Bishops’ Report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships – letter to General Synod

Dear General Synod Representatives for the Diocese of Oxford,

Re: GS 2055 – Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations: A Report from the House of Bishops

I am writing to you in your capacity as a General Synod Member representing the Diocese of Oxford, to urge you to vote not to take note of the above paper during the take note debate in the forthcoming session of General Synod.

I was part of the Shared Conversations process which led up to this report, participating in the shared conversations involving members of our own diocese in March 2016. I found the process challenging and at times painful, but was also greatly encouraged by the degree of openness, respect, and honest discussion between brothers and sisters in Christ which I encountered.

Sadly, I do not see this reflected in the report of the House of Bishops at all. I think it is disappointing that the bishops did not seek to reflect the outcomes of the Shared Conversations, nor did they apparently make any effort to include the views and experiences of LGBT Christians – who will be most effected by the content of the report – in the process of writing it.

If Synod chooses to take note of this report, I am concerned about the effect it will have, both within the church and on our mission, which is why I am asking you to consider voting not to take note.

Within the church, it has been obvious for many decades that there is not a consensus regarding the place of LGBT people in the church, and the status of relationships between people of the same sex. A very wide range of views – all based on people’s prayerful interpretation of scripture – were expressed during the Shared Conversations, but there is no acknowledgement of or allowance for this theological diversity in the bishops’ report. Instead, the bishops seek to impose ‘unity’ by failing to acknowledge the differences that exist, rather than trying to address them in ways which could lead to true unity.

Many LGBT Christians, myself included, have been deeply hurt and angered by this report, and many have decided that this is the tipping point at which they can no longer stay in a church which does not seem to want us. I am not walking away, but I understand why people are, and I think this should be a cause of sorrow for the whole church. ‘Unity’ which causes faithful men and women to feel that they can no longer be part of the church is no unity at all – it is deeply damaging to the body of Christ.

However, far more important is the damage which this report will do to the mission of the church. I work with young people within and outside the church, and it is clear that they see our response as a church to LGBT people as discriminatory, homophobic, and lacking in love. Christian young people identify it as a major impediment to sharing the gospel with their peers, and non-Christian young people are put off by what they (understandably) perceive as the hypocrisy of a church which preaches love and practises the opposite. I know this situation is by no means limited to young people.

If the Church of England is to be a church for all people – and if, more importantly, we are to live out Jesus’ command to “make disciples of all people” – we must begin to engage with the reality of the people we seek to serve. If the Church of England is even to be a place for all Anglicans, we must acknowledge and respect the diversity that exists within the body of Christ.

I had thought that the Shared Conversations were beginning to take us in this direction, but the bishops’ report bares little or no resemblance to that process, and is a disappointing retrograde step. I urge you to vote not to take note, in order to demonstrate to the bishops that this is not good enough. At the very least, Synod deserves a report which accurately reflects the diversity of the church and the reality of the Shared Conversations process.

Please be assured that you and the whole Synod will be in my prayers during the coming session, and I am most grateful for your work as a representative of this diocese.

Yours in Christ,

Ruth Harley
Children’s and Families’ Minister
All Saints Church, High Wycombe

Stop standing on my foot!

Imagine the scenario: someone is standing on your foot. It doesn’t much matter whether they’re doing it on purpose or by accident.

You say: “Excuse me, you’re standing on my foot.”

They say: “Oh, I’m so sorry! Here, would you like a biscuit?”

But they are still standing on your foot.

You say: “You’re still standing on my foot, and it’s actually quite painful.”

They say: “I’m really, really sorry about that. Here: have a coffee. It’s nice to see you, by the way.”

But they are still standing on your foot. It’s getting more and more painful, and you can’t get on with what you want to be doing.

You say: “Look, you’re still standing on my foot, and it really hurts, and I enjoyed the biscuit and the coffee, but you are still standing on my foot. Please move!”

They say: “Will you stop going on about your foot! It’s all you talk about. Can’t you just get on with something else? I’ve already given you coffee and a biscuit – what more do you want from me?!”

But still they are standing on your foot.


 

Following the House of Bishops’ Report on “Marriage and Same Sex Relationships”, much has been written. For me, the most helpful thing I have read or heard is this sermon from Canon Leanne Roberts at Southwark Cathedral. It is well worth reading / listening to in its entirety.

Among the many excellent points Leanne makes is this:

The report bears careful reading in full. But the ‘take-away’ message for many has been this: the Bishops have said this is all very difficult; they say it is important that the ‘tone’ around matters of sexuality and relationships changes; they say they recommend that there is absolutely no change, whatsoever, in Church law or doctrine to enable same-sex relationships to be affirmed and celebrated. Unfortunately, they do not explain how this change of ‘tone’ – where the Church becomes, apparently, more loving and welcoming towards LGBT people who wish to be in committed relationships – can be achieved without changing anything else at all.

Many people have said to me since the publication of the report that at least the bishops want to change the tone. At least there’s that. That’s some sort of progress, surely? But I don’t think so. It’s easy to ask for “a change of tone” if doing so doesn’t demand  any actual changes, but it’s also a useless, empty piece of rhetoric if nothing really changes.

And even if a change of tone is actually – miraculously – somehow achieved without changing anything else, that still isn’t really progress. Because – and this is important – a change of tone isn’t what we were asking for. Being nice to people, while continuing to uphold the systems that oppress them, doesn’t count for much.

I, as a faithful gay Christian, am not asking for a change of tone. I am not asking for just a little bit more kindness, handed down by the bishops (or anyone else) as if they are doing me a favour. They aren’t. I am not asking for kindness, I am asking for justice. For recognition as the full and equal members of the Body of Christ, which I know  myself and my LGBT siblings to be.

And this, of all the many contenders, is perhaps the aspect of the whole debacle that makes me the most angry. I – and many other LGBT Christians – made myself very open, very vulnerable, in the Shared Conversations process, because I was assured that we were being listened to. That does not seem to have happened at all. The report does not address the issues we have raised or the questions we have asked. Truly, we asked for bread, and they gave us a stone. However lovely a stone it might be, we cannot eat it. However nice and polite they may be, there is still someone standing on my foot.

I do not buy into the idea that I should be grateful for the scraps that fall from the table of those who have never had their place at that table called into question. It is not their table, and it is not mine. It is Christ’s table, and he invites us all to sit around it as equal, beloved children of God. That is the only possible basis for any real conversation.

So if you want to have a real conversation about these “issues” – whether you’re a bishop, a vicar, or anyone else – start by listening. Really listening. Listening to the hopes and prayers and desires of the people you are talking about. Listening to our hurt and, quite possibly, to things that will hurt you to hear. Try to respond to what you hear, not what you want to hear. And be prepared to put in the “hard thought, hard prayer, hard work” which is the only thing that can ever lead to any real, deep transformation.

 

The parable of the wedding invitation

Here are two conversations: one I am having a lot at the moment, and one I would like to be having. They both take place between me and a friend (or it could be a relative) who has had little or no contact with the church, but is quite curious about faith and might be open to the idea of finding out more.

Compare and contrast.

***********************

CONVERSATION A

Me: So, I have some news… we’re engaged!

Friend: Oh wow, congratulations! That’s brilliant news. When’s the big day? I guess it’ll be a church wedding, right? Am I invited?

Me: Actually, I can’t get married in the church I serve, because I’m gay. And I can’t get married at all if I want to be a priest. So we’re having a quiet civil partnership for now, and waiting for the church to change its mind. Then we’ll have a big do, and of course you’re invited.

Friend: What?! That sucks.

Me: Yeah, I know. But it’s how it is. Lots of us are working to change it, but that’s how it is for now.

Friend: But.. that’s ridiculous. When you talk about your faith, it sounds like it’s all about love. I like that. But… this doesn’t make sense.

Me: I know. It’s hard to explain. It is all about love. God is all about love. But… *sigh*

Friend: To be honest, this puts me off the whole idea of religion. I like the sound of the God you talk about. But I don’t want anything to do with a church that treats you like this. I’m sorry.

 ************************

CONVERSATION B

Me: So, I have some news… we’re engaged!

Friend: Oh wow, congratulations! That’s brilliant news. When’s the big day? I guess it’ll be a church wedding, right? Am I invited?

Me: Yes, of course! *hands out wedding invitation*

Friend: *comes to wedding – the first time they’ve ever been to a church service* *feels welcomed and likes what they hear* *gets invited to church again by me, or another Christian friend, and says yes*…..

*************************

So I ask you, which is more missional: conversation A or conversation B?

Which does more to spread the gospel? Which does more to further the mission of God? Which does more to bring in the Kingdom?

In which conversation does the church look more like Jesus? In which does the Christian faith sound more like good news?

**************************

Jesus has very little to say about gay relationships. But he has quite a lot to say about wedding invitations (Matthew 22.1-14, Luke 14.7-24).

Let anyone with ears to hear, listen.

“Come and follow me” – a(nother) sermon on Matthew 4.17-23

Sometimes I think I’ve got a perfectly good sermon to preach, but the Holy Spirit just won’t leave me alone until I sit back down and rewrite it. This was one of those times. The earlier version is available in the previous post. 

A week, they say, is a long time in politics. And it has been quite a week! Theresa May’s announcement on Tuesday about Brexit, and her plans for the UK to leave the Single Market, have been almost totally eclipsed by the inauguration of Donald Trump, and the worldwide protests that followed it.

But what, you may wonder, has this got to do with today’s gospel reading? In fact, what has it got to do with the gospel at all?

Firstly, never let anyone tell you that the gospel isn’t political, or that faith and politics don’t mix. The Bible is full of politics. Jesus himself preached such radical ideas that the political authorities of his day had him put to death. Crucifixion is an inherently political act. And so, I would say, is resurrection.

But all that is still far off in today’s gospel story, which shows Jesus calling his first disciples. “Come and follow me,” he says. And they did. Immediately, we are told. I wonder if I would do the same in their shoes? I wonder if you would? But they did – they followed Jesus.

What about us, today? Where does following Jesus take us? Where has it taken us already, and where will it take us next?

This week I have heard people – adults and children – saying they are scared, they are angry, they are in despair at the state of the world. And that’s a perfectly reasonable way to feel. But God calls us to take that fear, anger and despair, and somehow – by the grace and work of the Holy Spirit – to find ways to transform it into hope and truth and light. God calls us to pray and work for peace which is built on justice. Above all, God calls us to love.

If we want to know how to follow Jesus, we need to look at how Jesus lives. A life of compassion and solidarity with the powerless and outcast. Of touching the untouchable, and bringing healing to those who seem to be beyond hope and beyond redemption. Of challenging the power of the few, when it comes at the expense of the many. However we respond to the changing world around us, we need to do it the way Jesus does – with honesty, humility and compassion.

In this week when all eyes are on America, it is perhaps appropriate to quote Martin Luther King, who said this:

“Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of [people] and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.“

The gospel is not moribund. The good news of Jesus cannot be buried. But it is only good news if it is good news for everybody. As the world seems to become more isolationist, more wary of the stranger, the foreigner, the poor, the ‘other’, more ready to demonise than to love, Jesus shows us a different way.

Following Jesus should lead us to stand not with the powerful, but with the least, the last, and the lost. That is where we find him: among the people the world would rather forget. Because the Good News is, nobody is forgotten. Nobody is excluded from God’s table. Nobody is beyond the scope of God’s forgiving love. Nobody.

And proclaiming that good news – in what we do and what we say, in our personal lives and in our politics – is the calling of the followers of Jesus.

“Come,” says Jesus, “and follow me.” Amen.

Following Jesus – a sermon on Matthew 4.17-23

In today’s gospel we hear about Jesus calling his first disciples. And we hear too about the disciples’ response: “immediately they left their nets… their boats… their father, and followed him.” It’s a startling response. I wonder what your response would be, if you were in the disciples’ shoes?

They did choose to follow Jesus, and the journey on which we see them here taking the first step, would take them into situations they could never have imagined.

What about us, as followers of Jesus? Where does our journey of faith take us? Where has it taken us already, and where will it take us next?

We live in uncertain times. Brexit negotiations, Trump taking office, the rise of the far-right across Europe, the ongoing refugee crisis. It may be tempting to despair. But God calls us not to despair, but to hope and trust, to pray and work for peace which is built on justice, and above all to love.

We, like the first disciples, have a choice. In the face of whatever is going on in the world, and whatever is going on in our own lives, we can choose – and go on choosing – to follow Jesus, to walk in the way of the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

If we want to know how to follow Jesus, we need to look at how Jesus lives. A life of compassion and solidarity with the powerless and outcast. Of touching the untouchable, and bringing healing to those who seem to be beyond hope and beyond redemption. Of challenging the power of the few, when it comes at the expense of the many.

We become like those we follow. It may be tempting to follow those who seem to have the power to make our lives better – whether they are politicians, or the cool kids in the playground – but look carefully: are they really who we want to become like?

Or we can follow Jesus, who knew that the ultimate power lay not in wealth or strength or popularity, but in humility and truth, and love stronger than death. And by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can grow to become more like him.

In this week when all eyes are on America, it is perhaps appropriate to quote Martin Luther King, who said this:

“Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of [people] and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.“

The gospel is not moribund. The good news of Jesus cannot be buried. But it is only good news if it is good news for everybody. As the world seems to become more isolationist, more wary of the stranger, the foreigner, the poor, the ‘other’, more ready to demonise than to love, Jesus shows us a different way.

Following Jesus should lead us to stand not with the powerful, but with the least, the last, and the lost. That is where we find him: among the people the world would rather forget. Because the Good News is, nobody is forgotten. Nobody is excluded from God’s table. Nobody is beyond the scope of God’s forgiving love. Nobody.

And proclaiming that good news – in what we do and what we say, in our personal lives and in our politics – is the calling of the followers of Jesus.

“Come,” says Jesus, “and follow me.” Amen.

#AdventBook2016 – Week 4: Tuesday

On Fasting and Lasting Treasure – Matthew 6.16-24

One of the things I take from this passage is that the most important things we do are often the things nobody notices. This is certainly so in ministry.

Hundreds of people (thousands in the last fortnight) may see me standing up to lead a Carol Service. But there are many things I do that are far more important, and noticed by no-one, or very few.

Many people see the way we include children with special needs at our church, and commend it. What they don’t see is the hours that go into producing a visual timetable and a social story and meeting the family for a visit to the church, so that one little boy can seem so happily integrated on a Sunday morning. And there is no reason anyone should see all that,of course.

But it is as much to the glory of God as any public leading of a high-profile act of worship could be.

#AdventBook2016 – Week 4: Monday

Loving Your Enemies – Matthew 5.38-48

“Love your enemies” – one of the most challenging and, to my mind, most important parts of Jesus’ teaching and example. This is where the rubber hits the road. It’s easy to love the people you like. It’s quite easy to love the people you pity (although is it really love, if it comes with a side-order of condescension?!). But loving the people who don’t seem to love you, or just loving the people you don’t much like – there’s the challenge.

And there too is the gospel. Good news for all means good news for all – including the people to whom we might not particularly want to bring good news. Because the gospel isn’t ours to bring, we are only the messengers. It is Jesus who invites, and he invites all.

The same all-encompassing grace which gives me a place at the table will see my own worst enemy seated there beside me. That is the radical nature of what Jesus does. If we want to embrace – and be embraced by – the gospel, it has to be all of it. The good news is not “you are saved”. It is “the whole world and everyone in it is being restored to the image of God”. It cannot be good news at all if it is not good news for all.