Bishops – Please Show Us Your Workings

by the Revd Canon Giles Goddard, Former Chair of the Human Sexuality Group on General Synod

Giles Goddard

I am glad to have among my friends several candidates for ordination, currently testing their vocations or in training.  I’m encouraged by the quality and commitment which they show, and by their deep dedication to Gospel values and to working beside people in need.

Some of them happen to be LGBTI+. They’re  people who have had to work out how to respond to the notorious question posed as part of the selection process – the confirmation that they have read and agree to abide by ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ with its cruel expectation that clergy in same sex relationships should be celibate.

I entered the priesthood shortly after ‘Issues’ was published but before it had morphed into policy. There was never any secret about my sexual orientation. I was fortunate to be in a widely known relationship when I was ordained both deacon and priest, and I was never required to give such a guarantee.  I’m bemused and surprised, but very relieved, that others have not been put off by the question.

I know that we have lost many good candidates as a result of the current position, and I know that it is a bit of a postcode lottery – different bishops have very different policies.

I always ask my friends what makes them stay.  I am touched and encouraged by the answers I receive. A deep sense that they are being called to serve, a recognition that the C of E’s current position is ethically and theologically unsustainable, and a trust that, in the end, the love of God will win out over the reactionary pressures of tradition.

My friends’ responses have increased my feeling of urgency that we must make progress towards recognising and celebrating the diversity of human experience and love. It’s an urgency which has a real focus, as I am a consultant to the Coordinating Group of members of the College of Bishops responsible for ‘Living in Love and Faith’ (LLF).

I think I’m not breaking any confidences if I say that pulling together the document/resource/whatever it will be is a really complex process. The four working groups – Theology, Biblical Studies, Science and History – are doing great work on developing background studies which will, in different ways, be drawn on for the final product. The College of Bishops was given a good insight into the work in progress, last week. But there isn’t a great deal of time to produce the final product, if it is to be ready for Synod to think about in 2020, and expectations are running high on both sides of this debate.

There is great potential for something exciting to emerge. Something which takes seriously recent scholarship and advances in scientific understanding, which recognises the range of legitimate interpretations of scripture, reason and tradition, and opens up the possibility of moving towards a shared economy within the C of E – recognising and affirming LGBTI+ people unequivocally as well as respecting the positions of those who are more conservative. I’m hopeful by nature, and I think that no one would wish to see the amount of time and commitment – and money – going into the process wasted!

But  I am anxious about its reception, because I’m not sure that the purpose of this whole process is fully understood.  I think that many supporters of LGBTI+ inclusion are looking to LLF to make strong recommendations for change – including, for some, the opening up of church marriage to same-sex couples. And many traditionalists, including people close to the process, are looking to it to rule out any realistic change.

LLF may not do either of those things. When I think about it, I often think about exam papers – especially maths exams. I  remember sitting A level papers which set difficult equations to be solved. ‘Please show your workings,’ the instructions said.

My hope is that LLF will enable the C of E to ‘show its workings’ as we move towards full inclusion. At the moment the only recent document accepted by the Church, albeit without due process, is ‘Issues’ – which is widely acknowledged to be deeply flawed and was published in 1991. LLF will, if it is as good as it could be and if it is accepted, bring recent scholarship and contemporary understandings of sexuality, gender and identity into the warp and weft of the Church of England.

But it will be only part of a process – Synod, the House of Bishops and many others will be involved, once LLF is published, in deciding how to move forward. And any movement depends on whether we are all there to help make change happen.

So I am really grateful to my friends who are willing to trust the church with their futures, because they are making a long-term commitment to a flawed and confused institution. And I am grateful to so many others who are carrying on the struggle alongside LGBTI+ people.

As for me, I’ve been having these conversations for 25 years. I have, God willing, around another ten years active ministry. The process of change, if it happens, will not be quick – I don’t expect it to be over before I retire. It will be for others to take forward.

To you all – and you know who you are – thank you for being willing to take on the struggle. And may God be with us all as we try to help the church become the thing it so wonderfully could be, with a little more courage and a lot more love.

 

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Is Good Disagreement Possible?

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia.News and Director of the Ozanne Foundation

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This is the question that I presume many within the Church – particularly the College of Bishops, which met last week – are currently debating and asking.

As many know, I have been an outspoken advocate of “Good Disagreement” as a means of discussion or a “way of working”, but I am certainly no fan of it as a final destination.

In my mind, “Good Disagreement” describes a way of conducting contentious debates in a manner that seeks to always “see the Christ in each other” and therefore looks to treat those with whom we disagree with respect.  As I explained to the Irish Times following the launch of the Good Disagreement Facebook Page, it poses the question “Can someone say what they firmly believed (their perceived “truth”) with enough pastoral insight and sensitivity (ie “grace”) to show they are aware their comments might deeply hurt/offend someone?”

But Good Disagreement cannot be the final end point in this discussion.

Too much rests on it.

As one clergyman put it to me this week:  “Either we evangelicals, owe you and the LGBTI community a profound and heartfelt apology for the trauma and pain we have caused, or you owe us a profound apology for risking the very souls of those around you.”

It is a stark choice – the health and well-being of vulnerable LGBTI teenagers (as well as those of us who are not so young) versus (evidently) the salvation of our very souls.

But can this really be right?  Is this what the unconditional love of God intends?  Did Jesus really mean it when he said “whosoever believes in me shall not perish but have eternal life”?  Where else in the Gospel is there such a stark choice that causes so many people so much pain and anguish in contrast to them gaining their salvation?

God is a God of Love in my book.  Full stop. He loves us just as He has created us.  He comes to bring us life, and life in all its fullness – only legalism and the law brings death.

As it happens, last week was also the fourth anniversary of the tragic death of a young beautiful teenager, Lizzie Lowe, whose life was cut short due to the horrendous internal conflict she faced over trying to reconcile her faith with her burgeoning sexuality.

Her parents, Hilary and Kevin, have spoken out very movingly and bravely about the need for churches to become more inclusive and of their sincere “hope that others do not and will not have to suffer in silence alone.”  Their and Lizzie’s story will be covered in more depth on Monday night by BBC Northwest Tonight, and will be featured on many BBC local radio stations around the country this Sunday.  It seems that the media at least understand the desperate need to ensure that others do not suffer the same fate as Lizzie, and are keen to ensure that young people know that it is possible to be Christian and gay, and have happy, blessed and fulfilling relationships based on mutual love and commitment.

It is my belief that the Church of England can no longer sit on its razor wire fence on this critical and deeply divisive issue.  To do so risks the lives of just too many people – particularly those who are the most vulnerable and undefended in our society.

Many Bishops will undoubtedly say that they are fearful of a split in the Church if they were to make such a clear pronouncement.

But let us be clear – there is a split now!  People are leaving now!

They may not be the leaders of large powerful and rich churches, but they are God’s children all the same.  They are hurt, they are rejected, they feel ostracised, they feel maligned and misunderstood.  They are those who just cannot countenance being in a Church that they think is homophobic and hypocritical – that preaches God’s unconditional love and then puts conditions on it.  Many are the Church of our future – the youth of today.

Whilst I warmly welcome the aims of the Pastoral Guidelines that we have been informed about in Kaya Burgess’ article in The Times, I would plead that the principles that are being proposed to deliver against these aims have no hint of compromise or fudge within them.  We need crystal clarity with no double meanings please.

We need to know – are we to be blessed or cursed?  To be accepted as equal members of the Body of Christ, or rejected as unrepentant sinners who have no place at the Lord’s table?

There is no half way house on this.

Good Disagreement cannot be the final resting place.

The lives and futures of too many of us depend on it.

Jayne Ozanne writes here in a personal capacity and her views are her own.

Posted in Church of England, Human Sexuality, Jayne Ozanne | 2 Comments

Time for “A New Evangelism”?

by the Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge

Jeremy Morris

Whatever the causes of Church decline – and I’ve spent much of my adult life researching this and writing about it – and whatever the scale or the finality of it, what is beyond doubt is that the mainstream churches have spent the last half century or so desperately trying to find ways of stemming the tide.

There have been church-wide initiatives like the “Decade of Evangelism” and the current “Thy Kingdom Come” appeal for prayer, educational and catechetical movements like Alpha and Cursillo, the church planting movement, new emphases on leadership in mission, new ways of trying to recruit ministers and clergy, new approaches to stewardship to try to counter the slide in resources, and so on.  No one can be sure how well these things have or haven’t worked.  In the UK, overall, they don’t seem to have stopped decline altogether.  But that doesn’t mean they’re not working at all – there are new congregations, and growing congregations; there are downward trends in some areas that have been slowed down; there are some parts of church life doing better than others.

But most of the indices, nonetheless, have been downward, and continue to be.  And that has exerted continued pressure on the churches to come up with new methods of evangelism.  It has also pushed churches sometimes towards an instrumental idea of mission.  Effort has been poured out trying to adapt the means of evangelism to contemporary society, so that the more fundamental question of what mission really is has never been faced adequately.  I don’t mean it hasn’t been considered, or that there haven’t been major changes in the way we conceive the theology of mission.  It’s impossible to deny the impact of David Bosch’s Transforming Mission (1991), for example, or of Lesslie Newbigin’s Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989), books that repay re-reading and constant reflection, on those working in the field.

But I suspect most of us are stuck in practical terms in an instrumental mode, in which we tend to think of the problem as simply one of communication, and not of the very conception of faith we inhabit.  We think of ourselves, perhaps, as servants of the Word, who need to learn how to communicate better the Word we passionately believe and try to follow: if we get the mode of communication right, others will follow.  But will they?  Or perhaps we think of ourselves as faithful followers of the Gospel tradition, and mediate that tradition to others through worship and the sacraments.  But again, do they follow?  Will they follow?

I can’t help but think that many Christians have just not reckoned on the scale of the sea-change that has happened under their feet and around them.  It’s all too easy for those of us who are actively involved in church to assume that faith addresses a lack, a shortcoming or gap, in a person’s experience, and by reorienting their attention – that inescapable metaphor of the moral compass – towards the God who made us and loves us, delivers a better, more rounded, more fulfilling life.  But I suspect that’s just not obvious any more to the majority of non-believers.  Do you need faith to live a happy, fulfilled life?  Whatever my own convictions on this, the truth I suspect is that most people would simply say “No”.  You can live well without faith!  In the past, the sheer pervasive character of Christian belief in the West provided a kind of commonly-assumed default of virtue which, even if rejected, nonetheless would continue to gnaw away at us, and to undermine our attempts to achieve a happiness we suspected could only ever be selfish.

And it’s not enough to point out – as I’m sure some will, reading this – that the argument itself was always flawed.  Happiness is never guaranteed by faith; fulfilment is a poor measure of Christian belief.  The problem for us, as Christians now, is that even the plausibility of what we are trying to communicate has fallen away.  It may be that the values widely shared in our society have Christian roots – undoubtedly true.  But the Church itself has become tainted or damaged goods.  The seemingly endless flood of allegations of abuse and cover-up, hitting the Catholic Church this summer just as hard it continues to hit Anglicanism and other traditions, the churches’ seeming inability to resolve internal wrangles over human sexuality, the basically middle-class character of much British Christianity, all this and much else besides means that churches are often seen as places of threat, and not as sources of liberation and peace.

I’m always conscious that as soon as I begin to reflect on the state of Christianity in Britain today, I’m likely to sound too gloomy, too quickly.  So I repeat what I said near the beginning – it’s not all failure, it’s not all downwards, and anyway I do believe that faith is not to be measured by contemporary ideas of fulfilment and well-being.

However – we do have to ask ourselves, again and again, what we are we trying to communicate?  Is it a set of beliefs, or a set of practices, that may or may not chime in with the life experience of people, or is it actually a life that perhaps can’t really be packaged and communicated at all, unless people first begin to get to know us, and to share things with us, and find out who we are?

Do we need, in other words “a new evangelism” that doesn’t even use words and phrases like ‘leadership in mission’ and ‘church growth’, and doesn’t seem to put the institution first, but just helps Christians to live out amongst people, faithful to their calling?

On September 7th the British Social Attitudes Survey published its results showing that the number of Brits who identify as Church of England has more than halved in the last fifteen years.

Posted in Church of England, Jeremy Morris | 1 Comment

Sex, Lies & Voting Records

by the Revd Neil Patterson, Director of Ordinands, Hereford Diocese and Member of General Synod

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The thoughts leading to this post arose a little while ago as my partner David and I enjoyed watching A Very English Scandal, the dramatization of the Jeremy Thorpe scandal.  It struck me that it all happened before we were born, in another world of secrecy, fear and dishonesty around sexuality which has been transformed in society at large.  More recently Richard Peers, Jeremy Pemberton and Rachel Mann have commented eloquently in a series of overlapping posts, all of which I broadly agree with, on the corrosive effect the Church of England’s official position has on honesty in speaking about relationships.  So this is also now a response to them, seeking to promote wider debate amongst those united by a desire for the Church’s position to change to one of greater acceptance.

However, I want to suggest that part of the reason we are finding the debate so hard to move forward is that as well as the barrier of Issues in Human Sexuality to open discussion within the Church, there are other abiding dishonesties amongst us.  Here I am talking as a gay man about the gay male culture: there are important and different things to say from all points on the LGBT+ spectrum, but it does not help to collapse the rainbow into Anglican beige for these purposes.  I hope I can speak at least a little from what I know, and that others feel able to do so from and for their own communities.

An important voice within the secular gay culture is the former editor of Attitude magazine Matthew Todd, whose recent book Straight Jacket reflects deeply on the atmosphere of shame and secrecy derived from long oppression, which still bedevils gay life, and the escapist culture of sexual indulgence which is a response to it.  Todd is among several who have brought light onto a world of drug-fuelled sex parties which pose at the very least a profound danger to gay men’s health.  Particularly striking is Todd’s assertion that his attempts to speak up for responsibility and moderation have been met with intolerant dismissal that he is against freedom and fun, and who wants to be that in the gay world?

James Wharton wrote in an upbeat way a few years ago about his life as a gay soldier, but in Something for the Weekend, describes his more recent descent into addiction to chemsex. His book includes a telling admission of the pervasive power of economics – in London it can be cheaper to spend a weekend off your head on illegal drugs at sex parties in private flats than on conventional nights out in public places.  I will leave the detailed descriptions to the book, but suffice to say he paints a clear picture of sexual encounters devoid of meaning beyond the most basic physical gratification.  Those of us in the Church of England arguing for the liturgical recognition of same-sex relationships need to recognise these realities, and that there are good reasons for more conservative Christians to recoil with horror from the fleshpots.

Within the Church I observe two related milder forms of dishonesty, perpetuated by our continuing difficulties in having open discussion on the subject.  The first is the sight (painfully apparent in General Synod especially) of those who are ‘clinging to their closets’ in being generally known to be in gay relationships, but never discussing them in public. Most strikingly, those in this situation can be found across the full spectrum of voting on sexuality – I cannot decide if the closetedness is more painful to observe among allies or opponents.

The second I will call ‘shamonogamy,’ the state of presenting as a respectable cohabiting gay couple to church and family, but in reality playing around with social media hook-ups with abandon, with or without the acceptance of one’s public partner.  If I am deliberately general in both these descriptions I assure readers that it is because I wish to avoid speculation about individuals rather than because I have any doubts about the veracity of my information.  The issue, to me at any rate, is not that any particular choice of life is wrong in itself, but that so many are living lies, and this undermines our ability to commend any sort of truth, including the Christian truth.

These realities arise, of course, from fear and the long inheritance of oppression, and that is why we need change in the Church’s official position on sexuality.  But gay Anglicans also have, I suggest, a strong responsibility to find ways to live more honestly, if we are to play our full part in proclaiming the truth of the Gospel to England today.  But this does not mean endorsing the equally untrue illusion that the Church’s participation in straight marriage normally consists of uniting pure virgins before God, or encouraging the bizarre activity Rachel Mann describes of being in a sexual relationship without crossing a ‘line of sin’.  And we ought to be able to discuss how the rightness or otherwise of all sexual activity needs to be judged by a complex of questions about consent and mutuality, both within and outside of vowed relationships.  There are compelling parallels between the journey of self-acceptance (assisted by the Twelve Steps programme) described in Straight Jacket and the journey of a true and deepening self-aware faith that I look to find in ordination candidates, which point to what the Church has to learn.

So this is an invitation to others to comment on and discuss the ethical state of gay life for Anglicans today – perhaps a day conference would be the right place to do it well, and I have discussed that possibility with OneBodyOneFaith.  Such an initiative can, I realise, only attract the opprobrium of those who wish to maintain the conservative position.  Equally, though, I expect ‘heteronormative reactionary’ is one of the politer things I may be called by those who embrace the consumerist freedom to be found anywhere at the swipe of an iPhone.  The via media is never particularly comfortable, but it does have a certain well-trodden honour in the Church of England.

Neil Patterson is Director of Vocations and Ordinands in the Diocese of Hereford, and writes here in a personal capacity.

Posted in Church of England, Guest Contributors, Human Sexuality, Neil Patterson | 5 Comments

History & Doctrine – Written by the Winners?

by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor for the Province of Canterbury

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It is a common dictum that history is written by the winners. Scholarship, particularly for the pre-modern world, enables us to uncover the other side of the story. Revisionism – often a term of abuse – is in fact a commitment to uncovering the other side of the story.

This came home to me in a shocking way as I concluded Catherine Nixey’s recent book The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. Like good revisionist history, Nixey’s book is an uncompromising account of the dark side of the so-called ‘triumph’ of Christianity in the post-Constantinian world. We read of the suppression of philosophy and other academic learning – in the name of, and for the glory of, Christ, with perhaps 10% of classical philosophical writing surviving the Christian onslaught. We read of the rise of monasticism, which in many instances involved Christian mob rule – with hordes of monks descending on towns to destroy books, temples and people, and with some monasteries being, to the modern ear, little more than centres of abuse and terror. And we read of the other martyrs, the ones who died not for Christ but for paganism, having their lives taken from them by those who, encouraged by radical preaching, thought that the best way to give glory to God was to destroy their fellow human beings. Nixey’s book should be recommended reading for all who cling to the idea that the late Patristic period was a sort of Christian “Golden Age”.

The great gift of revisionist histories is that they reveal that the world of the past was far more complex than we would care to believe. I well remember reading John Boswell’s The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe which was an eye-opening moment and helped me to see the ancient world in a new light. Even Tom Wright’s revisionist Jesus and the Victory of God prompted a reassessment of Jesus through his painstaking scholarship. Nixey, Boswell and Wright, from their different angles, all offer new perspectives. They may claim more than scholarship completely allows, but they do us a great service.

Our current conversations about sexuality in the Church of England include the claim by some prominent conservatives that progressives are arguing for a change in the teaching of the Church.

So, recent reviews of Vicky Beeching’s Undivided have praised her courage and lamented her treatment, while offering a robust, occasionally sub-Christian, defence of the teaching of the Church. What Nixey and the revisionist historians remind us is that ‘the teaching of the Church’ is not a neutral idea and that the claim that the current teaching of the Church has emerged solely through the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church is not really tenable. Power, corruption, homophobia, violence and intolerance have also played a part. When we assess the value of the teaching of the Church as a guide to making ethical decisions, we need to set it in a particular context of its emergence within a particular culture, development into doctrine (including the suppression of alternative perspectives and all that implies for the treatment of human beings), and the way in which that teaching has affected the conduct of those who have followed it.

It is an unusual development in the current Church that Evangelicals are using the more Catholic approach of arguing against the goodness of same sex relationships by appealing to ‘the teaching of the Church.’ If they are to do that, then it is important that they accept the negative side of that appeal, the dark side of the development of particular doctrinal and ethical positions.

Many who now argue for a new approach, like Vicky Beeching, do so out of a deeply negative experience of the effect of the teaching of the Church. Failing to recognise that doctrine leads to actions that are sometimes negative cannot simply be explained away by the sinfulness of those who act; it must recognise that the doctrines and teachings themselves are shaped and emerge through sinful, broken and sometimes deeply destructive periods of Church history by sometimes terrible people.

Doctrine, like history, is written by the winners.

Our commitment to Jesus the Lord of all time requires more than allowing the winners to have the only word. The marginalised are also those whose voices have been silenced by history.

Posted in Church of England, Human Sexuality, Simon Butler | 2 Comments

Incarnational Truth – The Power of Testimony

by Jayne Ozanne, Editor of ViaMedia.News and Author of Just Love

Jayne Ozanne (3)

I’ve been reflecting recently about the books that most shaped my youth and which helped give me a glimpse of a God who I was so hungry to know and eager to serve.

I think the three that I remember having the greatest impact were “The Cross and the Switchblade” by David Wilkerson, “God’s Smuggler” by Brother Andrew and “Chasing the Dragon” by Jackie Pullinger.  The latter was recommended to me by a friend at Cambridge who had had the privilege of spending time with Jackie in Hong Kong during his gap year, and who had been “blown away” by her faith and ministry.

Her book had caused a bit of a problem for the Church, however.  Here was a woman who clearly had an incredible call on her life, who had decided to follow that call despite the reaction of those around her – senior church leaders who would not allow her to serve in a leadership role in the Church because she was a woman.

I remember Jackie addressing a women’s meeting at Holy Trinity Brompton in the late nineties and explaining that she in fact hated women’s meetings: “Give me the men any day,” she said, “as they are the ones who need to be challenged about their views of women in leadership!”  We had all laughed, but we knew that what she said rang true – many of us had calls on our lives that were being thwarted by a Church that did not allow women into leadership roles.  So, Jackie encouraged us to just get on and do what God was calling us to do anyway.  For her this had meant getting on a boat and ending up in Hong Kong.  The rest is history.

Her powerful testimony of God at work in her life, as set out in her memoir “Chasing the Dragon”, challenged many.  They could not but see the hand of God blessing her ministry – even if it failed to conform to their understanding of what the scripture had to say about women in leadership.

What she carried was incarnational truth – she was a living witness to the power of God at work in her.  No one could deny that, not even those who were most vocal about the “clarity of scripture” on the matter.  Here was a woman who God was clearly using, a woman who had brought many to Christ, who had founded and led various international ministries, and who was overseeing the work of many men.

She was an exception to their rule – and in being so, brought clearly into the light the fallacy of that rule.  It reminded me beautifully of the teaching that I had had under Stephen Hawking – that the way to disprove any scientific theory is to find a counter example….only one is ever needed.  In this case it was a woman – an incarnational woman – who showed through the power of her ministry and her testimony that God was blessing her and those around her.

Incarnational truth is difficult to argue with.  It’s fact, it’s real and it’s raw.

It’s what Jesus demonstrated to us too.  He came, he lived, he died, he rose again.

His own incarnational truth broke the rules – and as such the Pharisees couldn’t get their heads around it.  They were so intent on holding to their strict interpretation of scripture that they failed to understand the core message of God’s love as revealed by scripture.  Their focus on law rather than love is why they could not see the incarnational truth in the person of Jesus who stood right before them – their Messiah, for whom they longed.

Last week I had the privilege of meeting Presiding Bishop Michael Curry at the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in Austin, Texas.  I had wanted to speak to him to thank him for his prophetic role in speaking out for the global LGBTI community, and for his encouragement to us.  Seeing my tears, which appeared from nowhere as I spoke, he climbed over the table that separated us and gave me a huge hug.  Looking me squarely in the eyes he said: “Encourage them to tell their stories, Jayne, for it is that encounter that has the power to challenge and change people.”

I couldn’t have agreed more – what we are each called to do is to share our incarnational truth about who we are, what we are, how we love and how we know that we are loved by God.

It’s what my dear friend Vicky Beeching has done with her book, Undivided, and what I too have endeavored to do with my own recent book, Just Love.  We have dared to tell our stories.  To testify to the work of God in our lives, and the power of His love that has saved us from harmful teachings that have nearly killed both of us.

It’s what we were taught as evangelicals to do – to share our testimony and so witness to the faith that is within us.

It has been interesting to watch people’s reactions.

For many it has encouraged them to tell their stories too, to know that they are not alone, to be reassured that God loves them – just as they are – and that they are beautifully and wonderfully made.

For others it has meant that they have had to defend their rules, to close their eyes to the pain and trauma that these rules have caused, and to negate the truth of those standing right before them saying – this is me, and this is what God has done.

I for one know that the God I serve will take my story, as fallible as it is, and break it (as he did with the offering of five loaves and two small fish) in order to feed many.  He will use it, I pray, to challenge and encourage people, and whether they choose to hear it or damn it, it will be a witness to the power of God at work.

It’s my attempt at telling my story – I wonder, are you able to share yours?

Posted in Church of England, Human Sexuality, Jayne Ozanne | 9 Comments

Tapping Into Love – Democratising Evangelism

By the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool

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Last week the General Synod met to address a wide-ranging agenda which included listening to victims and survivors of abuse, debating the Church’s approach to climate change, to appropriate investment in (or disinvestment from) energy companies, to nuclear weapons, and a large raft of legislative business. In and among all this a debate on evangelism, built around the final report of the Archbishops’ Evangelism Task Group, was squeezed out and will be debated at a future Synod, hopefully and presumably in February 2019.
This was a pity, not least for those of us who had prepared for the debate and had written the report on which it was to be based.
I need to declare an interest in all this, as I served as vice-chair of the Evangelism Task Group (ETG), under the chairmanship of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
I’m so glad to have been asked to serve on the ETG and to have worked with an outstanding group of colleagues from all traditions, whose presence on the group at different times blessed the whole Church. I thank God for every single one of them, and I thank God that in our Church there is a place at the table for them all, for as long as they wish to stay in the room, or to re-enter the room if they’ve left it, so that wisdom and grace may abound.
The motion on evangelism which the Synod hoped to debate asked the national officers of the Church to continue their work of resourcing and supporting Christians in their sharing of the good news of Jesus. This was an excellent thing, as far as I was concerned. I served for six years as the National Mission and Evangelism Adviser in our Church of England, and I am proud to have done so and to have tried to make a difference from that position. I continue to value the work of national officers and of the new and expanded Evangelism and Discipleship Team. So I would have supported the Synod motion.
But as I have reflected on the non-debate, and on the undebated motion, I find myself worrying that it might have deceived the Church into believing that the responsibility for evangelism lies solely with Church House teams and officers and diocesan staff, as if without nationally smart ideas no evangelism can be expected to take place.
It is not so. Evangelism is simple if you do it, as Archbishop Moon Hing said to the Synod from his own experience in Asia. Evangelism happens when people talk. It happens when people talk. Evangelism cannot be delegated upwards. It takes place between friends, across kitchen tables and at school gates and in workplaces, when Christians listen to the ones they know and talk to them about Jesus.
Evangelism, the sharing of good news, happens most especially when there is love; that is when the redemptive love of Jesus is shared by people who have been redeemed, and who (you might say) love large.
Outstandingly the most significant single example of commending the faith in recent memory is the sermon preached by the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church at the Royal Wedding. Bishop Michael communicated his humanity and he told the couple, and 1,900 million people besides, that there was power in love, and that Christians were people committed to redemptive love and to justice.
As the Archbishop of York said at the Synod, this came as welcome news to the world. Millions of people did not know that Christian preachers could be human, and they did not know that the Christian faith was about love. Repeatedly in newspapers and magazines Bishop Curry’s message was described as “unorthodox”. Since then, preachers have been invited to be like Bishop Curry. I agree that we should be like Bishop Curry, if that means we communicate who we are as beloved children of God (not pretending to be who he is!) and talk about the love that has made us beloved. As the man said, there’s power in love.
Evangelism is a long, churchy word, and love is a short, everyday one. Evangelism is a blah blah word and love is a real word. I’m afraid people expect blah blah from church people. They don’t expect Christians to talk about love. They think it’s unorthodox. That is a sadness and an indictment of course, but let’s not be too gloomy. We beat ourselves up too much as it is. Instead, let’s look on the bright side;  when we talk about the power of love then people are surprised and they want to hear it. People are glad that love is real. Isn’t that great?
The Washington Post was one of hundreds among the media that reported positively on Bishop Curry’s sermon. This is what they said:
“Based on social media, the reaction to Curry’s sermon showed that it was incredibly well-received, especially by black Americans. But emphasizing the power of love seemed to resonate across countries, races and even political views perhaps because such a unifying message is rarely shared so prominently. And it also possibly connected because the current times are politically divisive, and even violent.
 
Curry spoke for an alternative:
 
“Think and imagine, well, think and imagine a world where love is the way,” he said. “Imagine our homes and families when love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way. Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce when love is the way. Imagine this tired old world when love is the way, unselfish, sacrificial redemptive.”
 
There is a lot to take away from Saturday’s ceremony, and there will be numerous pieces reflecting on it. But the component of the day that had the greatest potential to connect is that hate will never be an effective approach to righting societal ills. Therefore, tapping into love is worth a try.”
Tapping into love is worth a try, the love that’s “unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive”; as we would say the unique love of Christ that saves the world. Churches that speak of this love are like sprinkler systems on a parched lawn. Suddenly the dry and brown grass becomes green again. Suddenly the dry, harsh, misrepresented, half-forgotten Christian narrative makes sense again. Suddenly the ones on the edge of things realise that they are included. Love makes things work. Love large; love is big. Dante hit the bullseye when he said that it is love that moves the sun and the other stars. Love is as big as it gets. In short God is love, and Jesus is the word of God. As Brian Zahnd puts it, Jesus is what God has to say.
But we must, must, must be clear; if we live as Jesus people and say what God has to say, if we tap into love as the way God is, then people will expect to see love as the way we are.
In his Presidential Address at the recent Synod the Archbishop of York specifically and explicitly reminded the Church that its leaders have committed it to a radical new Christian inclusion. Each of those four words matters. No one of them cancels out the other three. Together they speak of a deeply rooted and refreshed welcome within a changed and changing world. Together they speak of love. There’s power in love.
Becoming a community marked by radical Chrisian inclusion has not been postponed until 2020, or even till next week. Our Archbishops have called us to it now, today, this moment, this breath; this welcome. There will be no evangelism without it. If it’s not radical, not new, not Christian, not inclusion, then it’s not good enough.
In my own Diocese we have a rule of life and each person who commits to it will be committed to prayer and to reading scripture and to living justice and to generosity, but they will also be committed to bringing one friend into the conscious company of Jesus each year. Talking to one, listening to one, bringing one. If that happens it will be because of love, radical, new, Christian, inclusive love, and where that is seen there will be evangelism. There’s power in love.
Can we then democratise evangelism, a radical, new, Christian, inclusive evangelism? Between friends and across kitchen tables and at school gates and in workplaces, can we speak of the love that is for all, of the power of love to embrace and to bless and to redeem the world? Can we tap into Jesus’ love? It’s worth a try.

 

Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool. Mobile email.
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