Tags: 27 January, Church of England, DLT Books, Homosexuality, House of Bishops, LGBT, LGBTI, Open Table, Rublev's Icon of the Trinity, Sexuality
27 January: it’s a date that’s etched permanently in the minds of anyone who has connections with the Jewish community. It is, of course, Holocaust Memorial Day.
But this year, 2017, the date gained a new twist, and it is now etched—perhaps just as permanently—in the minds of the UK’s LGBTI community: it’s the date the Church of England chose to publish its much-vilified report GS 2055: Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations (Full Report, pdf | Press Release). Was the date chosen intentionally, a subtle act of defiance by someone inside the C of E’s communications office, or was it simply a case of crass insensitivity? We shall never know, but the grim irony has certainly not been lost on the Church’s lesbian and gay members or their families and friends.
The report begins innocuously enough, a gentle and gracious tone, reaching out from “wellsprings of prayer” in gracious humility:
This report is offered from the wellsprings of prayer, careful thought, and, mindful of our calling as bishops, listening, both to the Christian faith as we have received it, and to our Shared Conversations. We affirm the integrity and value of each person affected by what we say here. We recognise our deficiencies and offer this paper with humility. (Preamble)
I try to be an evangelist at my local gym. The guys I work out alongside know I am a Christian and they are interested in spiritual things. I would love them to know God’s amazing love in their lives but despite my best efforts they are not church attenders (yet!). When I talk to them about Church they ask me why the Church doesn’t like people who are LGBT…
So also the Bishops:
If we are heard as lacking in love, our ability to proclaim the God of love as revealed in Jesus Christ is damaged or negated. No Church that is committed to God’s mission can live comfortably with that situation. (Introduction, para.2, p.2)
They recognise the challenge of holding together the wide range of theological traditions that exist within the Church, but whilst the difficulty for “those holding a conservative view of scripture” is spelt out,
the underlying issue at stake is that of faithfulness to God’s word and this raises “first order” questions in relation to the heart of the gospel
the difficulty for “others” is reduced to an “imperative to read scripture differently” that “stems from a parallel conviction” — a conviction that, bizarrely, is never spelt out. Nonetheless, the report continues,
It is our present determination to remain together as witnesses to the unity of the Triune God that forces us to try to hear the scriptural, theological and missiological arguments of those with whom we disagree profoundly. (Introduction, para.8, p.3)
It is clear by now who has the upper hand, who is hearing but not listening, and it is not long before that opening tone of humility is lost under an avalanche of assertion and legalese:
The House hoped to sustain the atmosphere of careful and respectful listening that had marked the Shared Conversations, but was clear that the current situation requires some clearer assertion of where the Church now finds itself. (Beyond the Shared Conversations, para.14)
Note that phrase: the current situation requires not further exploration but “clearer assertion” — and that is precisely what comes as Canon B 30.1 is drawn upon:
‘The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity’ (Beyond…, footnote to para.18, p.5)
Why, one might ask, is the whole Canon relegated to a footnote? Simply this, I venture to suggest: to facilitate a selective reading, a reading that homes in on the description of marriage as being a union “of one man with one woman” but conveniently disregards those parts which describe marriage as “a union permanent and lifelong” which is “for the procreation and nurture of children”.
O my Lord Bishops, what have we here? “Little support for changing the Church of England’s teaching on marriage” in a House of Bishops that has already changed the Church of England’s teaching on marriage in order to accommodate heterosexual divorcees (not to mention those heterosexuals who are incapable of procreation). “Our Lord’s teaching” indeed, my Lords, for well you know what our Lord—your Lord and mine—said about divorcees who remarry whilst their spouse is yet alive; and well you know that he did not declare that marriage is for procreation; and equally well you know that he said not one word about same-sex relationships.
But all of this you ignore, set aside, taking hold of the Canon to support a view of marriage as a privilege and a rite that belongs exclusively to heterosexuals, the very people whose adulterous liaisons and promiscuity have brought the institution into such disrepute down the years.
You also know what our Lord says of those who take man-made rules and turn them into doctrines:
He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.” (Mark 7.6-7, NRSV)
Terrible words, my Lords; but see what comes next:
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. (Mark 7.24-30, NRSV)
You who know Scripture so well, who live and breathe our Lord’s teachings, know also that this is no accident. Mark did not throw his Gospel together at random. The contrast between the hypocrites with their exclusive teachings and the rank outsider who wins Jesus’ approval could not be made more clear.
This, my Lords, is the contrast between your House of Bishops and the LGBTI members of the Church writ large; and as I sit here writing these words, on the wall facing me hangs a print of Rublev’s famous Icon of the Trinity, an Open Table inviting the viewer into the table fellowship of our triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
This is Church as it should be, for where you see demons, where you see sin, where you see cause for exclusion, our Lord sees the broken, wounded hearts of those who seek only to be welcomed as equals. Our Lord sees faithfulness and resilience, and tears of both joy and sorrow run down his face as he says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11.28, NRSV)
Our Lord’s message is welcome. Yours is welcome, but—and that ‘but’ drains all the joy, all the hope, all the expectancy of the Shared Conversations away. It is as if the Syrophoenician woman had met the challenge, given her answer and Jesus had merely patted her on the head like a dog and said, “Of course, dear.”
The “underlying issue at stake”, my Lords, is not so much “faithfulness to God’s word” as faithfulness, period. You choose to honour and dignify unfaithfulness amongst heterosexuals by permitting remarriage of divorcees—in a blatant disregard of both our Lord’s teaching and the Canon you claim to be upholding—whilst refusing any dignity, any honour for the faithfulness of LGBTI people. All your fine words, all your talk of meeting “in a context of prayer and meditation”, all your promise of “a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people” rings hollow, rings false in this light: you are Hollowed out Bishops in a House of Betrayal and you are hobbling Christ’s Church.
I urge you, my Lords: look not to the conservatives in your midst but to the faithful in your flock. Be faithful to your calling as Bishops, as Chief Shepherds of the flock, to tend the poor and the lame, to reach out to those on the margins. Do not be exemplars of the hard-hearted Christ before his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, as if the Shared Conversations had never taken place: be rather examples of the transformed Christ who not only heard but listened and went on his way to yet another encounter:
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’ (Mark 7. 31-37, NRSV)
No coincidence that this comes next either, my Lords: our Lord heard and listened to the voice of an outsider then went on to give both hearing and speech to a deaf mute. This is what you are being called to do, to give freedom and joy to the LGBTI community who took the risk of the Shared Conversations only to find themselves shut out of the subsequent discussions, rendered deaf and speechless until you—given the opportunity to reset the table and welcome them in—deigned only to offer them further crumbs.
This, my Lords, is not the way of our Lord. You have followed the way of the Scribes and Pharisees by building walls, creating a gated community, planting a hedge around the Law—and worse, the Law which you uphold is not Christ’s Law of Love but man-made law presented as if it were God’s Law.
Faithfulness has never been about following rules but honouring relationships. Take note, therefore, my Lords: not of your report but of our Lord’s calling upon your lives. Be Good Shepherds like Christ himself, who was drawn by love to self-sacrifice, lest you find yourselves face to face with God addressing you as Israel’s False Shepherds of old and saying,
I will take your Shepherd’s Crooks and your fine robes and mitres and give them to others more worthy of my Calling.
Is this the Word of the Lord? May it not be so, my Lord Bishops, may it not be so…
What now for the rest of us?
I, as a lover of books, have but one gift to offer both to and on behalf of my LGBTI friends: read more. Be informed. Equip and renew your minds for the conversations, debates and struggles to come. To that end I give you, courtesy of DLT Books, 50% off their entire sexuality range* with the discount code LGBT50 – simply apply it in the online shopping basket.
All the recent titles are included, as well as all the backlist: 119; Amazing Love; Fierce Imaginings; More Perfect Union, Nomad; Permanent, Faithful, Stable; This Is My Body; and many, many more. Whether you buy them for yourselves, for your Bishops, for your General Synod Reps, they’re yours at half-price throughout this month, February 2017.
Dare to imagine a Church transformed and be ready to play your part.
*eBooks and Print-on-Demand titles excluded.
For the Avoidance of Doubt…
- The views and opinions expressed in this post are mine and mine alone. My wonderful wife has not been consulted or collaborated with me in any way whatsoever over what is written here.
- I am well aware there are a number of Bishops—diocesans, retired and suffragens—who are actively engaged in reaching out to and supporting the LGBTI community. Those I know of include: +Paul Bayes, Liverpool; +Nick Holtam, Salisbury; +Rachel Treweek, Gloucester; +David Walker, Manchester; +Alan Wilson, Buckingham; and +Ruth Worsley, Taunton. There may be others similarly engaged: I salute you, each and every one, and I apologise to any I have missed out.
- I personally fully support the remarriage of divorcees as practiced by the C of E (and the availability of marriage for those who do not wish to or are unable to procreate). I simply raise these issues to highlight the inconsistency of the House of Bishops’ stance on marriage and their selective reading of the Canons.