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."


Thursday, 8 March 2012

Civil Partnerships, Same-sex weddings, and the Church

Much has been said in recent days concerning the Coalition Government’s plans to legalise same-sex marriage. Church leaders have been among the first to speak out to condemn the plans (often in quite inflammatory language), while those who are part of the various lobbying groups have defended the Government’s plans as a legitimate development of the worldwide human rights agenda. Various countries around the world have now legislated in favour of same sex marriage. The marriage of two men or two women is now legal in twelve countries: (in chronological order of the passed legislation) The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina, and Nepal, as well as 8 (and rising) states of the USA. The world has not come to an end, and those countries have not been ‘shamed’ by the rest of the world.
The decisions were not easily taken in any of these countries. In strongly Catholic Belgium and Spain, the church leaders did all they could to mobilize opposition to the planned legislation, though without success. The responses of churches in these countries have varied from outright opposition to willing compliance with the legislation. Churches in Iceland and Scandinavia led the way in developing liturgies for same-sex marriages, followed by some Canadian and American dioceses. Many other countries have other legislation in place giving equal legal rights to same-sex couples, including most of the countries of the European Union.
The situation in England is complicated by the unique relationship between Church and State, as Church of England clergy manage the legal formalities of marriage through the ancient tradition of ‘calling of banns’ and issue marriage certificates to those married in churches. When Civil Partnerships were introduced in the UK in 2004, it was made clear that these could only be ‘formed’ by registrars in secular venues, and the same rules applied as for civil marriages, namely that no religious poetry, music, or prayer could have any part in this entirely secular ceremony. Church authorities decreed that no churches would be permitted to offer a service of blessing to those who had formed such Civil Partnerships, and no official liturgies have been drawn up for these occasions (although there do exist some unauthorised liturgies).
There are, significantly three major differences between “Marriage” and “Civil Partnership” as the law currently stands. First, a Marriage can take place in either a secular or a religious context: the choice is up to the couple, whereas a Civil Partnership can only exist in secular form, the couple have no choice in the matter. It is not possible at any stage of the formation of a Civil Partnership to have a reading from the Bible or any other religious text, a prayer, hymn, or sacred music, however much that may be desired by the couple. Second, there is the presumption of a sexual relationship between husband and wife following a marriage. This is enshrined in law, as non-consummation of a marriage constitutes grounds for divorce. There is no such presumption for a Civil Partnership. Third, an incumbent has a legal right to refuse to conduct a marriage if either bride or groom has been divorced. The incumbent has no such right if either party has been in a civil partnership which has been dissolved. Being in a Civil Partnership which has not been dissolved is, of course, a legal impediment to being married.
A proposal which is not yet on the table for discussion (but should be?) could be that the option of a Civil Partnership (secular or religious) should be open to all couples who seek the legal security of partnership without the commitment to having a family, whilst Marriage (secular or religious) be open to all couples who do wish to found a family.
However, the situation we have at the moment does create a serious injustice, in that any Church of England clergy who may wish to minister to parishioners who would dearly love to come to church to make vows to each other before God and to have their union blessed, are not permitted to do so if the couple happen to be two men or two women.  There is not even provision for them to come to church after a Civil Partnership ceremony to seek God’s blessing on their relationship. This seems to be a heavy-handed and cruel stance which the National Institutions of the Church of England have taken. Mercifully, many clergy are prepared to act responsibly and are happy to provide some measure of pastoral support, and pray with couples in such circumstances, though this still falls far short of what is being asked for. Of course, there will be no compulsion on clergy or PCCs to host such services of blessing. The situation would be the same as when divorced persons come to church seeking to be married according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England, namely the incumbent of the parish has the right to decide whether or not to solemnize such marriages.  
When the Government made it possible for Civil Partnerships to be formed on religious premises, a spokesman, claiming to speak on behalf of the Church of England, said that this would never happen in England’s parish churches. This is a statement which many would wish to challenge through the synodical process. It would seem perfectly legitimate for the Church to be pastorally involved with a couple seeking to mark their loving commitment to each other by exchanging vows to each other in a civil partnership within a church context, and I hope that the Church of England will change its mind on this issue. If we fail to do so, we will indeed be negligent in our duty of pastoral care to those of our parishioners who are in committed, loving, and stable same-sex relationships by withholding God’s blessing from them. 
Lancaster Priory PCC will shortly be discussion a resolution which has already been passed by many churches across the country, namely: 'This PCC believes that we should be able to register Civil Partnerships and urges the Church of England to take the necessary steps to enable successful applications to the registrar.' This is a legitimate part of the church’s decision-making process, and if the PCC passes this resolution at our next meeting, we would be encouraging wider discussion of this proposal in the synods of the Church of England, in the hope that we may encourage a change on the regulations by which we are bound, so that we may we seen as a Church which is as affirming, welcoming, and affirming to the LGBT community, their families, friends, and supporters – as we are to those of God’s people who are already being affirmed by the Church’s ministry to couples coming to be married in our churches. 
Chris Newlands
8 March 2012