I have just read Rosie Harpers blog post that challenges the Bishops and Archbishops in the Church of England to speak up, to be open and inclusive of all, and while her blog centres upon the inclusion and celebration of people who identify as LGBTQI+ , she rightly points out that:
I could have written the same article about excluding black people, or disabled people, or people with mental illness, or alas survivors of abuse. There is a long list because in so many areas we still get our sense of identity by who we keep out of the club. We know it’s not right, but somehow we can’t help it!
Somehow we can’t help it, for some reason, when it should be the most welcoming of spaces, the church manages to so often be one of the most unwelcoming of spaces, and that description doesn’t simply apply to the Anglican church, having been a member of several denominations, and a Minister in one for many years now, it never ceases to amaze me who unwelcoming we can be. Oddly, if asked most churches would describe themselves as friendly, open, welcoming and loving, but just ask my friend who’d come to visit me how she felt on being asked to move because she’d sat in someone’s seat, or how about the young couple looking for a church who have visited with their delightful 3 yr. old, who experience shushing and tutting. It breaks my heart that very early in my ministry I was asked by a beautiful lesbian couple if I would baptise their baby, which I was delighted to do, but my church didn’t welcome them! Even though since 1993, our Standing Orders say that we affirm welcome and celebrate the membership and ministry of LGBT+ people, all too often the question is do we?
Last year the Methodist Church in Great Britain, agreed in principle that all of our churches and ministers could take a decision to celebrate same sex marriages on their premises, and that all Ministers could choose by their conscience to do so. Like many I was really pleased to to have that renewed freedom, to say to my friends yes I can preside at your wedding, how wonderful! But, the journey is not over, all over the country Church Councils are making decisions, these follow on from the Synods and the Conference decision taken last year, meetings where all views were shared, and some very moving stories were told, that said, alongside those stories ran the usual arguments about Scripture and tradition, about how there is only one way to read the Bible, and that by failing to read it correctly this heresy had entered our church. Listening to people call you an abomination, and claim that somehow your sin, which is almost always due to somebodies deep interest in your sex life as they imagine it is exhausting.
I was asked in an open meeting whether or not I was afraid of catching a sexually transmitted disease, what my sex life was in the imagination of the questioner was first of all in their mind, open for scrutiny, and questioning, and I think that is because all too often LGBTQI people are reduced in the minds of many to an act of sexual intercourse, as if the way we see the world and how and who we are is somehow reduced to our genitals! If I were promiscuous and openly living a lifestyle that neither contributed to my or anyone’s flourishing then maybe I should be questioned, but I am not, and who I am, as I said yesterday is not a sin! So when somebody speaks of LGBTQI+ people as sinners because of how they identify their personhood, then they are wrong! Being gay, being queer, being a lesbian, being trans, being… you get the picture, is NOT A SIN! it is not a sin…..
Being nasty, backbiting, gossiping, spreading rumours, greed, gluttony, stealing etc, these are sins, but we rarely challenge people on what they spend, and whether the rumour they are spreading is true or not, but an unhealthy interest in the sex lives of LGBTQI+ people is thought to be legitimate and an open topic for debate, even though there is so much more to us and our relationships than sex, just as there is in any other relationship. Charlie Bell, in his book Queer Holiness puts this so well, stating that the problem comes when people daren’t use the term gay, or queer etc:
The Moniker “same sex attraction” in itself raises some significant questions, and amongst these is where the focus is during conversations on LGBTQI people. For those who cannot bring themselves to use the word gay same sex attraction is a helpful phrase because it ultimately instrumentalises, and turns acts of homosexuality into the key feature, rather than, more properly seeing them as an embodied outward flowing of relational interconnectivity that is at the heart of healthy human flourishing.
Healthy human flourishing, surely that is what we should all desire for one another, that is what Jesus came to lead us into, and the church should be a place that enables and releases that flourishing, and yet all too often we stifle it, making pronouncements on who people are and how they should behave, making demands on unreasonable standards of behaviour and codes of dress, and somehow neglecting to see that over and over again Jesus reached out to, and actively sought out people on the margins, not in order to change them so that they fitted in with the requirements of the religious elite, he broke the so called religious codes, touching dead bodies, lepers, and commending a menstruating woman for her faith when the law would have declared her unclean. The gospel he lived and taught was so much wider, and more expansive and welcoming than many of our churches are, he pushed the boundaries and tore down the barricades that kept the apparently unworthy in their place, challenging as it is, or may be, this is what the church should look like, it should look like Jesus!
So, when a friend calls me because of the nastiness meted out on his loved one by a grumpy church council, or a church member feels like they can’t tell their church friends that their beautiful child is gay or tans for fear of judgement, then I think we need to thing again about how we define sin, as Richard Coles rightly stated:
….it is “depressing” that, while the football world was evolving, “the Church of England – an organisation committed to celebrating love and decency and dignity – finds itself unable to do so when people are of the same sex”.
He has become much more outspoken in retirement, but the truth is that he and his partner David were hurt by the church , a church that judged their relationship as not equal and demanded celibacy of them. Unlike Coles, I am free to marry and enjoy a fully expressed relationship if I so wish, but there are places and spaces where I must ask if I am safe, and then decide whether to come out or not, if I do then I run the risk of criticism and even abuse, certainly verbal abuse, if I don’t then I am constantly hiding a part of myself. I have been asked why I feel so strongly when I am single and need say nothing at all, my response goes back to Charlie Bell’s assertion, that there is so much more to being gay than a sexual act, I think we see the world differently, usually from the margins, and certainly from the place of exclusion, even when if asked a church group would call themselves inclusive.
So many things that are not sins are seen as sins, we need to change our language, and seek to see differently, if for nothing else than for the people who have been hurt, and will be hurt, for the families who have lost a loved child, or sibling to suicide because they have been called unacceptable. To partially quote Rosie Harper; the majority … know what is the right, faithful, gospel-led thing to do, but remain silent….the way we exclude people is the primary cause for the collapse of numbers. Not the language we use or the music we play, but the way the Church spits out the people we love.
I look in the mirror, who is this woman looking back at me, where have the wrinkles come from, when I am brave I look in a full length mirror, a few years ago I put a huge amount of energy into loosing weight, and I did, I lost 3 stone. Now I have put weight on again, a couple of years of battling illness and mental health issues have taken their toll. I am tempted to judge myself, how could I have let myself go again, why do I stress eat, why don’t I have the energy to get out every day, why don’t I eat more healthily?
Alongside the voice of condemnation in my head I also hear another quieter voice, it whispers this; you have been through a hard time, physically and emotionally, and let’s face it spiritually and mentally too. You found the pandemic really isolating, sending hours on your own, and mostly when you could you did get out and walk. You have tried to eat healthily, but finding comfort in comfort food when all else seems difficult is not a crime, so don’t beat yourself up. Come on, you spent a couple of weeks plus in hospital, you haven’t been well. Dare I remind you you aren’t well yet, that’s why you take a tablet every morning, why you are trying to eat well so your gallbladder doesn’t flare up. Oh and while I am at it, every morning you do your Tai-Chi rotation, and sometimes you manage and evening rotation too.
Of course the voice of condemnation tends to be louder, more insistent and demanding, reminding me that to be acceptable I mustn’t be overweight, I should try harder.
But, why do I need to be slim to be acceptable? Why do we continually congratulate people for loosing weight and criticise those who struggle? This has been a struggle for me all my life, as a child I was called chubby, when I look at photos I wasn’t not really, I wasn’t stick thin, but I was definitely fit, I swam every day, and I was a good swimmer, at the age of 10 I was swimming 100 lengths in training sessions. But, I thought I was fat, it is what I was told. I carried that into my teenage years, I wasn’t fat at all then, but I was tall, too tall in my mind, and I have big bones, yes big bones are a thing, I felt conspicuous, too much, taking up too much space! Women are meant to be dainty, well that’s what I thought, and of course that was echoed in the awful teen magazines that I loved so much!
In recent years I don’t mind being tall, though it is still difficult to buy trousers and jeans etc, but that notion of being too much still hangs over me, and the weight issue follows me. I know I can diet again, but right now I don’t have the energy, and that’s not me being lazy, it is a statement of fact.
Alongside all of the physical stuff runs the mental health stuff, and of course they overlap because we are interconnected beings, but it all begins to fall down when I place the crazy demands and values onto God, expecting to be judged, to be criticised, to be … well honestly I don’t know what I expect. I am always telling people that they are fearfully and wonderfully made, I remind myself that this body has carried 6 children, even 2 at once! That I am still a good swimmer, that I have climbed many peaks over the last few years, and that the fact that I heal if I cut myself, and heal from diseases and even operations is remarkable, I am a wonder, we all are. I remind myself that this mind, this soul has suffered many challenges and griefs, and is almost always in a process of healing and reconciliation , and I reflect that maybe that is what the journey of discipleship is all about. Paul points to this work as a ministry in 2 Corinthians 5:
16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we no longer know him in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,] not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ: be reconciled to God.
What if we could look at ourselves then and see what God sees, not being bothered about wrinkles of the numbers on a scale, but see something remarkable and wonderful, someone with huge potential still to be fulfilled, no matter how old we are. What if we made it our task to affirm others for their God given, God created unique amazingness! A conversation yesterday alerted me to this, why do we concentrate so much on sin, on judging, not only ourselves but others, why is the grace of God apparently withheld until people fit in. Of course we are not able to withhold the grace of God, but sometimes our ways of living and being convey that message. Today I am challenged, because while I rarely , I say rarely, because I have my own prejudices, treat others in that way, I am quite likely to treat myself in that way, and that is not healthy for me in mind, body or spirit.
Perhaps I need a new God-filtered mirror, a mirror that enables me to see myself differently, to forgive and love myself in a healing way, I am pretty convinced that this would make my message more authentic, how can I say that all are included, and I will be when I have healed a bit more, got fitter, lost weight, sorted out my prayer life and or my bank balance…
The of course there are things I don’t need to be healed from, my conversation yesterday took an expected- yes expected, not unexpected turn at one point, when the phrase “but we are all sinners” was used, I’ve heard that so many times, it often runs alongside “love the sinner hate the sin”, but we were talking about sexuality, and particularly the inclusion of LGBTQI people. It wasn’t malicious, it was in many senses a slip pf the tongue because were were on the same page in our interaction. But. here’s the thing, my sexuality nor your sexuality is not a sin, it is who I am in Christ as much as the rest of me is in Christ. The God-filtered mirror is very clear about that!
I suspect that discipleship is an ongoing ministry of reconciliation, reconciliation with God includes reconciliation with one another and ourselves, and it can be a rocky, twisty path, but definitely one worth following. The best bit is, we do not walk alone.
I am getting ready to move again in a couple of months time, once again looking around and deciding what will move with me and what won’t, I can definitely feel a book cull coming on, something I didn’t do on my last move, I am also going o rationalise my kitchen stuff, I have too much, so am looking to what I actually use, do I need all of those plates, well lets be honest, no I don’t!
I haven’t been here a year yet, and am in some senses just settling in, I will miss the view from my study window, but I also know that I am still just about recovering from my previous move, there is always a grieving process no matter how good or bad an experience may have been change is hard and we cling to things, even unhealthy things sometimes.
I must say I am growing tired of change, this will be my 6th move since 2003, that is a lot of moving, in that time other changes have come too, my children have all graduated from University and left home, not only that but they have married and have families of their own now, they have bought houses and changed jobs, some days I feel that I am still reeling from the shock of empty nest syndrome, maybe more so because there are 5 of them!
I have also become an Ordained Minister in the Methodist Church, been awarded an MA ( that is still a surprise), and taken on different roles in the life of the church. Alongside that I have been through a divorce, which painful as it was gave me space and time to reflect on life, and to finally be honest about my own sexuality, sometimes it takes time, and of course that has changed how some people look at me and respond to me, friends become unsure, while new friends are made who accept me as I am now. I must admit after so many years of feeling like a square peg in a round hole ( forgive the illustration) I understand myself a little more, but it has not been easy, spaces that were once safe, although they never were, are now no longer safe.
As I look back I can honestly say that I have spent so much energy on trying to fit it, on trying to do the right and expected thing, on living with the fear of failure, and the reality of failure ( whatever that is)Ho strange it may seem to some that at 60 I feel very much like a teenager just setting out, and yet I do so as one with the confidence of experience that enables me to accept myself, and to name my pain, something I have tried so hard to avoid in the past.
As I look back, over the last years I can honestly say that one thing I have struggled with more than anything else is trust, I have too often lived defensively, I suppose when you feel that you don’t belong anywhere, and that you certainly don’t fit in, then maybe that simply becomes a way of being, but living this way is exhausting and debilitating and cannot be sustained. My struggles with anxiety and depression over the years are indicators of this.
Interestingly every week I encourage people to trust in the God who believes in them, and even to quote a prayer from the Iona Wee Worship Book:
We pray that people might forget the God they don’t believe in, and meet the God who believes in them.
In many ways that is a mind blowing concept, especially when we live in a world, and possibly belong to a church that sets down so many codes of conduct for acceptability, and so many expectations for how we need to live in order to fit in. Many of them are false of course, the rise in Instagram and Tik-Tok Influencers and their effect on those they are seeking to influence is well documented. Nobody can live up to the impossible images that they share nor flourish under the culture of bullying that can stem from not fitting in. Maybe we should pray:
We pray that people will forget the image they are trying to live up to, and find the divine image within, that God has placed in them
The there is the constant pressure to live up to the false aspirations of a capitalist culture, a culture that fights against the deep desire to live differently, and where even being able to live an environmentally conscious life style can be the luxury of those who can afford it, if you are reliant upon a foodbank to survive, you are unlikely to be buying organic vegetables, if any vegetables. If a rare treat is a new T-shirt others criticise for being made in a sweat shop is a luxury long saved for, and yet comes with attendant shame because of a subversion of values. The poor are demonised, blamed and shunned far too often. Maybe we should pray:
We pray for a society that sees everyone as equal, and restores to all the God given dignity that is theirs.
Maybe I have strayed a long way from my original intent, which was reflecting upon my upcoming move, but in many senses I haven’t, I have struggled with the image of a God who I saw as demanding critical and unaccepting. I have struggled with a church that has a strongly middle class face, where acceptability means fitting in and while we may wish to help, or as I often say ” do good to the poor people” it rarely walks alongside them. I have striven to fit in while feeling like the odd one out, and that took its toll upon me, and sadly upon my family, which leaves me with deep regrets.
So, as I move I am looking to the God who believes in me, who reminds me that I am fearfully and wonderfully made, who calls me good, and has set their image within me, I am going to search for the God who knows my full potential and calls me to walk with and work with them. I am going to search for the God who I can put my trust in, no longer looking for the brittle self reliance that I have placed around myself as an armour too often. I am going to look to Jesus who invites me to share my burdens with him and to work and walk with him in the unforced rhythms of grace.
That said, I know that trust can be challenging when you have struggled with feelings of never being enough, never god enough, not correct, or just different from the expectations, and expectations I accept that many of those thoughts might be my own, it is so easy to inflate your own perceptions of what you think others think about you, and of course to err towards a negative conclusion. Trust then becomes an exercise of faith, and an expression of prayer, it is an ongoing work and not an easy one, it requires a reliance upon the divine other, who calls out of you their divine image, and openness to the work of the Holy Spirit who will lead you into all truth. That truth is ” you are worthy, I am worthy” and I am loved.