Archives for posts with tag: Gay marriage

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.

Sermon for Holy Communion on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, 30th March 2014
Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

Today is Mothering Sunday. At the 10 o’clock family service later on this morning, the congregation are going to be invited to take a nice little plant home to their mothers. Indeed, I think the plants are already here; so, if you are a Mum, and you think that your offspring may not be in the right place at the right time to collect a little plant for you, please help yourself!

My problem in relation to Mothering Sunday is that I can’t be a Mum – by definition – and because I am of a certain age, unfortunately my Mum is no longer with us. So when I see the children picking up their little plants and taking them off to give to Mum, it makes me feel rather wistful.

But if you slightly refocus, perhaps with the help of the little card from the Bishop’s Lent Call, you’ll see that the Bishop has suggested that this week is a week for women – not just mothers – and there are a series of stories and challenging situations which are described on each day this week. I won’t spoil it by telling you all what they are – have a look after the service.

The idea is that, leading up to Mothering Sunday, it’s suggested that we should think about issues to do with being a woman – including, of course, motherhood. Indeed, the news has had two or three challenging items in it this week, affecting women.

There was a report on the way in which various police forces investigate domestic violence. Unfortunately our own force in Surrey didn’t come out very well – but all the chief constables are going to try and improve. But perhaps the biggest family issue this week has been the beginning of so-called ‘gay marriage’ on Friday.

In very general terms, it is now the law of the land that homosexual couples, male or female, can go through a civil marriage ceremony. They are married in the eyes of the law, in exactly the same way as a heterosexual couple.

But, in general, the church doesn’t go along with it. Indeed the Council of Bishops has issued a rather fierce statement [], saying that anyone who marries someone of the same sex will not be ordained, and any minister who blesses a same-sex union would be contravening church law and would be in trouble – let alone any question of actually marrying the happy couple!

At this point no doubt your eyes are all metaphorically rolling upwards, and you are saying to yourself, ‘Oh no; not again! Not more weird sex issues, drawing the church off the track, when there are so many more important things for us to worry about.’ If 25% of those who are affected by the ‘bedroom tax’ are now in debt as a result, for example, surely that is more important for Christians, who love their neighbours, than whether or not it’s OK for people of the same sex to marry each other.

I would go along with that. But it does seem to me that, as a lay minister of the church, I need to set out from the pulpit at least some reflections on the question of same-sex marriage. But it is of necessity a personal view.

I believe that the bishops’ statement on same-sex marriage was extremely unhelpful, and was unnecessary, given that, following the Pilling Report, there is a process going on within the church called ‘facilitated conversations’, which has not been completed yet.

So unless the facilitated conversation process is a sham, it’s completely wrong for the bishops to lay down the law while discussions about what the law should be are still going on. The discussions and the debate in public fall along predictable lines.

On the one hand, it is argued that it is in the nature of marriage that it is necessarily between a man and a woman. It’s certainly true that the marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer begins, ‘We are gathered together here in the sight of God …. to join together this man and this woman in holy Matrimony’ and that matrimony symbolises ‘the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church’, and that the purpose of marriage is: for the procreation of children, to avoid fornication, and for the ‘mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have of the other.’ Only one out of three has anything about male and female.

Coupled with this is a literal reliance on Biblical texts, most notably in Leviticus, against homosexuality. Lev.20:13, ‘If a man lies with a male, as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; … their blood is upon them.’ You will be surprised, if you read all this chapter, how many death penalties there are for various sexual misdemeanours. Never mind; people who believe that we should uphold exactly what the Bible says, in every detail, aren’t worried by that.

On the other hand, more liberal Christians point to the fact that the definition of marriage has actually changed over the years. The prohibition against a man marrying his deceased wife’s sister was abolished in the 1800s: it was once thought to be the same as incest. More recently, remarriage after divorce has been allowed in church.

As the Dean of Durham, Michael Sadgrove, has written recently, ‘These changes were not changes in the nature of marriage itself, but in enlarging the scope of marriage by admitting to it people who were once excluded … But its essence is what it always was: the covenanted union of two people for life. That has not changed.’ [

Against this it is argued that marriage is not simply the union of two ‘people’, but it is the union of a male and a female. Even that isn’t completely clear, because there is now quite a lot of argument about what is the true nature of maleness and femaleness. There are people who have both characteristics in them.

The Church of England is entering a period when there will be ‘facilitated conversations’ with a view to trying to tease out the right position for the church to adopt. Is it right, in effect, that the provisions of the Jewish law, as expressed in Leviticus, going back 3,000 years, should decide what we do today, or should some other principles be involved?

Interesting therefore to look at our lessons today. There’s nothing actually about Mothering Sunday, or, indeed, about the position of women, the nature of marriage, or anything else which you might possibly have expected. Instead, we have this short passage from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Incidentally, it’s perfectly timed, because we will be studying this passage tomorrow in the Lent course. ‘Live as children of light, for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.’

In our gospel, Jesus says, ‘As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ Then he goes on to heal the blind man, so that for the first time in his life, the blind man could see the light. I can’t help feeling that shedding light on these various conundrums – about family relationships, marriage, sexuality – shedding light on them must be a hopeful way to proceed.

We have a name for this process. It’s called ‘enlightenment’. I think it might be quite useful, when looking at the various opposing views, in the context of the facilitated discussions, if the facilitator were to say to each side, ‘Is your position enlightened or not?’

What is ‘enlightened’? As so often with the meaning of difficult words, it helps to look at the opposite – here, to reflect on what is not enlightened. What is not enlightened is bigoted, not open to the light. St Paul says, ‘Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them … Everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light.’ So the test is, could what you are saying is right look bigoted at all?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said to his followers, to his listeners, ‘You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.’ The good works are all about love. ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the law and the prophets,’ Jesus says in Matt.7:12 – the ‘golden rule’.

So think what it must be like if you don’t exactly fit the conventional profile: if you love somebody of the same sex. What does the golden rule say about that? We have to treat people as we ourselves would like to be treated: ‘Live as children of light.’

I pray that, as the facilitated discussions go on, we end up with a church which has room for everyone in it; and that in that church there will not be darkness, but rather there will be light. Then we will really be living ‘as children of light.’