Friday 28 November 2014

Sex or Gender?

I have become increasing uncomfortable with the concept of Same-Sex Marriage recently.

Now before you reach out to delete me from your contacts list, I should explain!  I am perfectly happy with two men or two women marrying each other – I would even go so far as to say that I believe that recognition of Same-Sex Marriage is the latest stage of our deepening understanding as Christians of the very nature of marriage itself.

The problem I have is with the name.

Sex has always been a stumbling block for Christians.  For most people in churches, it’s super-embarrassing to talk about – if they can bring themselves to talk about it at all.  Most churches are still very Victorian in their approach to sex and the sum total of teaching on sex in most Evangelical churches consists of:

  • Don’t do it before you get married
  • Don’t talk about it when you have got married.
  • Don’t let your children do it before they get married.

Yet when the church talks about relationships between two men or two women – the thoughts and concerns of most church-goers and church leaders immediately go to ‘Sex’.  Terms like “practising homosexual” and “same-sex acts” seek to define what more conservative Christians regard as sinful but they only serve to exacerbate the problem.  It’s all about sex!

I have a gay friend who noticed an elderly gentleman at church looking at him strangely, week after week, at church.  Finally the elderly gentleman plucked up the courage to say to my friend, “I can’t do it – no matter how hard I try I can’t imagine what it must be like for you having sex with a man!” My friend was horrified and replied, “Then please don’t!  Let me release you from feeling that you have to!”

When David Ison (Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral) was a Canon in Exeter Diocese, he found himself leading a number of seminars on sexuality.  At the beginning of each seminar, he began by asking the participants to get into small groups and talk about their sex-life.  As the look of horror spread across usually composed, calm faces, he let them off the hook saying, “It’s private isn’t it, so why do we think it is OK to discuss a gay person’s sex life?”

As an evangelical gay priest once wrote, “When we talk about married people, we do not suddenly imagine them having sex and then rush to affirm it as a good thing. Instead, we naturally think in terms of relationships, families and communities. There is no reason why we should think differently about gay relationships. It is tragic that so many evangelicals collude with the world in sexualizing gay people. If we could talk about love instead of about sex, we might well find that we have distinctively Christian things to say to gay people.”

It is truly bizarre that when it comes to heterosexual courting, we emphasise developing the relationship as of primary importance – not sex.  But when it comes to homosexual relationships, the first concern of the average evangelical church is sex – not relationship.  Perhaps that is why gay or lesbian couples are made to feel so unwelcome – because they ‘make us’ think about sex in church!

So here’s the thing…

Why are we perpetuating this by talking about Same-SEX Marriage?  For nervous Christians it has the dreaded word right at the centre of the phrase, thereby reminding them of everything they feel uncomfortable about – not just for gay couples but also for themselves – and it perpetuates a subliminal impression that gay marriage is all about sex.   Newsflash:  History has proved beyond any doubt that gay couples don’t need to get married to have sex!

As a result, I am going to break the habit of colluding with this.  It will take some time, but from now on, I will be talking about Same-GENDER Marriage (which is actually what we have been talking about all along).

Gender is a much more neutral word and crucially, it is the true heart of the issue whether you are in favour of marriage between two men or two women, or against it.  Same-Gender Marriage is less emotive, less confrontational, and points to the real pinch point in the theological debate.

I also hope this will catch on so that we can de-sexualise the whole debate about marriage – and start to de-sexualise our attitudes toward same-gender couples and LGBT people.

Why don’t you do the same?

Friday 26 September 2014

Dealing with the Crap...

I sat by the river at The Old Thameside Inn today.

It sits on the Thames by Southwark Cathedral, and it was the place where I celebrated my Ordination at Southwark Cathedral over 20 years ago.

As I sat there, it began to dawn on me that my ordination was at this time of the year – and I looked up a calendar for 1991 to find that on this day, 23 years ago, I went to the Cathedral for my ordination rehearsal before setting off for my pre-ordination retreat.  My wife and I actually dropped into the Old Thameside Inn that day, on the way to the Cathedral, to check that everything was ready for the celebration!  As I no longer live in London and can’t remember how many years it is since I last visited that pub, the coincidence was striking.

I began to reflect on the last 23 years.

When I was ordained I was full of hope and purpose.  Ready for whatever God had for me.  Always eager for the next challenge!

Today, although still hopeful and still faithful, I can’t help but think that some of the challenges of the last 23 years have taken the edge off the enthusiasm. L  Sometimes ministry is not as glamorous, and not as successful as we would like, and over the years I have found myself struggling against all kinds of preconceptions, vested interests and prejudice in following my vocation to ministry.

From the Octavia Hill Estates, to the Church of England’s bias to the middle classes, to the utterly draining preoccupation with old listed buildings, and more recently, the struggle for dignity and acceptance for LGBT people in church – I seem to have got myself involved in more than my fair share of controversial issues.  Sometimes it has felt more like wading through thigh-high mud than living ‘life in all its fullness’.

At various times over the last 23 years, I have been accused of undermining the church, being a false prophet, working for the devil, as well as being racist, dishonest and homophobic – all while trying to serve God as best as I can!  I remember one church member shouting at me for going ‘AWOL’ because I had gone to sit at my wife’s bedside in hospital when she was facing the very real possibility of death.  Things like that stick in your heart and mind.   

As I sat at by the river at the Old Thameside Inn, the tide was coming in on the Thames and the current was strong.  I looked up and saw an old tug towing two garbage barges against the flow of the tide.  It was making slow progress downstream despite the best efforts of the tug.  But more than that, the bows of heavy rectangular barges were churning up the water of the river so much that it was almost breaking over the sides. There was a cost and a risk to pushing against the tide, and in that struggle I saw a parable.

Amidst the glamour of the other river boats, this old tug was plodding downstream, taking away the crap, fighting against the tide.  Sometimes ministry is like that too.  

We all want to be successful – no matter how pious we pretend to be.  We want everyone to like us.  We want to see our achievements and hope that one day we will be able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our ministry. 

Sometimes however, ministry is more about dealing with the crap and being prepared to churn things up in the process.  

The prophets of the Old Testament knew this, and often paid a much higher price than we do today.  When the Ezekiel was called, God said to him, “I not sending you to people of strange languages – they would listen to you.  Rather I am sending you to your own people – and they will not listen to you.” (Ezekiel 2 & 3 - my paraphrase).

So 23 years on from my ordination, I am encouraged.  Without people ready to challenge ‘churchy’ preconceptions, prejudice and wrong priorities, the rubbish in the Church will simply grow, and we all know what happens when the garbage piles up – it begins to stink.

So to all my fellow old tugs out there – I salute you – and look forward with you to chugging away against the flow for the next 23 years, no matter how much it churns up the water, and however long it takes.

Monday 14 July 2014

Alleluia! Resurrection at Synod?

When the vote was lost for Women Bishops in 2012 I was shocked and stunned.  I was not alone.

The prospect of waiting another 5 years to get the same point, with no certainty of progress compounded that sense of depressing disbelief.

In response I wrote ‘Two Feet in the Grave’ as a response to the CofE’s uncanny ability to shoot itself in both feet, while standing on the edge of its own grave and then wonder why it falls into the gaping hole.

But I was mistaken.

Today after less than 2 years, the same vote has taken place again – and this time with a different result.  Somehow the Church of England has managed to rouse itself and move with remarkable speed (for an arcane institution) to overturn the bureaucratic processes whose tail so often wags the dog.   To those outside the church, this might not sound like lightening speed – but in ecclesiastical terms it would impress even Einstein! 

There is a wonderful parody of the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” where the verse starts ‘Like a mighty tortoise moves the church of God – brothers we are treading where we’ve always trod’.   When it comes to bishops the outdated sexist language of the parody was absolutely true – it was indeed brothers only – but somehow the tortoise has stirred itself to life and movement, surprising those who mistook its paralysis for death.

So perhaps I was wrong.  It would seem that in the action of falling into the open grave, the shock of shooting itself in both feet has resulted in a surge of ecclesiastical adrenalin which has brought about the first signs of resurrection.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t expect the CofE to instantly bound ahead with exuberant life, but with the advent of women to the House of Bishops, I am sure that there will be a new injection of life into this previously patriarchal tortoise-like institution.

The CofE has benefited enormously from the ministry of women priests, and now, finally, it will have the opportunity to benefit from women bishops.

Today the CofE took one foot out of the grave.  

I now look forward to seeing more signs of life the future, and for the resurrection to be continue when we stop trying to exclude people on the basis of gender, orientation, love and marriage - and start living out the life-giving, welcoming love of Christ for all people everywhere, with no exceptions!

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Why the Bishops have got it wrong...

As the first same-sex marriages are conducted in England and Wales, much of the country is celebrating with the happy couples, but there are a significant group of LGB&T people who are being excluded from that joy by the Church of England.

Benny Hazlehurst critiques the Pastoral Guidance issued by the House of Bishops.

The Bishops’ Valentine’s Day guidance on same-sex marriage was a shock to the vast majority of LGB&T clergy in the Church of England.

While apparently being magnanimous to lay people who get married to someone of the same gender, offering ‘pastoral provision’ for informal prayers and full access to the sacraments,  the guidance also prohibited existing clergy in same-sex partnerships from getting married and said that it would not ordain anyone in a same-sex marriage.

At the stroke of a pen, it reintroduced a prohibition on marriage for some priests in the CofE, opened the gates to ecclesiastical guerrilla warfare in dioceses, and further distanced the House of Bishops from a substantial proportion of their clergy and people, not to mention the population at large.

There have been those in the church have said “What did you expect?” arguing that there was no other option available to the Bishops.  They argue that if the Church of England does not recognise same-sex marriage, then of course it can’t allow its clergy to enter into it. 

But as the first same-sex marriages take place, the implications of the Pastoral Guidance are looming large for both clergy and bishops as they realise the implications of this statement, and the land mines it has laid.

As I write this, I am mindful of that there is a variety of opinion in the church on same-sex marriage.  Accepting Evangelicals, of which I am a part, has called for prayerful reflection and theological discussion on the nature of marriage in the church before making pronouncements.  Nevertheless, whatever our individual views on marriage, the Pastoral Guidance issued by the Bishops is ill conceived and will not serve the church well in the months and years ahead.

1.       The re-introduction of marriage prohibition for some clergy.
It is 465 years since priests in the Church of England were last forbidden from entering into marriage.

As David Hope noted when he was Bishop of London, “The requirement for celibacy in the clergy was formally abolished in the Church of England in 1549.  Since that time… there is no requirement for celibacy even among single clergy within the Anglican Communion.”  That is, until now.

With same-sex marriage becoming a reality in England and Wales, clergy in same-sex partnerships like anyone else,  now have the opportunity to be married according to the law of the land.

The Bishops’ Guidance however is attempting to put a stop to that, stating “it would not be appropriate conduct for someone in holy orders to enter into same-sex marriage, given the need for clergy to model the Church’s teaching in their lives”.

This is then backed up with a thinly disguised threat of disciplinary action against clergy who might dare to rebel, by reminding them that at ordination they undertook to “accept and minister the discipline of this Church, and respect authority duly exercised within it”.  With the advent of the Clergy Discipline Measure of 2003 there is a clear avenue for potential action against clergy who break this prohibition.

Finally, just in case there might be any ambiguity, Tony Baldry MP (who is the Church of England’s spokesperson in the House of Commons) sent a very clear message this week when he said in Parliament, “The canons of the Church of England retain their legal status as part of the law of England and I would hope that no priest who has taken an oath of canonical obedience would wish to challenge canon law and the law of England.”

This requirement for LGB&T clergy is not only at odds with the Church’s own abolition of celibacy almost 500 years ago, it is also at odds with the way in which the Church of England has treated Civil Partnerships involving clergy.

Far from trying to enforce church discipline on clergy who have chosen to enter Civil Partnerships, the CofE has fully recognised both the reality of Civil Partnerships and the legal rights which they bring.  Since 2005, the recognition of pension rights for the Civil Partners of stipendiary clergy has been fully accepted by the Church of England and the House of Bishops has said that “it does not regard entering into Civil Partnerships as intrinsically incompatible with holy orders”.

So why is entering into same-sex marriage incompatible?

The answer, one can only assume, is because of the thorny issue of sex.  Civil Partnerships did not require sexual intimacy per sae, while traditionally, marriage does.  However the same-sex marriage act does not require or recognise the need for consummation of the marriage for same-sex couples either –so  the two are no different in their legal requirements for same-sex couples in relation to sex. 

So why do the House of Bishops treat one differently to the other?

Perhaps it is because the Church of England does not recognise same-sex marriage?   But if the church does not recognise it, then clergy who enter into it are not breaking church teaching, because you can’t break the rules by entering into something which church theology says does not exist!

Even if Equalities legislation has been amended to allow faith groups to determine their own rules on same-sex marriage, there is a clear inequality here.  For gay and lesbian clergy who want to marry their partner, selective celibacy in relation to marriage has been re-introduced into the Church of England’s discipline after discussion at just one meeting and behind closed doors.

2.       Pastoral insensitivity.
While the Bishops’ Guidance has made provision for clergy to ‘respond pastorally and sensitively’ to same-sex couples who come to them asking for a blessing, it seems little thought has been given to effect of that response on gay and lesbian clergy.  Clergy in same-sex relationships are much more likely than others to be approached by couples wanting a blessing or prayers for their marriage, and yet in placing a responsibility on clergy to respond pastorally and sensitively to these couples (ie have some kind of private ceremony to mark their marriage) the Bishops seem to have given little thought to the emotional price which LGBT clergy will pay in responding to that request.

Many lesbian and gay clergy have long experienced the pain of longing when they are asked to officiate at a wedding knowing that they could not enter into marriage.  Now when marriage is finally open to them (albeit in a Civil Ceremony rather than a church wedding) they have been forbidden from entering into it.  And yet they are being called to minister to and pray with others who have got married.

To most people this will sound unremittingly cruel.   Knowing that the law allows you to get married but that the church you are called to minister in is both denying you that right and requiring you to respond to others is both cruel and unjust.  For some it will feel akin to being a midwife who is prohibited by her employer from having children.

3.       The prohibition on ordination is tantamount to a process of same-sex cleansing.
Another clear and unequivocal statement of the Bishops is that those in a same-sex marriage will not be ordained.  I have already been told of one young person who was exploring ordination but has now withdrawn because he hopes to be married someday.

At present, there are estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,500 licensed LGB&T clergy in the Church of England.  It is a fair representation to say that some dioceses would collapse without their ministry.

Yet, it has been getting more and more difficult for LBG&T ordinands to get to ordination.  I was asked to talk with one such young man recently who said to me (with genuine fear) “But what do I say if they ask me?”

Now, however, the rule is quite clear when it comes to marriage, and the answer is ‘No’ even before you start the long process of vocational discernment.  The next generation of would-be ordinands will be growing up in a society where same-sex marriage is normal, and for those who are LGB&T, they are likely to aspire to marriage as naturally as anyone else.

From now on, however, they will know that the door is firmly locked and bolted to prevent them entering ministry in the church.  Faced with the choice of ordination or the potential married life, very few will choose ordination.

The Church of England is already experiencing a shortage of ordinands.  Not only will this policy reduce still further the numbers of people who want to explore a vocation to ordination, it also continues the process of reducing the ‘embarrassment’ created by having LGB&T clergy in their midst.  As time goes on LGB&T clergy will be ‘cleansed’ from the ranks of ordained ministry and the church will be the poorer for it.  Many of us will be able to think of the ministry of a gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender priest which has helped or inspired us, yet under these rules, many of them would not be even considered for ordination.

This ruling also flies in the face of the Church of England’s claim to welcome and value the ministry of LGB&T clergy.   While some on the conservative end of the church may rejoice in this, we will all feel the impact.

4.       Encouraging use of the Clergy Discipline Measure
According to the Church of England’s website, “The Clergy Discipline Measure… provides a structure for dealing efficiently and fairly with formal complaints of misconduct against members of the clergy.”

As a result of the Pastoral Guidance, some conservative groups are already sharpening their swords at last seeing the opportunity to force bishops to take action against LGB&T clergy – action which they believe is long overdue.  One group, EGGS (the Evangelical Group on the General Synod) has also called for the same rules to apply to those lay people who hold a Bishop’s licence or commission.

Bishops themselves appear to be increasingly frightened of the situation they have created for themselves.  I was told recently that while some bishops are saying “I don’t want any ‘martyrs’ in my diocese,” there are others who are considering their own position if a Clergy Discipline complaint is brought against them for not taking action against clergy who enter same-sex marriage.  As a result of the Pastoral Guidance both clergy and their bishops appear vulnerable to those who want to stir up trouble.

And yet it is the Guidance itself which has created this dilemma.  Linking words like ‘conduct’, ‘consequences’  and ‘discipline’ in the statement has given a green light to those who want to force a showdown.  It is far from the “distinctive and generous witness to Jesus Christ” which the Guidance says it seeks to model.

5.        Unwholesome contradiction.
Yet the saddest contradiction of the whole statement is to be found in paragraph 23 of the Guidance.
It says,
‘At ordination clergy make a declaration that they will endeavour to fashion their own life and that of their household 'according to the way of Christ' that they may be 'a pattern and example to Christ's people'. A requirement as to the manner of life of the clergy is also directly imposed on the clergy by Canon C 26, which says that 'at all times he shall be diligent to frame and fashion his life and that of his family according to the doctrine of Christ, and to make himself and them, as much as in him lies, wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ.'

Given the rest of the Guidance which follows, this is clearly taken to mean that clergy in a same-sex marriage cannot be wholesome examples to the flock of Christ.

Furthermore, the acceptance of Civil Partnerships by the Church of England while at the same time prohibiting marriage strongly implies that the Bishops consider it to be a more wholesome example to your flock to be living with the person you love outside marriage, than within it!

In a society which often either dispenses with marriage as irrelevant, or enters into marriage without the commitment to make it work, how can it be that two people living together in a vicarage outside marriage is a more wholesome example than being married and demonstrating how to take wedding vows seriously?

Unfortunately, this kind of double-thinking betrays a deeper problem with the Pastoral Guidance.  Despite the quotation earlier in the Guidance from the 2005 Dromantine Communique which “affirmed the Anglican Communion’s opposition to any form of behaviour which ‘diminished’ homosexual people” the reality is that the House of Bishops has once again succeeded in ‘diminishing’ LGB&T people.

They have unwittingly joined in with the “diminishment of human beings whose affections happen to be ordered towards people of their own sex” (to quote the Dromantine statement) by failing to recognise the spiritual longing of those clergy who want to marry their same-sex partners and by devaluing their faith, love, and commitment.

They have said that it is a better example to be living together outside marriage than within it.  They have failed to value the contribution which LGB&T people make to church life and ministry by prohibiting clergy from same-sex marriage and excluding LGB&T ordinands, who would naturally yearn to be married, from any possibility of ordination.  And they have failed to see the emotional and spiritual price which they are asking their LGB&T clergy to pay for the sake of a church unity which does not exist.

This week, as same-sex couples celebrate their relationships in marriage for the first time in England and Wales, my prayer is that the Bishops who have approved this Guidance (as well as a rod for their own back) will quickly reconsider.

There is an alternative.

The Church of England, which only approved marriage in church after divorce in July 2002, also accepted before that date, that some of its clergy could enter into a second marriage at a Civil Ceremony, and have a thanksgiving in church, and remain in ministry.

If that could happen after marriage vows had been broken, why can’t clergy who have only just gained the right to be married for the first time be given that opportunity?

The Bishops have got it wrong – and it needs to be put right.

Friday 28 March 2014

Will the sun still rise tomorrow?

Later tonight a new era begins in England and Wales as the first same-sex marriages are celebrated.

As the clock strikes midnight, marriage between two people of the same gender will become legal and the first couples will tie the knot.

There have been dire warnings about this change to the law here and elsewhere in the world.  In the USA a radio commercial proclaimed that  “Terrible consequences will affect everyone and everything imaginable forever if same-sex marriage goes ahead!” and here same-sex marriage was described as ‘grotesque’ by a senior church leader who later had to leave his post after admitting pressurising fellow priests into sexual encounters.

Into this mix I would like to contribute two things.

The first is a speech I gave last November at the Law Society in London in a debate etitled, “Protecting Diversity, Belief, Conscience, and the new definition of Marriage”

The second is a speech by a New Zealand MP in their debate on same-sex marriage.  The title of this post comes from that speech.


Speech to the Law Society – 12th November 2013

Ladies and gentlemen, let me first say thank you for your invitation to speak in this debate tonight.

When I received the list of other speakers for this evening, I have to say that I was a little overwhelmed as being the only non-lawyer on the platform for a debate at the Law Society!
But then it occurred to me that I am also likely to be the only person on the platform who has any experience of actually marrying couples and preparing them for marriage. During  my twenty-two years of ordained ministry, I have always taken marriage preparation just as seriously as the Big Day itself.  I have always met with the couple several times in the months leading up to their wedding – not to talk about hymns, flowers, or rehearsals – but to talk with them about what makes a successful, life-giving and life-long marriage.

So maybe I do have something to contribute after all…

Ever since same-sex marriage rose up the political agenda here and around the world, there have been those (especially people of faith) who have felt threatened by it.

It has been denounced by various Christian leaders in this country as “grotesque, dictatorial, and shameful”.  There have been accusations that it will devalue the marriages of heterosexuals and that it will put religious freedom in jeopardy.

Perhaps that fear is encapsulated most clearly in this quote from October in a radio commercial in Hawaii, before their Senate vote on same-sex marriage.  The radio commercial said

 “Terrible consequences will affect everyone and everything imaginable forever if same-sex marriage goes ahead!”

And yet here we are today with the same-sex marriage bill having been written into law for England and Wales and awaiting the first such marriage soon.

So are the warnings coming true?   In particular, is same-sex marriage in this country a threat to religious freedom, belief and conscience?  The answer is a resounding “No!”

The government has been at pains to protect religious freedom, faith and conscience, in the drafting of this law.  They have put in place the “Quadruple lock” to protect faith groups from being compelled to do anything against their beliefs or conscience, even going so far as to declare it illegal for any Church of England priest to celebrate a same-sex marriage.

And this has been recognised and accepted by many who oppose same-sex marriage.  For example the Evangelical Alliance is the oldest body of evangelical Christians in the UK claiming to represent over 2 million people.  They campaigned against same-sex marriage, and yet since the law gained royal assent, they have produced a “Marriage FAQ’s” for member groups and churches.  Twelve of the twenty-two FAQ’s consider the question of compulsion and churches’ right to refuse to conduct or facilitate same-sex weddings.   In every single one of those questions, the answer was “No – you cannot be compelled” and “Yes – you have a legal right to refuse” to conduct or host a same-sex marriage.

The reality is that the safeguards in the Same-sex Marriage Bill more than cover the right to religious freedom, faith and conscience.

But there is a diversity issue relating to belief and conscience which is deeply pertinent today – and that is the diversity of belief about same-sex marriage among members of churches and faith groups which is not being recognised or expressed by churches, denominations and faith groups.

A YouGov poll conducted by the University of Leicester in January 2013 found that even then

  •  More Anglicans thought that same-sex couples should be allowed to get married than thought they should not.
  • More Anglicans supported the right of same-sex couples to get married than opposed it.
  • As well as, more Roman Catholics, more Presbyterians, and a majority of Hindu’s and Jews

But this is certainly not being represented by the leaders of Christian denominations. 

Even when the deeper question was asked , “Do you think that same-sex marriage is right or  wrong?” over a third of all Christians polled said that they thought it was right!

And I hear from Christians up and down the country who would like to see same-sex marriage happening in their church, and that includes local church leaders!

So where is this diversity being acknowledged and expressed in the official stance of most Christian churches?  The answer is that it is not.

I stand before you today as an Evangelical Christian who is not only in favour of same-sex marriage, but who also longs for the day when I will be permitted (by my Church) to officiate at such a wedding – and I am not alone.   I have come to this conclusion after careful, prayerful examination of the Scriptures, my belief, and my conscience.

So as we consider ‘Protecting diversity, belief and conscience in the new definition of marriage” today, the real question we should address is this:

“When will our churches and faith groups recognise, protect and give expression to the differing beliefs and conscience of their members in relation to marriage today?”

I look forward to our debate tonight.

Friday 14 March 2014

Tony Benn - RIP

Also published by Ekklesia 

Veteran politician Tony Benn died yesterday.  From the amount of news coverage on Radio 4 today you would have thought he was a former Prime Minister of head of state, and as always happens when a great man or woman dies, people of all opinions lined up to sing his praises.

I met Tony Benn on a number of occasions, but two stand out for me.

The second of these was at the annual Tolpuddle Martyrs festival run by the TUC.  Every year thousands of trades unionists and politicians pack into the tiny village of Tolpuddle in Dorset to celebrate the world’s first trades union when a small group of six agricultural workers swore an oath to stand together against the land-owners who kept them in poverty while living in lavish homes.  They were deported to the penal colonies of Australia for their defiance and the outcry which followed saw the birth of Trades Unions in this country.

Tony Benn was a regular visitor to this festival, always ready to speak and share with others on both history and current affairs.

For four years I was Vicar of Tolpuddle, and during the festival there was always a wreath laying ceremony at the grave of the only one of the six who returned to Tolpuddle after they were eventually pardoned.  The irony was that the grave was in the Church Yard of the Parish Church where I was vicar – an irony because one my predecessors had betrayed the Martyrs.  He had originally tried to act as an honest broker in the dispute, and was a witness of a settlement agreed by all sides.  Yet when the land-owners reneged on the deal, he bowed to pressure from his bishop to support the establishment and deny that any such agreement took place.

As a result there was great suspicion of the Church of England by TUC members who knew their history and as vicar, I was not always made to feel welcome at the wreath-laying.   That is, until I asked if I could participate in the ceremony and lay a wreath of repentance for the betrayal of the Martyrs by my predecessor and the Church – and one of the proudest moments of my ministry was processing from the Martyrs Memorial down the road to the Church side by side with Tony Benn as we both went to lay our wreaths at the grave of James Hammett.

The first encounter was some years before when I attended a small evening lecture in a dimly lit north London church on the subject of disestablishing the Church of England.  The main speaker was Tony Benn, who was a long-time proponent of cutting the ties between Church and State in England.

Anyone who is unaware of Tony Benn’s views on the Church might assume that this came from a low regard for the Church, or a socialist, secularist agenda which sought to undermine any participation from the Church in the government of the nation.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  His argument was drawn straight from the Bible.

He drew a parallel with the Kings and Prophets of the Old Testament pointing out the balance of power which existed during the Old Testament monarchy – the various Kings from Saul onwards, wielding power and ruling the nation, balanced by the constant voice of the Prophets who held them to account for their actions.

The voice of the Prophets was essential, he would argue, to challenge wrong-doing and wrong motives – to provide direction for the Kings who would listen, and stubborn unyielding opposition when they would not.

This, he argued, should be the role of the Church in relation to government.
Yet in the Church of England, it is the Government who appoint the Bishops - the rulers who appoint the prophets – and while the Church of England is shackled in this subservient role to the ‘Kings’ of our day, it will never be able to fulfil its role as Prophet.

Tony Benn did not want to see the CofE disestablished to silence it – rather set free to speak as a Prophet to the nation, whatever political party was in power.

As I reflect on the state of the Church of England today – I think that the situation has become far worse.  Our Bishops are not prophets, but ineffectual peacemakers obsessed with being a ‘focus of unity’ rather than speaking out what they know to be true.

In the House of Lords they are seen to be more concerned with protecting an arcane world-view than speaking out with a prophetic voice.

Our role in this constitutional monarchy has become largely ceremonial adding pomp and pageantry to occasional state milestones around the cycle of monarchy.  It is a long way from Tony Benn’s vision for the church as a Prophetic voice to government and nation.

But can the giving up of power ever be right?  Could it really be better to give up our right to a place in the corridors of government and exchange it for the uncertain role of a prophet?

Let me finish with two examples which would point us in that direction…

The first is Tony Benn himself, who famously gave up his hereditary place in the House of Lords to fight for election as an MP.  Judging by the accolades he received this morning, Tony Benn did not exchange power for obscurity, because the strength of his message found a place (albeit an uncomfortable place sometimes) in people’s hearts and minds.

The second is Jesus Christ,

“Who being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.”
Philippians 2

Here is a principle which the Church of England should pay attention to.  Those in the Kingdom of God, who seek to hold on to their power for sake of it, will lose it.  And those who give up their power for the sake of others will find it.

RIP Tony Benn (1925-2014)

Sunday 2 February 2014

Game of Thrones

I visited the British Museum yesterday.  I was in London with a bit of time to spare and walked up the steps of the imposing building with no clear idea of what I wanted to see.
As I looked at the Museum map, I saw an exhibition area which I had never noticed before – the Africa exhibition, down in the basement, tucked away.
With all the recent controversy about anti-gay laws in Nigeria and Uganda, it seemed right to go and learn something about this vast continent and I made my way down the stairs.
Small though the exhibition was (in comparison to the huge exhibitions of antiquity) I didn’t get to see everything.  Looking at the exhibits and reading about their history & meaning was an illuminating experience, and I will go back when I next have the chance.
But there were two exhibits which I found particularly powerful.  Both were modern, not ancient, and both were created to provoke thought and discussion about modern Africa.  Both came to this county with support from Christian Aid.
The first was the ‘Throne of Weapons’ from Mozambique (pictured above).  It is a chair made entirely of decommissioned weapons from the civil war in Mozambique and the sight of it made me shudder.  Constructed of AK-47 assault rifles, Heckler and Koch G3’s, and a variety of other deadly weapons, it has been exhibited in schools, churches and cathedrals.  It is said that the ‘gothic arch’ which dominates the back of the chair was designed to symbolise a church.
I tried to imagine sitting on such a chair – an object constructed from so much death and violence.  I could not.  Over 1 million people died in Mozambique’s civil war as arms flooded into the county, paid for by South Africa and the Soviet Union. How many others have died in conflicts elsewhere in a continent which is so often torn apart by bloody conflict?
The second exhibit was similar, yet remarkably different.  It was also made from decommissioned weapons from the same county, but here the guns which made up the sculpture did not dominate in the same way as the Throne.  They were somehow subsumed into the overall design.  Where the chair (a particular symbol of authority in Africa) screams weapons and violence, the Tree of Life exudes hope as the weapons fade into the background, overwhelmed by this symbol of life and transformation.  Just as nature has reclaimed the barren no-man’s-land between the trenches of the First World War, so this Tree speaks of the reclamation of life from death.
The tree was commissioned by the British Museum and Christian Aid following the profound impact which the Throne of Weapons made in this country.  The guns had been surrendered in exchange for tools after the Civil War – an initiative by Bishop Dinis Sengulane which saw over 600,000 guns put beyond use.
But where did the weapons come from?  Portugal, North Korea, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Germany, Britain, the Soviet Union, South Africa & Rhodesia (as it was then) all played a part in the supply of arms to warring factions, fuelling the cycle of violence, suffering and hatred which held Mozambique in its grip for 15 years – a cycle which is reproduced in many other African countries to this day.  From the child soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army to the genocide in Rwanda, to the chaos of the DRC and renewed conflict in Sudan, Africa is often a violent place, but it is outside powers which supply the means of war.
This caused me to reflect on the recent exchange of letters between Archbishops about new laws which are coming into force against LGBT people in a number of African countries. I was one of those who signed a petition to our Archbishops calling on them to speak out against the Anglican Church’s support for new draconian laws in Nigeria, and I was pleased when they wrote to all Anglican Primates to remind them of the need to express love and pastoral care to LGBT people, whatever the church’s theological stance.
The response from Kenya, and Uganda has been defiant, as has GAFCON's response to the recent College of Bishops meeting on sexuality.  Dodging the issue of prison sentences for homosexuals, they shoot straight back with a warning to the CofE about making any changes which would be more accommodating to same-sex couples in church.
I was struck by both the mild terms in which York and Canterbury phrased their letter and equally struck by the strength of defiance in the African replies.  
So what should we do when people’s human rights are being violated, and we hear of suffering and injustice being meted out to LGBT people simply because of who they love.  In Nigeria this now extends to prison sentences of up to 14 years for being married to someone of the same-sex, or 10 years for being a member of an LGBT organisation.  In a country which faces its own internal tensions between the predominantly Christian south and the predominantly Muslim north, hatred of LGBT people is one of the few things that both communities agree on.  LGBT people are being used as scapegoats by some, and as a focus of unifying suspicion by others.
Perhaps we should ‘up the ante’, writing stronger and more forceful letters of condemnation? Perhaps we should encourage direct action?  There is evidence that the Christian communities in Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya are being fuelled in their prejudice by hate preachers from the USA.  They are certainly being encouraged and financed by more conservative Anglicans from the developed world who would like to see schism or ecclesiastical civil war in the Anglican Communion.  Indeed there are suggestions that this week’s responses from Uganda and Kenya, were actually written thousands of miles away in the USA or Australia rather than by the Archbishops themselves.  If so, it would not be the first time this has happened.  How can we balance up the scales?
However, if the Throne of Weapons can teach us anything, it is that pouring fuel onto the flames of African conflict and injustice is not the answer.  We have to find another way.
As Jesus walked the dusty roads of the Holy Land, he too was immersed in a culture with its tensions and its injustices.  There were those who would have liked him to take up the fight against the occupying Romans army, by using his popularity to inspire revolution.  In the end it is arguable that the crowd called for Barabbas because Jesus had not fulfilled this expectation, and equally that Pilate handed him over to be crucified only after extracting an oath of loyalty from the crowd, “We have no king but Caesar!”
Jesus was no push-over and was always ready to challenge the status quo, but time and again he refused to fuel the fires of conflict.  His chosen path was to bring healing, not pain – to encourage people to love, not hate – to offer grace rather than condemnation.
In the same way, we cannot stand by in the face of injustice and violence in Africa – but rather than fuelling the fires of an ecclesiastical arms race, we need to find ways to be more Christ-like in our response, not less.
Whatever the difficulties, we need to create a Tree of Life – not a Throne of Weapons.