Saturday 24 December 2011

He's not even the Father!

One of my favourite Christmas cards of all time is a cartoon.
In one corner was Joseph and the Wise Men laughing and joking, celebrating Jesus birth with a pint.  In the other corner was Mary saying to one of the shepherds, "The real joke is - he's not even the father!"

When I have told other people about this card, their reactions have been divided.  Some found it funny, some were uncomfortable with it, fearing that it was irreverent or sacrilegious.
But like the hit TV show 'Rev' the humour contains a deep theological truth.  According to the Gospels, Joseph was not Jesus' father - God was.

As we celebrate Christmas, we celebrate the eternal Son of God coming to be born as one of us, a human being in our human world, with nothing special to attract us to him.  He was born in poverty not in a palace.  He was born obscurity, not in celebrity.  He was born not in majesty but in the ordinary, to bring the extra-ordinary into our lives.  He was born in the disgrace of an illegitimate birth to bring the grace of God into our lives.
In the words of Joan Osborne:
What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home?

At Christmas, we celebrate that question becoming a reality.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Wednesday 14 December 2011

The Bishop of Sodormy?

I have to confess to being slightly surprised at the recent Church of England announcement that the Bishop of Sodor and Man has been appointed to chair the review of Civil Partnerships.
It’s not that there is anything wrong with Bishop Robert Paterson.  I am sure that he is a fair and open person with a wealth of experience that can be brought to bear on the issues that the church needs to face.

My surprise came from the part of the UK where he serves  as Bishop – The Isle of Man.
The diocese of Sodor and Man is the smallest in the Church of England, covering the 28 parishes of this beautiful island in the Irish Sea.  I first became aware of it when researching the implications of a proposed Clergy Discipline Measure on Doctrine.  The measure would have enabled doctrinal complaints to be made against clergy and bishops, initiating a kind of Spanish Inquisition to investigate alleged doctrinal impurity!  Under the terms of the proposed legislation, I discovered that a mere 10 people in the Isle of Man Synod could force a formal disciplinary investigation into the beliefs and practise of the Archbishop of Canterbury or York with all the ramifications that such formal proceedings entail!  Thankfully, I was part of a group of clergy in General Synod who succeeded in getting the legislation thrown out, and to this day it has not returned.

But it is the reputation of the Isle of Man that raised my eyebrows when I learned that their Bishop would chair the review into Civil Partnerships, because historically, the Isle of Man is famous for 3 things – liberal tax laws, motorbike racing, and homophobia.
Armed with its own parliament and legal system, it was the last part of the British Isles to de-criminalise same sex acts in 1992 – a full 25 years after the mainland.  Its attitudes were so well known that actress Emma Thompson famously joked that it was a place that ‘stones gays’ – although she got it wrong and accused the Isle of Wight instead!  When Civil Partnerships were introduced in the UK, the Isle of Man stood out against them, only changing its mind amidst much controversy in April of this year. 

Douglas harbour
Then there are the jokes (which date from pre 1992) about homosexuality being illegal which is ironic when you can only get there by entering Douglas – jokes which are still repeated today.   And finally there was a friend of mine who misheard when I said that the review of Civil Partnerships would be led by the Bishop of Sodor and Man – he thought I said the ‘Bishop of Sodomy’!
So was this a wise choice on the part of the House of Bishops?  Surely it would have been better to choose a bishop from a more neutral diocese, or at least one without the antigay reputation of the Isle of Man?

But then again, perhaps there is more than a little wisdom in this choice – after all, the Isle of Man has a lot in common with the Church of England.
Both represent relatively small communities in the UK, enshrined in historic law, each with their own law making bodies.   Both are instinctively conservative in outlook and slow to embrace change.  Both have sections of their communities who would much prefer to pull up the drawbridge and keep themselves to themselves, rather than deal with the realities of a changing world.

And yet the Isle of Man has found a way to embrace change in the area of sexuality.  Despite its history and the internal controversies which Civil Partnerships has brought, it has found a way to move forward and embrace new understandings and new ways of living.  Despite its cultural instincts, it has and is making changes.
Perhaps there is a parable here for the Church of England.  Perhaps its leaders and its parliament can show the House of Bishops and the General Synod how to embrace a more open approach to people of all sexualities.  Perhaps they can show us that when change comes, the sky does not fall in as a result.

So perhaps the Bishop of Sodor and Man is exactly the right person to chair the Church of England’s Civil Partnership review – and many same-sex couples in the Church of England will certainly be hoping he is.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

And now for the good news...

One of the things I struggle with sometimes is finding positive things to say about the church.   All too often it is the negative stories which make an impression on me and prompt me to write - and the church is a rich source for such stories!
But tonight on Radio 4 I heard not one, but two good news stories coming from very different parts of the Christian church.  So this blog post is a celebration of these good news stories - after all, that is what the word 'Gospel' is supposed to be about.

First up was the news that the chief executive of the FSA is to meet representatives from Occupy London in a tent to discuss reconnecting finance and ethics.
After the disastrous start which St Paul's made in responding to the Occupy London protest, the Bishop of London has retaken much of the lost ground by bringing together members of the protest with powerful players in the City.   The tent is pitched at St Ethelburga's Church which is now a centre of reconciliation and peace after being devastated by an IRA bomb in the 1990's. And the meeting was arranged by Ken Costa, an accomplished investment banker and committed Christian.

At last the established church is playing the part which it alone can perform - bringing together establishment and ordinary people to discuss real issues.   If there is a path to be found which addresses the concerns of protesters, economists and financiers, it will be this kind of dialogue which creates the seeds of change.
The second good news story was about a Christian charity called 'His Church' which is recycling counterfeit designer clothes which have been seized by UK Customs & Trading Standards.

Previously all such clothes were destroyed or buried in land-fill sites, but now His Church is using sewing machines (which were also confiscated from counterfeiters) to re-label these fake Armani, Gucci, and D&G  clothes (to name but a few) and distribute them for free to homeless centres and women's shelters.  The clothes are high quality and new, not second hand - and they are given as gifts, not charity.

The clothes are relabelled with the 'HIS' logo as a reminder that ultimately everything belongs to  God - everything is His.  (This would also be a useful reminder to those who make the wheels of the City go round).
So today I celebrate two news stories which show the church doing what we should be doing - bringing people together, challenging those in power, redeeming that which was lost, and clothing the poor.

Today, I am proud to be a Christian.

Thursday 1 December 2011

Shhh - Don't ask!

On Monday 5th December the law which prohibits Civil Partnerships being registered in religious buildings ceases to be.
Following an amendment to the Equalities Act in the House of Lords, the Government has now relaxed the rules and churches will soon be able to apply to offer Civil Partnerships.

The Government has been careful not to force churches or denominations to conduct Civil Partnerships and has produced 'opt in' legislation which leave it entirely up to churches to decide if they want to apply.
This both extends equalities legislation and preserves religious freedom of belief.

But the Church of England is not being so even handed in its response.  All Anglican churches will need to get permission from the Church of England's governing body to be registered.  The CofE has told the Government that the relevant governing body is General Synod.  So far this  seems reasonable until we learn that the Church of England has no plans to ask General Synod if it would grant such permission or not.  In the absence of such a vote, the answer will remain 'No'.
The paper sent  to General Synod members today (1st December) makes this clear:

"an application for the approval of a church or chapel of the Church of England cannot be validly made unless the application is accompanied by the consent in writing of the General Synod. That means that it will not be legally possible for any church or chapel of the Church of England (irrespective of who owns or controls the building in question) to become approved premises for the registration of civil partnerships without the consent of the Church of England as a whole expressed by way of a resolution of the General Synod. In the absence of such a resolution the Synod would not have given its consent for the purpose of the regulations."
And that goes with the recent statement from a spokesperson at Church House who told the press that "The Church of England has no intention of allowing Civil Partnerships to be registered in its churches."

So that's that then.  If Synod isn't asked - then Synod can't say 'yes' - so the easiest way of avoiding the whole issue is  'Don't ask'.
This is, of course an interesting variation on the 'Don't ask - don't tell'  policy which has kept gay and lesbian priests quiet for years.  Under this unofficial policy, gay priests have been allowed to continue in ministry as long as they haven't put their Bishops in a 'difficult position' by being honest with them.

Now we have a new variation - "Don't ask - don't know" - which will enable the Church of England to continue to evade the in inconvenience of having to face up the fact the there are gay Christians, gay Clergy, even gay Bishops - many of whom are in fulfilled loving same-sex relationships.
But shhh - don't ask.

Thursday 27 October 2011

Church Shown Up

“The church is in danger - and its connection with the state, and the corruptions thence arising, is the cause of that danger;   its connection with the state has increased its wealth and worldly-mindedness, which is dangerous to a Christian community;  its connexion with the state has a tendency to beget a spirit of bigotry and intolerance in its sons and daughters.”

The resignation of Canon Giles Fraser – Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral – has shown up this key establishment in the Church of England in the worst possible light.

After the initial welcome which it gave to the ‘Occupy London Stock Exchange’ protesters it has reverted to type with increasing clarity.  Principles have given way to politics – solidarity with people has given way to fears over finance – the individual has been overtaken by the institution – and peaceful co-existence has been replaced by the threat of violence.

And in the eye of the storm was Giles Fraser, asking the police, not the protesters, to move on, preaching last Sunday on the dangers of corporate financial greed – but eventually overruled by an institution more concerned with its own survival than with the immorality of selfish greed which drives the City around it.

Such actions by the Church are nothing new.

The quote at the top of this page is not from Giles Fraser, or from one of the protesters – but from an ordinary working man from the 1830’s who rose to notoriety around the same issues that motivate those camping around St Paul’s Cathedral – issues of inequality, injustice and greed.  His name was George Loveless – one of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, whose letter “The Church Shown Up” is an deeply incisive attack on the Established Church which in his day sided with the landowners against the ordinary working man & woman – a Church which sided with the rich to keep the poor in their place.  Sound familiar?

To those who know anything of Trades Union History, the story of George Loveless and the Tolpuddle Martyrs will be well known.  Forced to act by landowners and employers who slashed their wages, they formed the first Union, and were promptly arrested and sentenced to Deportation for their impudence.  The case caused a national outcry and after some years they were pardoned.  Yet on their return to this sleepy Dorset village they continued to be denounced by the establishment and the church – to the extent that all but one had to move again to places where their ‘crimes’ were not known.

Like St Paul’s Cathedral, the church in Tolpuddle had its part to play in the story, and like St Paul’s it chose to turn against those who were protesting at inequality and greed.

For 5 years I was vicar of Tolpuddle, and even then, 175 years after those events, I have experienced the cold shoulder of disapproval from some at the Annual TUC Festival, because of the part my predecessor played.   The collective memory of such betrayal runs deep in the folk memory of the disenfranchised.

Initially the vicar of Tolpuddle, Rev Thomas Warren,  tried to act as honest arbiter in the dispute, and brokered a deal between the farm workers and the landowners, acting as witness to the agreement.   But when the landowners reneged on what they had promised, he was pressured into betraying the labourers by the institutions which the church relied on.  He denied ever witnessing such an agreement and soon afterwards the Tolpuddle Martyrs were arrested, tried and sentenced.  The church had chosen to side with the powerful against the powerless while it continued to recite the Magnificat each Evensong, which speaks of a God who

"... hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away."

Today, even though the same words are recited each evening at St Paul’s Cathedral, they appear to have as little impact on the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral as they did on the Vicar of Tolpuddle.

The irony is that George Loveless was not just a founder of Trades Unionism – he was also a Christian – a Methodist lay preacher who saw clear dangers for a church which has become so dependent on its relationship with earthly power and authority that it had lost its soul.

He cites the Church’s treatment of ‘Dissenters’ in his day as a prime example of this.  The Dissenters of the 1800’s were religious dissenters who would not follow the established church, but are they so distant from the economic dissenters who have camped around St Pauls?   

He warns of the dangers of selling out the Gospel of Christ for one of greed and earthly power, reflecting on the contrast between the early church and the present,

“And they went forth and proclaimed " liberty to the captives and the opening of the prisons to them that were bound:”  they rallied round the standard of their master… and although they had to contend with the selfishness of kings, the persecutions of governments, the craftiness of priests…  it grew and increased, and neither the study of cabinets, nor the policy of states, has been able to suppress or retard it…  How different is this from that which assumes the name of religion in our day; mixed with all the glitter of the world, with all the power and pomp of earthly grandeur.”
He also reflects on the dwindling influence that the church has among ordinary people as a result:

How often has it been observed that the clergy are ever foremost in opposing any popular measure that is likely to be carried for the good of the people…  The undue influence, however, of the clergy over various degrees and orders of society, is greatly on the decline; the working classes are beginning to question their value and utility, and to think that they can do without their assistance.
In his resignation today, Giles Fraser has refused to follow the path of my predecessor at Tolpuddle, and yet St Paul’s Cathedral has chosen to follow the well-worn paths of an Established Church.  They have ensured that yet another a nail has been hammered into the coffin that George Loveless observed as the Church once again chooses to align itself with earthly power rather than a crucified Lord.

I will end this post with a few more words from George Loveless – this time on the economics of riches for the few at the expense of the many.   Perhaps they will also resonate with those who are protesting in the camp around St Paul’s.

The poor are rapidly becoming their own teachers, and it is in vain you try to hoodwink and keep them in darkness;  light is appearing around them…They see that labour is the source of wealth… that they are kept in poverty and degradation by those who, living in luxury and idleness upon the fruits of their labour, tell the working man his portion is to labour, to suffer, and to die.

Notwithstanding all the efforts of the clergy to impress this upon their minds, as a command from God, the labouring classes have learnt that, living in a country which overflows with the abundance of the fruits of their labour, the tenth part of which they never enjoy, the first great object they ought to have in view is their own emancipation from mental and political slavery…. that all governments and laws should exist for the common benefit, protection, and security of all the people, and not for the emolument or aggrandizement of any particular family, single man, or set of men.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

An eye for an eye?

Today the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was returned to Israel after 5 years captivity in Gaza. 

This single Israeli was set free by Hamas in return for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners released from Israeli jails and some have questioned the size of the ransom which has secured his release.
Certainly 1,000 Palestinians in return for one Israeli appears disproportionate to some Israelis, even after his 5 year ordeal, and Hamas are portraying the exchange as a victory.

But there has always been a disproportionality in the relationship between Israel and Palestinians.  For every Israeli killed since the second intifada began in 2000, 6 Palestinians have been killed by Israel, and the ratio is getting worse, not better.
There are two watersheds in the recent history of the killing feud that continues between Israel and the Palestinians.  The first we have already mentioned - the beginning of the second Intifada in 2000.  The second is Operation Cast Lead in which the Israeli army and air force pounded Gaza relentlessly for 3 weeks at the beginning of 2009.

Before Operation Cast Lead, the killing ratio between Israel and the Palestinians was 5 Palestinians killed for every 1 Israeli death.  But since the end of that operation, that ratio has risen to 10 Palestinians for every Israeli.   And that does not include the casualties of Operation Cast Lead itself where 155 Palestinians died for every Israeli soldier killed.
Among children the disproportionality is even more acute.  For the horror of every Israeli child killed in terrorist attacks, 10 Palestinian children have been killed since 2000, and during Operation Cast Lead 345 Palestinian children lost their lives at the hands of the Israeli security forces.

Nor are the casualties limited to those who are combatants.   Since 2000, amongst those who took no part in either uprisings or security operations the ratio is 4 innocent Palestinians  killed for every innocent Israeli civilian death.
As I researched these statistics today (from the Israeli Human Rights Group B'Tselam) I couldn't help reflecting on the Old Testament Law which says, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life".

To many in the developed world this law seems archaic and barbaric - outdated by  modern concepts of justice and human rights for all.  But at least this law of retribution limited the level of retribution to the level of the crime committed.  And in Israel and the occupied territories today, even this old law of proportionality would require much greater restraint in Israel's security policy.
In the meantime Hamas will undoubtedly be celebrating their success in negotiating such a high ransom for their one captive, but as they do, we could all miss the deeper question.  Whether in relation to violence or ransoms, death or life, captivity or freedom, why is it that Palestinian lives are worth so much less than Israeli lives?

Are we not all made equal in the image of God?

Wednesday 12 October 2011

A Permanent Law?

I have been reading the book of Exodus again recently - a chapter a day -  trying to get into the mindset and culture of the people of Israel in the times of the Old Testament Law.

This week I have got to the part which describes the designs and rules for the tabernacle and its contents, and for the clothes which were to be made for Aaron and his sons.  The instructions are highly detailed, leaving nothing to chance, and are described as "a permanent law for the people of Israel and must be kept by all future generations". (Exodus 27:21 - New Living Translation)
Aarons robes reminded me of the vestments which my more Anglo-catholic colleagues wear adorned with gold and bright colours.  They are something which I have never quite connected with in my own spirituality, but know how much they mean to others, and here they are in scripture, as the clothes of the priests as they enter the presence of God. 

Then I thought of how different the Exodus descriptions are compared to the environment I find most conducive to worship.  My personal worship heaven would be a modern, well-lit room with comfortable chairs, arranged in a curve rather than straight constricting rows.  A good sound system and worship band to lead and inspire.  A digital projector carving pictures and words in light on a large screen, encouraging me to look up as I pray, reflect and sing.  Colourful modern banners lining the walls and a lectern standing central on the stage, bathed in the warm glow of a spotlight for the preaching of the Word. How different this is to the tabernacle in Exodus!
But then again, we all have our preferences, customs, rules and rituals when it comes to worship.

I remember an Anglo-catholic priest coming to my Evangelical theological college to preach.  He was there to help us poor low-church protestants and charismatics understand a little about what is important to those whose worship is  'further up the candle'.  Just as he started to preach, someone rushed up to him and attached a lapel microphone to his robes and then sat back down, slightly embarrassed that he had forgotten to do this earlier.
The priest paused for a moment, and then said - "You know - this is how rituals grow.  In the future this may well become part of our liturgy.  Every week, just as the preacher gets up to speak, someone with come forward and attach a small object with a wire to the preachers clothes.  By then, of course it will be highly symbolic, with lots of bowing and carefully rehearsed hand movements.  It will be engraved in artistic writing with the letters ' M I C ' but, following generations of technological developments, this will be a cryptic word which no-one uses anymore and  few understand.  A bell might sound to emphasise the importance of the moment and to call the congregation to listen carefully as the Word of God is unfolded.  Particularly devout members of the church may be moved to raise their hands into the air and cry 'Alleluia' or make the sign of the cross.  And everyone except the most scholarly of church historians will have exactly no idea why we do it!"

So what about the verses in Exodus that describe its rules for worship as ' a permanent law for all generations' ?  The truth is that every generation fashions its worship in a way which speaks to them - now even more than in the past - but shouldn't we be all obeying the permanent law of Exodus 25 to 30, particularly those who call themselves 'Bible Believing Christians'?  Are we living and worshipping in sin because we do not follow the designs and rituals of this ancient age?
In reality, if I went to preach that in any modern church, I would be dismissed as utterly mad!  On the way to being thrown out of the door, I would be pointed to John 4:23 where Jesus said that true believers will worship in spirit and truth.  I would be told that the 'permanent law' of the Old Testament is not as permanent it might first appear, and that reading the Bible in that kind of simplistic way is not what God calls us to do.

So why do we still  apply other parts of OT law as permanent fixed markers of the will of God today?  (eg Leviticus 18:22)  And why do we allow the prevailing interpretations of Scripture in our time dictate how we should read and understand the Bible in ways which imply the same permanence?
When Jesus directed us to 'spirit and truth - when Paul says we no longer live 'under the law' - we are being called to a radically new and more complex way of living under God.  It is more complex because it does not rely on legal codes, ancient or modern, but on a relationship with the living God.

Perhaps that is why we need the 'new heart' of flesh that we are promised in Ezekiel 36:26 to replace our heart of stone.  

Friday 7 October 2011

Bible says No? - Part 4 - Romans

When I started this series in November last year, I never dreamed it would take me so long to finish!

We have looked at the Biblical evidence for condemning same-sex relationships and found that it is not as clear cut as many of us have been told. As we have seen Bible verses taken out of context in Leviticus 18, 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy do appear to take the same approach as the clerk in Little Britain’s ‘Computer says no’. But context is vital to understanding Scripture, and usually, when something is prohibited in the Bible, there is a Biblical explanation for why. The verses we have looked at so far do not provide that. There are no reasons, no explanation, just ‘Don’t do it!’ – whatever ‘it’ is….

The one exception to this is Romans 1. Here finally, there appears to be some theology going on – some attempt to explain the purposes of God and the waywardness of human nature. The central verses are 26 & 27:

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
The passage is often used to explain why same-sex acts are wrong. For many Christians, it explains how people became homosexuals – that same-sex attraction is the result of a perversion of natural, God-given attraction and emotion. Such desires are the result of exchanging natural feelings for unnatural ones. It is the rationale behind ‘homosexual healing’ which seeks to re-orientate homosexuals into heterosexuals by a combination of prayer, confession, forgiveness and self-discipline.

But wait a minute… Verse 26 begins with the words “Because of this…” – which means that we should ask ourselves ‘Because of what?’ And as we read back in the chapter, we find a very different rationale emerging.

So why had God given them over to shameful lusts?

In Romans 1:18-25 it is clearly because …
They knew God through creation, but neither glorified him nor gave thanks to him (vs 18-21)

They exchanged the glory of God for images & idols which they served and worshipped (vs 22-25)
In Romans it is idolatry (worshipping other gods) which leads people to God’s wrath, shown here as in so many places in scripture, by God abandoning them to the consequences of their own choices - and the homosexual lusts which Paul is describing are the result of the rejection of God and morality.

But this does not describe the LGBT Christians I know. They have not exchanged the glory of God for created idols. They are prayerful, devout, committed Christians, worshipping God faithfully, and giving him the glory.

I remember the day when this light dawned in me for the first time! I finally saw what my gay Christian friends meant when they told me that they did not recognize themselves in the Biblical passages which condemned homosexuality – and indeed what I read now was not describing them.

But there is more – as we then read the next few verses of Romans 1, the picture becomes even clearer:
Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

Do gay people fit this description? Have they all become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed, envy, murder, deceit and malice? Are they gossips, slanderers, God-haters, inventing ways of doing evil? Are they senseless, faithless, heartless, and ruthless?

For anyone who has gay or lesbian (or indeed B&T) Christian friends, the answer is a resounding ‘No!” This does not describe them, so how can it be that Paul is writing about them? And if he is not writing about them, then yet again the Biblical proof texts we have been given do not apply to the loving same-sex relationships we see today.

So who was Paul writing about?

The answer of course, is staring us in the face – Rome! The epistle is, of course, a letter to the church in Rome – the centre of the Roman Empire – the seat of power. It was also the centre of Roman religion, politics, the Emperors & the ruling classes. These ruling classes were famous for their ruthless greed, intrigue and debauchery – and it was this pagan society about which Paul was writing. Roman society and Greek culture were the environments in which Paul saw same sex activity, alongside all the idolatry of the Greco-Roman world. It was not born out of love, or orientation, but out of pagan practices, greed, lust and abuse of power.

Needless to say – this is not the same as a loving, faithful, self-giving, same-sex relationship.

It is true of course, that homosexuals can embrace promiscuity and immorality, just like anyone else. It might even be argued that in the moral vacuum which the Church has created by condemning all sex between homosexuals, we are responsible for pushing the gay subculture in that direction, resulting in some of the more extreme expressions of same sex sexuality. But heterosexuals are by no means immune from such temptation, as witnessed by the exponential rise in pornography over the last 30 years. Expressions of sexual greed not make all heterosexual expression wrong - neither do they make all homosexual expression wrong.

The Christian faith rightly stands against pornography and debauchery because it impoverishes our humanity, transforming people into mere objects of lust. But the church has always encouraged and blessed expressions of mutual love and self-giving - the ultimate expression of which is marriage.

Romans 1 does not condemn LGB&T people seeking to give and receive love in a mutual life-giving relationship. In fact it has nothing explicit to say about it at all, in common with the rest of Scripture. And if the Bible does not condemn loving faithful, committed same sex relationships, why does the church condemn them?

I began this series with a comment on my blog, calling on me to look at the clear and numerous Bible verses which condemn same-sex relationships. Having done so, it is clear that what the Bible condemns is not those loving committed relationships which groups like Accepting Evangelicals are advocating. Simply repeating the mantra ‘Bible says no’ is not an option. The few verses of Biblical evidence which exist are at the very least unclear, rooted as they are in the context of historical cultures very different to our own.

And yet the church has used these half dozen verses to place a burden of judgment and shame on LGB&T people which the rest of us would find impossible to bear. If we continue to do so, we will be no better than the Pharisees who Jesus reprimanded. “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4)

Where same-sex relationships of love, faithfulness and commitment are concerned, the Bible does not say no – and neither should we.

If you would like to read the earlier parts of this series, follow the links below.

Part 1 - Bible says No... - click here
Part 2 - Leviticus 18-  click here
Part 3 - Corinthians and Timothy - click here

Monday 19 September 2011

The (Planning) Law is an Ass

Today as I write this, 86 families on a converted scrap yard in Essex are waiting for the bailiffs to make them homeless.

They have been living on the self-contained site for up to 10 years and own the land their homes are built on, but because some of them don’t have planning permission, they are going to be forcefully ejected and their homes demolished when the bulldozers do their worst.

Those expressing grave concern about the evictions include Bishops, The Children’s Society,  and a United Nations representative who has claimed that the eviction breaks international law.

All this at the same time as the government constantly wrings its hands about the lack of affordable homes, lack of investment, and is itself changing planning law to enable big developers to access new green-field sites with much greater ease.

Is it just me, or is there a stark contradiction here?

One the one hand we have  government at every level trying, but failing year on year, to solve our housing crisis.  On the other, we have 86 Traveller families who have erected their homes at no cost to the tax-payer, being thrown out (at great cost to the tax payer) and their homes torn down.

But perhaps there is the rub – they are Travellers.  Having lived in both inner-city London, and rural middle-England, I have noticed that while it is increasing unacceptable to be racist in general, there is still one group who are routinely vilified with impunity – Travellers.

Until we learn that you can’t pick and choose which prejudices are acceptable and which are not, there will continue to be people and authorities who make an ass of themselves and the law.

In the meantime, my heart goes out to the families of Dale Farm, and I pray that the God of justice and compassion will hear their cry.

Further reading:

Friday 9 September 2011

Women's Ministry & Homosexuality - a response to Stephen Kuhrt.

Last month the Church of England Newspaper published an article by Stpehen Kuhrt, Chair of Fulcrum, on the difference between accepting women's leadership in the church, and accepting homosexual relationships.

Today they have published my response...

The connection between the debate over women's ministry and that of homosexuals has been a bone of contention among evangelicals for many years.  On the one hand, the Biblical texts on the role of women in the church have been re-examined and re-interpreted by 'open' conservatives, whilst on the other hand, a similar process has been resisted with much more energy when it comes to homosexuality.  In addition, there are those who have prophesied that the acceptance of women into ministry and headship would lead inexorably to the same pressures to reconsider the place of homosexuals in the church on a slippery slope away from Biblical truth.

At the heart of each issue is how we as evangelicals treat verses in Scripture which, at first sight appear to speak out clearly against change on either of these two issues.
In Stephen Kuhrt's recent article "Women's ministry and Homosexuality" he meets this issue head-on.  He tries to provide a rationale for conservatives like himself who want to follow the re-examination of Scripture in regard to women's ministry while continuing to resist any movement on homosexual relationships.  In doing so, he is attempting to defend that position from attacks from conservatives and liberals alike, while also trying to ensure that the 'slippery slope' argument does not hold back the full inclusion of women in the ministry of the church at every level.

And he is right in when he identifies significant differences between the two issues.   No-one has ever suggested that women in general are sinful if they seek a loving, faithful, self-giving relationship (except if that relationship is with another woman).  No conservative has suggested that women should seek to seek healing for their sexual identity or embrace abstinence in order to be acceptable to God and the church.  Women can be clearly identified in the Bible, and are present in almost all New Testament contexts, and Paul is clear in his radical theology that "In Christ there is no male of female".  Indeed it would be profoundly sad and inappropriate if there were people who would oppose the full inclusion of women in the church's ministry simply because they were opposed the inclusion of homosexuals.
But having said that, there are striking parallels in the process of discernment for both issues.

Both require us to re-examine Biblical texts which, when taken at face value exclude any change in traditional teaching.  In the case of women's ministry, the verses include clear statements excluding women from having authority over a man, and describing the idea of a women speaking in church as 'shameful'.  In the case of homosexuals the verses which exclude are well known to evangelicals, even if their meaning and context is less clear.
The process of re-examination which is needed in both cases is also similar.  Proponents of a new understanding on either issue call for the texts to be considered within their cultural context and purpose before being weighed against other passages of scripture which might point to the possibility of a more inclusive approach.

Both issues require an openness from us to be challenged on our own received cultural presuppositions and norms - what we think is 'normal' and 'obvious' because of the Christian culture we have been brought up in.
The difference, as Stephen Kuhrt points out is the lack of identifiably 'gay' people in the early church.  While a careful reading of Roman 16 reveals the possibility (or probability - depending on your point of view) of women in leadership, there are no such examples of openly 'gay' people.  But this absence in Scripture is not surprising, as it is similarly difficult to demonstrate a model of exclusive, partnered, faithful same-sex relationships in secular society at that time either. 

The same cannot be said of our society today. 
Homosexuality is identified by the vast majority of people as an orientation rather than a recreational choice.  There are plenty of examples of same-sex relationships today which exhibit the same characteristics of love, commitment and fidelity as marriage.  Indeed, there are partnered homosexual Christians in ministry and leadership in a wide variety of churches.

The joy and blessing which Stephen Kuhrt has found in welcoming women into ministry at his own church is wonderful to read about, and there are many who have experienced that same joy and blessing as they have begun to welcome LGB&T Christians into their churches in a more inclusive way.  Those of us who have experienced the blessing which LGB&T Christians can bring, know that full inclusion in the church - of women and of homosexuals - will further demonstrate the joy and blessing of faith in Jesus Christ.
The debates of women's ministry and homosexuality are different - but the issues which they call us to address have striking parallels, as are the potential blessings which full inclusion in the church will bring.

Rev Benny Hazlehurst
Secretary of Accepting Evangelicals

Published in the Church of England Newspaper - 9th September 2011

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Dreams of home ...

It is 25 years since I last went to Greenbelt.  That makes me feel old.

I used to be a regular camper when I was a teenager, bringing a coachload of fellow teenagers from Bolton in Lancashire for a weekend of cutting edge Christian music, seminars, & the encouragement that comes from knowing you are part of something bigger –  very important to teenagers, particularly those who bear the stigma of being committed Christians.
So going back was potentially rather strange.  What would it be like?  Would it be the same, or different?  Would I feel out of it, now that I am in middle age?  Or would I find myself surrounded by the same people, all 25 years older?  What would have changed?

Well there were definitely some changes.
There were proper toilets instead of huge holes in the ground covered by rustic wooden frames!  Many workshops and talks took place in the luxury of the grandstand of Cheltenham Racecourse instead of packing people into sweaty, muddy marquees.  The Main Stage arena was much smaller and just one of many venues, rather than the epicentre of everything.  More significantly, the sheer of variety of events on offer was huge with a greater emphasis on speakers, performing arts and activities for children. 

When I was a regular, Greenbelt was living out the axiom from Larry Norman’s iconic song “Why should the devil have all the good music?”  This was a deeply contentious issue in all our churches.  I remember heated exchanges with older church members about the evils of rock music; about how it was wrong to wear denim in church; and the open suspicion of the Christian rock bands like 100% Proof, Rez , & Jerusalem which had converted most of my friends to Christ.
Going to Greenbelt then was an opportunity to celebrate a new way of being church, free from the cultural constraints of the past, while at the same time being challenged by the speakers and seminar leaders to think afresh our faith.

So what would I find  now - 25 years later?
I found that there was less emphasis on music and more emphasis on issues – spirituality, theology, cultural context and social justice.

I found that there were many more opportunities to worship – and extend our experience of God in new ways and new forms.
I also found that while there were many more people there who shared my ‘middle age’, there were still teenagers, young people, and children in abundance.

And the cutting edge has changed.  Conflict over music and church dress-codes are yesterday’s issues.  Time has moved on, and (thank God) so has Greenbelt.  For me, the cutting edge at this year’s Greenbelt were around Emergence Churches, with speakers like Brian McLaren, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Phyllis Tickle, & Rob Bell – developing a 21st century vision for the Gospel which engages a new generation who are either un-churched, de-churched, or anti-churched.
So what were my conclusions?

As I left, I came away from a different Greenbelt to one I went to as a teenager, but still recognisable.  I came away encouraged, challenged and elated – and most of all pleased to be reacquainted with a festival which still pushes the boundaries and challenges the conventional view of what it means to be church and what it means to be a follower of Christ.
Oh, and yes – I did find some music too!  Mostly in the ‘Underground’ - the dark, slightly subversive venue for rock, punk and indie bands where I was considerably older than the average fan.  So my thanks to MaLoKai, Spokes, Conduit, Jax Walker & Back Pocket Prophets for providing the musical soundtrack to my Greenbelt 2011. 

It was like coming home.

Saturday 3 September 2011

More harm than good...?

News has surfaced that a Tory MP has written to the PrimeMinister advocating that Churches who refuse to conduct same-sex Civil Partnerships should be banned from conducting weddings.

Mike Weatherly, an MP in Brighton has written that, "As long as religious groups can refuse to preside over ceremonies for same-sex couples, there will be inequality.  Such behaviour is not tolerated in other areas, such as adoption, after all. "

Whilst I can see that the letter will express the frustration of many LGB&T people who are being snubbed by churches, the letter will probably do more harm than good.

The UK Government has been consulting for some time on changes to the Civil Partnership laws that would allow CP's in religious buildings.  One of the arguments that conservative Christians have used against this progression is that such a change would ultimately allow legal challenges to force churches to conduct CP's.

This was expressed most recently by Lyndon Bowring, Associate Minister at Kensington Temple and Executive Chairman of CARE,  in 'Sorted' - a Christian magazine formen.  It is a measured and conciliatory article in which he describes attending a Civil Partnership ceremony and encourages Christians to "do all we can to be compassionate and generous in all our relationships  and not condemn or reject people on the grounds of their sexual orientation or lifestyle."

But he also warns of the dangers of changes to the law which might, in time, be used to force churches to act against their conscience.

"A minister who refused to allow [a Civil Partnership] might be taken to court for discriminating against a same-sex couple...  We hope that the courts would uphold the churches' position but... as we have seen, they have the power to rule differently from what the politicians intended.   The Government says it has no intention of compelling churches that do not want to host Civil Partnership ceremonies to do so, but just one successful case could set a legal precedent."
For some in the church this is clearly a genuine fear, and Mr Weatherley's letter will do nothing to reassure them.  Others have used this fear as an axe to grind against Civil Partnerships, and the letter plays right into their hands as they seek to spread fear and mistrust.

Fundamentally however, his letter goes to the heart of the debate about balancing human rights and religious freedom.  This has been hotly contested in recent years, and is a continual source of energy and press coverage for religious groups who are rigidly opposed to same-sex relationships. 

There has to be a balance between the rights rightly given as we progress towards equality for all, and the right of people of faith to follow their religion, where that does not cause harm to others.

The idea of compelling churches to act against their understanding of their faith in these circumstances is unjust, counterproductive and flawed.

What is really required is the continual task of working within the Church towards a new understanding of sexuality which will result in same-sex couples being welcomed and embraced by church communities, not churches being forced into a begrudging and resentful obligation.

Back from the summer ...

The summer holidays have nearly ended.  My children go back to school next week, and I think it is time to get back to blogging ....

And there is lots going on at the moment.  I have been blessed by going back to Greenbelt after many years - Bishop's reviews on sexuality are being set up - a Tory MP is calling for churches to be forced by the Government into offering same-sex Civil Partnerships and Weddings. (more on this very soon!)

So here we go ...  I hope you enjoy.

Benny Hazlehurst

Friday 12 August 2011

More or less human..?

Hollywood and  a  prominent scientific body are both addressing the issue of bio-medical ethics in very different ways this summer.  Both are highlighting  the issues behind the use of human tissue and DNA in animals for research.

Predictably, the Hollywood approach in 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'  (released in the UK this week) treads the well worn apocalyptic  route - the scientific creation of a 'more human' ape which is then mistreated and rebels, leading to a battle between humans and apes for world supremacy.

The Academy of Medical Sciences, on the other hand, is calling for better regulation on the increasing use of human material in animals for medical research.  This is necessary, they argue, otherwise  we might find ourselves faced with a scientific 'fete accompli' of genetic hybrids with increasingly human attributes.
In short, the creation of a mice with 'human' livers is one thing (and already exists) but an ape with a 'human' brain would be quite different.

Potentially this is a huge issue.  As genetic and stem cell research develops, the ethical issues about using human material in animal research raises significant moral, theological and ethical questions for the human race.  The definition of what constitutes a 'human being' may in time come under increasing scrutiny if elements of 'personhood'  in animals are artificially developed in such experiments.
And yet the ethics of making animals 'more human' seems to make few waves in the Church.  The Church of England did contribute to the Academy's consultation last year, although my guess is that few people are aware of the document, never mind its conclusions.  (Find it at

The Church's response to the Academy takes a pragmatic approach.  It considers possible definitions of what constitutes a human being as well as potential issues of 'personhood' in relation to developing animal research.  It concludes that most current experiments would seem to be ok, but there is a line to be drawn when we create something which is more human than animal (wherever that line might be).  It seems to be ok to make animals 'more human' as long as we don't go too far.  The response is measured, sensible, and well argued, despite the fact that the balance it tries to establish will not engender universal agreement among Christians.

When I compare this to the church's debate of homosexuality, I find a huge contrast.

Unlike bio-genetic research, the church's position on homosexuality makes huge waves, and it is not at all pragmatic.   While giving the green light to making animals 'more human' , the church's response to homosexuals is to make them 'less human'.  It does this by telling them that God requires them to set aside a fundamental part of their humanity -  their longing to give and receive love in a mutual intimate relationship with someone they love.  The potential for such relationships is at the very heart of what it means to be human and when we deny LGB&T people this possibility, we reduce their humanity in the name of God.

In short -  the Church of England seems to think that it is ok to make animals more human, but not ok for homosexuals to be fully human.

The irony is that many of the issues which the Church of England has grappled with in human/animal experiments resonate clearly with the Church's ongoing e debate on sexuality!

In its response to the Academy, the Mission and Public Affairs Council of the Church of England deals with the question of what is considered 'natural' or 'unnatural' by noting that:

'Research may challenge some of our most fundamental beliefs and presuppositions but this is not sufficient reason to prohibit or to restrict it.'
and yet there are many Christians today who continue to regard homosexual relationships as 'unnatural' despite evidence to the contrary and the Church colludes with this world-view.

It goes on to say that.. 

Many scientific or medical techniques and practices that most people currently accept, such as organ transplantation or the use of psychiatric drugs were once widely deemed to be unacceptable because they challenged prevalent interpretations of human identity and personality. Fundamental beliefs may, at times, act as an initial defence mechanism against untrammelled experimentation but it is correct to challenge such beliefs and to engage in thoroughgoing discussion with regard to their veracity and significance.
and yet the Church has not allowed such an open approach to developing understandings around perceptions of sexuality.

The response also considers other concerns  which resonate with debates over sexuality, namely that such experiments on animals

·         will lead to moral or societal confusion

·         is an affront to human dignity

These concerns are often raised by those opposed to the acceptance and blessing of same-sex relationships, and yet the CofE considers none of these to be insurmountable in bio-genetic research.  So why are they insurmountable when it comes to allowing LGB&T people to express their humanity fully?

Perhaps this confusion arises from a misunderstanding of the role of God's laws.   I recently heard an evangelical theological college lecturer teach that "God's laws are there to make us more fully human". 

If this is the basic premise, then those opposed to blessing same-sex relationships can claim that obeying laws against same-sex acts makes homosexuals more human, not less.

But there is a fundamental error in this understanding of God's law.

It is God who makes us fully human at our creation in the womb - we are all born fully human irrespective of obedience or not to God's laws - and anything which is fully human cannot be made more fully human!   The purpose of God's law is to enable us to express that humanity fully in our interactions with God and others.  We can see this in Jesus' statement that loving God and our neighbour is the heart of the God's law. (Matthew 22:34-40) and in Paul's radical statement in Romans that 'love is the fulfilment of the Law'. (Romans 13:10)

So the test of any of the many laws we find in the Bible (often written in the context of specific cultures and points in history) is whether they enable us to express our humanity more fully , or whether they reduce it.  The experience of the vast majority of LGB&T people is that setting aside or denying their sexuality reduces their ability to truly express the fullness of their humanity. 

Should we allow unbridled experiments on animals using human tissue or DNA in the name of science?   Like the Church of England - I think not.

Should we continue to lessen the humanity of LGB&T people by telling them that God wants them to live in way which sets aside their sexuality?  Unlike the Church of England -  I think not.

And perhaps there is a wider issue here as well - that while the church continues to dehumanise LGB&T people, we lessen our right to be heard on other issues of humanity - and that is not a path we should follow.