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.