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A Moment in the Tangle

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by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool

“God made the angels to show Him splendour, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But [human beings] He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of [their] mind.[1]

In this Holy Week it’s good to remember that the Church is “the mystical body of [God’s] Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people[2]” as well as a limping, fractious, all-too-human institution. We live always in the “as well as”, between grace and freedom, between reality believed and reality seen, in the light of the resurrection and in the shadow of the cross.

We receive our salvation freely as God works by grace within us, and we work it out with fear and trembling[3], “in the tangle of the mind” as Thomas More puts it in Robert Bolt’s play, quoted at the beginning of this piece. And this short piece is about a moment, an unfinished moment, in the tangle of this bishop’s mind.

In February the General Synod chose not to take note of a report from the House of Bishops that called for maximum freedom under current law and guidance for those in same-sex relationships[4]. After that debate our Archbishops called for a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church[5].

In my own speech in that debate I said this:

“When I go home from here, no matter what the result of this debate, I will seek in Liverpool to ensure maximum freedom under the law for LGBTI people, so that their love as it really exists can be recognised and honoured within the church as it really exists. I have sought to do this since I arrived in Liverpool… And I commit myself to continue to work… to offer maximum freedom within this Church. We will do this in liaison with others. We will not wilfully break the law or flout properly agreed guidance. But our exploration of maximum freedom may carry us to places in relation to law and guidance where we have not previously gone. And all this will happen anyway.”

So after Synod I went home to keep that commitment, and a couple of weeks later I had a conversation at the back of church after a service, the sort of conversation we have more and more often in this changing England.

It’s all very cheerful and happy, as people gather at the back of church, and I’m shaking hands with people and we’re all laughing and talking, and a woman comes up and shakes my hand and says “My daughter is getting married and you won’t marry her in church will you, because her fiancée is a woman”. She’s stating a fact and she’s clearly exasperated because of this fact. And I agree that it’s a fact. So I say “No, I’m afraid we won’t, we can’t under our laws at the moment”, and then I say this: “But we can give her and her partner such a lovely service of welcome and recognition and affirmation”, and the woman smiles and says “Oh, well that’s very good; you mean a service of blessing?”, and I say, “Send me an email and we’ll do what we can”.

In the tangle of the Church’s mind, we are debating what “maximum freedom” might mean, and still more what “radical new Christian inclusion” might mean, and how these meanings might be expressed. Opinions differ on this, to put it mildly.

But I am clear myself that “maximum freedom” does not mean “minimum freedom”, and that “radical new Christian inclusion” does not mean “shallow old unchristian exclusion”.

All the same there’s a tangle. In 2005, speaking only of civil partnerships, eight years before civil same-sex marriage, the House of Bishops had this to say:

”…the House of Bishops affirms that clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership.[6]

And so here I am, at a moment in the tangle, an unfinished moment, working away as a bishop, remembering what this woman said, “Oh, well that’s very good; you mean a service of blessing?”, and looking at this word, “blessing”, and at this phrase, “should not provide”, and at this phrase, “radical Christian inclusion”. Here I am, working away, to offer maximum freedom within the current law.

And as I do so I wonder about blessing. And I reach for a recent book, the book called “Blessing” by Andrew Davison[7]. And I note there the deep richness of meaning in the word, and the freedom from fear as the richness of the word is unpacked. I note the unfolding from scripture, and from the traditions of the Church, of blessing “as thankful recognition” for something received[8], of blessing as expressing a calling, a vocation, a commitment, something offered[9].

And I note the distinction (not Andrew Davison’s distinction, but the Church’s distinction) between blessing as constitutive (consecrating or dedicating a thing or a relationship, spoken to confer a status, solemn, you might say formal) and blessing as invocative (asking for God’s favour in relation to a thing, expressing warmth and approval and affirmation and the belief that this thing should flourish under God, solemn, you might say informal). As Davison says: “Most blessings are likely to be invocative” [10].

Among other resources, this book is helping me to scope the wide and diverse understanding that we have of blessing, the wide and diverse response that the Church makes to the wide and diverse world God made. And for me the heart of this response is to identify the good in the world and to speak well of the world, to speak well to the world, to speak God’s “yes”[11] in the moment now, and in the moments to come. As Andrew Davison says:

When we bless something, someone or somewhere, we are in some way pointing to what it can most truly be; we are directing it to its fulfilment in God[12].

As a bishop I find these distinctions and these expressions of richness most helpful. Because they point to the many ways the Church has of “speaking well[13]”. These many ways illuminate the love of God and offer thankful recognition for things, and for places, and for people who love each other. Many ways of speaking well, that might meet the requirements of love, even within the law we have.

And as I read and think I remember the words of the bishops, and of the Archbishops. And I remember that I want to offer radical new Christian inclusion to those who seek the ministry of this Church. I want to offer maximum freedom to this woman and her daughter and her daughter’s partner, who come to the Church despite all they know of us. They come, because they want to discern and acknowledge the presence and the love of God in this relationship. They come, to receive the prayers of the Church on the love that has entered their family.

And I am determined that we will find a way to meet them there, a way that will speak well of love and of the presence of God. To find a way that will point to the love of God in Jesus Christ, to the love which never fails, in the mystical body, the blessed company of all faithful people. To point to that love within this limping, fractious, all-too-human institution.

And in the tangle of my mind I remember my Synod speech again, and I stand by it. Because our unity matters deeply to me I remain determined that we shall not flout the law, but keep it, until we change it. But I am determined too, as I said in my speech, that our exploration of radical Christian inclusion “may carry us to places in relation to law and guidance where we have not previously gone”.

The Church’s missional life takes form in pastoral moments, and this is one of mine. And these moments, these unfinished moments, my moment, this family’s moment – these moments will be added to all the other pastoral moments of today’s Church as we seek to reflect properly the love of Christ crucified and risen.

And in all these moments, and out of all these moments, the future will unfold; the future which is unknown, but which is shaped by these moments of love requested and love shared, of blessing requested and blessing shared.

And what will that future look like? Well, we’ll discover as we go forward, together.

In his fine book “Crazy Christians”, the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Michael Curry quotes a spiritual, and I end with it here as we enter the season of the Resurrection, and as we serve God in the tangle of our minds, and as we go forward as a Church. It is a song for me, and for the woman I met, and her daughter and her daughter’s partner, and for all of us who are on the journey, in the tangle:

Got my hands on the gospel plow,

Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now,

Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on,

Keep your eyes on that prize, hold on[14].

 

[1] Robert Bolt, “A Man for All Seasons”, 1960

[2] Book of Common Prayer, Holy Communion service

[3] Philippians 2:12-13

[4] GS2055, para 22

[5] https://staging.churchofengland.org/media/3878263/abc-and-aby-joint-letter.pdf

[6] “Civil Partnerships – A pastoral statement from the House of Bishops of the Church of England” 2005 (https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2005/07/pr5605.aspx)

[7] Andrew Davison, “Blessing”, Canterbury Press 2014. I’m grateful to Dr. Davison for this book, and also for his helpful advice on the writing of this present piece.

[8] “Blessing”, p.8f

[9] “Blessing”, p12ff

[10] “Blessing”, pp125ff

[11] 2 Cor 1:20

[12] “Blessing”, p47

[13] “Speaking well”, Latin “bene dicere”, you might almost say “benediction”, you might almost say “blessing” (see “Blessing”, p)

[14] Michael Curry, “Crazy Christians”, Morehouse Publishing 2013, p84

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