a Church where he wants us to go.
The LLF resources are intended to help all of us, whatever our theological convictions, to think more deeply about what it means to be human and how to live in love and faith with one another as the Christian Church in this land. No one has to take part. Let me be clear on this, no one has to take part in a conversation they think is not a safe place and there are many ways of engaging with the material.
The LLF material has its roots in the pastoral principles, there are commitments which those involved in group work need to sign up to for making the spaces safer and which are based on the St Michaels protocols and there are detailed leaders groups. The LLF Next Steps Group is also working with the National Safeguarding Team to review what steps could contribute to a safer environment but let’s not step away from our responsibility to speak and act with love, grace, kindness and compassion – even on social media.
Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”