Where does LLF stand on history? It’s certainly trying (but unfortunately failing) to keep up with the contemporary world; and I’m thinking here just of those references to Covid-19 which sadly assumed that it would all be over by publication date, such as “In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic” (pp. 17-18) or the use of the past tense for it (pp. 78, 117). But the worlds of the past? Not thought relevant. As I shall show here, this repeats a feature of the Shared Conversations which preceded LLF. I want to share something of my experience of being one of the 40 or so people working on LLF and of how history became less and less important as the process of producing the resources continued.
The absence of history from the LLF book seems very odd when, from the outset, there was a History Thematic Working Group (TWG: LLF loved its acronyms). I was asked to join it when it was set up and, before we met for the first time, I wrote:
I believe that thinking about history is a good move, and one which hasn’t been used that much in previous reports. Why do we make appeals to history? What is good history and what is bad history? How far can history help us to think through contemporary issues? When I was asked to join this group, I accepted, because I think these questions underlie the current debates, just as do questions about how we use the Bible.
The context here was that I had previously been one of Oxford diocese’s representatives on the Shared Conversations, explicitly conversations “on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality” intended to discover
how much we can agree on, how much difference we can accept in fellow Christians without agreeing, and where we find the limits of agreement to lie.
The advance materials for the Shared Conversations residential meeting had brought out the point that we need to face up to the range of interpretations of the Bible in order to see why debates about sexuality seem so intransigent. These materials, in turn, picked up a point from the Pilling Report: while the presenting question was sexuality, the underlying question concerned the meaning and use of the Bible.
In the Shared Conversations, however, with its focus on different ways of reading the Bible, it was clear that ‘history’ was not seen as important: history only began in the 1960s. In a reflective blog post from March 2016, I noted that for one of the plenary sessions at our residential meeting,
the plenary room was decorated with images from the 1960s onwards, charting the introduction of the Pill, the Lady Chatterley case, developments in reproductive technology, and the first civil partnerships and same-sex marriages. As a strategy, this gave participants the impression that ‘change’ in human sexuality was something recent, something restricted to our lifetimes which only we, of all human generations, have had to face. Of course, this isn’t true; change is normal, as any historian will tell you.
At the beginning of the process which became LLF, the importance of history seemed to be better understood. When in June 2017 GS 1158 announced the proposed Teaching Document, ‘History’ was there on an equal footing with ‘Social and Biological Sciences’, ‘Biblical’ and ‘Theological’. Disciplines to be covered in our group were “church history, including Early Church, Middle Ages, Reformation, modernity; history and theology of mission.’ Not, you’ll notice, only ‘things which happened after 1960’. Of course, priorities change in a three-year process of producing a book (and that’s history for you) and more of a focus was placed on lived experience, but even so the difference between the plan and the LLF book is striking.
When the History TWG met, despite our different views on the presenting issues, we worked well together. Meetings were more like seminars, with members proposing possible topics and then writing short papers on them for discussion; some of these are now in the online library of the LLF website. Various points in history were mentioned at which change had been proposed or enacted in matters of sexuality. Some made it as far as inclusion in the LLF book. One of these was the Anglican Communion’s changing position on polygamy from the 1860s onwards, and how “received teaching on marriage needed to adapt in order to provide better pastoral care in a new cultural context” (pp. 346-7). Another was contraception (p. 148). In both cases these ended up being a ‘textbox’ in the book: not part of the main argument, but an illustration. The theme of remarriage after divorce fared rather better, making it into the main text (pp. 137-40), but here discussion is limited to the period from the late
nineteenth century onwards. The decriminalisation of homosexuality (pp. 140-1) was another of our topics which made it to the book.
There is nothing in the book, though, on earlier church history, nor even on the early history of the Church of England itself. Yet there is plenty here that would be relevant; for example, the changing legal status of clergy marriage in the sixteenth century. For some years, the Act of Six Articles imposed the death penalty on any clergy who married after July 12, 1539. Instead of our current situation of bishops who are gay but not out, there were illegally and secretly married bishops – married to women. Hypocrisy is not new either. Thomas Cranmer, on trial for his life, admitted to the ‘offence’ of being married, and even having children by his wife, but maintained it was better for him “to have his own [wife] than to do like other priests, holding and keeping other men’s wives”. I’m not a fan of history being used simply to give the ‘List of 10 shocking facts about X’ used all over the internet as clickbait, but I do think it’s important to realise that the world has changed before, and that what we think is entirely obvious was once not seen as such. The bland picture of nothing changing until the 1960s is wrong, and dangerous.
After the initial meetings, the work of the History TWG was all pretty random or ‘organic’, depending on your point of view. Our remit as a group was to partly to review current scholarship, to present ‘good’ history: but there is not necessarily any consensus in a field of history, and in any case the topics were up to us. More people were occasionally drafted in to fill perceived gaps for time periods when something happened that could be worth investigating, but they didn’t stick around. Names of other potential members were mentioned but went no further; I suspect some of the names I came up with were considered too risky in some way.
The next stage was when we moved from theme groups to interdisciplinary groups. I’d been looking forward to that – I’ve been an interdisciplinary historian since my undergraduate degree in ancient history and social anthropology – but it felt to me like this move meant history and science being squeezed out in favour of theology and biblical studies. We seemed to be going back to the vision of history given in the Shared Conversations process: that nothing really changed until the 1960s. Draft timelines for our work were issued, more acronyms created (COG = Coordinating Group, PAG = Pastoral Advisory Group, NSG = Next Steps Group), “learning outcomes” developed and larger, longer meetings were held. At these interdisciplinary meetings, I could talk about a historical example which could add an important dimension to our themes, and people would listen politely and then ignore what I’d said. Opportunities for joined-up thinking were not easy to find; those working on similar topics from different subject backgrounds only came together if one of them took the initiative, but without any clear picture of what other subject groups were doing it was almost impossible to know when to take such an initiative. I found out entirely by chance that someone in another group was working on a historical period for which I have specialist knowledge, and I think this led to an interesting discussion between us of how historians work and on the status of different types of evidence. But that was the exception, at least in my experience. On several occasions, I drafted my resignation letter – what was the point? – but somehow stayed on board. At one point, paradoxically, it was a bishop reassuring me that nobody would blame me if I left now which somehow allowed me to remain engaged.
Meanwhile the shaping of the overall output continued. Various frames were proposed for the book as a whole, such as using the Emmaus story or following the structure of a eucharistic prayer. As the shape shifted, history slipped further away from the centre. The writing process involved some members who could make the time for it doing the majority of the writing, then another group doing the rewriting. Very occasionally one of these key writers would approach me for a few lines on a topic on which they thought I could help. Readers were brought in to check accessibility and perspective, but we weren’t told their identities. Were any of them historians?
And who was the book really for? All sorts of suggestions flew around over the three years of its creation: for the bishops, who wanted to learn more; for church leaders; for a really wide audience who needed a non-technical page-turner; at one point it was even suggested that the approach then being adopted, of going through the story from creation to salvation, would make the book into a mission tool. Would there be one book, or two books, one popular and the other scholarly? The popular book maybe morphed into the videos, which are certainly more accessible than the book which has been published.
Publication was always intended for mid-2020, to allow the report to be “a gift to the Anglican Communion”. That, of course, didn’t happen: the Lambeth Conference was delayed by the pandemic and publication slipped to November. Until the pandemic, we were held to that Lambeth Conference goal very firmly, which led to some insane deadlines along the way, with drafts of the whole book being sent to us with less than a week for reading and comment, and important sections of the book being given to us only on the day of a meeting.
If you look at the index to the LLF book, you’ll find “history, learning from” features just twice. There are no other entries for “history”. The first reference, to pp. 42-3, starts “The birth and resurrection of Jesus were pivotal moments in the history of the universe”. It goes on to talk about history as giving “new perspectives and role models which act as signposts to God’s new creation. We can find abuses of power which point in quite the other direction.” That approach wasn’t exactly what the History TWG was focusing on. The final part of that short section builds on something I contributed on request, at a late stage:
Learning from history is not straightforward, however. How history is told depends on who is telling it and what questions are asked of it. Historical evidence is always incomplete, provisional and open to different interpretations. We have to ask who produced the evidence, why and for whom. New evidence may change our picture of particular events. Equally, we need to be aware of our own subjectivity as we project our fears or value systems onto other ages and cultures.
I would stand by that today. My personal notes from the various meetings occasionally baffle me; “We don’t send children up chimneys but we do use them to run drugs” was probably about how we can present a rosy picture of historical ‘progress’ which glosses over the realities of life now, and I also wrote “LOTS on narrative of ‘progress’. Lot of waffle.” The past was being presented in a very specific way, particularly the Greek and Roman past which was invariably seen as sexually promiscuous, and quite unlike Christianity. I wrote a paper on that but of course it was just one of many such papers in the Dropbox folder, so probably nobody outside the History TWG read it. When I finally saw the Study Guide text (with about 24 hours to go before it went to press) I found a very misleading sentence making claims about the classical past, and was at least able to get through a small change to it.
At meetings and in correspondence, I kept on asking for more use of history, and eventually the project manager proposed that I should write some textboxes which could address it; like me, she felt that these would break up the text by giving a different perspective, using history to challenge our assumptions. I selected four topics: masturbation, the clitoris – neither mentioned in the LLF book other than, in the latter case, when discussing surgery for intersex people or for trans people – pornography and the history of biology. The material I submitted was not used, and I was told that those doing the writing didn’t see the point of it, and then that Comms weren’t happy with it. I have now published it all on my own blog, as a series of ‘Deleted sex scenes from LLF’.
I am not sure what else I could have done during the life of LLF to promote history and to challenge the false impressions being given about progress, about change, and about the past, and I am still left asking why, despite History entering the process with equal status to the other TWGs, did it fare so poorly? Part of the answer could be that history doesn’t give us ‘the’ answer: plus the history of science (with what we now see as its errors) may make us wonder how far what we now consider ‘facts’ are conditioned by our culture. But another sort of answer is suggested by a moment in one of the series of anonymised ‘conversations’ between members of the project with which the book ends. In the first of these, on marriage, ‘Emily’ says
Early on in LLF a paper from the historians about the history of marriage was eye-opening for me. It showed how the ways in which the Church of England has fostered marriage have changed deeply over time. Incremental change is the norm (p. 381).
The index entry ‘history, learning from’ doesn’t include this comment. Readers wanting to find out what was so “eye-opening” will need to make time to go into the online library and do some searching. Other than a short section in Chapter 3, the omission of anything like this from the LLF book makes me wonder whether the bishops have largely gone along with the ‘nothing changed until the 1960s’ approach because they don’t want to consider the practical implications of admitting that “Incremental change is the norm”. Am I being unduly suspicious?