Friday, 27 December 2013

Midnight Mass sermon 2013

Lancaster Priory - Midnight Mass Sermon 2013
It is good to welcome you all to this service tonight.
To welcome you to Lancaster Priory – to a church which is dying…
a church which has only a few years left before it is closed down and converted into a trendy nightclub… or student flats…
a church which has no young people, no life, and no future…
a church which is doomed, because it sticks to the old ways, rather than casting off its outdated vestments in favour of more practical clothing, like jeans and T-shirts, to be more relevant to the modern world.
A church that no-one comes to, even at Christmas…
That’s only, of course, if you believe all that you read in the press.
As you can see by just looking around you, the reports of the death of the Church have been, shall we say - greatly exaggerated by the media; and even from some – I’m sure, well-meaning - voices from within the Church.
No, we are not dying, we’re not closing down, we’re not being turned into anything other than a place of worship, and home to a Christian community which is committed to serving the people of Lancaster.
We are not dying! We have seen in the past weeks, greater numbers than in recent years coming to this Priory church for the Christmas services and events for local schools and different groups, as well as our own special services and events. Many thousands have gathered here in the last weeks to celebrate Christ’s birth by singing carols, hearing readings, aware that this birth is so special, that it touches the hearts and minds of so many people, calling them to “come and worship Christ the new-born King”.
We are privileged to play a part in the life of a Church School which is outstanding in every way (and that is Ofsted speaking, not just me!) Ripley St Thomas Church of England Academy, which has faith at the heart of its life and ethos, and which is always very heavily oversubscribed as that is the education which families want for their children.
But our existence is fragile, and we know that. Without dedicated people to maintain our life and witness, we would be closing down. Without faithful worshippers week by week, there would be no need to maintain this ancient building. Without people willing to give their time to teach and work with our youngest people, we would have no future. Without people willing to donate regularly to maintain our ministry in all its forms, we would have to shut up shop. Without men and women being called to positions of responsibility in the church, we would not have the leadership that is needed to inspire and maintain our work, and, indeed, our growth.
But the wonderful thing is that God continues to provide all that we need to ensure our presence in this – and in every generation! God gives us people to maintain our presence and engagement with the local community, God give us people who are present – in large numbers – week by week, to worship together and to receive the strength to do all that he calls us to in his world today. He gives us people who are brilliant at working with our young people, and instilling in them a love of God who cares for them and walks with them every step of their lives. God gives us generous supporters whose donations maintain our ministry (but we are always more than happy to welcome more!)  - and God continues to call people to offer themselves for ministry, so that the preaching, teaching, and sacramental ministry of the Church can continue in each and every place.
And people are part of our community here because we know what we are about, here in the Priory. We face challenges, certainly, but we are ready to meet those challenges head on, for we know why we’re here, what we’re about, and who we are.
Why are we here? We’re here because God has brought us together. We’re here because God wants us to be here, and to work together with all of God’s people in this place, to build a community of faithful people. Some of us were born here and have lived here all our lives. Others of us have only recently arrived here, and come with different insight and ideas, and God has given us many amazing gifts: each other! With our many gifts and talents, our worries and our fears, God has placed us alongside each other to be a community of faithful, loving, caring people committed to service.
What are we about? We are about God. We need to be here to “do God” and remind the world, and all its people of what God is about! And because our God is a holy God – we are called to worship God in the beauty of holiness, with the splendour of our liturgy, the music which is the best we can offer to echo the song of the angels in heaven, and we have the privilege to do so in a building of outstanding beauty, set apart for the worship of almighty God, and on a site where Christian worship has taken place for well over a thousand years.
Who are we? We are God’s disciples, right here, and right now. God has called us to follow him, in the footsteps of countless generations who have been God’s people in their own time, and whose actions reflected their time and context. And that is what we have to be today, God’s people in the 21st Century and in the context of a rapidly changing world, with technology making giant leaps into a future unimaginable to those who came before us. And in that context, we are called to be a people who, as with past generations, serve the needs of our world to the best of our ability, including the most vulnerable and marginalised in our world, and to speak on behalf of those who have no voice in our society today. If there is injustice, we need to be able to speak out against it prophetically, and without fear or favour, and hold our government accountable, if need be, and be a moral compass for the nation.
We are also a part of a world-wide family of Christians across the whole world. We were privileged earlier in the year when we were pleased to welcome Bishop Mouneer Anis, Presiding Bishop of Jerusalem and the Middle East. He preached the Word of God from this pulpit, he presided at the High Altar, and confirmed a number of our church family. But much more than that, he was a visible sign that we share our identity with Christians in the Middle East – in Bethlehem, the birthplace of our Lord, in Cairo, to where the Holy Family was forced to flee to escape the murderous clutches of King Herod. And we join in prayer with them at this season, aware of the vulnerable position of Christians in the Holy Land at this time, as well as Christians in Iraq and Syria, the ancient home of many of the first Christians, now suffering unimaginable persecution.
We are one with them in our living out the Gospel where we are. Though we are united in one Church, one Faith, one Lord, their context and ours could not be more different. There is indeed a real risk that Christianity in the Middle East could face extinction because of the brutality of the attacks on it as a part of the complex political situation there. Ancient churches I have visited in Syria have now been destroyed as part of a war marked by appalling acts of brutality, attacks on culture as much as attacks on people; a war in which none of the participants seems to have any concern for those who have been dispossessed of their homes, their livelihood, even their identity and self-worth. Those who step into these conflicts, to bring what relief they can, such as the British surgeon Dr Abbas Khan, do so at great personal risk: his murder in a Syrian prison is testimony to that fact.  
We are so fortunate here that we have freedom to come to Church for this Midnight Mass, and can pray for peace and goodwill in our lives, and as we wish each other a Merry Christmas, I know you will be really meaning those heartfelt wishes in this joyous season. But please do spare a thought for those who are our sisters and brothers in Christ today who are living in real danger. As Douglas Alexander, the Shadow Foreign Secretary put it earlier: “There will be many for whom going to church today will not be an act of faithful witness, but an act of life-risking bravery”.
In our worship here tonight, with our choir and orchestra singing the most glorious music in the most wonderful setting, let us dedicate our worship, and hold in our prayers those who cannot worship in a church this Christmas, because they have been forced to flee to a refugee camp, or because their church has been burnt to the ground by people with violence and hatred in their hearts, where there should be peace and goodwill.
And God in his heaven, his eyes full of tears at the destruction and murder wrought by his children, will receive the worship of all his children with a Father’s love. The prayers of those who worship in homes because they have no church, or who gather in churches at huge personal risk – will bring a nobility and depth to the worship of the world’s Christians on this most holy night; and may our worship tonight, with our music, and candles and carols offer some beauty and love as we reach out to them, to hold them in a prayerful embrace as we unite our prayers with those who pray from the depths of need and distress.
This, then, is Christmas today. We will rightly celebrate the Good News the angels brought. We will remember the gifts the Magi brought to the Christ-child as we offer our own gifts to our loved ones. We will sit at tables with our nearest and dearest and enjoy the good things the Lord has provided for us. We will be reminded in the Queen’s Christmas message of the wider family to which we belong both in our own country and the wider Commonwealth of nations, and as we celebrate, and I hope we will all both pray for, and do all we can to work for a world in which there will be no poverty and great need, a world with no violence and oppression, but only the love, joy and peace of God’s kingdom.  We pray that that kingdom, the just and gentle rule of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, may become a reality in our world.


Monday, 16 December 2013

Pilling Points #1 - Homosexuality in the Bible

“Scriptural texts about homosexual practice are uniformly negative.” 

The Bible is clearly opposed to the “Selfie”. Many may think that such a ‘self-focussed image’ is implicitly bound up with many texts which call us to think of others, rather than ourselves. Together with many texts which see worship of any type of image as idolatrous, the case could easily be made that the Bible condemns the “selfie”.
But it should be obvious to anyone that the camera, much less the smartphone with integral camera simply did not exist in biblical times, so “the selfie” could hardly have been condemned by the Bible.
Recent years have had a proliferation of new words: from ‘phubbing’ to the ‘twerk’, lexophiles everywhere have enjoyed this latest crop of neologisms.
The neologisms of 1886 were rather more serious than the current crop. These included “homosexuality”, “heterosexuality”, and “bisexuality”; these featured in the first serious academic study of sexual psychopathy and were coined by Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing (Psychopathia Sexualis: eine Klinisch-Forensische Studie - Sexual Psychopathy: A Clinical-Forensic Study). His choice of hybrid words (a mixture of Greek and Latin) and his decision to write much of his book in Latin was a deliberate choice to deter the amateur from seeking to understand this difficult area of study.
So the word in current use throughout the discussion on human sexuality in the Church is just over 125 years old, and yet it is being used as if it was used by God himself in writing the Bible, to condemn a group of people called “homosexuals” for their sinfulness.
Fast forward to 1994, and in the wake of the development of HIV/AIDS, a new term is coined by medical epidemiologists: “MSM”. This is an abbreviation for “Men who have Sex with Men” and specifically refers to people who would not, under any circumstance, refer to themselves as “gay”, “homosexual”, or “bisexual”. The need for this new phrase arose as researchers sought to identify the spread of the virus and disease risk in sexual activity. “MSMs” exist in many continents and cultures, and they would identify as ‘heterosexual’ or ‘straight’, but in the absence of women, they are content to have sex with men instead. In some cultural situations, where contact with women is strictly controlled, sex between two men can occur as a matter of mutual convenience, rather than as an act of love. Thus, sexual activity can occur in all-male environments and cultures from the prison to the ocean-going vessel, from the single-sex school to armed forces on active service. It can be consensual, and for mutual gratification, or it can be a weapon of aggression, in which the ‘conquered’ are dominated by the victorious, and raped or abused as part of their humiliation.
To try to sum up all of the above in a single word or term would be a fruitless endeavour. There can be no similarity between a loving, committed relationship and an act of war. And yet this is what many recent commentators, including contributors to the Pilling Report, have done. They have ignored the huge amount of research into the subject over many decades, and gone for the “one-size-fits-all” definition, using ‘homosexuality’ to cover all of the above. Some more recent commentators have even gone so far as to repeat the most hateful of all attacks, suggesting a link between homosexuality and paedophilia: an accusation as offensive as it is absurd and untrue.
Yes, the Bible is consistent in the oft-quoted passages from Leviticus and Paul. Leviticus uses the line “if a man lies with a man as with a woman” in a long category of banned sexual relationships, even involving quadrupeds (which shall also be put to death for their deeds). It is, of course, the act which is condemned, as there is never any discussion of a relationship – or even love – between two men or two women being forbidden. The love of David for Jonathan, or Ruth for Naomi are consistently held up as models of faithfulness, as is the relationship between Jesus and John, the beloved disciple, though swift condemnation will always fall on any who may dare to suggest that there was ever any impropriety in any of these relationships.
Paul’s words have caused more problems, often as a result of bad translations. It is, of course, unacceptable to use the word “homosexuals” as a translation of his writings, though some poor quality translations erroneously do just that. One word (malakoi –‘soft’) is thought to refer to those who live in opulent silks and a decadent lifestyle. Another word (arsenokoitai) is much harder to translate (there are few other times the word occurs in contemporary writings, so it is harder to corroborate its meaning), but probably refers to prostitution or ‘pimping’. Neither word relates to anything a 21st Century person would understand by homosexuality.
Sexuality has always - and will always - arouse strong emotions, from tenderness and affection, to violence and oppression. It is used as an expression of both love and hate. It cannot be uniformly addressed and categorized. Not all heterosexual sexual activity is good, and not all homosexual sexual activity is bad.
In terms of what the Bible says concerning what we now know of as the human phenomenon of same-sex attraction, or homosexuality, it is impossible to have any clarity. Jesus is, of course, silent on the matter. The relationships between people of the same sex are always treated chastely and with respect, though they are more often are categorised as ‘friendships’ without too many questions being put about the exact nature of their relationship.
The ‘acts’ it does mention may well be more akin to what I have referred to above as “MSM”, in which (usually) men find sexual release with other men in the absence of women, often with violence or as an act of dominating a conquered army or prisoner.
The contemporary context of same-sex relationships, now recognized by civil law as equal in rights to opposite-sex relationships is a world away from the culture, context, and arguments of the biblical era.
Abusive, unequal, or violent sexual assaults are rightly punishable by law, whether they are homosexual or heterosexual in nature.
The loving relationship between two people of the same sex is what has caused most of the consternation among those seeking a way forward in the current debate. But despite all of the negative publicity, people of the same sex still do manage to meet and, indeed, fall in love. They still wish to make commitments to each other, and they want prayers said for them, and indeed, they continue to seek God’s blessing on their relationship.
It is little short of miraculous that there still are gay men and lesbians who believe in God, and want God to be a part of their lives. Their faith is a vital part of their life, their work, and their relationships. This is despite all that the Church has done over many centuries to alienate, and even persecute people who have experienced same sex attraction.
If we believe in the Holy Spirit, we must believe that the Spirit is capable of saying a new thing to the Church today. Jesus ended his earthly ministry by saying to his disciples “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth.” At that time, it was “unbearable” to consider that two men or two women might publicly declare their love for each other.

Can we dare to believe that we are witnessing the Holy Spirit leading his people today, affirming the love which two people of the same sex find in each other, and honouring the commitment they wish to make by blessing in God’s name that promise of love, loyalty, and fidelity as a witness and sign of God’s love in the world today? 

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The "H" word - again!

I got into a lot of hot water the last time I mentioned the "H" word (Homophobia). I even created work for that hard-working cleric, the bishop's chaplain - sorry about that! But as it is back in the news, I can't stop myself from adding a further thought or two.
The Bishop of Gloucester - the only diocesan bishop who is a member of the "Pilling Group" has spoken in advance of the publication of the group's report, and has said "homosexuals must realise that the Church is not homophobic." Despite his welcome admission that "the Church has not treated the gay, lesbian, and transgender community well," his assertion still has a very hollow, false ring to it.
Let me try a different question.
Is the Church racist?
Honestly, I would have difficulty answering that question. I am white British, so I'm not the person to ask. If I wanted to know the answer to that question, I would need to ask one of the many ethnic minority members of our church. And if they tell me the church is not racist, I would be wise to believe them. But if they told me that the church is racist, I would need to find out what we can do to stamp out the racism in our church.
So, when I hear significant numbers of the LGBT minority within the Church of England state categorically that the church is not homophobic I will begin to believe it is true. When Jeffrey John says the church is not homophobic, I will believe him. But I don't believe the Bishop of Gloucester, however often he may say it.
I'm sorry, Bishop Michael, but have you really heard what people have been saying to you? (And if not, what on earth was the point of the exercise?) While people are excluded from their church because they have a same sex partner; while the ministry of openly LGBT clergy is not permitted in certain dioceses, and while people are denied positions of seniority within the church because of their sexuality - the church will remain homophobic.
If (and I really hope this might happen in my lifetime) the church wishes to be really serious about caring for its LGBT members, its archbishops and bishops need to ask us the question, "What can we do to stamp out the homophobia you see in the church?"
I hope we would have the courage to tell them "the truth in love."
Perhaps then we might get somewhere.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Nomination for a Diversity Award

Lancaster Vicar nominated for Diversity Award

The Revd Chris Newlands has been nominated for the UK’s Largest Diversity Awards

Chris Newlands, a vicar from Lancaster has been nominated for the “Positive Role Model in Religion” category at The National Diversity Awards. The ceremony celebrates some of the excellent and inspiring achievements of positive role models and community organisations from across the UK. The awards aim to recognise nominees in their respective fields of diversity including age, disability, gender, race, faith, religion and sexual orientation.

Chris has been Vicar of Lancaster for the past three years, having moved from Essex in 2010.
Before that he worked in Eastern Europe, where he was founder and first President of “ACCEPT”, Romania’s first Human Rights Organisation. The organisation which he founded campaigned for equal rights for women, ethnic minorities, and most controversially, for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. In 1999 the association was awarded the “Egalité” prize by the European Commission for advances in the rights of the LGBT Community in Romania. After five years of campaigning, it succeeded in decriminalizing homosexuality in Romania. ACCEPT is still the leading LGBT advocacy group in Romania.   

At the invitation of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) Chris addressed a meeting in Warsaw where the ambassadors of the 57 nations which make up the OSCE were convened, and spoke passionately in support of a motion to make violence against individuals on the basis of their sexuality a criminal offence. Also for ILGA, Chris organised an international conference in Geneva with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders exploring attitudes to sexuality in those religious communities.  

Since returning to England, Chris has worked within the structures of the Church of England to make the Church a more welcoming place for people who are LGBT. He convened a national group of LGBT clergy, and has participated in many sessions working to increase the awareness of clergy to the needs of LGBT people. As Vicar of Lancaster, he is working to make his church (Lancaster Priory) a “welcoming, inclusive Christian community” where all people are welcomed and affirmed : lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, straight, rich, poor, young, or old. He continues to work in the wider Church to end all homophobic attitudes from clergy and church leaders, and to offer support and affirmation to all people equally.

The National Diversity Awards 2013 in association with Microsoft will be held at The Queens Hotel, Leeds on September 20th. Britain’s most inspirational people will come together to honour the rich tapestry of our nation, recognising individuals and groups from grass roots communities who have contributed to creating a more diverse and inclusive society.

If you would like to see Chris shortlisted for this award, please nominate Chris on the website:
Or for a nomination form please email:
Big Brother host Brian Dowling and CBeebies presenter Cerrie Burnell will be hosting this year’s event. The awards have also gained support from a number of celebrities including Stephen Fry, Beverley Knight and Ade Adepitan - and the Likes of Paralympic champion Jody Cundy, and Journalist Amal Fashanu were amongst last year’s attendees.

The largest diversity awards ceremony of its kind has generated great sponsors such as the co-operative Group, Sky, The Open University and Price Waterhouse Coopers.
Theresa McHenry, of Microsoft UK, said ‘The National Diversity Awards are a wonderful way to recognise the extraordinary contribution of real people to our communities. It’s a delight to be able to support this fantastic celebration of local heroes.’
Amongst last year’s winners was gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who scooped up The Lifetime Achiever Award; Trade Union activist Zita Holbourne who was awarded the positive role Model for Race and The Anthony Walker foundation, a charity established following the tragic murder of its namesake in a racially motivated attack.
The National Diversity Awards received an astonishing amount of nominations for last year’s event. Paul Sesay, Chief Executive of The National Diversity Awards said, ‘if ever there was a time to celebrate and elevate the truly staggering diversity of talent the UK has to offer – it is now’
‘I know another fantastic spectacle of role models will be delivered and recognised this year’.
Nominations are now open and close July 19th 2013 - so don’t miss out on your chance to get involved!
Shortlisted nominees will be announced shortly after this date. 

Friday, 28 December 2012

It's been a while since I've blogged - but I've been asked to include my Advent 3 sermon - which I wrote after taking part in some of the Radio debates about Equal Marriage and Women Bishops. Trying to be clear on where I stand, but conciliatory nonetheless. It went down well, all things considered!

Sermon : Advent 3, 2012
It has been a busy day for my radio voice.
Earlier in the week I was phoned and asked to take part in the BBC Lancashire Drivetime programme, talking about the government’s latest pronouncement on Equal Marriage (which isn’t that equal at all, if you happen to be a member of the Church of England). As I was busy when the programme went out, I was interviewed a few hours ahead of time, and just as the news had been released – so I had to think very quickly on my feet and come up with something which was an appropriate comment for their programme; not something so dramatic that people would be distracted from their driving home and drive into a ditch – but interesting enough that they wouldn’t fall asleep at the wheel. It must have been reasonably interesting as I was phoned up the following day, and invited to go on national radio, Radio 2, no less, to be interviewed by Jeremy Vine , again on the Equal Marriage legislation.
The point I was trying to make in this interview, was that – in my view – a small number of people with a very conservative theological position are keen to ensure that women have a submissive role in the church and in society. In the case for the ordination of women as bishops, they object to a woman having headship over men; they believe that it is a woman’s role to submit to men in authority, so a position of leadership is incompatible with their sex. On the ordination of women as bishops, it is my view that it is the Church’s task to discern those whom God is calling to serve as a bishop (as well as priest and deacon) in the Church. And the Calling Spirit of God is not subject to any gender apartheid, and can call men and women to any role be it exalted or be it humble.
In the discussion on Equal Marriage, the conservative position (as recently articulated by the Archbishop of Sydney) believes that in a marriage, the wife should submit to her husband, for a marriage requires that essential complementarity between a dominant male and a submissive female. I would argue that marriage is an equal partnership made up of a loving couple who desire to bring all that they are into a relationship of commitment and trust, faithfulness and love. That is certainly what I teach when I prepare couples for weddings here, and I have to say, I have never had criticism that I have omitted any theology which suggests that the bride should submit to the groom in the marriage ceremony. (In some cases, one would be forgiven from assuming that the opposite dynamic were true!)       
In the second radio interview, I was pitted against another clergyman (he would hate it if I called him a priest; despite it being in the Book of Common Prayer, it is a term he hates) and – as is the way in such things, the producers wanted us to be as adversarial as possible, and we were prompted to be as forthright as we could be. But I do hate these media-staged jousting tournaments, where we are supposed to keep attacking until someone falls off their horse (as it were).
But there are strong views which are held as a result of our theological convictions, and our beliefs. And in different times in different places, they may all be right – for despite our disagreements, we hold that the core essentials of our faith which we share are more important than the issues which divide us. And this is the fact which makes these discussions bearable – it would be a very rare and extreme case when we would have to conclude that the person arguing against us is not at all a Christian. For me to say that, they would have to deny the existence of God, or the divinity of Christ, or the power of the Holy Spirit.
And it is not new in Christian tradition to discover strongly differing views. Disagreement and discord has been a constant throughout the two millennia of the Christian era.
St Paul was travelling the known world preaching (and defining!) the Gospel of Jesus Christ shortly after the death of Jesus, and from his writing we are already aware of divisions in the church. We know that in Philippi, there were arguments and dissention, as well as a lot of external pressure for Christians to renounce their faith. Paul himself had been imprisoned there. But for a church founded by Paul himself to be riven by disagreement and division was a great sadness for him. So in his letter to the Church in Philippi (we know it as the letter to the Philippians) he seeks to build them up in faith, to inspire them to end their divisions, and to focus on God. Indeed, in the two verses directly before our reading today, he appeals directly to Euodia and Syntache to be reconciled to each other.
So when we hear this reading, in our own church, riven by its sad divisions, we have to hear Paul’s words as addressed to ourselves. But even though Paul’s words are written from prison, on his way to Rome and martyrdom, they are not tough, uncompromising words – but they are gentle, calm and coaxing. “Do not worry about anything!” (‘Be careful for nothing’ in the words which Purcell set in the famous “Bell anthem” setting of these words.) “For the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”.
So he commends the church to focus on God, to “rejoice in the Lord always” and to be gentle in all things.
The “Rejoice in the Lord always” theme of his writing has a very clear link to the Old Testament reading from the prophet Zephaniah – another text we hear sung more often than read: “Rejoice greatly” as set by Handel in “Messiah”. Here the prophet is dispelling the fear of impending disaster by calling people to repent and return to the pure worship of God, which had been diluted by the wives and entourage of King Solomon. Hope that the fortunes of Israel will be restored, and enemies vanquished brings great comfort to the hearers of this prophecy.
And our Gospel reading for today – which begins so unpromisingly “You brood of vipers!” is a clear teaching of the great forerunner, John the Baptist, who is our focus today, on the 3rd Sunday of Advent. He gives clear advice to tax-collectors as well as to soldiers, as to how to live their lives in faithfulness to God, whilst maintaining professions which were highly sought for the power it gave to extort money from the people. 
His call to repentance was in preparation for the coming of the new Messiah – but his own way of preparing for the Messiah was to confront power without fear – as in his famous condemnation of King Herod – over a marriage.
The opinions then and now about who can marry whom will continue to rage. Because they are important.
But even more important than these arguments is the faith that unites us, and the fact that we disagree about some of these issues must never stop us from being a Church and focussing on things of paramount importance to our faith. And even though I have strong views on matters such as the ordination of women as bishops, and equal marriage, and don’t hesitate to express those views – I will continue to defend the right of people who have opposing views to express them too. For the Inclusive Christian Community here is big enough to hold a diversity of views on all manner of subjects. 
But we must be united in the First Order issues, such as:
How we seek to worship God and live our lives in faithfulness
How we entrust to God our hopes and fears in regular and constant prayer?
How we seek to bring God’s joy and peace to the whole world?
How we can be active in God’s name in our world today?
How we respond in the name of the Church to the terrible acts of violence of which humans are capable – or the oppression of a nation by a government or oppressive regime?
I give the last words to Paul from the Epistle:
“The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”. 

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Lack of Vision threatens the Church of England's Mission

Working as a Press Officer for a Bishop for some six years, I learnt how hard it is to get some things (good news) into the press, and how impossible it can be to keep other things (bad news) out of the press.
To share a good news story from the Church of England is remarkably difficult. The press are not interested, it seems, in the good work done by a local church with a project working with the homeless, or developing good relationships with the local mosque. But if a Vicar should stray from the straight and narrow, the gentlemen and ladies of the press are suddenly and immediately on your doorstep, wanting an opinion, a statement, some further facts.  
What would be the truly great story for the Church of England today, to ensure positive coverage on the front pages of all the nationals, and widespread acclaim from all sectors of society? I do have an idea about that – but more of that later. What we do see at the present time is, however, just the opposite.  The dear old C of E has done it again, and got headlines on the TV news and the national press for all the wrong reasons. Some poor bishop (possibly to rule him out of the running for the job at Canterbury) has been handed a brief and told to be the front man for the church’s biggest PR disaster in decades. (I’m tempted to say ‘for the last 500 years’, but someone has already used that particularly inappropriate piece of hyperbole.)
Some commentator on the BBC news even revisited the old cliché that the CofE has been the Conservative Party at prayer. That may have been so when Neville Chamberlain was Prime Minister, and perhaps there is a longing for those good old days among some members of the House of Bishops, and more crucially, the mandarins at Church House who have manufactured this particular crisis.
What they do not have as their priority is the Church’s Mission! One of the great ‘rules of thumb’ in Mission, is to know the people you are seeking to address. The Church leadership seems to be failing in this task, and doing so spectacularly and disastrously. So many people around the country have moved on from the moral attitudes of the ‘Brief Encounter’ generation. Friends, neighbours, colleagues, children, siblings, even parents are known to be gay, and are no longer cast out from families and left to commit suicide as was once the case. Instead, they are affirmed, loved, and valued. And if they find that someone special to whom they wish to make a lifelong commitment, there is huge cause for rejoicing and an opportunity for a great celebration which involves everyone. And this is a good thing for us all! Apart from the Church, that is. Like some intimidating matriarch, the CofE is the one person we are urged not to tell of the wonderful love which David and Jonathan or Ruth and Naomi have found for each other. (The choice of names has no theological significance, unless you choose to give it any.) These are the people who are ripe for the Church’s Mission – people who know love when they see it. We have the opportunity to give that love a name – God’s gift to the world of love. But instead of affirming that love, the Church keeps on reminding us that it’s the ‘wrong sort of love’. The love that can’t be blessed in church, and the love that can’t be called ‘a marriage’ because that would devalue the ‘real marriages’ which have to be between a man and a woman, because they can have babies.
It may come as no surprise that there are many who are hoping for the rapid demise of that aged and manipulative harridan, Great-Aunt Church of England, so that they can get on with their lives in peace.  And I don’t blame them for doing so. The church has for too long been complicit in condemning LGBT people, and it is hard to break such a deeply entrenched behaviour pattern. Perhaps it fears that it will be condemned by its great allies, some of the conservative African prelates in countries where being gay is still illegal (often with the death penalty) or the Russian Orthodox Church, which has been known to bless neo-Nazi groups before sending them out to carry out vicious attacks on peaceful Gay Pride marches, using crosses as weapons to beat up those who seek to demonstrate their rights to freedom of opinion and expression, and to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.  
What good news it would be – and guaranteed front page news – if the Church of England were to let go of its deeply held homophobia. There, I’ve said it. The Church of England is deeply, and institutionally homophobic. And it will remain so until it ends its discrimination against its faithful LGBT clergy and laity. Despite the countless times the bishops try to deny it, it remains discriminatory and homophobic. And it MUST change if it is to have any relevance to the many people in the land who have moved on from that irrelevant shibboleth, and accept people for what they are.
So, what would be the great good news story for which the press would give us the sort of coverage reserved for Royal Jubilees?
If the Church of England were to renounce its love of status and fear of progress, and instead sought to reconnect with a more Christ-like call to unconditional love, and to serve all people after the example of the Good Shepherd – then we might regain some of the trust which has been lost by seeming to follow instead the model of an insecure and authoritarian dictator who loves only power, and acts out of fear and not love.
Isn’t it at least worth a try?   

Sunday, 15 April 2012

The 5th Anniversary of our Civil Partnership - some reflections

Ok - I know this is a blog, and not a sermon posting service - 
but this was a bit special, so I felt I wanted to share it more widely. So here it is. 

Sermon at Lancaster Priory - 15 April 2012
Second Sunday of Easter

At the end of our Easter Sunday morning service last week, I found myself saying to myself: 'What a privilege it is to be here.' and then I found myself saying it to others, too: 'What a privilege it is to be here.' To have spent Holy Week with a goodly number of fellow-travellers, walking the Way of the Cross, deftly and expertly guided by Andrew Knowles, our visiting preacher for Holy Week, to have our worship uplifted by the glorious music provided by our gifted team of musicians, and to recreate the Via Dolorosa with the beautiful imagery in our new Stations of the Cross, so lovingly worked by our talented Sanctuary Guild: What a privilege it is to be here. To spend some time with Christians of other traditions and denominations on Good Friday, and again at Dawn, here outside the Priory. What a privilege! And the climax of it all, our Festal Easter Celebration, attended by 350 or so worshippers, gathered to celebrate our Lord's Resurrection. What a privilege. To share, in the days of Easter, the Holy Communion with people who need full time care in their own home, or in a nursing, or residential home. What a privilege!

And it is not just the Big Occasions when it is a privilege to be here. To mark life's milestones with God's people is always a rare privilege. And this past week has seen two funerals, two weddings, and later on this morning we will welcome today, through the gift of baptism, more young members of the Lord's Family. 

To be welcomed into a family to hear the story of a life well lived - or to seek to heal the memories which bear the scars of a life many would see as a failure: What a privilege. Or to be invited to share in a special day when we celebrate God's gift of love to the world in a Marriage service. What a privilege.

But let's not spend too much time congratulating ourselves, for we need also to remember that there are many things we could do a lot better. God's Church has no space for complacency. Is there more we can do to be more welcoming to others? Is there more we could do to see better provision of the pastoral care of God's people in this place, our flock, so that our Christian care and concern is more Christ-like, after the manner of Christ, the Good Shepherd? 

We have all, I am sure, been on the receiving end of pastoral care, and know how important it is when planning the funeral for a family member, or when organising a wedding!

If you have seen the inside of the Service Sheet, you will have seen that David and I have been celebrating the 5th anniversary of our Civil Partnership this week. That day, which for me (David can speak for himself) was the most deliriously happy day of my life. A day which, when I was growing up, would have been thought impossible, but which became a reality on a wonderfully sunny day in Essex just five years ago. We were surrounded by family and friends: sadly some are no longer with us, including David's mum, but we were thrilled she could rejoice with us on our special day, along with another 200 or so of our closest friends and colleagues. 

But there was sadness, too. On the Friday after Easter Day, yes it was Friday, 13th April - we gathered at Chelmsford Register Office, where (bless her) the Registrar did a lovely job of the civil ceremony. But, of course, we could not have a hymn, or a Bible Reading, or a prayer. And that made me sad beyond measure. A good friend did (secretly, for fear of her churchwardens) say a prayer with us in our home, and we were immensely grateful to her for that. 

And then on the Saturday - ah the Saturday, we gathered in a large barn in the middle of nowhere for a Eucharist of Thanksgiving. We could not do this in my church at the time, the Cathedral - too controversial. Some of the guests, many senior clergy among them, would have had their judgement called into question in public, for their having attended a private celebration. It was quite a simple affair: the diocesan bishop presided and preached, a choir from Cambridge sang the Palestrina Missa Brevis, and some beautiful music was sung and played. And God was there with us and we prayed, sang, and wept together. We had written to our guests asking that they kept all the details secret - to protect the participants, and some said it made them feel, for the first time what it was like for the first Christians, under Roman persecution, or Christians in some parts of the old where people are still persecuted for their faith. 'Welcome to my world', I felt like saying. 

So yes, this is something the Church in general could do better. Offering prayers and blessings for those who wish to make a lifelong covenant of love and faithfulness would be a good start. There are people out there, in this country, and in an even more pronounced way, in Africa and in Eastern Europe, in the Middle East, who would wish to insult, abuse, attack, and even kill people like me. I've been told that God hates me - and even though I know that God loves me, such deliberate, venomous invective can bring unbearable pain on more vulnerable individuals. Which is why so many young teens take their own life: they would rather die than face a lifetime of being told that they are worthless, and that God, the Church, and even their own mother - hates them.

The Church must never - ever - collude with hatred, and it must never keep silence when faced with such an offence to human dignity. Its job is to stand with victims of hatred, and as Christ knew what it was to suffer unjustly at the hands of wicked men, he is indeed there with all who are victimised through gender, ethnicity, faith, or sexuality. 

But it can never be enough just to have no violence, for as true Peace is more than the mere absence of war, so also a mere absence of violence is not abundant life, which is what Christ longs to give his people. To stand alongside, and to affirm those who would seek to make a lifelong Covenant of love and faithfulness in a church context would not undermine the institution of marriage, but it would strengthen, affirm, and bless the individuals who wished to make those vows in the presence of God and his people. It's not much, at all, in fact. But it would be a start. 

And that is why the Priory PCC voted - by a majority of its members - to stand alongside those who would wish to have their partnership blessed in church. No-one will ever be forced to act against their conscience, no one will be forced to attend such a ceremony, but those who do attend such ceremonies may indeed, as our guests some 5 years ago, discover that indeed, "Where there is true love and charity, there God is."