Sunday, 12 March 2017

Another Plea from Me to the C of E: There is no 'mutual flourishing', just 'flourishing'.


Image: 'Christ Healing the Sick' by Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich (1742). Picture in public domain, downloaded from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


I'd hesitate to say that I've just celebrated an anniversary, but it's true that I have just passed a strange sort of a milestone in my life. It was twenty years ago last month that I was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease; by the time I sat in a consultant gastroenterologist's hospital room and listened in dazed silence as I was prescribed steroids and signed off work, I had become so weak and ill that I could barely eat and couldn't walk far without keeling over in stomach cramps that shot pain into every nerve of my body. The diagnosis was both a relief and a shock; within days, the steroids had started to do their work and for the first time in over a year I could feel my body strengthening, but at the same time, the prospect of adjusting to a future of hospitals, medication and pain management, and more than that, adjusting to the knowledge that my body had developed in such a way that my immune system was compromised so as to lay me open to other illnesses, everyday and more serious, was profoundly unsettling for a twenty-three year old who had just accepted a job offer in Japan.

As a Christian, my own instinct and that of my church was to pray: for relief, for healing, for hope for the future, for a sense of what God might be doing in the midst of such confusing and painful circumstances. Over the years, those prayers have continued, and I have experienced more moments of grace than I could ever remember; moments when peace has flooded my sore and exhausted body, moments when I have been given the strength to do things that seemed beyond me. Since my diagnosis, I've trained and worked as a secondary school teacher, I've trained and and am working as a vicar, and I've birthed and am bringing up two wonderful children. I've travelled to some fabulous places, spent a year working with a Christian charity in South East Asia (my consultant: 'Whatever you do, don't eat the street food!') and earned three degrees and a teaching qualification. However, even with all these moments of grace and great opportunities that have come my way, there is no getting away from the fact that Crohn's is, pardon the pun, a pain in the backside. Twenty years later, I am still negotiating pain, exhaustion, medication, and hospitals. I am well most of the time, but never by accident. I am incredibly grateful for all the good in my life, for the strength that each day brings, and for the spiritual solace that physical illness has forced me to seek out, but the honest truth is that I wouldn't wish this on anyone.  

As my life, and my prayers have continued, I have slowly started to ponder the complexities of auto-immune diseases such as Crohn's. Auto-immune disease occurs, I have learnt, when an overly vigilant immune system reacts against, and attempts to reject, one of the body's own systems (in the case of Crohn's, the digestive system), behaving towards the bodily system in the same way that it would towards dangerous pathogens intruding from outside. The problem is obvious: a digestive system is not a pathogen. It is, in fact, essential to life and health. I've come to think of auto-immune diseases as a kind of hyper-allergy; an allergy not to some external, otherwise health-giving stuff like peanuts or eggs, but to part of its own intrinsic self. You can avoid nuts; you can't avoid your digestive system. And what starts in one system can easily spread to other parts of the body as the immune system's defense instinct runs riot through bones, causing arthritis, and in my case, my eyes. The effect of having a hyper-active immune system that fights off bits of itself like some misguided comic book superhero is not, as you might be excused for thinking, that the body becomes super-charged; rather, the opposite: a body that spends all its energy mistaking parts of itself as threats and engaging in a bizarre, anarchic, intra-corporeal civil war, doesn't have much left over once all the internal fighting has been accounted for. No wonder I am exhausted so often.

The church, St Paul writes, is the body of Christ. 'We who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another,' as the words from Romans 12 which are paraphrased in our Anglican Communion service remind us every time we break bread together. It's so easy to hear these words as idealistic pie-in-the-sky, or as florid rhetoric, but for me, this is spiritual reality. If I have any identity in Christ at all - if my faith means anything - it is because I am part of something bigger than myself, something to which I have something to give, and something from which I gain life itself, something without which I am not really fully myself. Our highly individualised, cult-phobic culture might find this idea alarming or, as I was called the other day, 'hopelessly sentimental', but ultimately, Paul's either right, or deluded, or deluding. These words either mean something or they don't.

Now those of you who follow church news and are given to an allegorical frame of mind might see where I'm going with this. I wrote a blog post this week after Bishop Philip North withdrew his acceptance of the Bishopric of Sheffield, citing 'highly individualised attacks' in a heart-rending statement. In my post, I suggest that the only way that the church can move on from this painful flare-up is to learn to trust. Yes, that might sound facile or 'hopelessly sentimental' in the highly-charged atmosphere of mistrust which this situation exemplifies. Yes, 'trust' is a contested concept and a debased currency in our culture which has so badly abused the trust of  so many, as sickening stories of systemic child abuse sadly spill out. Yes, trust involves risk; yes, trust is scary because it is, in fact, the opposite of protectivism and therefore trust must be considered carefully. However, all this nothwithstanding, my twenty years of Crohn's Disease teach me that a body whose physiology is such that it mistrusts its own internal systems is a body in desperate need of learning to recognise, and trust itself; without such self-recognition, healing is impossible (fascinatingly, talk therapies have been recognised as contributing significantly to the wellbeing of people with auto-immune conditions). An immune system so alert to danger that it turns on itself is an immune system which is, ironically, incapable of protecting the body from real pathogens. While the bizarre, anarchic intra-corporeal civil war rages on, life and strength leak out and sickness creeps in.

The question, then, is this: how do we discern what is intrinsic, life-giving and health-inspiring to the body of Christ, and what are the intruding pathogens? The answer, I suggest, is this: that which is made out of the same stuff as the rest of the body. Not that which does the same thing, or behaves in the same way, because as we all know, the human body is full of internal variety, but that which is made out of one or other of the same organic substances that create a human body. The body of Christ has ways of deciding this; its own lab, if you like, for testing  and approving that which is life-giving and that which is a danger-posing pathogen. That lab is, of course, the church's processes of discernment, and in particular the Synodical-governmental and episcopal-leadership processes which agreed, three years ago, that women bishops would be a healthy growth for the overall church whilst also promising space for the members of the body for whom this move would not promote wellbeing.

Now without wishing to be flippant, I know far too much about the careful balancing up of contra-indications in medicine, and the considered risks that medics make in prescribing treatments that will be likely to benefit the patient as a whole, but could damage essential parts of the body (I have spent most of my adult life making these calculated risks and taking particular care of the bits of me that might become damaged by my medicines). Back in 2014, these members of the church body who could not benefit from women bishops or women priests were recognised as parts of the body, and were promised particular care. The appointment of +Philip to Sheffield seemed to re-affirm the recognition of his place in the body, and that of his fellow traditionalist Anglo-Catholics with him. His withdrawal of the basis of 'highly personalised attacks' indicates that maybe what might have happened in the last few months is something not unlike a flare-up of an auto-immune condition in which the body goes into hyper-drive to protect itself from something which is, actually, itself. If I am a member of you and you are a member of me, then a highly personalised attack on you, or me, is nothing other than an ecclesial auto-immune disease.  This is why the language of 'mutual flourishing', while clear, is slightly unhelpful; if I am a member of you, and you are a member of me, there is no such thing as 'mutual flourishing.' There is only 'flourishing.'

In order to flourish, bodies need to be checked over and tested (I am currently undergoing a raft of tests to 're-stage' my Crohn's Disease); the allegory might hold that healthy debate within the body of the church could perform an analogical function. So my second plea to the C of E is this: please let's find ways of talking to each other in such a way that recognises each other as members of the same body so that we can work together to 'strengthen what remains' (Revelation 3:2) and fight off the true dangers that threaten our wellbeing. We can only do that if we trust each other. No more misguided comic book superheroes; we've got some real work to do if we are going to be Christ's hands and feet on earth. Let's not waste our energy slowly killing ourself.        

Friday, 10 March 2017

A Plea From Me To The C of E

I can still remember the light of optimism in his eyes. 'It feels really different this time', he said, smiling. 'It's a different conversation altogether.' It was summer 2014, and he had just come back from another round of discussions at General Synod. After the bitter disappointment we had both shared in November 2012, when the motion to allow women to be nominated for consecration as bishops had fallen so narrowly, this optimism was both intriguing and genuine. What wind of change had blown through Synod, I wondered, a wind both strong enough to change the direction of the church and gentle enough to do so without blowing people and communities off their feet? 

His eyes shone as he explained. The terms of the debate had shifted altogether, if not logistically then relationally. Synod had somehow, along the way, stopped talking about 'protection' for those who could not, in all conscience, accept the ministry of ordained women, and had picked up the vocabulary of 'trust.' It had spread, he told me. Once one person had said that maybe we should trust each other as siblings in the family of faith rather than seeing each other as threats from which to be protected, a way had opened up that had simply not been there before. People had relaxed in their seats. People had started to talk more expansively, more openly, even with a little humour, about how the good ship C of E could chart its course. Trust meant that the storms at sea seemed navigable after all. Most profoundly, trust quietly, persistently, neutralised the need for protection; if I trust you, I feel no need to protect myself from you. 

Trust was the beautiful grace that the Synod of 2010-2015 found, and how I wish it could be bottled and given away free on street corners. Trust could open up all sorts of possibilities in our defensive, protectionist world. Walls would come down, or not be built. 'Not so among you' said Jesus when his folly-ridden ambitionist disciples asked him who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. The terms of debate shifted then, too, from success to service, from competition to compassion. Whatever winds of change blow through our secular world with its politics and power-plays, among God's people a micro-climate of grace can, and must, blow freely, and from us, blow into a world in such desperate need of grace. Trust was strong enough to change the direction of the church and gentle enough not to blow people and communities off their feet. 

Three years later, and the political winds of change have blown. The social and political breezes leading to Brexit and Donald Trump's presidency were not yet gusting when trust blew through Synod. The storm winds were raging in Syria, and those of us who follow the global political forecast were deeply grieved, but in 2014 'the refugee crisis' had not yet hit Europe and the Jungle was still where ill-advised celebrities ate testicles. Since then, the chill winds of protectionism have swept in; some of us might feel that some of these currents are necessary. However, 'not so among you' said Jesus. May the church not be swept away with the prevailing winds of its culture; may it be guided and warmed by a micro-climate of grace. 

Three years later, and the Bishop of Burnley has sadly withdrawn his acceptance to be Bishop of Sheffield after a flurry of public critique, questioning how he can possibly be the bishop of a diocese in which one third of the clergy are women when he does not believe in the validity of women's ordination. Rhetorical questions have hung in the air like accusations. How can an ordained woman flourish under his episcopacy? How can he reconcile his position with his theology? How can he represent Christ to a world, and in particular to the city of Sheffield in which women play all sorts of prominent roles in all sorts of areas? The implicit answer has echoed over the whole barrage: he can't. It's just simply impossible, however good a Christian, inspiring a clergyman or decent a chap he is. 

I'll be honest, and tell you that my overriding response to such question has become, increasingly, one of irritation. As soon as Bishop Philip's acceptance of the role as Bishop of Sheffield was announced, he issued a statement saying that he would be a 'bishop for all' and was looking forward to meeting with the ordained women of Sheffield and getting to know them in a special meeting which he was prioritising in his early days as a new bishop. Why, I found myself thinking as I heard yet another person ask how an ordained woman can live with a bishop who would not ordain her, do we not simply trust him when he says that he values all that ordained women do in the Church of England? Why do we not trust that he has worked through the complexities of his theology and public role in his own heart and mind, and has come to a place of peace that he can live this vocation with both ecclesial and theological integrity? Why do we not trust that God will use this particular man, with his deep spirituality and passionate care for the poor, to bring about a deeper still trust between traditionalist Anglo-Catholics and the wider Church? Where is trust in all of this? Have we reverted to a defensive protectionism that construes the pressing need as the protection of women from traditionalist Anglo-Catholics? 

As I pondered the transformative power of trust in general, in this particular situation, and its recent track record in doing good in and for the Church, the Bible story that emerged in my mind is one which I've puzzled over and which has not always sat entirely right with me. It comes at the very end of John's Gospel, after the resurrection, after the miraculous haul of fish, and after the tear-jerking (for me, anyway) forgiveness and re-calling of Peter. Peter turns to the Beloved Disciple and asks Jesus what sounds like a perfectly relatable question; 'What about him?' In response, Jesus tells Peter to mind his own business. 'What is it to you?' is Jesus' rhetorical question. 'Follow me.' It's one of those moments when Jesus is unexpectedly curt. 

As I say, this moment in John's Gospel has puzzled me; what could be wrong with concern for others? The last few weeks, though, have shown me the enormously liberating power of not solving other people's theological problems for them, but trusting that they, and God, will or have already done that between them. Yes, being a bishop with oversight of ordained women and not believing in the sacramental validity of women's ordination is a theological problem, but it's not my problem. What is it to me? My task is what it has always been: to follow Jesus. This does involve solving people's theological problems, as a vicar of a parish in which my own bishop has given me a share in the 'cure of souls', and anyone who knows me know that I enjoy nothing more than a good theological conundrum. It's liberating to know, though, that my task is not to solve the whole world's problems, or even the whole church's problems, but to focus my time and energy where I have committed to serving. Most profoundly, my task is to trust that as I work through the complexities of my life with the wind of the Spirit guiding me, so others are doing that too and that together, God will lead us all into a deeper, richer, fuller life of his Spirit. For that to happen, maybe we need to hear Jesus' words, 'What is it to you? Follow me.' 

So where from here? Bishop Philip has withdrawn, and all sort of cross-currents of opinion and response are swirling around. All I'd like to add to the flow is a plea that we do not revert to protectionism. It'd be understandable; all sorts of individuals and groups within the C of E might feel the need to protect themselves right now. Please let's not do that. Please let's stay open to each other; please let's pray for each other and offer friendship to each other as we all, in our own ways, follow Jesus. Please let's choose trust over protectionism, openness over defense. Trust is strong enough to change the direction of the church and gentle enough not to knock us all down. I we trust each other, we will feel no need to protect ourselves from each other. We'll expand, relax. We might even laugh a little more. Who knows what might become possible if we trust? 




Let's trust.  

       



           

 

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Touching the Dust: A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

This sermon is for an Ash Wednesday service at a senior school. The Bible reading is John 8:2-11

Aisha was thirteen. Already in her young life she had suffered more than anyone should ever have to cope with – she was always in trouble at school and found it difficult to make friends, and then, on the way to visit her grandmother she was attacked and raped by three men. When her aunt took her to the police station to report this as a crime, she was told that the fault was hers. On October 27th, 2008, she was taken, screaming and crying, to a stadium where, in front of an audience of a thousand people, she was stoned to death. Some of the people who attended her killing tried to save her, but they were met with gunfire, which killed an eight year old boy who got caught in the crossfire. Two innocent children, two young victims, died that day.

Amnesty International responded with this statement:  "This was not justice, nor was it an execution. This child suffered a horrendous death …This killing is yet another human rights abuse." The Global Campaign to Stop Killing and Stoning Women, which had been launched just a year previously, implored its members to write to leaders, begging them to take action so that no such violence should never again be meted out on girls and women.

Nine years later, The Global Campaign to Stop Killing and Stoning Women has become ‘Stop Stoning Women’ and is linked with similar organisations such as The Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, and Amnesty International continues its work. But the reason these organisations exist is because the stoning of women is still, in 2017, legal in ten countries.  

Phew, you might think, thank goodness the UK isn’t one of them.

Well yes - and no. Take Sarah Lynn Butler, Tyler Clementi, Ryan Halligan, Hannah Smith, Ronan Hughes, Jessica Logan, Grace McComas, or David Molak. Not names that you might recognise, but all British and American young people who took their own lives after being the victims of cyber bullying. We might not pick up stones and boulders in the UK, but the words we type shielded by the anonymity of our computer screens can be every bit as deadly.

We live in what is increasingly recognised as being a culture of shame and bullying, of ‘trial by media’ and ‘the court of public opinion’ as celebrities from Taylor Swift to Sam Smith are shamed for being too fat, too thin, too masculine, too feminine, too sexy, too sexless, too stupid, too elitist, too old, too young, too anything. “We smack each other in the press and we don’t print retractions” says U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton.

Even national treasures like Sir Ian McKellan are not immune from public shaming; Ian McKellan, who marches at Pride and is a Stonewall Schools Ambassador was asked in an interview whether he regrets waiting until the age of 49 to come out as gay. “You know”, he said, “When I was growing up in 1950s England... Homosexuals were shamed publicly and imprisoned.”

I asked my fourteen-year-old daughter to name me a celebrity who has been publicly shamed. ‘They all have’ she replied instantly.

So why do we do it? Well, it might be that this shame culture is the shadow side of the public honouring of people which is also a feature of our society – we’ve just had a glittering array of such honouring in the season of awards ceremonies such as the Grammys, the Oscars and the Brits. Any sociologist will tell you that honouring people and shaming people are two sides of the same coin.

But that doesn’t explain why we do it.

I think the answer is simple: because it feels good. For just the briefest of moments, it makes us feel superior; it narrows the gap between us and the impossibly high pedestal on which we place our contemporary idols. Whatever our defects and deficiencies might be, at least we’re not them; at least we’re not the soap star who’s let herself go or the singer with that terrible fashion faux pas or the politician with the unfortunate turn of phrase.

And of course this happens in local communities too. However subtly we do it, we are tempted to shame each other, because it makes us feel better about ourselves, the pack mentality of the stone-throwing crowd giving us a momentary sense of belonging and acceptance. But it’s a false acceptance, because deep down, we know that the crowd could turn on us at any moment.  It’s our own deep insecurity that leads us to shame others.  If only we knew that we were created by God, known by God, accepted totally by God, loved extravagantly by God, we would not feel the need to shame each other.     
So we come to another shamed woman who is to be stoned to death in our reading from John’s Gospel. Stoning was, in Jesus’ day, part of the Law of Moses – Sharia Law is not the only legal system to include stoning – so the trick question put to Jesus is this: are you going to keep the law, or condone a violent murder? Jesus comes up against such trick questions all the way through his life – but here, it’s not just about quick-witted intellectual fancy footwork; a woman’s life is at stake. In response, Jesus says nothing. Instead, he stoops down, and writes in the dust. What does he write? One ancient manuscript suggests that he writes a list of the sins that the men have committed; but we don’t know if that’s true.

Maybe the point is not so much what he writes, but the physical action that goes with it. He stoops down, he touches the dusty earth with his finger, and in that motion God himself, in the fully human and fully divine person of Jesus, physically connects with a violent and vengeful world, a world that shames and shuns and slaughters. That’s the heart of the Christian Gospel right there.

The Hebrew word for ‘dust’ is ‘adamah’, from which we get the name Adam, the Bible’s first human. Jesus reaches down, touching the dust, touching our humanity. He does the one thing that the crowd can’t do – he connects with his humanity.  And when Jesus does speak, his words are transformative. What about you? Jesus asks, turning the to the accusers. Can you connect with your humanity? With your fragility and your fears? With your sin and your shame?   

This is exactly what Ash Wednesday invites us to do; to connect with our humanity, to recognise ourselves as human, as mortal, as imperfect; as too fat, too thin, too masculine, too feminine, too sexy, too sexless, too stupid, too elitist, too old, too young, too anything – and to find in that connection with ourselves the free and full forgiveness of the God who created us from the dust of the earth and loves the very dust of our humanity so much that he stoops down to touch it – and us - time and time again.

There is nothing more liberating that this life could offer. In those words, ‘you are dust, and to dust you shall return’ we don’t hear condemnation but acceptance. We don’t hear hatred or shame, but love and recognition. Like the woman in John’s Gospel, we are free to go and sin no more; to become more liberated of all that would shame us in the secret places of our own hearts.

In this service of ashing, you are invited to connect with your humanity, and to know God’s love for you and in that love, a freedom to become more fully the person God created you to be. As we do this together, we connect with our shared humanity, and we find the freedom to overcome the vengeful violence of our shame-addicted society; the freedom that allows each one of us, in all our flawed humanity, to thrive.  Amen.


Monday, 27 February 2017

Vintage pop, controversial bishops and Alexander Hamilton

'There's always something happening, and it's usually quite loud': Vintage pop, controversial bishops, and Alexander Hamilton (just another month in the Church of England)

February 27, 2017
The Church of England has certainly had more than its fair share of column inches in the British press this month; firstly, over the General Synod gathering which rejected a report on sexuality which had been written by a group of bishops, and then, just when the dust had started to settle, Martyn Percy, the Dean of Christchurch Cathedral in Oxford was reported in the Guardian to have suggested that the man who will be the next Bishop of Sheffield, Philip North, should step down, not for any scandalous reason but because Philip North has never been anything other than honest about his view that women should not be ordained. I can't help thinking of the line from the vintage pop song, 'Our House': 'There's always something happening, and it's usually quite loud.' Truer words were never spoken of the C of E! As you can imagine, and may well have seen, there was a huge outcry in response, from those who agree with Martyn Percy, those who agree with Philip North, and those who agree with neither Martyn nor Philip.

I find myself in the latter camp; strange, you mind think, for someone who is a woman vicar. How can it be, you might wonder, that in this day and age the Church of England can have bishops who don't agree with women being ordained alongside bishops whose job is to ordain women and, of course, ordained women?  And how can an ordained woman be relaxed about a bishop who doesn't believe in the ordination of women? What rabbit hole have we fallen through here? Surely the Church made its mind up on the issue of women priests in the 1990s and on the issue of women bishops more recently, the people spoke through the representative channels of Synod, action was taken as a result of those votes, and that's that?

Well, in true Anglican fashion, yes and no. The Synod did thrash out all the ins and outs of ordaining women, the vote was (very narrowly) in favour of women priests and yes, obviously, many women have been ordained as a result of that vote, myself included. However, what didn't happen in the 1990s or since then, was for the Church's representatives to say to those who voted against women's ordination anything along the lines of 'We won; you lost; get over it; the people have spoken.' Quite the opposite; those who voted against women's ordination were recognised as part of 'the people' and therefore, the next problem on the table became how to honour the consciences of those who had voted against women's ordination, which, after all, had the weight of most of Christian history behind it. In this spirit, provision was made for those who had voted according to their consciences, and those in pews up and down the country who would agree that women shouldn't be ordained, and although some clergy did choose to leave the Church at this point, others didn't: hence Philip North and those who share his convictions. 

It'd be disingenuous of me not to admit that this way of knocking along together isn't complex or bruising for some of us, sometimes. It is, undoubtedly, easier to get on with people who think like oneself, but for me, knocking along together despite differences without for one moment caricaturing or trivialising those differences is worth the complexities and bruises, because to me, it is the way of being together that is most authentically Christian. The Madness song 'Our House' is a song about family, and the Church is family. After the February session of General Synod, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a statement calling for a spirit of 'radical Christian inclusion.' I see the consecration of Philip North as living proof that this radical Christian inclusion might just be more than a slogan; radical inclusion (although I'm not a great fan of the word 'inclusion') means recognising the Christian least like me as my sister or brother, and doing unto him or her as I would want to be done unto myself. This, I believe, is close to the heart of being a Christian. 

It's much more intellectually honest, too, to own our differences and own each other despite our differences than to pretend that we all think the same. Our current household obsession is the hip-hop musical 'Hamilton', based on the life of the Founding Father Alexander Hamilton who, as the writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda put it, 'caught beef' with just about every other Founding Father before being shot dead at the age of 47 by his nemesis, Aaron Burr, in America's most notorious duel. (This seven-minute mash-up is great!) Aaron Burr, an endless equivocator who is 'not particularly forthcoming on any particular stances', runs as President against the brash Thomas Jefferson, who hates Hamilton ('he knows nothing of loyalty / smells like new money, dresses like fake royalty. / Desperate to rise above his station, / Everything he does betrays the ideals of our nation'). A 'key endorsement' is needed in this tightly-fought electoral battle and Hamilton, having been knocked out of the political running due his 'torrid affair', shocks the voters of 1800 by endorsing not Burr, whom he has known since teenage years but Jefferson because 'when all is said and all is done, Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none.' Burr's last words in the libretto are poignant; 'I was too young and blind to see...the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me'.

I'm with Hamilton on this one; I'd far rather have leaders with beliefs, even those with which I disagree, than leaders without beliefs, both in secular life and in the church. And I'm glad to say that the Church of England is wide enough for both Philip North and me. After all, duels are so eighteenth century. 

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Why 'Welcome' and 'support' are not enough: another voice in the post-Bishops' Statement, pre-Synod polyphony

It's been a few weeks since the Bishops' Statement was issued, and since then, a mighty polyphony of voices has arisen in response, rebuttal, re-enforcement and recalibration. As I've listened to these voices, I've heard myself wondering if I have anything to add that hasn't already been said by people who are passionate, sensitive, theologically and ecclesiologically astute, faithful Christians. Policy documents are often picked over like a Sunday chicken, but all the more so when a policy document defines the parameters of people's lives, and the life of an institution with which its members and supporters identify passionately and generously, if not always submissively. There are those who find the polyphony of voices in blogs, op ed pieces, columns and open letters more like an irksome cacophony; the decrying of 'theology by popular vote'   is a sure-fire way of shutting people up (ironically, by speaking over them) but I, for one, am glad to belong to a church in which people do speak up for what they believe in and hold dear - even if their values and perspectives don't match up with mine. This welcoming of diverse voices, I believe, is the best antidote to the much-vaunted echo chamber effect, along with belonging to a parish church in which as much of human life as is locally available rubs along each other, shares the peace and kneels together for Communion every week. So I've listened carefully, and respectfully, to the bishops in their statement and to quite a few commentators since then. I've tried to listen to the voice of God, too. 

As I've listened, one voice has sounded through the others, quietly but insistently. It is the voice of Archbishop Justin Welby, speaking nearly four years ago just before he knocked on the door of Canterbury Cathedral and was let in by a teenage girl. In an interview with Peter Tatchell, Archbishop Justin famously praised the 'stunning quality of relationships' he had seen among LGBT people. That phrase, 'stunning quality of relationships', has resounded in my ears over the last few weeks. Let's leave that phrase there for a moment and listen to the Bishops' Statement.  

The words which echoed loudly from the Bishops' Statement for me were from the section which many people have taken to be the most optimistic; paragraphs 29 to 33, calling for a 'fresh tone and culture.' In particular, the words that shouted out for my attention were 'welcome' and 'support', the two things which the Statement considers the church able to offer LGBT people. 'What on earth can  be wrong with that?' I hear you cry (I may be projecting, or over-dramatising here, admittedly). 

Well...in one sense, you're right, nothing. But on the other hand, I can't help remembering the vicar of a large church I used to attend who was notoriously bad at remembering names and faces, and would shake my hand as I left the church every Sunday for months on end, cheerfully saying 'My dear, are you new here?' I also re-hear the voices of well-meaning members of another church, asking me week after week, 'Have you settled in yet?' I realised that I'd know when I'd settled in because they'd stop asking me if I'd settled in yet! 'Welcome' is a slippery word, and whatever it defines, it cannot refer to an ongoing quality of relationship, stunning or otherwise. It is the start of a relationship, not the substance of one. We welcome people in to the church in baptism, we welcome newcomers (hopefully), and we welcome our people as they come through the door each week.

If we only ever welcome, we deny the possibility of an ongoing relationship by keeping people by the door. What sounds like a friendly, warm word can be, paradoxically, exlusionary, jut like my rather forgetful vicar was, unintentionally. 'Welcome' can mean, when you've been around for six months already, 'I have no idea who you are.' We need to pause here and recognise that the CofE already knows, at least in theory, that LGBT people are among its bishops, deans, clergy, lay ministers, churchwardens, PCC members, musicians, volunteers and parishioners. To 'welcome' such as these would be perpetuating my vicar's terrible, exclusionary, gaffe. I'd ask you to read the Bishops' Statement and ask yourself whether it recognises this, and if not, why not?    

Not only that, but 'welcome' says nothing about the people involved; all sorts of people can be welcomed into all sorts of places for all sorts of reasons. I have been welcomed into more shops than I can remember, for entirely capitalist-transactional reasons, by people whose names I was not expected to remember and whose customer service didn't extend as far as asking mine (let's face it, that would be weird). The list goes on: buses, plumbers, delivery people, medical patients, best friends, spouses and children at school gates are welcome sights daily. 'Welcome' just says 'I'm glad to see you.' What it can't say is why; in other words, it can't comment on the quality of the relationship of the people involved in this welcoming moment.

'Support' is, I think, another slippery word, for much the same reason. All sorts of people can support all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons, some more wholesome than others (I remember here the indignant voice of the drug addict: 'I've got a habit to support!') 'Support' is, strangely, a highly relativistic word; people support rival football matches, rival political parties, rival contenders on reality shows with greater or lesser degrees of involvement or knowledge of the factors involved (I speak as a very nominal Watford supporter). Many people would say that gay conversion therapy is supportive; many people would say that abortion and assisted dying are supportive. Others would contest all of these claims. What 'support' cannot do, as a verb, is to say why a thing, institution or person ought to be related to in a certain way. All it can say, in the vaguest of terms, is that the person ought to be related to in a way which seems good, or at least defensible. Like 'welcome', it simply doesn't have the semantic range to comment on the quality of relationship. 

Both 'welcome' and 'support' are oddly secular words for a church document, too. Neither of these words has much provenance in the New Testament to describe the inner reality of the early church which drew so many into its rich, transformative life. I'm Barthian enough to get itchy when I recognise the creeping influence of secular vocabulary on ecclesiology, and so I find myself wondering which words are better and truer to describe the quality of relationship which the New Testament calls for: love, fellowship, belonging, forgiving, admonishing, sharing... Maybe the problem is that these words are too powerful to use with regard to LGBT people without causing someone some offence; but we abandon them at our peril, and risk acting out the person of a strangely secularised institition which performs religious functions rather than what we actually are, the body of Christ on earth. 

So, back to the question of the 'stunning quality of relationships.' What I've pondered as I've re-heard these words recently is not so much the quality of relationships between LGBT couples (which is about the same as the quality of any relationship between any couple, unsurprisingly, since we are all human) but the truly stunning quality of relationships that LGBT people have with local churches and the national church superstructure. As I've said, LGBT people are everywhere in the CofE, doing pretty much everything (not all by themselves, I hasten to add!) The person who said, wistfully but with no hint of self-pity, 'I'm not bothered about being able to get married, I just want a church where I can be myself' and sticking with it long enough to find such a church despite humiliating knock-backs along the way; the person who stands up for sticking to canon law even though it disadvantages them as a gay person; the person who volunteers hours to do dull-but-necessary paperwork for the sake of a local congregation; the minister who gives way above and beyond but can never talk about their private life; the other minister who goes public and faces much opposition, the churchwarden whose throat constricts every time marriage banns are read in church, and yet keeps serving anyway...the list goes on. 

There are so many LGBT Christians whose relationship with the church is nothing less than stunning in its quality, all the more so because it is a sacrificial relationship in a way that, without wishing to stray into competitive virtue-signalling, no heterosexual person is ever required to sacrifice of themselves in personal relationships by the church (I refer you back to the churchwarden and the banns). These are the people whose lives are directly affected by the Bishops' Statement, and it seems tragically sad to me that the Statement can't seem to bring itself to say what it really thinks of them, and why.  Does the church love its LGBT children? If so, it needs to say so, and it needs to surround itself with New Testament language to define that love (1 Corinthians 13 is the obvious starting-point). Are LGBT Christians part of the fellowship of faith? If so, the church needs to say so, often and compellingly enough to neutralise the many voices of rejection and censure that these folk have heard in their lifetimes. 'Welcome' and 'support' can, and do, mean anything and everything, and therefore, mean nothing. Now is the time for the stunning quality of relationships within the church, which already comprises gay, straight, bi, trans, pan, non-binary and all sort of other people, to be asserted with grace and conviction. 

What about the voice of God above and beyond, yet also within and through all of these voices? Well, I am no prophet, as a herdsman once said, but I offer these words, one of my favourite hymns, for all God's children, wherever they fall on the sexuality spectrum that we are only just beginning to understand:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
"Come unto me and rest;
lay down, thou weary one, lay down
thy head upon my breast."
I came to Jesus as I was,
so weary, worn, and sad;
I found in him a resting place,
and he has made me glad.


I heard the voice of Jesus say,
"Behold, I freely give
the living water; thirsty one,
stoop down and drink, and live."
I came to Jesus, and I drank
of that life-giving stream;
my thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
and now I live in him.


I heard the voice of Jesus say,
"I am this dark world's light;
look unto me, thy morn shall rise,
and all thy day be bright."
I looked to Jesus, and I found
in him my Star, my Sun;
and in that light of life I'll walk
till traveling days are done.







 

 

Monday, 12 September 2016

An Open Letter From Me to the C of E ('cause everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn't I?)

Dear Everyone,

Oh no, you think. Another open letter. Surely we've had enough of those lately. Well yes, I reply, that's true, there have been a few, haven't there? Mine is a bit different, though; firstly, I haven't canvassed for signatures other than my own, because this is my letter, and mine alone. Secondly, this letter isn't addressed so much to the Bishops, who are having quite a busy week and, as I've said, have had a few letters come their way already, as to the whole church, at least inasfar as I've experienced the Church of England in all the many people with whom I've prayed, worshipped, thought, learnt, ate, argued, lamented and laughed over the years.

As our Bishops meet this week to try and find the best ways they know to keep us all in the same boat, or as many of us as possible, I've read and responded to the wince-inducing pain of the issues that threaten to divide us (oh, go on, then: SEX. Visceral and fundamental to our humanity, no wonder poverty, the refugee crisis, party politics, Brexit and longstanding theological controversies have nothing on sex when it comes to threatening to divide a church).

As I've ouched my way through blog posts and online tussles between liberal and conservative, progressive and less-progressive, what I've found myself pondering is not so much the presenting issue (I've done enough of that already) nor the people involved (no offence), but the Church at the heart of this latest round of culture war skirmishes.

So, Church, my letter is to you.        

I met you long before I remember, before I could walk (just) or talk. Before my memories blurred into focus, you took me in your arms, and you welcomed me, washed me, and buried me all in one moment. Through my childhood you were there with your bonfire night parties and outrageous pantomimes, your weak orange squash and your strange, compelling words, your enormous crucifix above Father David's head as he beat his chest and softly spoke of the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. You were there with choir rehearsals, Sunday School fuzzy felt Bible stories and Easter Monday walks to the Cathedral.

You were there when Father Stripey-Beard (whose real name is a matter of historical irrelevance) stood next to a Bishop and prayed that the first welcome I ever received from you would be confirmed as mine forever. You were there in the confirmation present I got, a pair of dangly earrings with at least twelve crosses hanging from each ear. That's how much I wanted to know what you knew; every one of those crosses, and more. I'd have covered my ears in them if I could. You were there to hear and hold all my questions, and you did your best to answer them, even when I didn't understand your answers and wasn't ever really looking for answers, anyway.

You were there, in the background, through my teens when the evangelical youth group seemed so much more definite and do-able, and you were there when I arrived, a few years later, away from home at university in your birthplace, of all places. You were there as I stood during Freshers' Week and took in the list of Archbishops, going all the way back to Augustine himself, my A Level History still fresh in my imagination as I imbibed fifteen hundred years of comings and goings, prayer and politics, all in this one, awe-inspiring place, where I stood, a term later, with the Christian Union and sang, of all things, 'Come On and Celebrate.' In my defence, it was 1992.

You were there for me through those tumultuous, idealistic years of university, in gentle Sunday mornings with those occasional, fleeting movements of the divine, and in the long, heartfelt Sunday evenings when 195 young people who all wanted to change the world crammed into a Canterbury townhouse living room (then afterwards in the kitchen for private prayer for those who *really* wanted to change the world).

We've been through a lot together since then, haven't we, Church? I've sat on pews, on plastic chairs, and on the floor of leaky tents at agricultural showgrounds. I've got up early to learn to love the profound poetry of the BCP, I've stayed up late to wait and watch. I've done Toddler Church and Sunday School and Messy Mass and Youth Hub. I've heard sermons, homilies, Bible expositions and PowerPoint talks. I've sung choruses, hymns, chants and anthems. I've arrived early at a conservative evangelical church to be offered a place in a pre-worship prayer group, and I've arrived late at a charismatic church to find what looked like the re-enactment of the crucifixion on TV screens all around the building. I've arrived on time at an Anglo-Catholic church to be given detailed instructions of when and how to move during the service. I've been slayed in the Spirit at Holy Trinity Brompton, and basked in the cavernous holiness of Brompton Oratory (although I know that, strictly speaking, that's not exactly you - but still....)

I've enjoyed the close friendship of a Prayer Triplet, and have discovered the quiet, liberating grace of confession. I've talked, I've sung, I've read, I've thought, I've prayed, I've responded, I've argued fiercely about things that mattered then and matter still to me...And you've helped me, all the way through, to pick my way through life's trickier times, and to know God in it all with me, with you, together, whatever. And more recently, as you know only too well, you've agreed with me that God was, and is, asking me to give myself to Him, through you, as a priest. You agreed that God could let Himself be placed in my hands, broken, and shared, every single week. (I still shake myself at the ground-breaking, breath-taking privilege you've let me be part of. What were you thinking, Church?)  And, rather more down to earth, you've paid me and housed me and educated my children.

And if I'm being really honest - and this is quite an admission for a priest to make - I'm not sure I could have done it without you, Church. I don't mean 'Church' in the universal sense here; I mean you in particular, you Church of England. You see, by the time I stood in Canterbury Cathedral and read back through the ages to 597 and St Augustine coming through the West Gate towers fresh from Gregory's monastery in Rome, I'd already worked out that I couldn't do narrow church of any particular persuasion. Maybe I'm too eclectic, too easily bored and too quickly resentful of being typecast or defined, but I knew that I'd pretty quickly start rebelling against a church that had all the answers for everything all the time, and especially against a church in which everyone had the same answer all the time. If that had been the only faith on offer to me at the age of 18, I'm not sure I'd have stuck with it. But what you gave me - and what you give me still - is a space to reach out, to try out ideas and to live with differences. This doesn't mean that my faith in Jesus, the faith you helped me find, is weak or changeable; in fact, the more I've opened myself to Christian people in their myriad differences in religious experience, and the more I've recognised that  all God's people are known and cherished by God, the firmer and clearer my faith in the unchanging love of God has become.  

So, Church, this is my plea: please don't go. You are a hundred thousand individual 'yous', and each one of you is part of me, and whether you know it or not, I am part of you, too.

And I need you all. I need you conservative evangelicals, with your clear, true faith, your appetite to reach out with the good news, and your insistence on textual accuracy.

I need you radical liberals to get arrested and remind me of the cost of speaking out against injustice for the sake of the poor.

I need you charismatics to tell me of your visions and dreams for yourself and for the world.

I need you sacramentalists to help me draw near to the mystery of the Eucharist.

I need all you little local church congregations - my family - to be family to anyone and everyone who walks through your doors, and to walk out together as family to serve your communities with the love of Christ.

I need you progressives to push forward and seek to work out what it means to proclaim Christ afresh to each generation. I don't mind if you get it wrong sometimes, just as I don't mind if some of the new worship songs that others of you write aren't quite my style, because frankly I would far rather have a church with new songs to sing than one which has forgotten how to compose.

I need those few of you who go on television and the radio and remind the world that the Church is still here, still alive, still with so much to say and to offer and to do.

 I need those of you who do amazing things - who give to the poor, care for the ill and the housebound, look after the prisoners, teach and look after our children. And there are *so* many of you doing amazing things, week in, week out, all the time, and none of you think you are doing anything much - but you are.

The loss of any single one of you would be a loss for me. And of course, we need our Bishops to draw all us all together, to do their best to keep us all together despite the wince-inducing pain of the issues that threaten to divide us (oh, go on, then: SEX).  Yes, it's hard, because talking about sex is talking about that which is visceral and fundamental to our humanity. And no, we aren't going to agree, not all of us, anyway.  But, please: what we have, in this hotch-potch of contradictions and swirling currents of faith, is worth holding onto, even if it's hard, and even if we don't agree about sex. It's worth holding onto, because who we are - the Church of England - makes faith possible for contrary, questioning believers with low boredom thresholds, like me, and for so many other decent, good Christians who just want to worship God in a local church.

So this has been my letter to you, Church. I wonder, if each of us could write our own personal letter, tell our own stories of the C of E's presence through our lives, what all those letters would add up to. I'm sure God would love to read them all. And would they - could they ever - weigh less, matter less, mean less than what we think about sex? My prayer is for you, reading this, that you won't go, that you'll stick with this Church. And my prayer for any Bishops who may read this (because, of course, you're part of this church as much as anyone else, and my New Testament Greek pedantry reminds me that you are part of the laity as well as the episcopoi), that you will be given all the needful gifts of grace to help as many of us recaltriant Anglicans to stick together as possible. God knows you'll need them...

With love, and grateful thanks,
Lucy.      

   

Sunday, 28 August 2016

The utter social minefield that is wedding receptions, and the Eucharist

I don't know if you've been to a wedding this summer, or if you've been involved in the planning of a wedding. Especially if you've been involved with helping someone plan their wedding, you'll know that, well, it's a minefield. How many people to invite, whether or not to include children, who to seat with whom, and who gets to sit on the top table, which in these days of blended families can get very complicated, are just some of the challenges people face. The ever-present fear of forgetting someone important, or offending someone, or putting the wrong people together combine to make wedding receptions a social minefield. On the popular parenting website Mumsnet there is a section called 'AIBU': Am I Being Unreasonable? People explain a situation, then ask if their response or behaviour is reasonable. It's a sort of make-it-up-as-you-go-along modern guide to etiquette.  An unreasonable number of the questions asked there are to do with avoiding a wedding reception disaster. Of course what brides and grooms usually want is to invite as many people as possible and to honour the close relationships with families and friends. The seating plan at a wedding reception, usually with its top table, is a fair indication of the significant people in a couple's lives. But, as I say, it's a minefield.

Other seating plans are less complicated because everyone already knows their place. At the Oxford University college at which I assisted in the chapel for a while, the choir who sang Evensong were paid in food, getting a decent, wholesome meal sitting at long tables in the dining hall whist the fellows, dons and selected guests sat at the high table eating a completely different and far more elegant menu, and drinking very good wine which the students certainly didn't get on their tables.   If a student had taken a place at the high table, it would have been very presumptuous indeed; access to the high table was exclusively at the invitation of the college Master.

Churches, too, can have their own seating plans. There are still churches around with box pews, with the names of the owners of that pew listed on a little brass plaque on the door of the box pew. Much more common are the informal seating plans in churches, and looking around this morning, I can see that we all have our 'spots.' There's nothing wrong with that; we are creatures of habit and it's nice to settle in to your spot on a Sunday morning. That's why I decided to give this sermon from the vicar's chair this morning; not because this seat says that I am any better than any of you, but simply so that I can do the job that I was sent here to do, to lead you in worship and easily be seen and head by you.It can be tricky, though, for new people coming in; I remember visiting a church once and being paranoid all the way through the service that I'd sat in someone else's space. There's nothing wrong with having our own favourite spot in church, as long as we remember that it's not ours, it's God's, and as long as we are ready to give it up if someone else inadvertently takes our place.

What seating plans are about, really, is relationship. We get an idea about who someone is and where they fit in to any group of people - a wedding party, a college, a church congregation - by where they sit.  We come to social events by invitation, and it's normally the person who sends the invitation who gets to decide who sits where. Seating plans are about relationships, and in particular about a person's relationship with the host. So the Gospel reading we heard this morning is a parable about a first century wedding reception, every bit as perilous a social minefield as it is still in our own time, and also about our place at the table, in other words, our relationship with God.

I think that there are two opposite and equal dangers that we can run into when we think about where we sit in the table of heaven.  We may be so painfully aware of our sins and shortcomings, our doubts and darkness, that we slink, inwardly, to the very back, keeping half an eye on the door in case someone tells us that actually, our name isn't on the list after all. We may be so supremely confident of our place at the table that we do the spiritual equivalent of striding up to take the place of honour, telling ourselves that the church should be jolly grateful we are here.

The answer to both of these dangers is the same, and it's the same one you learnt in Sunday School: Jesus. To the doubter slinking away at the back, Jesus extends an invitation that says yes, you are sinful - we all are - but I am good, and in my goodness you are forgiven and set free. To the supremely confident Jesus extends an invitation that says yes, you do a lot of good and useful things, you use your talents wisely - but a seat at this table isn't dependent on your goodness, it's dependent on mine. In my goodness your self-centred pride is forgiven and you, too, are set free.

It's worth pondering that no-one can declare him or herself to be a saint or a prophet. It is God who makes us holy through the goodness and holiness of Jesus, and it is God inspiring the church to recognise the saintly ones and the prophetic people in our midst. These high places at the table of heaven are exclusively by God's invitation.

That same God bids us all come, and gives us a wonderful way of coming to his table week after week at the Eucharist. There are many wonderful things about the Eucharist; one is that in this meal, there is no seating plan. The altar isn't the high table, it's the staff kitchen table. We kneel together to receive, and when we do that we are saying with our bodies that we are all equal, regardless of all the status markers of wealth, class, education and so on that normally define us. We come at God's invitation, and he wants all of us to come as close as possible, to draw as near as we can in our hearts to the host who sends our invitations day after day, week after week, into eternity, who will never stop inviting us to this stylised but real meal in which our relationship with him is recognised and renewed.

And this meal should shape all our meals. The parable ends with Jesus telling us that when we throw dinner parties of our own, don't just invite those who have something to give you, a return invitation or a bit of social glory to bask in. Invite those with nothing to give, because then we might understand what it means to come to God's invitation with open hands and a humble heart as we start to realise that actually, we have nothing to give the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills. Invite the blind and the lame, Jesus says. Maybe to us he'd say 'Invite the isolated, the lonely. Invite those who never get invited out. Invite the dull and the boring, and extend to those the same love I extend to you.' This meal should shape all our meals.

I am going to use some words of invitation at this morning's Eucharist that I haven't used before, and I am going to read them to you now so that you can hold this invitation in your heart through the rest of the service. I end with this:

Come to this table not because you must, but because you may.
Come not because you are strong, but because you are weak.
Come not because any goodness of your own gives you the right to come
but because you need mercy and help.
Come because you love the Lord a little
and would like to love him more.
Come because he loved you and gave himself for you.
Come and meet the risen Christ
for we are the body of Christ.
Amen.