Sunday, 29 August 2010
Following the renewed controversy about whether Jeffrey John could or should be a Bishop this summer, YouGov conducted a random poll asking whether the public at large thought that "the Church of England should or should not allow the appointment of Bishops who are gay".
The results came out in favour of gay Bishops - 39% were in favour, 27% against - but what struck me was the high proportion of people who just didn't care - or in the words of the survey "have no opinion either way".
Almost a third of those questioned (31%) had no opinion either way.
There are 2 possible interpretations of this:
Either they don't care because homosexuality just is not an issue for them - it doesn't provoke a response, positive or negative.
Or the Church of England and probably, by implication, the Christian faith is simply irrelevant in their lives.
Either way, this should be a matter of grave concern for those of us who want to make Jesus Christ known, as it shows how irrelevant the church has become for so many people.
For those for whom sexuality doesn't illicit any response, the way the church gets hot under the collar (usually the dog collar!) over and over again about this one issue must push them more and more to the conclusion that we are nothing to do with them.
But I suspect that the greater proportion of the 'no opinion' group have written the church and the Christian faith off, and see the church as a quaint anachronism, which has nothing to say to them. Our traditional ways of doing things - our patriarchal institutions - our funny clothes and rituals - our liturgical and ecclesiastical language - simply do not make an impression on an increasing proportion of the population.
For those Christians in newer churches, (mainly evangelical or pentecostal in style) this is not news. Their growth in recent years has been due largely to presenting the gospel in a contemporary way, seeking to make it relevant to a new generation. But even here there are problems.
In the 25-39 age group where these newer churches often do well, there were significantly fewer people who expressed no opinion, (27%) but this is the group who were most in favour of gay bishops (52%) which goes against the predominantly conservative approach on sexuality which these churches take.
Nor can the established church take much comfort from the older generation. Even among the over 60's (the only age group which came out against gay Bishops - 25% in favour, 40% against) the 'don't care' vote was the highest of all age groups (34%). This age group is generally regarded as being the most 'religious' (and most traditional) and those of us who are attend church will know that this is the best represented group amongst the majority of our congregations, and yet over a third don't care on this most traditional of issues!
The challenge of this survey is not the issue of gay bishops. It is the challenge which the church faces in presenting the Gospel in a relevant and engaging way. It is the challenge of bringing the love and teaching of Jesus Christ to our nation in the social environment of the 21st Century, rather than the 17th or 19th Century. It is the challenge of living and acting in a way which can speak to people who have been turned off what we do and what we say to the extent that they just don't care.
Tuesday, 24 August 2010
I sometimes get worried by the attitude some of my brothers and sisters have to the Bible. It is the attitude that says "if I can find a verse for it - it must be right" or "If I can find a verse against it, it must be wrong".
I remember clearly my time at university in the Christian Union where, as in most CU's of the time, fierce debates took place on whether scripture was inerrant or merely infallible (!) The Word of God is the source of our faith we were told - without the Bible we would not know the will of God - it is the source of our understanding of God. Whatever we need to know, there will be a verse somewhere with the answer to our question, if only we look hard enough!
Now don't get me wrong, I do believe that the Bible contains everything necessary for salvation. I also believe that it is inspired by God for our "teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16). But I also worry that we can take that too far, believing that the Bible gives us the full picture of the will of God on every conceivable subject.
The Bible does not claim to tell us everything about God.
- Jesus said that if we don't believe when he tells us of things on earth, how can he explain the things of heaven? (John 3:12)
- And John's gospel ends by pointing out that if all the things that Jesus did were written down, "the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written." (John 21:25)
Indeed, Jesus did not say that when the Scriptures are complete, they will guide us into all truth - he did, of course, say that "when The Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you in all truth".
And there is the key to our understanding of the scriptures. I believe that they are the inspired word of God, but without the Spirit of Jesus at work in our lives they remain just words. When I recall that "The word of God is living and active" (Hebrews 4:12), I must also remember that it is Jesus who is the complete, living Word of God in all its fullness (John 1) and that it is only in Him that I can begin to understand the mystery of God's will.
If we really want to know what God wants of us, the Bible is the first place we should look, but as we read, we need to ask the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds to Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, rather than simply looking for proof texts.
There were those in the Bible who looked for proof texts, and who tried to sew everything up in a neat and tidy bundle. They were the Pharisees. I don't think that Pharisees were particularly bad people on the whole - they had just become so focused on the letter of God's law that they forgot the Spirit of that law. Everything they taught could, I am sure, be traced back to the written word of God, and yet they had got it so wrong, as my Gospel reading reminded me today (Matthew 23:13-22).
I f we are to avoid the same mistake, we need to remember that the Word of God is indeed living and active - and we need to invite Him into our hearts to help us as we read.
Sunday, 15 August 2010
There are two stories side by side in the Church of England Newspaper this week which caught my eye. They both relate to alleged discrimination against Christians who hold conservative views on homosexuality.
The first is about a teacher who has was suspended from his job at a primary school in Scotland, apparently because of his traditional views about homosexuality, published on his website. The second is about a vicar and his wife who have been rejected as potential foster parents because of their unease about the hypothetical situation of having a to welcome a gay couple to stay in their home as part of a 'handover' to them as adoptive parents.
Both these stories have given me food for thought, not about the merits or otherwise of these particular cases - I certainly do not know enough about either situation to offer any view on them. The issue which arises here for me is about what these stories tell us about our attitude to children, because in both cases, concern for children was cited to be the main issue.
In the school, the concern appears to be that the teacher might express his views in class, which were at odds with education policies. Similarly, the vicar and his wife were concerned that their children, aged 5 and 7, might begin to question why some families have 2 mummies or 2 daddies.
Indeed concern for children is often raised as an issue in considering the right or wrong approach to homosexuality, as if it were somehow different from all other moral questions and dilemmas.
When my pro-gay views became public in the parishes where I am vicar, I held a public meeting to explain them and invite questions and debate. At that meeting (which was a model of gracious Christian dialogue between people of a range of viewpoints) the question was asked "But what about your children?" as if our views would somehow undermine their fragile lives! At a PCC meeting sometime later, in a similar discussion, the idea of potential confusion or embarrassment among children in the church was held up as a reason not to publically declare our church to be a church which welcomes LGBT people.
Yet my observation of children is that they are more adept than most at listening to and pondering conflicting ideas about life, the universe, and everything. Indeed, that is what growing up is all about. Whenever my own children ask about something where different people hold different views, whatever sphere of life, I always try to explain that some people think 'this' and some people think ' that', and sometimes there are others who think something completely different!
In my present parishes we have excellent relations with 3 schools, (2 church schools and one community school) and I am delighted to be invited in to lead assemblies and some lessons. In those schools, I precede my statements about the Christian faith with the phrase "Christians believe that ..."; and if there is a question on which different Christians see things differently, I will say "Some Christians believe this ... while others believe this".
This is not rocket science, and I know that many of my colleagues use similar devices to ensure that children are equipped to make their own decisions in life as they grow - indeed that is the very heart of good education, whether in school of in the home.
So why do we get so concerned at applying this to the question of sexuality?
Is it that we are more afraid of the questions which children might ask of us as result - exposing our own lack of clarity? Is it that we are too tied up in protecting our own world view that we seek ways to allow no other viewpoint in? Do we really want to bring up a new generation just as hung up and prejudiced as we are, having heard only one side of the story (whichever side that is).
My own children (both of school age) are fully aware of my views on homosexuality. and that those views have changed over the years. They have no difficulty with this.
Similarly in schools, it would be sad day when all teachers have to hold the same opinions on all moral matters, in order to be allowed to teach. If this should ever happen, we would not be making the world a better place, and we would not be preparing the next generation for the moral dilemmas of life.
Children often have much more capacity to see the wood for the trees than we who are trying to 'defend' them from a diverse and sometimes confusing world. We need to equip them for their own decisions, not limit the supply of knowledge, belief and opinion, as long as it is presented in a way which allows them to decide for themselves.
Tuesday, 3 August 2010
All very, very nice.
But yesterday, we hired a car and drove around the small island of Sal to explore our environment a little, and what I saw there challenged me greatly. Along with the impressive desert landscape and volcanic mountains we saw how the rest of the island lives.
Some were clearly doing ok, but in our local town of Sainta Maria, we saw many people walking the streets with 5 gallon cans looking for water, and learned that much of the island population spends up to a third of each day making sure they have sufficient water for family life.
Then along the only highway on the island we saw the dormitory blocks, built in the middle of nowhere surrounded by rock and sand. These were home for the many migrant workers from Africa come to build the luxury hotels, and service the tourist industry. At first we thought they were empty derelict ruins, but then saw them teaming with people later in the evening after work had finished.
But most shocking of all was the shanty town I saw in the late afternoon while taking a back road into Espargos, the central town. Surrounded by desert in the baking sun (and for half the year a piercing wind) separated from the slums of the town just enough to make it clear that they were not welcome, were thousands of people living in makeshift huts made out of corrugated metal sheets and plastic.
As I drove through, the faces that stared back at me made me feel uncomfortable. It was not that there was any resentment in their eyes - perhaps that made it worse - it was my inner fears of what they must be thinking in the midst of their poverty as this rich European drove through in his air-conditioned 4x4. And even more, what would they think if they came back to my luxury hotel and saw the running water - unlimited and on demand in every room - the acres of food 3x a day in the open buffet restaurants when they had so little.
My discomfort was because I was ashamed.
News that such poverty exists is nothing new of course. We support Tearfund and sponsor a child with Compassion and I knew it was out there in Africa and elsewhere in the world, but it was the contrast that blew me away, and it has opened up a whole new world for me to grapple with if I want to be an truly inclusive Christian.
What can we do now, while we are here? Very little I suppose, but we are looking for local charities to give some of our holiday money to before we leave. It will only be a drop in the ocean, just as this island in a tiny speck in the Atlantic, but we have to start somewhere, because to do nothing would be criminal.