Friday 22 June 2012

Round and round we go ...

It’s a good job we don’t have heresy trials anymore.
If we did, I am quite sure that I, along with many others would now be facing charges for our views on same-sex marriage.  After all, according to the Church of England, we are contravening both Scripture and tradition in insisting that such a dangerous thing might be possible.

I mention this because, as I read the arguments used by the Church of England to oppose same-sex marriage in its recent submission to the UK Government, I found myself being reminded of a furious dispute which gripped the Church in the 17th Century.
The dispute was not about sexual morality, but about the position of the Earth.  The Church was relentless in defending the belief that the Earth was at the centre of the Universe, and that the Sun revolved around the Earth.  To suggest anything else (eg that the Earth revolved around the Sun!) was to oppose the Church and God because it invalidated the truth of Scripture, our understanding of the created order, and the authority of the Church.  If such a thing were held to be true – the Church claimed – it would unpick the whole fabric of faith and society!

Today it is hard for us to begin to imagine how this could have been such a major issue.  We take it for granted that the Earth orbits the Sun.  It doesn’t challenge our faith or belief in God.  We do not believe that this contradicts Scripture or any eternal truth of God.
But in the 1600’s this was a matter of the highest importance, and no effort was spared by the Church to fight this dangerous innovation.

As a result on the 22nd June 1633, the astronomer Galileo was found guilty of heresy and sentenced to imprisonment at the pleasure of the Inquisition.  He spent the rest of his life under house arrest; his writings (both past and future) were banned; he was silenced from preaching such dangerous heresy.
Here are some of the things that were said,

Cardinal Bellarmine, said that interpreting heliocentrism (the Earth orbiting the Sun) as physically real would be "a very dangerous thing, likely not only to irritate all scholastic philosophers and theologians, but also to harm the Holy Faith by rendering Holy Scripture as false.”
The investigators said that the idea that the Sun is stationary is "foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture..."

Finally Galileo was put on trial "for holding as true the false doctrine taught by some that the sun is the centre of the world".
The rest – as they say – is history.

All of the above made me think of the Church of England’s recent response to the UK Government.  What would happen – I wondered – if we replaced the issue of same-sex marriage with the (now defunct) controversy about the earth orbiting the sun.
And I found that the translation works rather well – judge for yourself.  Below are some of the paragraphs from theCofE response on marriage, followed by my translation back to the times of Galileo.   I have numbered the paragraphs as they appear in the CofE official response.  I think you might see what I mean…

7.         Throughout history, in the laws of the land and in the Church of England‘s Book of Common Prayer on which the laws concerning marriage are grounded, marriage has been understood to be, always and exclusively, between a woman and a man. This understanding is deeply rooted in our social culture. While marriage has evolved as an institution in many other ways this aspect has remained constant. For the consultation document to talk of a ―ban‖ on same sex couples marrying is a misuse of the language. There can be no ―ban‖ on something which has never, by definition, been possible.

Throughout history, in the laws of the land and in the Church’s doctrine on which the laws concerning scientific exploration are grounded, the earth has been understood to be, always and exclusively, at the centre of the universe. This understanding is deeply rooted in our social culture. While our knowledge of the earth has evolved in many other ways this aspect has remained constant. For the consultation document to talk of a ‘ban’ on an understanding of the earth as rotating around the sun is a misuse of the language. There can be no ban on something which has never, by definition, been possible.

8.         Many, within the churches and beyond, dispute the right of any government to redefine an ages-old social institution in the way proposed. It is important to be clear that insistence on the traditional understanding of marriage is not a case of knee-jerk resistance to change but is based on a conviction that the consequences of change will not be beneficial for society as a whole.

Many, within the churches and beyond, dispute the right of any government to redefine an ages-old institution in the way proposed. It is important to be clear that insistence on the traditional understanding of the position of the earth is not a case of knee-jerk resistance to change but is based on a conviction that the consequences of change will not be beneficial for society as a whole.

9.         Despite the continuing debate in the Church of England on some key ethical issues in this area, the proposition that same-sex relationships can embody crucial social virtues is not in dispute. To that extent, the Prime Minister‘s claim that he supports same-sex marriage from conservative principles is readily understandable. Same-sex relationships often embody genuine mutuality and fidelity, two of the virtues which the Book of Common Prayer uses to commend marriage. The Church of England seeks to see those virtues maximised in society.

Despite the continuing debate in the Church on some key ethical issues in this area, the proposition that exploration of the earth can embody crucial social virtues is not in dispute. To that extent, the claim that some support a new view of the universe from conservative principles is readily understandable. Scientific exploration often embodies genuine virtues which we would commend. The Church seeks to see those virtues maximised in society.

10.       However, the uniqueness of marriage – and a further aspect of its virtuous nature – is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women. This distinctiveness and complementarity are seen most explicitly in the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation. And, even where, for reasons of age, biology or simply choice, a marriage does not have issue, the distinctiveness of male and female is part of what gives marriage its unique social meaning.

However, the uniqueness of the earth – and a further aspect of its virtuous nature – is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of the created order. This distinctiveness is seen most explicitly in paths of the sun and stars across the heavens. And, even where, for reasons of the creative mystery of God, they follow paths which would suggest an alternative understanding of the universe, this is part of what gives the centrality of the earth its unique meaning in society.  

13.       We believe that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships will entail a dilution in the meaning of marriage for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of men and women from the social and legal definition of marriage.

We believe that redefining the earth to include the concept of a globe circling the sun will entail a dilution in the meaning of creation for everyone by excluding the fundamental complementarity of heaven and earth from the social and legal definition of creation.

 And finally…

16.       The one justification for redefining marriage given to us by the Equalities Minister was that it ‘met an emotional need’‖ among some within the LGBT community. Without wishing to diminish the importance of emotional needs, legislating to change the definition of a fundamental and historic social institution for everybody in order to meet the emotional need of some members of one part of the community, where no substantive inequality of rights will be rectified, seems a doubtful use of the law. We also note that by no means all LGBT people are in favour of redefining marriage in this way.

The one justification for redefining our understanding of the earth that was given to us was that it ‘met a scientific need’ among some within the scientific community. Without wishing to diminish the importance of scientific needs, legislating to change the definition of a fundamental and historic social institution for everybody in order to meet the ‘scientific need’ of some members of one part of the community, where no substantive inequality of rights will be rectified, seems a doubtful use of the law. We also note that by no means all scientists are in favour of redefining the position of the earth in this way.

 Perhaps today, on the 379th anniversary of Galileo's conviction, the Church would do well to learn the lessons of history…

Monday 18 June 2012


We were thinking about how we welcome people at church last night, and were asked the question “What makes you feel welcome when you come to church?”

As I reflected on this, I realised that the key word for me was ‘acceptance’.  I feel welcome when I feel accepted.
Sadly this is not always the case in churches.  All too often we become places where only people like us are accepted and welcomed.  If you fit the profile, you get welcomed – if you don’t, you don’t.

I have lots of experience of this.  
Some years ago I worked as an outreach worker with churches who have run-down social housing estates in their parishes.  I would go and spend a few months at a time in those churches and their estates.  Often the church congregation were quite respectable and middle class which created a social divide between them and their neighbours.

So on my first Sunday in the church, I would turn up unannounced without a dog collar, on my motorbike, in jeans, leather jacket and biker boots, and just sit in the congregation to see what kind of welcome I would receive. 
Sometimes I was welcomed, but more often I could sense the unease, fear or disapproval which my arrival provoked.  In one church, the vicar then preached on the project we were about to start and said that the Bishop had appointed “an especially rough priest to help us – he’s the one in the leather jacket who looks more likely to pull a knife or sell you some crack”.  All eyes turned to look at me.

In contrast, when I reflect on Christian ministries where I have experienced exciting, dynamic expressions of the Gospel, they have all had a common characteristic.  They have been communities of radical, loving, acceptance.

I think back to the Youth Fellowship which I was part of as a teenager.  It grew from just a handful of teenagers to a group of over 50 – meeting each week for worship, prayer and Bible Study.  It was a group of radical acceptance drawing together teenagers from different schools, different backgrounds, and different life experiences – from the ‘posh’ kids at the fee paying day school to the local comprehensive to those who had dropped out of school completely, working on market stalls.  Alongside one member who is now a University Professor in Philosophy was another who, when she first came, had a ‘Saturday job’ as a prostitute.  It didn’t matter who turned up – they were accepted and welcomed.

Then I think of the outreach meetings in ‘Walled City’, Hong Kong, where heroin addicts came because they had heard of a god called Jesus who helped drug addicts.  They often arrived strung out or high, in tatty clothes having done whatever it took that day to get their next fix, and within minutes they were each embraced in the love of God by 3 or 4 helpers and ex-addicts who would be praying with them in a powerful and personal way.  Such radical acceptance often brought hardened violent men to tears as they experienced the love of Christians and of God.

But then I contrast that with a conversation on Facebook last night with someone who has just left the church.  For her, the final nail in the coffin was the Church of England’s response to the Government proposals for same-sex marriage.

She wrote:

“For me this was the final straw, I've now left the church…  It's not that they don't approve of me that I mind so much but that they have to lie about me and the danger I represent, that they ignore all my answers to their theology and then claim the theology hasn't been done, that they make assertions even the church lawyers know are wrong... and then pretend it's the official position of The Church. I feel as if I’m looking at an old Politbureau photo where politicians who had fallen out of favour were just erased from the picture by those who had the power to do so. I cannot cope with a church that believes this to be an acceptable way of engaging with its own members.”
And when I replied with a lame “Well said” she responded, “Benny, we always say it well, it's what we've all done for years. It makes no difference though. Those who have the power keep brazening it out and keep getting away with it. It's spiritually deadening in the extreme. I'm lucky, I have not lost my faith. But I have had conversations with at least 3 people recently who have lost theirs over this. We're not supposed to be stumbling blocks to people's faith - in reality, these people are a whole mountain range.”

I was deeply saddened by this conversation because it exposed just how unaccepting the Church of England is, and our real failing is that we don’t realise how wrong this is.  When I went to churches to help them relate to housing estates, most of them recognised that their reluctance to welcome was a problem – their problem!  When it comes to the Church of England and sexuality – we think that this ‘unacceptance’ is a virtue!  We call it standing up for the truth when it is nothing of the sort.  We claim to ‘welcome’ LGB&T people but then push them away with our patronising, demeaning, unacceptance.
Jesus said, “Come to me all you who are heavy laiden, and I will give you rest” while we, the church, place burdens on the backs of gay people which are too heavy for any of us to bear.

Radical acceptance is what marked Jesus out – more than the healings and the miracles, it both encouraged and challenged those around him.  It brought the crowds to hear him and drove the religious institutions away.

I feel welcome when I feel truly and genuinely accepted for who and what I am.  When we come to God, we find ourselves accepted for who and what we are.  If that is good enough for God, who is the Chruch to say (or act) otherwise?

PS.  If - like 1,000's of others - you don't feel that the Church of England's response on same-sex marriage speaks for you, why not sign the petition "Not in my name"

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Were the Patriarchs really married ?

“Marriage as created by God is an exclusive relationship between one man and one woman that is entered into for life …”

So says the St Matthias Day Statement from the Church of England Evangelical Council and the Church of England’s official response to Government proposals for same-sex marriage.  The Archbishop of York agrees.  “Marriage is marriage is marriage” he states, and “neither the State nor the Church, or any religious group can change the essential nature of marriage”.

But that evokes a curious question in my mind – in that case, were some of the most prominent marriages in the Old Testament really marriages at all?
The question arises, of course, because most of the famous marriages in the Old Testament were not ‘an exclusive relationship between one man and one woman’.  Therefore, according to the CofE and the Archbishop, they were not marriages at all.

Let’s take Jacob for example.  He worked for Laban for 7 years to ‘earn’ the hand of Rachel in marriage.  But when Laban deceived him and married him off to her sister Leah, he worked for another 7 years to get the bride he really wanted as well.  He married two sisters, and it didn’t stop there - he also had children with Rachel and Leah’s servants.  Were these marriages in the sight of God?  These ‘marriages’ were not exclusive relationships between one man and one woman as created by God.   And what about the children which resulted?  Even if we accept Jacob’s first marriage to Leah as the one that really counts, that means that 5 of the tribes of Israel were born outside of wedlock, as a result of nothing less than institutionalised adultery.
Perhaps Jacob can be forgiven because at least he came before the Law was revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai.  Surely this pivotal point in God’s relationship with humanity would put all that straight.  Indeed it did include some regulations on divorce, but no definitive statement or definition which would put the matter rest once and for all.

Then there were David and Solomon, both heroic Kings of the Old Testament, and both of whom were married many times over.  David appears to have had at least 8 wives (and many more concubines) and yet he wrote some of the Bible’s most moving Psalms extolling the Word of God.  Could these really be marriages?  Apparently not, according to the Evangelical Council!  Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines according to 1 Kings 11 and the only rebuke which Scripture offers is that many of them were foreigners.
Indeed the relationship between David and Solomon is problematic in the extreme as Solomon was David and Bathsheba’s child - and we all know how that relationship began.  David committed adultery with Bathsheba (Uriah’s wife) and then had him killed in battle when Bathsheba found she was pregnant.  Surely David and Bathsheba’s marriage could not be valid in the sight of God – nor could Israel or the Levites make it a ‘marriage’ because “marriage is marriage is marriage” and “neither the State nor Church can change it” from that which was “created by God” as “an exclusive relationship between one man and one woman that is entered into for life”.

So what is the point of all this?   Am I really advocating polygamy as a Biblically valid form of marriage?  Or arguing that we should re-define marriage to be more ‘biblical’ in this sense?
No – I am not!

What this does show however, is the limitation of trying to give eternal status to our current definition of marriage and claim that it is, and has always been the created will of God.
In fact, there is no normative example of marriage in Scripture that ends the story once and for all.  Even Adam and Eve cannot be claimed as such, as their story is meant to be figurative rather than literal.  (Otherwise we open up yet another can of worms as we have to concede that their children must have married each other, thereby opening up the possibility of incestual marriage as well!)

If ‘marriage is marriage is marriage’, and cannot be any different to our current definition, then most of the people in the Bible were not married, their children were born out of wedlock, and all sexual activity in those ‘non-marriages’ could not have been blessed by God because they were sinful, pure and simple.
The alternative is to recognise that our understanding of marriage has changed over the centuries and continues to change.  Whether it is the slow transition to monogamy, or the marriage of slaves, or interracial marriage, or the continual tension between marriage and divorce, we have continually amended our understanding of what does and does not constitute marriage in the sight of God.

In these areas the church universal has never been unanimous in its attitudes or practise, and if we want to look biblically at marriage (which I hope we do) we have to recognise that God appears to have been far more willing to embrace different forms of marriage than the church of today. 
We also need to delve much deeper into Paul’s ultimate paradigm for marriage.  The marriage of Christ and his bride, the Church is a marriage which is not dependant on gender or sex, and which is expressed in the substance of the relationship, rather than the correctness of the formula (one man + one woman = Marriage).

In the end, all definitions and understandings of marriage through history have been temporary and will remain temporary this side of eternity.  It was Jesus himself that said, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage.  But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage… for they are like the angels.” (Luke 20:34&35).
It is time we acknowledged the temporal nature of our limited understanding and looked for marriages which are life-giving relationships based on the vows and promises which the marriage partners make to each other, rather than the gender of the partners. 
When the woman at the well challenged Jesus on the correct place to worship God, he told her that the time was coming when God’s true worshippers would not be tied to one place, but would worship God ‘in Spirit and in Truth’.

Once again, perhaps, we need to look beyond our limited views and disagreements to marriages which are grounded ‘in Spirit and in Truth’.  For there we will find God.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

It's all about Me, Me, Me!

We have all met them.
The needy person in the pub or at the dinner party whose insecurities mean that they have to be at the centre of every conversation.  No matter what the subject, they always find a way of bring the conversation back to themselves.   “It’s all about Me!” is their mantra – even when it clearly isn’t.

Well I am sorry to say that the Church of England is becoming exactly that.

Whenever the Government tries to introduce some new legislation to ensure more equal access to some aspect of public life, the CofE has got into the most annoying of habits of turning the conversation round to itself rather than the people who are being excluded.

Whether it is employment legislation, or access to services, or Civil Partnerships, membership of the House of Lords  – or now same-sex Marriage – the Church is getting very adept at making itself the centre of conversation and crying out “It’s all about Me!”

The latest example of this came late last night in its response to Government proposals on Marriage.

“It’s all about Me!” we cry.  It’s not really about the gay people who would benefit from being able to get married – it is about what the consequences would be for the Church.   If you do this you will destroy our place in the nation – if you let gay people get married you will dis-establish the church – if you do this, you will undermine the monopoly we thought we had on saying what is and is not acceptable in marriage.  You can’t introduce marriage for gay couples because it’s not really about them – it’s about Me!

No wonder the nation is tiring of the pompous neediness of the Church.  No wonder people are being turned off from the message we preach.  No wonder people don’t want to come anymore, because at the end of the day, the needy person in the corner of the room is not attractive and certainly not the one that people want to spend their time with.

Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be great must be the servant of all.”  The servant puts the needs of others before their own needs.  The servant listens rather than pontificates.  God does not call the church to be a slave to society – but neither does God call us to make ourselves the centre of attention by twisting every conversation back to ourselves.

Until we rediscover this fundamental truth, I fear that we will continue to be a Church that is all about Me, rather than the Church that is all about Him – our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Monday 11 June 2012

CofE division grows while the Danes march on

I was fascinated by the Anglican church press last week.  The Church Times and the Church of England Newspaper (CEN) are renowned for taking different approaches to stories – different approaches which, no doubt, are shaped by the majority of their readers.  This difference is most often seen in treatment of issues like sexuality, with the Church Times trying to steer a middle path through the turmoil, and the CEN being more outspoken in a conservative evangelical direction.
But last week that difference could not have been more stark.
In the CEN the floodgates finally burst open from the pressure of accumulated indignation and fear in an editorial which rounded squarely on David Cameron and his “severe left wing cultural policy” which is leading us to Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ in “this crazy equality governmental blitzing of our societal deep grammar”.  The author goes on to denigrate same-sex partnerships which are merely “a purely subjective sense of friendship” and lesbian couples who are simply “women who refuse to use their normal female capacities to have children”.
The irony is that all the rhetoric above undermines the other claim of the article which says that there is no need for same-sex marriage because “there is no injustice to correct since ‘gay’ couples can cement their friendship by the civil partnership arrangements and gain nothing from having that called ‘marriage’”.  Having read all this I beg to differ.
The Church Times, on the other hand, printed two letters from readers which took a very different view.
Lady Oppenheimer from Jersey writes, “To suppose that backing same-gender unions redefines marriage is like supposing that backing adoption redefines parenthood” and goes on to say “Just as parenthood is more than giving birth, so marriage is more that fertility.”
Alongside that, Gwylim Stone from Southampton questions why those who are “so loudly defending the ‘biblical’ standard of marriage” are less vocal about divorce.  He goes on, “I wonder how many signatures the Coalition for Marriage would muster if it added a complete ban on marriage after divorce to its goals?”  One suspects that he is right.
Yet while the debate continues here in the UK, Denmark made up its mind in voting by a large majority to introduce same-sex marriage for both state and church.  Soon same-sex couples will be able to marry in the national Evangelical-Lutheran church although individual priests will not be forced to conduct same-sex marriage against their conscience.  In doing this Denmark has joined other Scandinavian countries like Sweden in introducing full church same-sex marriage with safe-guards for those Christian ministers who cannot in good faith conduct the ceremony.
While the UK is clearly not ready for compulsory same-sex marriage in church, it is deeply disappointing that our Government is proposing legislation which legally excludes the possibility of same-sex religious marriage.  As the readers of the Church Times remind us (and Church Times circulation is over 3 times that of the CEN) there are many Anglicans who would welcome such an opportunity when the time is right.

Friday 1 June 2012

Conference without a venue

That would have been a good alternative title to the recent ‘colloquium’ organised by Christian Concern.

The “One Man, One Woman - Making the case for marriage, for the good of society” conference was first planned to take place at The Law Society in London until they decided that the ‘content of the conference sat uncomfortably’ with their diversity policy.

Then it was relocated to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre opposite Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, but this booking was also cancelled – on the afternoon before the event! 

At the very last minute Christian Concern managed to find a hotel – more concerned with business than political correctness – which hosted the event for an undisclosed number of participants.

So is this political correctness gone mad?

After all, as Christian Concern have said, “Concerns have been raised by many that supporting marriage between one man and one woman, which is still the current legal definition of marriage, is now considered ‘homophobic’ by those pursing the ‘equality and diversity’ agenda.”

Is having a traditional view of marriage now beyond the pale?  Unacceptable in today’s equality led society?  Is this, indeed, an attack on freedom of speech even when the organisers claimed that the meeting would be a debate between contributors with differing views on marriage.

But the problem with the conference was indeed with the content – not the title - because the difficulty with many groups who are fighting tooth and nail to uphold 'traditional marriage' against ‘redefinition’ is that they find themselves having to rubbish those they want to exclude.

Despite Andrea Williams claim that it was a discussion among people with different views on marriage, all the summaries of speakers included in the ‘Full Colloquium Report’ were definitely against allowing gay people to get married.

What is more, the picture they painted of same-sex couples is highly derogatory:

  • According to the speakers, same-sex relationships have no concern for family – they “simply want to affirm a particular adult lifestyle”. 
  • Same-sex marriages “are likely to eliminate the role of fathers in the lives of children”.
  • Same-sex relationships are fickle and transient – “It is very rare for same-sex couples to stay together in a life-long committed relationship”.
  • In short, “The terms ‘same-sex relationships’ and ‘marriage’ are mutually exclusive”.  Perhaps this is because “Each and every faithful marriage is like an amplifier of all that we know as humans to be instinctively noble, enriching and true for human flourishing.”  So obviously, that rules same-sex couples out!
  • After all one speaker said that the current move towards same-sex marriage is the concluding step of a cunning plan.  According to Cristina Odone, journalist and media commentator, the strategy is outlined in a report from 1987 called, ‘How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90s’. The final stage in the conspiracy is that “same-sex relationships... should be “celebrated” and presented as a happy and healthy lifestyle”.  Heaven forbid!

At the end of the day, if you can’t uphold your own view of marriage except by tearing into the people you want to exclude, perhaps you should have your booking cancelled.