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.