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Public and Private Faith

By Canon Theologian Morwenna Ludlow

Next week I will head off to attend the General Synod of the Church of England as one of the clergy representatives for the Diocese of Exeter. The Synod and its debate about the blessing of same-sex relationships has been much in the news. Questions have been raised in the House about the status of the Church of England as the Established Church if it continues to uphold a doctrine of marriage which is different from the civil definition of marriage.

Whatever one’s own thoughts about same-sex relationships or about the role of the established Church, this Synod has once again brought to the fore the issue of public and private faith. Is it still possible to argue that matters of faith are merely ‘personal’, questions to be saved for the weekend, or one’s private meditations? My husband and I sometimes found ourselves reminded by retired Fellows in Oxford that one shouldn’t talk about religion or politics over dinner. It was, I have to say, a rule more honoured in the breach than in its observance. We used to joke that we were the nightmare dinner companions, one of us working on the doctrine of hell and the other the history of the European Union!

It is increasingly difficult to maintain the view that one should talk about neither one’s faith nor one’s politics in polite company. In part this is due to the tribalism of our current culture: people define their identities by numerous identifiers, including religious and political affiliations. But it is also because certain recent experiences of our nation have raised the question of faith and its public expression. People were struck by the way in which the funeral of the late Queen Elizabeth ceremonies expressed what was clearly a profound personal faith in a very public way. Just across the river from Westminster Hall where her Majesty lay in state, you can find the National Covid Memorial Wall, where thousands of people have expressed their love for those they lost through covid, often in words which are moving public expressions of private faith.

And back over the river again, General Synod will debate same-sex marriage and relationships. One suspects this debate has touched a national nerve for several reasons. But one of these is that our private relationships are rarely completely private. Often, they have profound impacts on those around us. It’s not just that parents care for children. Adult children care for elderly parents. Siblings are deeply impacted when a relationship goes badly wrong. Families grow together for support, or painfully split apart when tragedy strikes. The health of ‘private’ relationships can have a deep impact on one’s working life. Local communities (and churches as part of them) can be blessed by couples with the time and energy to look beyond their own private relationship to help those around them thrive. And all these things are true, whether the relationship is heterosexual, or not. (Of course, society’s complex attitude to being single is all part of this mix – but that is a Thought for another Day.)

So part of me is frustrated by the media’s quick headlines on the Synod debates. But I am also glad that there is at least a tacit recognition that this is not just an issue of how matters of faith affect people’s private lives. Synod will be talking about something which is both deeply personal but also profoundly public. This is why the conversations are so very painful and I pray we will have the grace to speak as well as we can.