You said you had an answer to my questions about Dominic Cummings and you supplied it.
Yes, there is one rule for you and one for me.
You told us back in March that our loved ones were going to die, that we would find it a struggle to keep heart and soul together during an indefinite lockdown and that we would be making a sacrifice in a battle not seen since the second world war. It was noble chin out and stiff upper lips to the ready as we walked into the hurricane with you. The sacrifice was not for ourselves but for others. We would beat this by letting the greater good constrain us.
In what must have been one or two minutes of your opening remarks this afternoon that rallying cry two months ago seems hollow and may only be remembered in history as prelude to what happens next.
I suspect that millions will now base their behaviour on their perception of their overriding needs because of what you said this afternoon. You told us that sometimes it is understandable to act rashly out of fear and panic. You said that our fear and panic will legitimise endangering the health of all sorts of people who don’t know us. But that’s okay now because our personal understanding of our situation and what we can bear will always be the voice we should obey. Everyone else can look after their own affairs. In your words, it is understandable.
You see, that’s how leadership works. You have told the nation he made an understandable and legitimate choice given the circumstances. That will now be a template for how others will make their decisions. Who are you, or the police, or the ICU staff to tell me that my actions were wrong and dangerous and undermined every piece of public advice about what it was going to take to beat this virus? If I determined my actions were understandable and legitimate given the circumstances then that is my business and everything else is secondary.
Now, some advice from those who exercise leadership in a pastoral setting. There are many people who were not allowed to be in the same room as their loved ones as they struggled to live or who succumbed and died. They couldn’t go to their close relatives’ funerals. There are people who have not seen their elderly parents for over two months.
You might want to think about what you will say to their broken hearts; broken hearts that, left to their own discretion, didn’t make an irresponsible choice. Those of us who work in this area have seen the forlorn faces on video conferencing and even worse, heard it in their voice as they talked on the phone about all the people who wouldn’t be able to go to the funeral and acknowledging what an inadequate experience it would be, an experience that can’t be redone when lockdown finishes. We’ve heard and seen the painful yearning of grandparents who have sacrificially denied themselves the pleasure of seeing grandchildren newborn and grown up. There are parents and students worried that this broken year of learning will ruin millions of futures.
There’s a long list of broken hearts because there is a long list of sacrifices that you said had to be made.
You may face a nation who will now tell you that your rules will be measured by what is what their heart and by the intensity of their fears. It’s a dangerous time for people to decide they can go their own way on this and damn the consequences.
I also feel sad for Mr Cummings and his wife if they are so bereft of friends and family close by who are willing to help them in their situation. Leadership can be a lonely place but my experience is that there have always been those around willing to help out sacrificially in times of deep need. All I have needed to do is ask them. More touchingly, I have accepted their unsolicited offers of help when they heard I needed it.
What you eventually do with Mr Cummings is up to you. But what you might want to reflect on is that it is in the “it will all blow over” situations that your deepest and most important leadership is exercised. It won’t be in Brexit or getting the economy running again or having the Queen read your speech in the House of Parliament saying what legislation you want passed.
Your most important leadership is in those situations where you convince people to trust you because you think you know the way through the dark woods that are unfamiliar even to you. Leadership is lost when those you lead discover they have had to take a darker, harder path than your friends.
A reflection on how we need to lament and how that needs to be balanced by words of hope. We need to shout at heaven but we also need to clap with those who are healed and keep rainbows in our hearts as signs that one day there will be a life worth taking part in.
I hope you find it helpful. I found it helped me to write it. One day we will go back into life. I also hope that we have learned that “normal” is no longer a word that means a lot. There is nothing normal about life. There is just life. Amen.
I’ve been ill this week. At the best of times being ill brings out clergy guilt and self loathing at not being immortal and strong. In a genuine time of crisis, being laid low leaves you feeling isolated and out of touch and…helpless.
Many of my clergy colleagues have thrown themselves into creating an online presence or running community help schemes and here I am trying not to topple over whenever I stand up. It’s a humbling lesson for people who find themselves in a position of being the one who is expected to get it done and lead by example.
This week I am beginning to learn how to lead by the only example I’ve got: being ill.
I have prayed more for people than I think I ever have done when healthy. I’ve spent time mourning the loss of jobs, livelihoods, freedom, visits, company…all those losses my neighbours are experiencing indefinitely. I worry about the state of church finances, about what will happen when we return and whether we really should return to the church life we lived before. In short, I am sharing the lives of others by living the same life. No magic wand to wave to solve problems, no processes or campaigns that might address issues. No point having meetings about stuff because there is no immediate stuff to have a meeting about. The congregations and the local support groups seem to be looking after each other.
When I get better, I will resume phoning people to see how they are. I’ll sharpen up our online presence and most importantly, put some real thought into what the landscape will look like when we come out of the other side. But for right now, with millions of other people, I will be learning how to just be and to make sense of the isolation I find myself in and the weakness I feel.
Most importantly, I’ll learn how to offer all that to God because I’m not really in charge.
I started this post the day Ian Brady, the so called “Moors Murderer”, died. I was prompted by the headlines claiming to express what they thought we were all thinking:
Burn in Hell. Rot in Hell. Hell is too good for him.
I didn’t post in the end. I’m not sure why. Maybe I didn’t want to add to all the noise of everyone else. And many people said what I wanted to say, but much better than I ever could.
I was moved again to try to write something meaningful and coherent when I saw this comment following a “let’s get the bastards” type Facebook post following the recent terror attack in London:
Final solution comes to mind…
Such a loaded phrase. Let’s exterminate “them”. We’ve put up with “them” for long enough. Final solutions tend to kill millions of people who are not “them” and leave the problems still intact. Final solutions make us “them”.
Inconveniently for followers of Jesus there are no “them”. If you are without sin, then you can cast the first stone. Holy people were told they needed to be born again before they could see or understand the Kingdom of Heaven. When I seek an enemy who I can curse and tie the noose for their hanging, Jesus says
“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. From Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount
Jesus projects a Moses like authority: “But I say”; “But I tell you”. Jesus preached that God is reconciling the world to him. Sinners, saints and all those in between are called to draw near and taste to see that the Lord is good. No one is deemed “unworthy” of redemption and inclusion. For preaching this and other messages of love Jesus was executed under the equivalent of anti terror laws. In the eyes of his society, he was one of “them”.
It is an uncomfortable command because it is rooted in a gospel calling me to die to a self who settles everything through violence and division and marginalisation. It calls me to follow the blueprint of God who is active in making his enemies his friends and who offers every “them” a path out of being “them”.
The story of Jonah is about this exact thing. God tells him to go to Ninevah and tell them to repent or He will destroy them. Jonah thinks, “It’s about time” and promptly heads off on holiday in the opposite direction. God has other plans and steers him straight back to his enemies. Jonah is dismayed to find that his enemies accept his message and declare a period of national repentance. This upsets Jonah even more. Why would God save these miserable people?
Because, apparently, he wants to.
Because this commandment is so hard, it is difficult for us to imagine what it would look like in practice. It isn’t about giving evil a free pass or the benefit of the doubt. It isn’t about being less vigilant. It is about recognising that when we embed people in the status of enemy it makes them a powerful force in our lives, which is what they really wanted in the end.
To offer love to the world as God loves forces us to rise above our pain, the slavery that eternal grieving causes us to endure and the paralysis that stops us from engaging in a world that so needs to know God’s love. It forces us to take seriously living in a kingdom of light that is so better than the one of darkness.
I suspect Jesus would shock us with what he would say to Ian Brady and the terrorists. He would shock us with weeping for their victims. He would weep too for the perpetrators whose damaged hearts and minds spurred them on. He would weep for their enslavement to sin and death.
That is why I need God’s grace too because inside me is a tabloid headline writer waiting to get out and scrawl “hang them all”. And not just in response to Ian Brady or terrorists.They write these headlines about the person who upset me at a PCC meeting or splashed me as they drove past or who criticised my blog post. The “enemies” we rage against most are the mundane ones we encounter every day.
Jesus teaches us that hate is just that: hate. It doesn’t do anything but make us hate. It produces nothing of light or value.
The rejection of hate can propel us forward to see how we can better protect the vulnerable, to recognise the dangerous and compassionately deal with people in the grip of a darkness we find hard to understand. When we do this, we somehow recover the humanity of us all.
Donald Trump has given every preacher a gift for Palm Sunday. To prove he is in charge. he sends Tomahawk missiles on Friday and a Carrier Strike Force on Sunday. Meanwhile, around the world, churches show a different projection of power. In many parishes a Donkey will have led a Palm Sunday procession through the neighbourhood streets. Power is displayed with a shout of “Hosanna!” and the waving of palm leaves.
Jesus the King enters Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. No gleaming escort or royal troops. No brass bands. No flags. No symbols of personal or national power. No Eagles with arrows in their talons. No slogans of Peace Through Strength. Just a dusty road, a borrowed donkey and peasants waving flora. He’s not very kingly with his talk of turning your cheek to be struck over and over and the idea that your neighbour’s life is as important as yours. God’s idea of the good life is very different from what we conjure for ourselves and set as the template for all.
Jesus, the King on a donkey, exhorts us to see the futile nature of sabre rattling and power projection. He makes us conscious that conventional munitions kill Trump’s “beautiful babies” just as tragically as chemical weapons. He leads us to see the show of force is not really about beautiful babies but rather policy and alliances and national prestige. People don’t really come into it.
Jesus, the King on a donkey, only has love of God and love of neighbour to offer. The Church has spun that into complicated theories of just war and Christendom where the state is God’s agent of order, justice and purpose. In reality those things are confessions of our failure to ride the donkey. Just like the guy who asks, “Who is my neighbour”, we spark a parable about good Samaritans and the idea that citizens of the kingdom do not have enemies but only possible future friends.
Jesus sits in paradox to the kingdoms of this world and requires us to ask what is so special about our kingdom that it needs protecting with missiles and warships and sabre rattling rhetoric.
Donald Trump’s election (and the Brexit vote here for that matter) wasn’t because of racists, economic left behinds or alt right fanatics; though they are all factors.
What brought him to power were three national myths:
- Scarcity: There is only a limited amount of rights and opportunity and wealth to go around. If everyone has the same rights and access to opportunity it somehow takes away from me.
- Scapegoating: who are the people doing this to me? Corporations, blacks, women, illegals, gays. “We’ve been pretty tolerant of what they’ve wanted so far and now they want to take more. Well, the line is drawn here.” I genuinely believe people without a consciously racist or sexist bone in their bodies bought into this because it wasn’t about isms; it was about survival in a time of scarcity.
- Infinity is possible: We can consume in unlimited volumes and it will be keep coming. Yes, that seems to contradict myth one but it works on the following logic: there is infinity but my access to it is being blocked by all these other people who keep asking to have what I have in the same amount. There is infinity for me as long as there isn’t for others. White voters voted in their droves to restore their access to infinity because the scarcity was caused by people who they felt shouldn’t be in a position to cause it in the first place.
Jesus, the King on a donkey, didn’t believe these myths and neither did his mother. When she found out she was carrying him in her womb she sang the Magnificat which contains these phrases:
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly, he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. Luke 1
The Gospel of Matthew tells about the adult Jesus sitting on a hill with a bunch of others while telling them how his kingship would turn the world upside down. The people who mattered were the meek, the mourning, the peaceful, the pure, the persecuted and those who wanted to be righteous. Jesus tells them if power is the starting point then we’re looking in the wrong place. If you want a kingdom guaranteed to create poverty, conflict and joylessness then follow the one with the proper parade and honour guard.
Jesus, the King on the Donkey, is a ridiculous figure in a ridiculous procession declaring a ridiculous Kingdom of love and a sacrifice. His power doesn’t teach the world a lesson, but instead saves it. His parade does not lead to higher poll ratings but rather to a cross. This is a procession about our heart’s desire: palm fronds or tomahawks. You can’t have both.
Hidden Figures is an inspiring and challenging film which deals with a trio of African American women who work for NASA in the early 1960’s. It documents their struggles to thrive in their chosen professions. Through their eyes we explored three issues: segregation between blacks and whites, women being taken seriously in a highly technical profession and how competence and achievement transcend gender and race.
Within NASA there were segregated facilities ranging from toilets, lunch rooms, coffee pots, offices and libraries. As one character rose in prominence she heard a recurring phrase, “But, but, there’s no protocol for a woman to attend that meeting”, Another faced a gender and racial barrier to her getting the respect and education she needed to be an engineer. Another faced a refusal to be taken as a supervisor of workers of all races rather than just African Americans.
A key truth we were asked to confront was that when you segregate based on basic human attributes, when we deny people the opportunity to participate based on basic human attributes; we will never be at our best as humans. Our achievements will always be less than they could be.
Most oppressive systems try to hide behind the idea of “separate but equal”. Segregated facilities are not equal facilities. Equality means having access to the same things and resources regardless of where they were provided. In the case of the American South, people could argue that society offered equality because it educated African American children in their own schools just as Whites had theirs. They had their own section on buses, restaurants, theatres; what more did they want?
In Hidden Figures a character goes to the “white” section of the library to find a book on computer programming. When challenged that she should be in the “coloured” section of the library, she replied that “the book I need isn’t in that part of the library”. That’s what they want: equality of access to everything white people took for granted.
Segregation turned my thoughts to the current debate in the church about Bishop Philip North and his decision to step down as the Bishop of Sheffield designate. The row started when Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral Oxford called out the Bishop of Sheffield designate to either quit his role in “The Society”, an organisation committed to traditional Catholicism within the CofE (promoting a theology that women cannot be Bishops or Priests) or decline the nomination of Sheffield because he would have to treat 1/3 of his clergy as non-priests based on their gender.
In 1994 the law of the land changed to allow women to be priests. In 2014 the law of the land changed to allow women to be bishops. In making the latter law there was a recognition that no longer would women be excluded from full ministry in the church. At the same time there was a recognition that a minority of lay people and clergy couldn’t theologically accept this and would now feel vulnerable and would need protection in order to still feel part of the church and “flourish”.
The Church came up with 5 guiding principles to attempt this accommodation and flourishing which you can see here: http://forwardinfaith.com/uploads/The5GuidingPrinciples_for_web.pdf
Why do these provisions need to be made? You can see here the Society’s reasoning for why women are a “problem” for them: http://forwardinfaith.com/jscripts/tiny_mce/plugins/imagemanager/files/4_Women_Priests_for_print.pdf
While the Church must accept women’s ordained ministry as deacons, priests and bishops those who oppose this are to be seen as holding a theological position of equal validity and are to be equally accommodated. Those who hold those positions must be allowed to have the least interactions with ordained women in authority. to aid this the church laid on an alternative hierarchy to care for them without any added cost or obligation to them. In short they are allowed to remain separate but equal.
Bishop North is often described as a gifted preacher, evangelist, advocate for the poor and all around great candidate to be a key leader in the Church. But he is also on the board of the Society which actively promulgates the doctrine that women should not be ordained as priests or consecrated as bishops.
The church concocted these principles while trying to square a circle. That’s why we focus on all he has to offer as a bishop, as a leader, as a friend of the poor. In order to accept women’s ministry in general and to encourage it he must see women not as priests but as deacons and leaders. Increasingly we speak of clergy in terms of leadership. We measure this by attendance numbers, income and busyness. As long as women’s ministry is couched in terms of leadership they are just another bunch of parish leaders, doing good things for the gospel.
The wheels only come off when sacraments and authority is raised. Don’t ask him to receive communion from these leaders or to join in their consecration when they become bishops. As long as he can stick to leadership functions he can blur the gender/priest issue. In this way he can flourish as a leader, those who oppose women’s ordination can flourish and those he works with can flourish as leaders. If we stick to priestly ministry being about leadership and production, we’re fine. But the ordination service doesn’t talk about us being leaders. It talks about us being watchmen and shepherds and pastors and protectors of doctrine and people who offer sacraments. We lead, but in a way that is hard to measure.
By all accounts, including from women who know his ministry, he is very supportive of women’s ministry, encourages vocations and wants to be a resource to all his clergy in the church’s mission to share Christ with the nation. I guess that means he will pray with women clergy, worship with them, encourage their ministries but will not he won’t ordain them, he will not lay on hands at the consecration of women bishop and he can’t receive communion consecrated by a woman. Obviously there is a conflict in holding that position while trying to also be a Bishop to all in his care in the Diocese.
When we share the good news of Christ, part of that invitation is to join the Church, the body of Christ. We already struggle to provide credibility in that invitation. People assume that we exclude whole categories of people because they are somehow impaired in a way that is not recognised outside the walls of the church. I feel that whatever balancing act Bishop Philip is doing in his head will just look silly to someone not inoculated with the church. and it looks silly to those of us who are.
And this is what brings us back to this issues raised in Hidden Figures. Segregation always diminishes us and our efforts to be genuinely human. And people spot segregation very quickly.
Bishop North will always be in a position that will always be a problematic one for him; he can’t stop women being in ordained ministry but he can refuse to participate in ordaining them and recognising them as priests.
That refusal to participate, that refusal which requires the protection of five principles and an expensive alternative structure of church hierarchy is a form of self-imposed segregation. This “mutual flourishing” people keep talking about is an impossibility as long as it is underpinned by a policy of separate but equal. Two track institutions never work. And when someone is segregated they are, by definition, impaired.
By self-segregating and refusing to be in sacramental communion with all his clergy, Bishop North surely needs to accept that by choosing those positions he cannot be all that he wants to be i.e. a Diocesan Bishop in a national church where women are ordained. He will always have difficulty in assuring those outside the Church they can have confidence in his commitment to their flourishing as a potential Lord and an influential presence in Sheffield.
I’m sure that Bishop Philip would have been a fine bishop in the practice of leadership and local mission and pastoral care and will work well with others in all those things that don’t require sacraments. But in humility and honesty there needs to be an admission that while he remains a member of “The Society” and holds his view on the ordination of women there would always be a genuine disconnection between him and his clergy. In the end, participating in separate but equal practices will always impair him hat impairment will always be self-inflicted.
Lot of mixed feeling this morning.
Here I am writing a sermon from Isaiah 58 which if you take scripture seriously you will note gives little room for responding with “but”. The prophet has no time for people who want to be pious but turn a deaf ear to their oppressed, hungry, homeless , naked neighbour. Fast all you want boys but if the fast finishes with a slap up brunch at the Ritz rather than justice and care of neighbour, stick with brunch and forget the fast.
You can tell Jesus read his Old Testament because he speaks in the same way. Jesus tells his disciples, just like Isaiah tells Israel, that holiness doesn’t come from performing rites of goodness or by keeping rules but by having a life directed towards being salt and light. Holiness is shown by living holiness and the prophet is happy to give you a checklist. If you love God, you love what God loves. God just happens to love your neighbour to bits.
We have a funny relationship to this prophetic stuff. The prophets are not shy in telling the people of God to get out there and be the image of God. I find it ironic that we teach our children songs in Sunday school like “Be Bold, Be Strong” which echoes God’s words to a worried Joshua before he led Israel across the Jordan into the promised land and yet talk about loving our neighbour as something which is scary and hard and should be done with great deliberation and with lots of conditions.
The Old Testament is strong about not being afraid. The Lord is with us. Treat the foreigner like one of your own because once you were foreigners and slaves in Egypt AND I SAVED YOU. The widows, the orphans, the slaves, the refugees, the poor, the disabled, those from the wrong families…they are not subsets of the children of God. The mighty and the powerful and the rich are those things so that they might be providers and the protectors of all who are not. You make sure your workers can live on what you pay them, that they may have a Sabbath too and be full citizens. Or you will taste the wrath of the LORD.
The Lord is with us. The Lord is for us. Love what he loves.
Two of my sons braved the Manchester cold last night to protest the choices of the American President in how he rules and shapes the world around himself. They aren’t naive idealists who believe the world is benign. But they believe that everyone has the right to escape oppression and to have their story heard honestly and compassionately and to be given relief if it is in our power to do so. They believe in loving your neighbour and creating a society which works together for the common good. They know too that though the president is thousands of miles away, what he does has a possibility of infecting our politics and common life. They believe people of other faiths and cultures and sexualities are not to be feared but to be engaged with and learned from. They know that holding a placard in Albert Square isn’t going to change the president’s mind but it will help them to know their own.
Their protest is a declaration of what is in their hearts and an acknowledgement that what is in their hearts needs to come out into the world so the world might be a good place to live for all. They know they are privileged and recognise they need to share that privilege with others for it to have any worth. In Christian terms they know that their words and shouts have to be backed up by salt and light. I’m really proud of them (and their older brother who is doing the same where he is). I’m really proud of them not being satisfied with fear and hate and demonization. I’m proud of them wanting to say “This is not good enough” and wanting to use their futures to be people who shape the world as a great place to live for all.
The Kingdom of God does not begin with secure borders and suspicion of the stranger. It begins with God inviting us to be refugees from the kingdom of darkness so that we might be citizens of his kingdom of marvellous light.
My children would have loved to have access to those when they were little. “I didn’t break that glass, the manufacturer failed to make it to a high enough standard.” “No way, you broke the glass. Don’t lie”. “I’m not lying, I’m giving you an alternative fact.”
We often accuse politicians of thinking we are stupid.But when we let someone in power tell us that there are such things as “alternative facts”, well, we’re just making it too easy for them. Why do you need an alternative fact? Is it because the fact at hand isn’t working for you; because the fact at hand doesn’t help you control the story?
Lots of people who grew up in America about the same time as me have had to unlearn lots of “alternative facts” about gay people, black people, women, and Catholics to name a few. It took a long time to unlearn that stuff. It was important we learned those facts because they told us where we were and without them, we were lost and America was in danger. Or so we thought.When I look back, those facts seemed to be about diminishing those we didn’t like, who we felt threatened by, who we wanted to keep down and keep in their place.
In the world of real facts, I like the pilot of the plane I am flying on to know how much fuel is in the tank. I like the doctor to know that dark spot on my ear was a benign nothing to worry about. I like my pay slip to match the amount of money actually deposited in my bank account. I am willing to accept that facts can be spun, used to serve many arguments and contexts but I can’t accept that they have alternatives. An empty petrol tank can’t be full. A loaded gun can’t be empty.
It might seem amusing to have a religious person talking about alternative facts. People might accuse us of having a preference for them, but we really don’t. I believe Jesus’ death on the cross repaired a fundamental wound in the fabric of the cosmos. I believe that God created the world. That Jesus rose from the dead and that following the living Jesus is a crucial part of putting the world back together. These aren’t alternative facts. They are my starting points for who I am and how I engage with the world around me.
I can’t “prove” anything I believe in. I can’t show you photos or statistics or metrics. I believe in powerful eyewitness accounts. I believe that those who have gone before me have offered a powerful world changing tradition and experience. I believe my fellow believers and I have had powerful experiences of our own. Just as I can’t “prove” these, they can’t be disproved either.
In life, my beliefs have to coexist with facts. Facts like gravity, church electric bills, members’ lists and officers. Jesus lived in a real place, under a real Roman Empire, in a real century, died on a real cross with the story written in real Greek.
Truth is important as a way of navigating between faith and facts and getting the best out of both. For instance, factual information about how human activity negatively impacts creation around us leads me to put my reaction in faith terms: how does God feel about what we are doing to a creation he brought into being with his own words and breath? Facts lead me to seek faithful action.
A desire for alternative facts is a desire to hide the truth and hide from it. It is a desire to hide our inability to handle that truth. It is sad for a president of the USA to line up a bunch of Christian preachers to see him into office and to not have one of them point out the folly of his approach to the truth and facts. It is sad they chose not to school his staff in the ways of letting truth be truth.
If they had chosen to do some schooling, they might have told him about Psalm 15:
Who may worship in your sanctuary, Lord?
Who may enter your presence on your holy hill?
Those who lead blameless lives and do what is right,
speaking the truth from sincere hearts.
Those who refuse to gossip
or harm their neighbours
or speak evil of their friends.
Those who despise flagrant sinners,
and honour the faithful followers of the Lord,
and keep their promises even when it hurts.
Those who lend money without charging interest,
and who cannot be bribed to lie about the innocent.
That’s a hard road to follow and it is guaranteed to have stumbles and falls and restarts. But people who walk the road will be better people for it. Had those preachers done their duty, they would have pointed out that truth leads us to a better place both in the world and in our souls. It’s a shame they didn’t agree with the Psalmist whose words are for everyone whether they are kings or peasants or presidents.
The short message of the Psalm is this: the one who walks this way walks towards the light. The only alternative to light, is darkness.
We cannot pretend that – so I’m putting one case then I’m going to put the other – we cannot pretend or I can’t pretend myself that inclusion from the point of view of someone in a same sex relationship just to take a simple…that inclusion of someone in a same sex relationship that falls short of the blessing of the Church is going to feel like inclusion – it’s not going to be perceived as inclusion. I think we’re conning ourselves if we say that there is some clever solution out there that means you can do less than that and it will feel like inclusion.
But when you do that, if you do that, it will feel like exclusion to a bunch of other people, betrayal, subversion, even stronger words than that. And it is that and safeguarding, are the two issues that I lie awake at night most often thinking about, and have the least capacity to find a good way forward. What we’re trying to do in the Church of England is to say that we will listen to each other’s experiences. For those involved in what were called the ‘shared conversations’ I think that’s had quite a significant impact, not on all of them but on a lot of people who, if only not in changing people’s views, but in getting people to realise that the people they were listening to were Christians are Christians and are human beings and therefore need to be an object of love not an object of trying to defeat. But it doesn’t get us to the point where we have to make a decision – do I know when there’ll be a point where…a blessing will happen – no, I don’t know the answer to that and I can’t see the roadmap ahead.
Archbishop Of Canterbury Justin Welby speaking at Greenbelt 2016
The statement above describes succinctly the two sides of the argument about the inclusion of “active” LGBT people in the life of the Church of England. It is a very measured statement about the difficulty of coming to unity on the subject when both sides feel so passionately that they are right while feeling an equal passion about what they will lose if they give way to the others.
It is also surprising in its candour: Justin doesn’t just suspect, he knows that the church doesn’t always mean full inclusion or welcome when it uses a jolly tone and big smile and talks about being loving and welcoming and being willing to journey with LGBT people. He knows whatever, positive, pastoral thing the church tries to say is always followed by an official, binding but. You know what I mean: “I’d love to come to your wedding, but, I have cattle I must go and inspect”.
At the same time, he does what every institutional leader does: he takes us back to the damage that will be done if the status quo changes. For the institution that is the primary damage to guard against. While the first paragraph of his statement is true, the truth of the status quo is equally and perhaps more intractably true. That’s why status quos hang around for so long. In preferring the status quo, it follows that LGBT people will continue to find the Church a hard place for them. Understandably, they might even feel they are disposable in a way that other equally believing people are not.
When you tell people they are welcome but then point out all the places they can’t go in church (marriage, ordination, licensed offices) and you continually point out in public that their sexuality is ungodly and disobedient and that you are trying to love the sinner but not the sin who can blame a LGBT person for deciding they can live without it?
I call this “No Soup for you!” theology. In the great American sitcom “Seinfeld” the gang discover a man called the Soup Nazi. His soup is delicious and people queue up to get it. But he has a very rigid system of ordering and if you violate even one step of the process, he whips your order away and shouts: “No Soup for You!” .
The Church is on a charm offensive, trying to rectify the perception of the rejecting way it has dealt with LGBT people. Having been called out on this by a culture it wants to evangelise, the church now realises it has to be nice, because church is supposed to be nice. “Hey, when we said you are sinners and disobedient we didn’t mean it in that way. Come in and join us with the following restrictions.” People will see it for what it really is – PR directed at other people to cut down on their criticism of us and our status quo.
Many people in the hierarchy have adopted the No Soup for You! approach and it is more common than not to see prominent evangelical writers and speakers begin to adopt it too. There is a lot of talking about the “journey together” and being more “inclusive”. That is a good start.
However, that’s pretty much what it is: a start. As you journey in the Church as a LGBT person you will be told the path is hard because being “actively” LGBT makes you more likely to be sick, to be immoral and to be mentally ill all because you “chose” to be LGBT. The journey has a big but built into it. The terrain is hard, you are told, because you are wearing the wrong shoes or have the wrong map. Much of the difficulty you experience will be made by your fellow travellers: the half membership of church, the sermons and youth talks telling you it is a choice and a wrong one. The label of sinner when everyone else in the church doesn’t have to carry a label. Being treated like you are a member of a campaign group (‘the LGBTs want this’). That people feel they can in, good conscious, refuse to associate with you because somehow they might be tainted in a way they aren’t by all the other “sinners” around them.
Do you want to travel with a helper who is constantly throwing more stones in your path? Job wasn’t too keen and I suspect few LGBT people would be either.
No one is going to journey with us for long if it feels no different from the wider world where people feel free to insult and abuse and hurt. Like anyone seeking the Kingdom of God they want to be able to trust a place where people follow the one who said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest”. They want to be able to trust that claim at face value. And while Jesus says the words, it is his body, the Church that lifts the load and gives the rest.
As I write, I am spending time with former Archbishop Rowan Williams and many other people from my diocese thinking about theology, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and what it means to be the church. In a Q&A someone raised the question of this internal debate about full membership and inclusivity. Rowan’s answer came wrapped within another question about how we can address sexuality while still being credibly and visibly “Christian” to each other and other Christian communities.
I’m paraphrasing here, but Rowan seems to say that the wider church appears able to disagree a lot on what we can bless. A bishop can bless a nuclear submarine though not all of us agree that he or she can or should. So perhaps a priest can bless a loving same-sex marriage though not all of us agree that he or she can or should. Why the allowed tension of disagreement in one area but not the other? What is it which makes a same sex marriage less blessable than capital punishment or weapons of war?
Perhaps, what lies at the heart of any disagreement between Christians on doctrine and practice is our wariness in trusting those who disagree with us to be recognisably Christian through our disagreement. Maybe trust is really the issue in the LGBT debate. Maybe what we are all really saying to one another is: “Can I trust you to be a follower and lover of Jesus Christ? Can I trust you having a voice and influence in the church community? Can I trust you to treat me right?”
It seems that the whole pro/anti debate hides a more damaging designation of one issue as the issue on which everything stands or falls, especially when there are so many issues where we have refused to give that designation. In the Church’s history, the only issue which has carried that weight is whether or not you are able to declare “Jesus is Lord”.
Every refugee from the World who seeks the Kingdom God as a safe haven is offered the assurance of love, peace and the chance to flourish as an authentic human. And everyone who crosses that boundary finds that the new rules and way of being challenges them to their very core if they are taking it seriously. Each one of us has a different core with different challenges to face as Christ makes us a new creation. That is the scandal of grace and disagreement: that we all stand in line for the delicious food and drink that Christ offers and no one snatches it away shouting: No Christ for you!
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