Friday 23 July 2010

The God we disapprove of ...

I recently went back to my old theological college in Bristol for an end of term conference. In some ways I went in trepidation as I knew that the college does not approve of the work I am doing with Accepting Evangelicals on a more inclusive approach to homosexuality. And in some ways that nervousness was borne out, as during the few days I was there I had some tense conversations with more conservative members of the college and others. But there were also many clearly positive conversations with people who, like me, had embraced a more inclusive evangelicalism.

There was the woman from a Romany family whose son was gay, and soon to have a civil partnership. She loved her son deeply and in her heart had reconciled his sexuality with her evangelical faith, but still had to reconcile it in her mind!

There was the Minister from the Church of Sweden who was there after organising a speaking tour for George Kavoor (the principal) in Sweden. We talked of how he, in line with his church's provision for same sex blessings, would be happy to bless a same sex couple, and how he saw no difficulty in doing this as an evangelical.

But one of the things that really struck me was a phrase that one of the speakers used in his address.

"God is out there doing all sorts of things - and many of them we wouldn't approve of"

He was talking about how God is a work in our world, far beyond the limited reach of the church. About a God who is not bound by what we think is right or wrong, proper or improper. A God who is not tied up by our rules and regulations, but free to reach out to all people in love and compassion, and in joy and grace.

It reminded me of an old song (I think by Sydney Carter) about the Holy Spirit which has probably had a deeper effect on my life that I realise.

Catch the Bird of Heaven
Lock Him in a cage of gold
Look again tomorrow
And He will be gone

Lock Him in religion
Gold and frankincense and myrrh
Carry to His prison
But He will be gone

Ah, the Bird of Heaven
Follow where the bird has gone
If you want to find him

Keep on Travelling on

Bell and book and candle
Cannot hold Him anymore
Still the bird is flying
Flying as before.

Unless we are willing to be open to the God who does much more that we can ever imagine, and be willing to be challenged by the things he does which we might disapprove of, we will find that he has moved on, and we have been left behind.

Saturday 17 July 2010

Good week for the C of E - bad week for Roman Catholics.

After the disappointment of the way Jeffrey John has been treated (yet again) because of his sexuality, encouragement has come from the General Synod when it clearly voted (yet again) to ordain women as Bishops, and without any clauses which will undermine future women Bishops.

The significance of last weekend's votes are:

  • that the Archbishops' attempt to introduce amendments that would undermine the authority of future women Bishops by giving too much away to those opposed to women's ministry, was voted out by clergy at General Synod
  • that the final vote in favour of women Bishops, means that it can now go to Dioceses for approval before the final legislative vote in 2012.

While it is true that the process seems to be taking forever to push forward, the momentum is clearly gathering for a truly gender inclusive structure for ministry, even if inclusion irrespective of sexuality will take longer.

Once again, however, it is the House of Bishops who have been lagging behind the rest of the CofE in this move forward. The lectionary Gospel reading on Thursday this week was Matthew 11:25-27 in which Jesus rejoices that his truths have been hidden from the wise and learned, but revealed to simple people. It is perhaps not surprising then, when things that seem obvious to ordinary people cause so much angst the higher up you go in the church hierarchy! Increasingly, in my experience, this is the case in all questions of inclusion in the church.

So all in all, a much better week for the Church of England - but sadly, not for the Roman Catholic Church...

Faced with increasing pressure around the world relating to its totally (perhaps criminally) inadequate response to issue of child abuse in the church, it has released new rules relating to allegations of child abuse among the clergy. These rules do go further than before in requiring Bishops and church leaders to act in such cases, but critically they do not require automatic referral of such criminal allegations to the civil authorities (ie the police).

Yet at the very same time, the Roman Catholic Church also issued a statement on women's ordination, stating that anyone attempting to ordain a woman as a priest, is guilty of the 'gravest crime against the church'.

Of the 2 'crimes' under consideration, I know which I consider to be the worst.

Monday 12 July 2010

Jeffrey John - an alternative perspective

Last week was dominated for me by the new reports that Jeffrey John was being shortlisted as a possible next Bishop of Southwark - and then that he had been vetoed by an angry Archbishop of Canterbury.

Jeffrey has been a significant part of my own Christian journey, and the way he has been treated by the Church of England is a sad reflection of the way in which the Church has become so obsessed with excluding people on the basis of their sexuality rather than rejoicing in their spirituality.

Below is the fuller version of my appeal to the Church to reverse that trend, an edited version of which was printed in the Church Times last Friday...


Recent articles in the press have once again put Jeffrey John in the spotlight as a possible Bishop in the Church of England. Merely the prospect of this is likely to result in feelings running high, and strong statements and counter statements being issued by differing protagonists in the debate over sexuality. In such situations, the first casualty is often any sense of the real person behind the issue, and of the good fruit in their ministry which has led them to be considered for a senior appointment.

I have known Jeffrey John for almost 30 years now, and although I am a committed Evangelical, I have nothing but respect for his ministry and vocation.

He was my college chaplain at Brasenose College, Oxford when I was an undergraduate. I was heavily involved in OICCU (the University Christian Union) first as college rep, and then as Outreach Secretary on the Exec. Despite our different church traditions, I found him an inspiring preacher, clearly longing for people to grow in knowledge and love of God, and in their understanding of the Gospel. We worked together on several projects in college including evangelistic events. I had no idea at that time that he was gay, only finding that out some years later. The man I encountered was a deeply devout minister of the Gospel who faithfully spoke the words of Jesus with a conviction that was contagious.

Our paths did not cross again for some years, until he was a Vicar in Eltham, Southeast London, and I was licensed by the Bishop of Woolwich to encourage outreach and mission in UPA Housing Estates. Jeffrey invited me to work with his church in developing outreach to a housing estate in his parish. Over the few months I was there, I saw a growing church of people hungry to know more of God, and keen to be part of God's mission in the world. They were there in large part because of Jeffrey's ministry.

I was looking for a spiritual director, and asked Jeffrey if he would do this. I have always looked for spiritual directors from a different tradition but with that same zeal for seeing people come to, and grow in faith. Jeffrey fitted the bill completely and I was delighted when he agreed.

It was around this time that he began to be more open about his sexuality but what I saw again and again was the fruit of his ministry. As controversy began to grow, Jesus words kept coming to mind, "By their fruit you will know them" (Mt 7:16). Indeed, it was this 'good fruit' that I saw in his life and ministry (alongside that of other gay Christians I knew) that began to challenge my own evangelical understanding of homosexuality, but nowhere was this more apparent to me, than in my own life in the midst of tragedy in 2003.

In April of that year while a vicar in Brixton, my wife Mel was dragged under the wheels of an 18 ton truck just round the corner from the vicarage. I arrived at the scene just as the first ambulance crews arrived, and sat next to her on the tarmac for the next 2 hours as ambulance crews, and eventually a surgeon stabilised her enough to be airlifted to hospital. During the next few months her life was frequently held in the balance, and the strain of supporting her during long months in hospital, while caring for our young children and continuing to run a busy parish took their toll.

I was also angry with God, feeling abandoned, hurt & betrayed during the early months after the accident, and when I was falling apart under the physical, emotional & spiritual strain, the person who did most to hold me together was my spiritual director, Jeffrey John.

 He prayed with me, listened to me. At times – when I was unable to – he held on to God for me, and he ministered Christ to me in the midst of all the pain, confusion and despair. He helped me to re-live the awful events of that day so that I could start to deal with them. He prayed for me, and with me, when I couldn't pray.

 What was ironic, however, was that at the very same time that he was holding me together, his life was falling apart. For it was at this time that he was appointed Bishop of Reading, and then forced to resign because of his sexuality. At the very time he was supporting me, he had become the focus of the media's all seeing eye, being chased by journalists, torn apart by half the church, and held up to be hit again by the other half.

On the week when he was unable to go home because of the press camped outside his door; when some Bishops were writing letters opposing his consecration, and church leaders were saying that he was unfit for service in the church; at that very time, he was listening to me, praying with me, crying alongside me, being Christ to me, as my wife lay in a side room with septicaemia, fighting for life.

The incongruence – the injustice – of this juxtaposition was not lost on me. 'By their fruit you will know them' came to my mind again and again, and I do not know where I would be today without the fruit of his ministry.

I also know that I am not the only person whose life has been helped immeasurably by the ministry of Jeffrey John, often despite great personal cost, and I am sure that there are many others who could speak of the ways in which his ministry has borne good fruit in their lives.

Whatever the outcome regarding the appointment to Southwark, or anywhere else, we would do well to remember that at the centre of this is a servant and child of God, who has a passion for seeing people strengthened in their faith in Christ, and the pastoral heart to sit with them through pain and suffering to hold them close to God.

Such are the marks of Christ in a man or woman's ministry, and do not deserve to be ignored, forgotten or pushed aside in controversies over doctrine, culture, or Biblical interpretation.

Jesus was, of course silent on the issue of homosexuality, but one area where he made his will very clear was in the way we treat each other. In John's Gospel, "Love each other as I have loved you" was his last command before he went to the cross. Let us hope and pray that this Christ-like love will characterise our words and actions more than it has in the past.



Saturday 3 July 2010

Pride London 2010

I have just caught the train back from Pride in London. It was my first Pride March, and something which a few years ago, I could never have imagined doing!

Almost 200 of us marched together with T shirts on saying "Christian and Proud" and it was a unique experience. Afterwards, I helped staff the stall we had on Leicester Square giving out literature from pro-gay Christian groups.

As I did this, I suddenly realised that I was doing something different. Not just being at Pride, it was much more than that. As I reflect on the day I realise that most of my time on the Gay issue is spent trying to convince Christians that it God does not condemn gay relationships - so much so that I had not appreciated that this context was so different.

For once it was not Christians we were trying to convince - it was the Gay community. In essence, what we were doing was outreach. It was certainly an act of witness - perhaps even evangelism!

There was the teenage girl who came up to the stall saying "I'm a Christian - but then again I can't be because I am a lesbian". As I told her that she didn't need to give up her Christian faith, her eyes lit up...

There were the people who came up to us thinking that we were there to preach against gay people, and were amazed and delighted when they discovered that we weren't.

There were the onlookers on the march, near to the small band of fundamentalist Christian protesters with their placards and megaphone declaring condemnation, The spectators around them, clearly wearied by the negative message they brought, cheered twice as loud when we appeared singing "Yes - Jesus loves you" to the protesters.

All were touched by the Good News we brought, of a God who loves his creation - gay, straight, bi and trans - and embodying it in ourselves as we blew whistles & horns and chanted "Je-sus".

One of my fellow marchers asked, "When are we going to do this again?"

"Next year, I guess" was my reply, but she wasn't talking about Pride - she was asking when we were next going to reach out to the Gay community with the love and message of Christ. It was a very good question.

So I have come away with that question ringing in my mind - and for once I am not pre-occupied with how to persuade reluctant Christians that it is ok to be gay - the question in my mind is how are we going to reach out to the Gay community with the Gospel.

Because after all, that is really what we are supposed to be about.