Tag Archives: same sex marriage

No Soup For You!


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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What did you mean by that?

When the US Supreme Court handed down its ruling that no state in the union can bar people of the same sex marrying, there were two reactions. One involved celebrating with rainbows and flags. The other involved wailing and the gnashing of teeth like a crowd of spectators whose team lost on a questionable last minute penalty kick.

Regardless of which side you are on, it is the court’s job to make the call. The US Supreme Court exists as one of three branches of US government. Its job is to ensure that the other two branches (and by extension the States) don’t pass laws or take actions that are either outside of their constitutional powers or which infringe the rights of citizens.

The US Constitution is a written document which is precise in some places and imprecise in others. It was written and amended at set points in history but intended to be a dynamic document which would be the foundation for the nation for all time.

This “for now and always” status required the constitution’s authors to entrust its interpretation to a court who could maintain it as a living document over time in greatly changed circumstances which the authors could never imagine.

Interpretation is the key word here and it sheds much light on use of the Bible as a similar living document.  In the UK the debate about whether someone can be “actively gay” (which makes them sound like a yoghurt rather than a person) and also be a full participating member of a church comes down to two interpretation laden questions:

        a) How authoritative and prescriptive is scripture (in order for me to “submit” to it)

       b) Who gets to decide that and control the dialogue?

Many would want to say the bible is clear on certain behaviours; you only have to read it for yourself. The problem with this “clear as day” argument is that it is possible to read scripture in a faithful way and yet come to a conclusion that it is clear as mud.

In constitutional law, this is the bread and butter for professors, lawyers and commentators. In most cases where there is an argument about whether rights have been denied or not, it is rare to read the constitution and say “Ah, here is the answer”. Take for instance the second amendment, the one about owning a gun:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Okay, clear as day. So can a law be passed regulating gun ownership? What does infringed mean? If you aren’t in a militia can you own a gun? Can ownership and militia membership be separated? Can you stop certain people from owning guns? Who are they? Why them and not other citizens?

To answer these questions Justices listen to debates, apply their own biases, apply their own understanding of constitutional law, read scholarship, debate with each other, look at precedence…it’s a pretty subjective process. The court then votes. It doesn’t have to be unanimous, just majority.

What limits this court is that they can’t go back and ask the authors what they meant and what exceptions they assumed. They have to use the tools at hand and interpret the document. In this way they submit to its authority but they still have to come to a conclusion about how elastic this fixed document is within the dynamics of human development and history. The process is the same no matter which side you are on.

And once they rule they haven’t added to the constitution. There is no amendment which says “same sex marriage is here to stay”. This issue may come up again one day and they may choose to rule on that too.

Appealing to the bible for answers is the same. We might ask a precise question and get a precise answer: “Was Paul a Roman citizen?” Yes he was. “Did Paul believe women couldn’t be church leaders?” “Well, you see it is a bit more complex than appealing to a couple pieces of scripture that might suggest that is the case”.

We can’t go back and ask the author of Leviticus or Paul or even Jesus what exactly they meant on a given subject. Instead we take the tools at hand and try to work it out the best we can. What one generation says is the final word often isn’t and the church’s history bears that out. Add to that the plethora of protestant denominations it is hard to work out exactly who gets to draw the line in the sand and say, “no further”. It doesn’t mean that scripture is wrong or flawed, but rather that we can be limited by what we know, expect and are willing to recognise. We are a people gaining understanding rather than just memorising the facts.

Scripture is not a list of FAQs. It is hard to pick up a bible and honestly say “God said it and I believe it” without using an extra-biblical filter. It is easy to forget that the earliest church spread across the near east didn’t have access to a canon of Paul’s letters or the gospels or their own personal copy of the Old Testament. It is easy to forget that personal ownership of a good translation and interpretative tools is a development of the mid to late 20th century.  Everyday christians have been working with scripture for a short amount of time and discovering a lot of stuff that makes sense to them.

We do ourselves, and the world, a disservice in any conversation about scripture where the outcome is the intentional exclusion of others when we forget what a human infused task interpreting scripture is.  Jesus is the supreme sign from God that broken fragile human beings are loved and worthy to be called into his midst.  When I ask someone else to be excluded or to make massive sacrifices because they are not deemed holy enough, I forget that God included me. I can never be holy enough to make the cut.  I rely on Jesus being the author and completer of my faith. I rely on his grace to cover my shortfall as I try to follow him. So I have to tread carefully about seeking others to label as “unholy”.

We do need to guard against a faith based on “I want it so give it to me”.  And we need to guard against a faith that doesn’t talk about what makes for a good relationship in keeping with the purposes of creation (like the importance of fidelity, mutuality and love). However, God has given us brains and wisdom and the Holy Spirit. We can spot an abomination a mile off. It just takes courage to see that two people mutually pledging themselves in love to each other isn’t one of them.