As the latest Church of England work on “identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage”, Living in Love & Faith (LLF), thuds onto people’s doormats (it weighs 850 grams) people once again face the question of if they can “stay” in the Church of England.
Despite, for reasons of conscience, having left the Church of England myself, I do not think it is the most relevant question.
I am convinced that the great test facing this generation is not getting the “right” answer to, “should I stay or should I go” but the holiness with which we treat those who come to the opposite conclusion. The real question, therefore, is, “How am I holy in this?”
Partly this is pragmatism- both those who stay and those who go, long that all might come back together in a shared ecclesial home - be that a changed Church of England, or elsewhere. The knowledge that one day we might have to welcome home those with whom we disagreed should, itself, be sufficient incentive not to burn relationships.
Being what the corporate world might call a “bad leaver” (or bad remainer), also, of course, reveals something of the state of our hearts, our motivations and thereby the wisdom or otherwise of our decision. Whether leaving or remaining - doing so angry, resentful, revengeful, uncaring or uncompassionate about those with whom we disagree is unlikely to be indicative a decision well made.
And there are three further reasons, just as important, to make this question of holiness in conduct the priority over that of correctness of the decision.
Ultimately, these things are a matter of conscience. Consciences will not all say the same thing, for the same reason, at the same time. Some consciences will be more tender than others, but equally tender consciences will come to different conclusions for different reasons. Some will come to a decision overnight that they have no choice and trust that dictate of conscience, others will want to slowly take counsel as they seek to educate their conscience. Neither is better, more timeous or more likely to lead to the “right” decision. We must not seek to dictate to each other’s God-given and God-formed consciences.
Which leads to this: churches, parishes, congregations, ministry colleagues and friends will, due to the best of causes, not all agree about the when, why and how of remaining or leaving. Some will leave and some will be “left behind”. Most will have different reasons and timing. What true pastor could be anything other than as caring, concerned and compassionate as possible with those who have come to a different conclusion to ourselves?
Finally, being unkind is exhausting. Believe me setting-up outside the structures of the Church of England is exhausting, but for many years before that my wife and I were contending in the Church of England and that is exhausting too - and only going to get more so. No one who wishes to stand as a faithful Anglican can afford to expend energy on wrangling with others of the same desire. We will all need all possible resources for the struggles ahead.