LLF: Building the Bridge as We Cross It …

by the Revd David Runcorn, theological teacher, author and Spiritual Director

Living in Love and Faith is unique.

I am not talking about the content. I mean it is unlike anything the Church of England has produced before to discern faith, doctrine and discipleship. This means we do not know how it will work out. We have not been here before. So, as someone put it, we are ‘building the bridge as we cross it’.

Its (unplanned) conception, happened near the end of a long Wednesday in February 2017 when General Synod unexpectedly rebelled on a (usually routine) ‘take note’ vote on a House of Bishop’s report on marriage and same-sex relationships. But Synod voted not to take note. In response, the Archbishop called for a ‘radical new inclusion’ in the church and shortly after announced a new initiative to offer fresh ways of exploring the conflicted issue of human sexuality. Initially called a “Bishops Teaching Document”, it quickly morphed into something very different in content and approach. What eventually came to birth was Living in Love and Faith (LLF).

Reading LLF reminds me of time I spent in the Samuel narratives a few years ago[1].  In that ancient world, national history was usually recorded in epic poems, centred on semi-divine leaders. Israel did something new. The Samuel narratives have been called, ‘post-heroic story telling’. The result is a text that is honest, subtle, vulnerable, non-triumphalist and undefended. Brueggemann calls it ‘survival literature’ because, by abandoning the familiar ways of speaking of and defining what is going on, it becomes a subversive narrative with the capacity to liberate. It frees God’s people to imagine themselves in radically new and adventurous ways.

Western approaches to leadership are essentially ‘Heroic’ in mode, people who rise to the fore in times of crisis. They inspire, solve the ‘problem’ and achieve goals on behalf of everyone else. This is our secular and spiritual default mode in times of corporate anxiety. ‘Give us a king to rule us’ (1Sam 8.6).

‘Heroic Leadership’, by definition, requires everyone else to be helpless: ‘At its heart the traditional view of leadership is based on assumptions of people’s powerlessness, their lack of personal vision and inability to master the forces of change – deficits which can be remedied only by a few great leaders’ (Senge, 2010. p340). This leaves leader and led in an unhealthy, co-dependent relationship.

More recent studies have been asking what post-heroic leadership might look like.  The conviction is that leadership is not something imported from outside or above but is found within – an expression of the whole community. It uses words like ‘collective’, ‘participative’ and ‘dispersed’. The approach is relational, communal, non-directive, collaborative and negotiated. It is embedded in the community’s story, history and vocation.  LLF looks very similar. Its approach is founded on a creative, trusting relationship between leading, facilitating and learning.

Part of the challenge lies in our understanding of authority. And this also applies to our relationship to the scriptures. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observed that while there are 613 commands in the Torah, ancient Hebrew had no word for ‘obey’. Modern Hebrew had to create a word for outright obedience. The Hebrew words shema and lishmoa express a call to hear, listen, attend, understand. Sacks suggested that God seeks from us ‘a greater virtue than obedience’ – more than submission or compliance. He seeks our responsibility[2]. A different understanding of authority is found here and what it asks of us. To discern what ‘follow’ means we must first hear, listen, attend and understand. English translations miss this by nearly always translating those words ‘obey’.

In making narrative and story so central, LLF is faithfully following the example of scripture (and Jesus himself – Mark 4.34). ‘When Israel wanted to speak of her faith, she did not do it in moralistic terms, or through sociological surveys, or in conceptual essays – people simply told a story.’ (Peterson:1996, p87)

This is unsettling for those expecting the bible to be a divine route map with unambiguous paths to follow and a clear destination. It challenges more directive styles, and a hierarchical approach to leadership.

This tension is illustrated in the evangelical tradition where alongside an emphasis on external authority – bible, leaders, preaching – it has always encouraged personal witness to authentic faith. ‘Tell them your story – no one can argue with your experience’ was the advice at the church youth club. But what if the stories challenge the script?

LLF challenges approaches to leading and learning at all levels of the church and in all its traditions. It is founded on the theological conviction that leadership is the vocation of the whole church. The stories there are essential for ensuring that a variety of voices, experience and testimonies are in the room.

This is demanding. No part of the church’s life untouched.  But LLF is a work of extraordinary trust ‘that the Holy Spirit speaks through Scripture and the reflections of the whole people of God.’

To those in leadership – national, local and all expressions between – LLF says: “Your task is not to take front stage, guarding received understandings, or ‘telling’ people what the truth is. It is to stand in the midst, to enable others to think, to be alongside them, to journey with and guide the discernment of the mind of God within that.”

It has been said that effective leaders do not produce good followers. They produce good leaders – people and communities who are taking responsibility for the gifts and ministries that are theirs. The most motivated and energised communities are those where leadership is more clearly exercised, not less. There needs to be a wise hand on tiller and tasks. But rather than taking over, this leadership creates spaces for others to grow and flourish in the gifts and roles that are theirs.

Now whilst it is true that leadership can be over-powering and controlling it is also true that ‘followers’ can be powerful and obstructive groups too. There are ways of making leadership near impossible.  I have long thought that the supposed crisis of leadership in our times is in part a crisis of ‘followership’. It is all mutual.

LLF seeks to enable the emergence of biblically discerning and pastorally confident local Christian believers and communities, responsible and flourishing in the vocations that are theirs.

So here’s to building bridges. To survival literature. And to the freedom of the whole people of God to imagine ourselves in radically new and adventurous ways.

David Runcorn – author of Love means Love – the bible and same-sex relationships. SPCK, 2020.

[1] Fear and Trust – God centred leadership. SPCK, 2011

[2] Genesis: The book of beginnings. OUP, 2010. p45.

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9 Responses to LLF: Building the Bridge as We Cross It …

  1. Julie says:

    Thank you. This piece describes the type of leadership I have seen at LLF training and taster days. There are many “nay-sayers” and I appreciate that LLF is not what many hoped for, but how good to read something positive and know I have experienced what is described. It gives me hope.

  2. David Herbert says:

    Great post David – and I ove that aside that there was no word in Hebrew for “obey”.

  3. Kate says:

    I think your explanation of “obey” is incredibly helpful and it has certainly deepened my personal understanding of Scripture in a meaningful way. I also agree with you on ideal forms of leadership – I just don’t share your confidence that model of leadership is on display within the LLF process.

  4. Thank you, David.

  5. As it happens, the English word “obey” (c. 1300) derives from Latin obedire which literally also means “listen to,” from ob “to” + audire “listen, hear”. And it is interesting how often when someone doesn’t agree with us, we think or say “you have not listened!”

  6. charlesclaphamskycom says:

    I always appreciate David Runcorn’s measured and constructive comments on websites like Thinking Anglicans. But I’m sorry to see him making the misleading claim that LLF was an ‘unplanned’, ‘new initiative’ that emerged following the refusal by the General Synod to take note of a House of Bishops’ report on marriage and same-sex relationships.

    As a matter of record, the proposal for a substantial ‘teaching document on marriage and relationships’ was in fact contained in the very House of Bishops’ report that was rejected by the Synod. This report (GS 2055, which can still be viewed online) was the bishops response to the shared conversations process, and offered no change either in the law or doctrine of the Church regarding marriage, but instead made four specific proposals: a fresh tone of culture and welcome for lesbian and gay people; a substantial new teaching document on marriage; new guidance for clergy regarding pastoral provision for same sex couples; and new guidance for questions to be put to ordinands and clergy about their lifestyle (GS 2055, para.23).

    It was these four proposals, contained in paragraph 23 of GS 2055, that the Synod declined ‘to take note of’ in February 2017. For some, perhaps, they were too radical; for others, not radical enough. Despite this, and whilst claiming they were undertaking a re-think, the Bishops have proceeded subsequently to implement precisely these same four proposals contained in the rejected report – including the proposed ‘substantial teaching document’ (proposal no.2 in GS 2055 paragraph 23) that subsequently became LLF.

    It is the fact that the bishops so obviously ignored the Synod’s overt rejection of their proposals that has made many in the church like me much more cynical that David Runcorn about LLF; and I am surprised there hasn’t been more (any?) frustration on Synod about it. The Synod reject the Bishops’ report: the Bishops implement it anyway. Do members of Synod not care that the bishops ignored their views? Or are they just unaware?

    Either way, almost a perfect example of the ‘Heroic’ model of leadership that David Runcorn rightly criticises here.

  7. You shall not kill – isn’t obedience demanded implicitly by that commandment? The point of their not being a word for obey is spurious. As any reading of the old and new testament shows, God both demanded obedience and punished disobedience.

  8. Dear Charles. Thank you for this. I always value your words and read you with care. You are right to challenge me and would accept that my comment was guilty of some over-generalising. But I still think something new began in the way LLF evolved and the synod revolt was itself part of the impetus for that. How much this was even conscious I am not sure. Perhaps it was an accident? But rather than leaving me cynical I think there is evidence it energised the process for many and made them feel more included at a time this was needed. Meanwhile – ‘we do not yet see what we shall become’ (1Jn3) in the light of this. Hence the bridge metaphor … Thank you again.

  9. BlackPhi says:

    Charles, what I hear when the house of bishops says they are producing a teaching document is that they are planning to tell us the ‘right answers’ and will subsequently try to persuade us all that these are authoritative. My reading of the LLF book is that it is, as David says, trying to do something very different. It doesn’t give the answers, it barely gives questions. It is much more a discernment of the complex and messy truth is in these areas along with an invitation to walk together with God to somehow find a better way of living together in the light of that truth.

Any thoughts?