Archives for posts with tag: bishops

Sermon for Mattins at Sexagesima, 19 February 2017

Romans 8:18-25, Matthew 6:25-34

‘Don’t worry: be happy’. I think I remember a pop song along those lines. You might think that it sums up the idea in both our Bible lessons today. St Paul: ‘For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us’ and Jesus himself in St Matthew’s Gospel: ‘Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? … [and] Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’

Actually I think those are rather challenging passages today. Why wouldn’t we be worried? Why shouldn’t we ‘take thought for the morrow’? What with Trump and Brexit and the rise of ‘populist’ politics around the world – which some commentators have likened in many ways to Nazism – how can we not worry?

This last week, the Church of England did its own collective bit of worrying, when its governing body, its parliament, the General Synod, met. 

On Wednesday, I watched the General Synod live stream from Church House, Westminster. It was the debate on the bishops’ report on their shared conversations concerning sexuality. In particular the report was about the church’s attitude to homosexuality: whether there could be marriages of homosexuals in church, and how to deal with homosexual clergy.

Would it be possible for the church to regard homosexuality as not being sinful? Could gay clergy in active relationships be accepted in the church? Could gay unions be blessed in marriage ceremonies in church just like heterosexual couples? The report is 17 pages long but you can sum up the main conclusions in a couple of sentences. The bishops did not see any reason to change the church’s traditional understanding of marriage, i.e. a lifelong union between a man and woman, not gays. Instead they wanted to demonstrate the church’s willingness to welcome gays by developing new teaching material and seeking ‘maximum freedom’ in pastoral matters.

The motion was for this report simply to be ‘noted’, which seemed rather odd. The Synod was asked not to express approval or disapproval of the report, but rather simply to note that the bishops had been doing this work – as they had, for the last three years – so that they could continue with it. People clearly didn’t buy that explanation. The intended sense, I think, was that the subcommittee of bishops (it wasn’t all of them) wanted Synod to ‘take note’ of their work in the sense of seeing the way the subcommittee’s thoughts were developing, and indicating thereby that they were content for them to carry on along the same lines.

If that was the intention, it didn’t work. Speaker after speaker in the debate said that the trouble with the bishops’ report was that it looked to normal people in the outside world like homophobia and a justification for it. There was only one speaker who actually said that homosexuality was sinful, although, as Christians, she said, we should still be nice to the sinful homosexuals.

There was a lot of talk about how people in the various moderated discussions had changed their views, although I have to say that eventually in the report, nothing seems to have changed since the last major church report on sexuality in 1991. 

One younger delegate, Lucy Gorman, from York diocese, said very simply that it was difficult to attract young people into the church and get them to listen to the gospel of Jesus, in circumstances where they perceived that the church was institutionally homophobic and did not seem to reflect Jesus’s commandments of love. 

Various people, including some of the bishops themselves, stated that the problem was that the church is seemingly irreconcilably divided. 

On the one side, so-called traditionalists or conservative evangelicals argue that Scripture and tradition uphold the proposition that marriage is only possible between a man and a woman, and any other possible combination of sexes is sinful. It is however possible, they say, to love the sinner and hate the sin. 

On the other side are liberals who argue that all the supposed biblical authorities for the proposition that any kind of homosexual love is sinful are either to be understood within the social context of the time or can be accommodated within a liberal theological understanding. The more important thing is that a loving union should be blessed and upheld.

I’ve got a feeling that there ought to be a health warning about the use of the various terms to describe the parties like ‘evangelical’ or ‘liberal’, as it tends to make people behave in tribal ways rather than being rational in their analysis. So I would ask you today not to get hung up on the labels which I’m using. It might be better if I simply said that the yellow camp believed so-and-so, and the green camp believed so-and-so else. Try to identify them by what they believe rather than by their colours!

Many speakers told how the church’s current position is hurtful to many people, both ordained and lay. Faithful people with many years of membership of the church mentioned how hurtful it was to be told that you were sinful, and there was even a story of one teenager who committed suicide because, recognising that they were gay, they believed that the church would never accept them.

The bishops’ paper was couched in terms that people were being influenced by the standards of society today, and that in some sense immutable truths of Biblical teaching were in some sense being overturned or or challenged for the sake of earthly values; in other words, ‘It doesn’t matter if everyone else in England thinks I’m wrong, if I can find a biblical authority for what I believe.’ 

At the beginning and end of the debate the Bishop of Norwich, Graham James, spoke. In his introduction he said one thing which nobody else in the debate picked up, but which I think could be a key to an amicable and just resolution of the controversy. 

What Bishop Graham James said was that, since the Church’s last document, which came out in 1991, called ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’, insufficient attention has been given by the Church to scientific and medical understanding as it has developed concerning homosexual couples. 

My perception is that the scientific research concerning homosexuality can be summed up in two simple propositions. Whether one is a heterosexual, homosexual, transgender, or bisexual is not a question of volition but of genetic inheritance; you don’t choose, but you are born that way. The second proposition is that it is possible to understand maleness and femaleness against a spectrum of sexual orientation rather than according to a hard and fast duality. 

To put it another way it is not simply a question of whether people are physically male or female, that is, all-male or all-female, but it is possible that in many instances people may exhibit sexual characteristics which come from both the male and the female side which do not match their physical make-up. You can be physically male with many female attributes, for example.

All the Biblical authorities, it is said, reflect a basic proposition that marriage requires the union of a man and woman. I suggest that it might be better, in the light of the advances in science, if we talked not of ‘a man’ and ‘a woman’, but rather, of a husband and a wife, male and female parties to a union.

I wonder whether a possible area for further discussion which might be fruitful is as follows. Because of the infinitely graded spectrum of sexual orientation, one finds gay couples referring to each other, one as the husband and the other as the wife. Even though, physiologically, they may both be male or female, as between themselves, one is treated as male and the other is treated as female. I think that if ‘male’ and ‘female’ are understood in that way, behaviourally, one might say, rather than physiologically, then one can accept the Biblical and Prayer Book terms without having to explain them away.

I don’t think it can be right that God created some people in such a way that they are flawed, sinful. Indeed use of the word ‘sin’ has a connotation of behaviour, bad behaviour, the sort of thing which separates us from God. I cannot see how it can be sinful for someone to behave according to the way they were made.  

I wonder whether one could also bring in St Paul here. Chapter 8 of his letter to the Romans contains some of his most famous passages. In our lesson, we have heard the perhaps rather puzzling passage, 

‘For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.

And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.’ (Romans 8:22-23) 

The ‘firstfruits of the Spirit’ on the one hand, and ‘the redemption of the body’ on the other. It is one of St Paul’s key ideas, the distinction between the body and the spirit. It is reminiscent of the Platonic concept of ‘forms’ – in Greek τα είδη , ideas. Plato distinguished physical objects, like tables, say, from the ‘idea’ of tables; what it is to be a table.  

I wonder whether one could align ‘the body’ in St Paul with the physiological man, or woman: and the ‘spirit’ could reflect the behavioural aspect, the being a husband, or being a wife. On the one hand, the physical human being; and on the other, that they are a husband, or a wife. And what it is to be a husband, how we understand what it is to be a husband, or a wife, doesn’t necessarily coincide with their physiology. 

It can’t involve sin. Look what St Paul himself says, at the end of this great chapter:
‘For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,

Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

Well, you might say that the Church of England is still miles away from any understanding along the lines I’ve just suggested. But the heartening thing, as I see it, is that the Synod didn’t vote to ‘take note’. I think they saw through the rather artificial way it was being considered. Not by very much, but nevertheless by a majority (except among the bishops), the Synod didn’t ‘take note’ of the report – it meant, they didn’t want anything to do with it. The Church needs to do better, they said.

I say ‘Amen’ to that.

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Sermon for Mattins on the Second Sunday of Epiphany, 17th January 2016

1 Corinthians 12:1-11: John 2:1-11
Spiritual gifts, which God created in us, have given us a variety of aptitudes and skills. We are all rather different, but, St Paul’s point is, we are all bound together by being created by the same spirit. That’s appropriate to mention now, because next week is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
I’m sure we could also have a nice time reflecting on the wedding at Cana in Galilee. Did you know that there has been a change in the etiquette of buying somebody a drink? This is as a result of the government’s recent health advice on safe levels of alcohol consumption. The other day, as I found myself entering the ‘Running Mare’ for some reason, as I sometimes do, one of my boon companions greeted me by saying, “Hugh, would you like a unit?” A unit. I responded, as I understand you have to do in the circumstances, “Yes please, make it three”. And accordingly, a pint of the finest Tongham Traditional English Ale, otherwise known as a pint of TEA, was duly produced.
Moderation in all things, μηδέν αγαν; ‘do nothing to excess’. It is not a Christian principle as such. It was the inscription on the temple of Apollo at Delphi in Classical antiquity. Perhaps discussion of wine, or even TEA, belongs to the jollifications of Christmas, and we really need to move on to more serious things.
Quite often at the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we have discussed the relations between the various churches, have regretted our differences, and prayed for better understanding between the different parts of God’s church, and possibly the coming together of some of the different parts in unity. So for example, we have had a close encounter with the Methodists, and the relations between the Church of England and the Catholic Church have greatly improved.
What I think is more topical, more important for us today, is to discuss the idea of Christian unity not between our church and others, but within the Anglican church in the light of the meeting of Primates, that is, senior bishops (not gorillas), the leaders of the various national Anglican churches, but which has just taken place in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral.
Over 30 senior bishops from all over the world were meeting, at Archbishop Justin’s invitation, to try to sort out their differences over various aspects of human sexuality, in particular, gay marriage and the ordination of openly gay people as ministers. Perhaps after all the wedding at Cana is relevant today – not in its wine, but simply as a wedding. Weddings are the same focus.
There are divisions between those churches which uphold a so-called ‘traditional’ view and those who believe that the spirit of Jesus’ teaching allows them to recognise that the definition of marriage may well have changed or widened to include homosexual people.
It’s probably true also to say that the dividing line is between those who rely on the letter of the Bible and those who allow the Bible to be subject to interpretation. The argument centres around the verses in the 10th chapter of St Mark’s Gospel, ‘God made them male and female’. Coupled with some gruesome prohibitions in the book of Leviticus and the less enlightened parts of Saint Paul’s letters, to the effect that homosexuality is wrong, the traditionalists argue that gay marriage cannot be allowed in church.
Against this, understanding of people’s sexuality from a scientific point of view has advanced in many countries so that there is a recognition that it may well be an oversimplification to say simply that “God made them male and female”.
We now know there are all sorts of, degrees of, maleness and femaleness, up to and including cases where people are literally hermaphroditic, that they have as many male characteristics as female. And there are also people who discover that the body in which they are born doesn’t reflect their true sexuality, so that they may have sex change operations as a result. Some very well-known people have started out as being of a different sex from the one they are now recognised to be. For example the travel writer and historian, Jan Morris, until 1972 was James Morris, who reported for the Times on the first ascent of Everest by Hillary and Tenzing.

Again, within homosexual couples, it is often quite clear that one takes a male role and the other takes a female role within the partnership, notwithstanding the fact that the partners are biologically of the same sex.
Having said all that, it is also true that people who are not gay or bisexual often find the idea of gay or bisexual behaviour physically repulsive. This is presumably a natural instinct aimed at directing us towards those who share the same orientation. Similarly, some homosexuals have a distinct aversion from the opposite sex.
But I am sure that homosexual couples feel the same love, and have the same aspirations towards lifelong commitment and fidelity, that heterosexual couples do in marriage.
The churches within the Anglican communion have adopted different attitudes. The Church of England, our church, will not marry gay people in church, have gay bishops or ordain gay clergymen. Some of the African churches take things much further. Uganda and Nigeria have both either passed or are planning to pass laws which make homosexuality a criminal offence, and their local Anglican churches support this. They are in the same position as was the case in England before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexuality. On the other hand, the Episcopal Church of the United States of America has consecrated an openly gay bishop, and is willing to marry gay people in church.
Archbishop Justin convened the so-called Primates’ meeting, or conference, because it was beginning to look likely that a number of the national Anglican churches would split away from the worldwide Anglican communion, because of this disagreement on sexual questions.
As you will no doubt have read in the newspaper or heard on the radio, the conference has finished and a communiqué has been issued, to say that, although the bishops regret any hurt which may have been given to homosexuals or LGBTI people, and although the church commits itself to opposing legislation against homosexuality wherever such legislation is introduced throughout the world, nevertheless they have sanctioned the Episcopal Church of United States of America by excluding them from voting rights in the various Anglican communion meetings and consultations for the next three years as punishment for that church changing their doctrine concerning marriage without first obtaining the agreement of the other churches in the Anglican communion.
Archbishop Justin has avoided a split in the church for the time being, but it is at least arguable that he is just putting a lid on a seething cauldron of disagreement which is bound to result in some kind of schism in future.
It’s not my function to tell you how to think. But I think it is legitimate simply to point out, that, from its earliest times, the church has had disagreements about how to interpret the Bible, how to strike a balance between the norms of secular society and Biblical teaching.
It has been pointed out, for example, that right up to the passing of the legislation against it in the middle of the 19th century, the Church of England had nothing against slavery. The slave traders, whose wealth went into the creation of the cities of Liverpool and Bristol, were all devout churchgoers, and the church at that time saw nothing wrong in their activity. The Clapham Sect around William Wilberforce developed their opposition to slavery at their church, Holy Trinity, Clapham Common: and in so doing they were going against the official position of the Church of England at the time.
So I think it may be a little naive to suggest that there is some such thing as “the truth”, which can be discovered simply by reading the Bible. You will, I’m sure, all know of the various ambiguities and internal contradictions in the Bible. If you read the book of Leviticus, chapters 20 and 21, where the bloodcurdling prohibitions against homosexuality are to be found, you will find that not only is homosexuality condemned, but many other things are also slammed, which we might not find particularly objectionable today. But it is only homosexuality whose prohibition is remembered.
Very early on, the church evolved a formula for the interpretation of scripture and the development of the correct doctrine, according to which the Bible was certainly the first source, but it should be understood in the light of tradition and the application of reason. If something doesn’t make sense or is contradictory, then you can use reason to correct it, and it is also relevant to see what the church in its history has believed.
But to me the bottom line seems to be that, in all these discussions, it’s difficult to see how Jesus’ great commandment of love, that ‘thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ is being observed, where the churches’ attitude to the gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender community is concerned. I find it very difficult to understand how the church can espouse anything as policy which results in such hurt.
We now know much more about how human sexuality works, as a matter of science. It seems to me that we should take advantage of that knowledge, so that in the mixture of scripture, reason and tradition we should give some weight to reason: and where scripture is concerned, we should recognise that some things are more central than others, none more so than Jesus’ new commandment that we love each other. Yes, we should acknowledge that there has been a tradition: but we should weigh this tradition appropriately against the other two factors.
We should give Archbishop Justin credit for keeping the churches in the Anglican communion together in one group and, we hope, keeping them talking to each other. The sad thing is, I can’t imagine that, if I went to a church in Nigeria or in Uganda, it would be very different, (except that it might be more jolly), from a church here or in the United States. There would indeed be ‘diversities of gifts, but the same spirit.’ And ‘differences of administrations, but the same Lord’, as St Paul says.
Let’s hope and pray that the Primates, (who are, after all, not gorillas), will recognise this in future. And then we can stop worrying about sex, and concentrate on all people who really need our compassion and love, like the refugees in Calais as they face a northern winter for the first time.