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