“Rhythm on the Edge” – The Conversation 2017

At The Conversation I spoke on behalf of The LGBTI Mission (lgbtimission.org.uk) on the subject of “Rhythm on the Edge”. This is what I intended to say. What I actually said was – I think – quite different, but I don’t have that written down, so here’s what I’ve got:

I wonder what it feels like to be on the edge? The edge can be an exciting place to be – daring, breathtaking, exhilarating. But the edge can also be an uncomfortable place to be – vulnerable, dangerous, scary, lonely. Often it’s all those things at once.

There are lots of people who find themselves ‘on the edge’ in our churches – people with disabilities, homeless people, people living in poverty, people with mental health problems, and many more.

I’m going to focus on a particular group of people who seem very much ‘on the edge’ in the life of the church at the moment – LGBT people. But much of what I say will apply more broadly too.

We all know this is a hot topic in the C of E at the moment. But what has it got to do with this Conversation, about children and young people? Firstly, it affects children and young people, whether they’re LGBT or have family members or friends who are. Secondly, how we address this issue has a huge impact on our ability to be missional.

Very often discussion of sexuality, of the inclusion of LGBT people – and even LGBT people themselves – are seen as disrupting the established rhythm and harmony of the church. People on the edge are often seen as disruptive. But is that disruption always such a bad thing?

Many people seem concerned that the ‘issue’ of inclusion distracts us from our core purpose, our central rhythm, of mission. I don’t agree.

This is often how it feels for LGBT people in the church. For the 49% of 18-24 year olds who don’t describe themselves as heterosexual. (We don’t have comparable figures for under-18s, but it’s likely to be similar.)

Doesn’t this look like a picture worth disrupting?

I wonder where you are in this picture? I wonder how you can change this picture for the children and young people you work with?

I’m here representing an organisation doing just that. The LGBTI Mission is working to challenge the exclusion and discrimination against LGBT people in the church, and working for a more just, more inclusive church.

One of our strands of work is: “Fostering a culture of safety for LGBTI children and young people within the church, its schools and institutions.”

Isn’t that what we all want? For our churches to be safe, welcoming, inclusive places for all children and young people?

Of course. But we’re not there yet. The church has much to repent of in its treatment of LGBT people and others ‘on the edge’, and much to change – because that’s what repentance means.

Here are two people to help us think more about this:

Dillon is 15. He is a regular member of the church youth group, and part of the sound team on Sundays. He was confirmed last year, and that was a really significant step for him into a more mature faith. Two years ago, he realised he was gay. Some people at his school CU say you can’t be gay and a Christian, and they showed him some online bible study notes that said the same. Dillon has never heard any teaching on sexuality in church or from his youth pastor.

Maia is 5. She comes to church with her two mummies, and has done all her life. One of her mummies is in the church choir. This year she started at the church primary school. A child in Year 6, who attends a different church, told Maia that God doesn’t like her and her mummies, because God doesn’t like it when two ladies love each other. Maia cried when her mummies picked her up from school, but she wouldn’t tell them why.

What resources would help Maia? Or Dillon?

What do the resources you use or produce say to children who are LGBT, or have LGBT family members? Can they see themselves and their families represented? Can they see a place for themselves in the church? Far more importantly, can they see a Gospel which is good news for them?

The language we use matters. “No person is a problem,” said Archbishop Justin at General Synod. But if we talk about ‘the gay issue’ or ‘the problem of same sex relationships’, that probably isn’t how it’s going to sound to Dillon.

Are we using language which includes all types of families? Are we using the language which our young people use about themselves?

Perhaps most importantly, are we using scripture in ways which build up, rather than tear down, people who are already vulnerable? There has to be room in our churches to read scripture in different ways. There has to be room for children and young people to disagree with us, and challenge us, and teach us. There has to be room to engage with the faithful scriptural engagement of people ‘on the edge’, including LGBT people. We have much to learn from liberation theologies.

Ultimately, it’s about life in all its fullness, which is Jesus’ gift to everyone, including those who have been pushed to the edges of his church. Very often LGBT people, like many groups ‘on the edge’, are tolerated in our churches. That just isn’t good enough. Jesus didn’t come to show us how to tolerate each other, but how to love each other.

Many of you will be aware of Lizzie Lowe, a gay Christian teenager who killed herself because she didn’t think her family and church would accept her for who she was. When I come into contact with churches now, I often ask myself “would this church pass the Lizzie Lowe test?” Would a gay 14 year old know that it would be ok to be herself here? So I ask you: what would that 14 year old think in your church? Would your church pass the Lizzie Lowe test?

Lizzie’s church has been on an extraordinary journey since her death. They have realised that being quietly welcoming isn’t enough – we need to be loudly welcoming. “All are welcome” wasn’t enough to tell Lizzie that she was welcome. It’s a journey from exclusion to inclusion, and then from implicit inclusion to explicit inclusion. It’s a journey which opens up the circle around the table to those on the edge.

That journey towards inclusion is not only right for the people ‘on the edge’ – in this case LGBT people – as they take their rightful place as full members of the body of Christ. It is also right for the whole body, the whole church.

“The eye cannot say to the hand ‘I have no need of you’.” says Paul. For as long as churches continue to push LGBT people (or any other group) to the edge, the body of Christ is not whole.

The imperative to include and reconcile, to stand with people on the edge of society and invite them in, comes from Jesus himself. Consider the woman at the well. How does Jesus respond to her, as someone ‘on the edge’? And there are many other examples.

The biblical narrative is one of solidarity with, and redemption of, those who live life on the edge, who find themselves outside looking in. God continually transforms, brings back the lost, makes us realise we are not complete until there is space for everyone at the table. We need to make the truth of God’s all-encompassing love a reality for the people on the edge of our churches, including LGBT people.

I don’t think the ‘issue’ of inclusion is a distraction from our rhythm as a church, or an unnecessary disturbance. Disruption is not always a bad thing. It can be holy. “Behold, I am doing a new thing,” says the Lord. Perhaps what we thought was a crashing, clashing discord will turn out to be a new rhythm, a new song, a beautiful descant. Not detracting from our vital rhythm of mission, but adding to it.

The rhythm ‘on the edge’ must be part of our song. We can only sing God’s song with the voices of all God’s people. That includes LGBT people. It includes disabled people, and homeless people, and refugees. It includes the person you would least like to sit next to at church. We – the church – need everyone, because God calls everyone.

And we have a part to play. We, as leaders of young people, know what it is to stand ‘on the edge’, and what it is to be pioneering.

We – with the young people we serve – could be instrumental in leading the church into greater inclusion, with which comes greater fullness of life in Christ.


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