Lifting the Lid on Lent 1: Temptation

I am leading an intergenerational Lent group (more details here). This is what we did this week. 

Introduction: We found the letters of our theme word around the room, and worked out that it was “temptation”. We briefly shared ideas about what temptation is. We discussed what we have given up/taken on for Lent, and what might tempt us to break those resolutions.

Story: I presented the story of the Temptation of Christ (Matthew 4.1-11) in a Godly Play style, using the desert bag.

Wondering questions: We wondered together about:

  • I wonder where the voice Jesus heard in the desert came from?
  • I wonder why Jesus kept saying “no”?
  • I wonder what it feels like to be in the desert?
  • I wonder what was the most important part of the story?
  • I wonder if there’s anything we could take away and still have all the story we need?
  • I wonder where you are in the story?

Reflection activity: We wrote/drew the things that tempt us on stones, and placed them in a sand tray. People had the opportunity to share what they had written/drawn with each other. Then we washed the writing/drawing off the stones and talked a bit about forgiveness.

Creative response: Everyone had the opportunity to decorate a stone to take home, to remind them of what we had experienced/discussed/reflected on.

Prayer: We used to our inflatable globe, taking it in turns to say what/who/where we were praying for as we rolled the globe to each other.

Lord’s prayer.

There were 7 of us: 4 adults (in our 20s and 30s), 2 three-year-olds, and a baby. Everyone was able to participate, and seemed to get something out of the experience. The ‘wondering’ was especially powerful, as we experimented with removing/replacing various elements of the story, to see if we still had all the story we need. 

Lent: an intergenerational experiment

Have you been part of a Lent group? If so, who else was there? I’m guessing, in most cases, that the answer is “grown-ups”. That seems to be the norm in most churches – Lent groups are for adults, and often have a book or study guide as their focus. There might be (but usually isn’t) something separate for children to do during Lent.

A few years ago, I decided to experiment with running a Lent group for people of all ages together. It was a bit ad hoc, and quite a steep learning curve, but was enough to convince me that it’s something worth doing. This year I’m trying to be more systematic about it, and also to blog what we’re doing in case it’s useful to others.

We are meeting on Saturday afternoons for an hour, for 5 weeks. The group is open to anyone – it deliberately hasn’t been advertised as being specifically for ‘families’, although it has been made clear that children and adults of all ages are welcome.

The intention is to explore key themes of Lent together, through play, discussion, creativity, and prayer. This is not a ‘study group’ but something more experiential and less intellectual which, I hope, will appeal not only to a range of ages, but also a range of learning styles and abilities. We’re trying to create a space to encounter God together.

The structure of each session will be:

Introduction: We will introduce the theme for the week, and briefly explore what the word means. There will be a brief discussion-starter question, to get people talking.

Story: A bible story which connects with the theme will be presented in an interactive and/or multi-sensory way. This might include Godly Play, Sensory Stories, or acting the story out together.

Wondering questions: In a Godly Play style, questions beginning “I wonder…” will prompt discussion. There are no ‘right answers’!

Reflection activity: This will be an interactive activity in small groups, which will enable people to reflect more deeply on the theme and story.

Creative response: Following on from the reflection activity, people will have the opportunity to make something connected with the story/theme, to explore the creative materials, or to continue reflection or discussion.

Prayer: An interactive prayer activity, including non-verbal components.

Lord’s Prayer: We will end with the Lord’s Prayer, accompanied by body prayer (this is something our children – but not our adults – are familiar with).

Will it ‘work’? (What does ‘working’ even mean in this context?) Who will participate? How will they participate? What will it look like? Feel like? What will we learn? How will we experience God together?

I don’t know yet. Watch this space…..

An outline of the session will be posted each week:

“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.

 

“Be transformed by love” – sermon for All Age Eucharist with Admission to Holy Communion

Have we got any Harry Potter fans here today?

I was in Year 6 when the first Harry Potter book came out, and I used to daydream about what it would be like if, instead of going to secondary school, a letter arrived one day by owl, and I went to Hogwarts instead. What would it be like to study Potions and Defence Against The Dark Arts, instead of English and Maths?

If you went to Hogwarts, what do you think would your favourite subject be?

Mine, I’ve always thought, would be Transfiguration. I love the idea of being able to change one thing into another. And I’ve been compared more than once to Professor McGonagall – make of that what you will!

So you can imagine my delight when I first came across this Bible story, which we call the Transfiguration.

Transfiguration – the act of changing something into something else. I wonder what we could turn these pipe cleaners into? Perhaps some of you would like to have a go while I speak.

In the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus is changed, not into something else – not, like Professor McGonagall, into a tabby cat – but into a fuller and more glorious version of himself. “Changed from glory into glory”, as we sometimes sing.

Peter, James and John see Jesus “shining like the sun”, reflecting the light of God within him. And we are called to do likewise – to “shine as lights in the world to the glory of God the Father”, as we say in the baptism service. That is the special job, the vocation, which God gives each of us at our baptism – to live in ways show the world what God is like.

We begin that vocation at our baptism, and continue it week by week, day by day, as we are fed by God in the eucharist, in order to be sent our to “live and work to [God’s] praise and glory”. We meet with God in communion in ways which change and transform us – not just when we receive communion for the first time, as A,K,S,J,J and H will today, but every time.

If we are to do God’s work of serving and transforming this broken world in which we live, we need that ongoing transformation. God knows we can’t do it on our own. But in Jesus we find what we need in order to do and to be what the world needs.

In a while we will sing a song, which may be new to many of you, and I want you to especially notice the chorus:

“We are blessed, to bless a world in pieces
We are loved, to love where love is not
We are changed, to be the change you promised
We are freed, to be your hands, O God”

Blessing, freedom, transformation, and love. That is what we encounter in Jesus at the eucharist, just as his first disciples did on the mountaintop. This is our weekly ‘mountain-top moment’. But, like those first disciples, we cannot stay on the mountain top. We cannot stay cosily in a club called ‘church’. That isn’t what being the church, the body of Christ, is about. We are called and sent by Jesus to use whatever we have received from him in order to serve others and transform the world to be more and more like God’s kingdom.

So I say to A,K,S, J, J and H, and to all of you:
Be blessed – and do whatever you can to bless others.
Be changed by meeting Jesus in communion – then go out and change the world, or at least whatever small part of it you can.
Be freed by your encounter with the living God, from whatever holds you back – and invite others into that freedom.
Know yourself to be loved, loved beyond anything you can imagine, loved fully, extravagantly, outrageously, loved by God who is love – and do whatever you can, love people in whatever ways you can think of, to let everyone you encounter know that they too are loved like that.

As you come to receive communion, allow yourself to be changed by the One who is Love, then go out and change the world through love.

Amen.

After the sermon, we looked at what people (of all ages!) had made with their pipe cleaners, and wondered together about what the things we had made could tell us about God. There was a huge variety of things people had made – a ring, a cat, a heart, the sea, a dinosaur, a scorpion, a balloon, and at least 2 giraffes! The variety of shapes we had made helped us to think about the variety of ways God shapes each of us, to become the beautiful diverse people of God – together. Then in silence we considered the question: “I wonder how God is changing and transforming you?” 

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.