Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Second Class Christians?

Tomorrow the General Synod of the Church of England looks at the Bishops' report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations (pdf file). This is a 'take note' debate, so no decisions will be made, but it should be an opportunity for the bishops to get feedback on whether they are on the right track.

I read the report myself yesterday and was somewhat shocked.

The report starts fairly constructively, summarising the bishops' position as being that they don't feel they can change the traditional Anglican definition of marriage as being a lifelong union of "of one man with one woman ... for the procreation and nurture of children ...", but emphasising the need for a change in the way LGBT people are treated: "establishing across the Church of England a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people".

So I wonder what that looks like.

The CofE pattern of worship is strongly based around liturgical worship, so what will be done liturgically to "welcome and support lesbian and gay people"? CofE ministers are only allowed to use liturgies which are specifically authorised by the bishops; the paper goes on to say that these will not be changed: hence there will be no new liturgical provision for LGBT people.

Meanwhile, LGBT priests are told that they may not marry their same-sex partners (that appears to be a sackable offence) and, if they live with them, they may not engage in sexual relations. Full stop.

Part way through the report the writing style changes - as though Dr Jekyll has been replaced by Mr Hyde - and the underlying attitude, with its implicit Catch-22, comes out.

The logic is this:
  • Marriage can only be between a man and a woman;
  • Sex outside of marriage is inherently sinful;
  • The Church cannot be seen to condone sin;
  • Therefore LGBT relationships have to be condemned, at least implicitly.
Hence any change in tone is not going to be supported by the bishops, whatever the introduction to their report might say.

Almost two thousand years ago the young Christian church started getting converts, in some geographical areas, whose lifestyles did not fit in with the traditional understandings of Scripture. Conservative churchgoers started agitating for these converts to be pressured into conforming. Some early church leaders appear to have gone along with them, probably in order to preserve unity across the fledgling church.

The apostle Paul, who was deeply involved in missionary work amongst those whose lifestyles were seen as different, got really angry about this. We know from Paul's writing that he cared deeply about church unity, but when it came to treating some Christians as second-class followers of Jesus he was implacably opposed. Hence his letter to the church in Galatia, and hence his push for a big meeting, known subsequently as the Council of Jerusalem (see Acts 15). The Council of Jerusalem agreed with Paul and thereafter, in theory at least, all Christians are to be treated as equals, there is no division based on external characteristics nor on legalism:
"So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
For Paul the central question was whether someone had received the Spirit of Christ: if they had then they were unambiguously part of the church, Jesus' body, if not they were not.

So, in my simple-minded way, I think the solution to the bishops' problem is clear. Find a fair selection of LGBT churchgoers who are living faithfully with long-term same-sex partners and speak with those who know them: do their lives and their relationships with those around them, as individuals and as a couple, reflect the Spirit of Jesus or not.

If no such Spirit-living couples can be found, the issue is solved.

But if there are a significant number of LGBT people whose lives do reflect the Spirit of Jesus then this is a clear Galatians issue. The bishops who produced this report are unambiguously just as opposed to the will of God as were those early pharisaic churchgoers. And the traditional understandings of Scripture need to be revisited with this in mind - just as Paul had to revisit  and reinterpret traditional understandings in his letter to the Galatians.

Meanwhile those bishops should reflect on how they have sold out to the god of this world and turn back to God in repentance.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Judgement - A Text Adventure

A course I am doing wants me to create a small text adventure and to share it on the web. So, here it is: Judgement.

Any old gamers (or younger gamers with an interest in gaming history) may recognise a couple of references in here - hopefully worth a small smile.

If you are of a really nervous disposition you might want to be a little wary of this. Although as a text adventure - ie mostly words - any hazard is more in your head than on the screen (as if that were any better!).

Please give it a go and let me know how you get on. I'm fairly sure all the typos are gone, but if I'm wrong please let me know that too.

EDIT: The links to the game should work now - apologies to anyone who tried them before. One tip: if you click on the Full-Screen button the game looks far more effective, I think.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Two Models Of Church

Both models exist; too often the first makes more noise:-

Are you there?
Can you hear me?
I am thinking of you

Are you hurt?
Are you lonely?
Hope my words get through

Did you know nobody's perfect?
We all fall down
See into the heart of you now

When you are lost
I will find you
Through the dark
I can see you
And you are loved
You are worthy
You can't hide
All the beauty
I can see you ...

Let me put my cards on the table
I've been where you are
I'll never see the stain of a label
Or a scar
You need to know that i wont reject you
Let's unbreak your heart
You are not the voices that shame you
I'm coming out
So call your friends and gather round
It's time to judge and pin me down
I'm in the box you put me in
It's dark and I can't see a thing
No air, I need to breathe ...

You label and name
Because you're afraid
Because it makes you feel safe
But here is the sting:
It don't mean a thing.
So everybody sing

Define me, de­fine me, somebody find me
Tell me what I am­ you know you love it
Define me, de­file me, somebody bind me
Make me what I am/ you want
You'll never break me down

Oh my god ain't it fun to judge, ain't it fun to judge, ain't it fun to judge?
Oh my god now I'm covered in mud, now I'm covered in mud, ain't it fun to judge?
Oh my god now you want my blood, now you want my blood, ain't it fun to judge?
Oh my god now I'm covered in mud and you want my blood, ain't it fun to judge?

Actually, I suspect most churches have a mixture of both approaches in their congregations. That's probably fair enough: churchgoers are, by and large, human too, and tolerance works both ways. Up to a point.

But where I do get angry is when leaders - formal or informal - bring the worst out of others. When someone stirs up prejudice and hatred, spreading the poison from their own soul to their neighbours. It's evil and it's anti-Christian.

The job of the church is to follow Jesus, to treat people as he did. Simple as that.

The lyrics above are from the band Bad Pollyanna, off their excellent Broken Toys album.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Blessed Are The Desperate?

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit...
Blessed is the lamb, whose blood flows...
Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on...
Oh lord, why have you forsaken me?"

Blessed ... really?

I was at a "Continuing Ministerial Development" course on Thursday on "Preaching the Gospel of Matthew". I came away feeling it had been interesting but not really that useful. With one notable exception, it was full of academically inclined people talking in abstracts. Inevitable perhaps, given the CofE approach to selecting and training authorised ministers.

I don't mind abstract ideas myself, but it's been a really busy week and I have a painful back, so my initial response was that it hadn't been an effective use of the day.

One thing which we did look at was the Beatitudes - the opening to the Sermon on the Mount which Paul Simon so evocatively rephrases in his song above. I was part of a small group looking at this, which happened to include the one exception to the academic mould. She focussed us with the practical example of a young mum without the money to buy a can of beans. Is she blessed? Is that what the beatitudes are telling us?

Given a practical focus, the academic stuff sometimes comes in handy. Someone else in the group knew Oscar Wilde's De Profundis - a letter written from Reading Prison, where Wilde had been imprisoned with hard labour for 'gross indecency'. In this he writes that his first year of imprisonment was pure hell, but in the second year he was able to come to terms with all that was happening and use it to connect with Christ and with humanity.
"The poor are wise, more charitable, more kind, more sensitive than we are. In their eyes prison is a tragedy in a man's life, a misfortune, a casuality, something that calls for sympathy in others. They speak of one who is in prison as of one who is 'in trouble' simply. It is the phrase they always use, and the expression has the perfect wisdom of love in it. With people of our own rank it is different. With us, prison makes a man a pariah. I, and such as I am, have hardly any right to air and sun. Our presence taints the pleasures of others. We are unwelcome when we reappear."
To be honest, I'm not a huge fan of Wilde myself - to me he seems overly flowery and full of himself, even whilst celebrating his own 'humility'.

Nevertheless, there is something here about reality, and about our inability to face it when we are comfortable. There is also something, it seems to me, about God bringing good out of situations which are not good. To my mind it is wrong to speak of God making bad things happen, to serve a greater end. But it is true, I think, that God can take the bad things which inevitably do happen in this fallen world and can transform their outcomes: evil happens but in Christ comes resurrection.

There's a famous old sermon called "Sunday's comin'" which speaks of the hopelessness that goes with Good Friday - but, unseen and unexpected, "Sunday's coming".

Somewhere in the beatitudes stands a truth that sometimes it's easier to see light when we stand in darkness, that in Jesus despair transforms to hope, and that God can raise the deadest of dead. And, in due course, a full resurrection is coming when suffering and dying and hopelessness will be no more.

By the way, that young mum who couldn't afford beans - it was a local church who were her blessing. They went out and bought her a pack of food, including bread and beans. It's not a solution, but it was a blessing. The future is in God's hands ... and Christ's people stand as his hands and feet, heart and voice, and - sometimes - his shoppers for beans.

May your week ahead be redeemed by hope and grace in Jesus, whatever you may face.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

You Are Loved

Churches can be so frustrating sometimes!

It's a month since the EU Referendum result, when a truly horrible campaign from leaders of both sides led to a situation characterised by anger, despair and terrible division. Churches in this part of the world have talked internally about prayer and reconciliation over this period, but bog-all is visible externally.

Some of that, of course, is down to uncertainty about what can be done on a corporate level. Individually, being nice to foreigners and buying The Big Issue seem to be the order of the day, and the need for reconciliation has turned up in a sermon or two (most fervently in one case where the preacher had witnessed a racist attack in the middle of Reading the previous day). But that seems to be about the lot, in spite of the Bishop of Reading putting out a call for churches to get involved.

I'm not good at grand ideas, even less good at organising people, but surely we could start by doing something as simple and visible as telling people they are loved (even that idea I nicked from the Big Issue).

This is a core belief within Christianity: "God is love", "For God so loved the world", and so on. And the churches in CTM Parish were already being challenged by the PMC team to do something more positive with our noticeboards. It's not brain surgery.

I thought we had agreement to do some sort of poster a couple or three weeks back. So when I drove past St John's a few days ago I deliberately looked at the noticeboard to see what it said. "Thieves beware!" was all I could read from the road. :(

I need to check I am not treading on anyone's toes, that there is nothing already underway, but it looks as though I'll just have to put something up myself. This is my default approach, if I'm honest, and I've deliberately spent the past month trying to do things a better way: to get others involved; to cooperate, coordinate and consult; to seek better ideas and better ways of implementing them. Hmm.

I started this post intending to come from a completely different angle, actually, prompted by this post from HTB which makes the disappointing assumption that all parents feel instant and overwhelming love for their children and, more seriously, that all children are loved by their parents. It seems to me that maybe amongst those who most need to know that they are loved are precisely those who have least prior knowledge of their parents' love.

One role for the church is to show what love looks and feels like in practice, so people can have a starting point for recognising the love of God, whatever their background may be.

The referendum exposed deep divisions and insecurities in our communities. But these were already there, really. People need to know that they are loved, then that love can overflow to their neighbours. As I said before, it's not brain surgery - but it does seem remarkably difficult to do anything about in practice.

Fortunately I do believe in a God of miracles (as well as love)!

Edit 15/08/16:

It turns out that the poster was actually underway. A week or so back it turned up on our noticeboard, which now looks like this:

The person who did the posters is a gifted graphic artist, so I can only assume the brief he was given was somewhat ... unassuming.