Statement to the House of Bishops – February 2017

Following the defeat of the ‘Take note’ motion on sexuality at General Synod last week, Accepting Evangelicals wishes to assure the House of Bishops of our prayers as you seek a way forward for the whole Church of England.

It must be said that we were disappointed by the House of Bishops’ report which was the substance for the debate. The report followed three years of ‘Shared Conversations’ which had been entered into by LGBT Christians in good faith and not insignificant courage.

Our disappointment centred around two areas:

  1. That after such a careful and lengthy process of Shared Conversations, the voices of LGBT Christians were still not adequately voiced in the report.

  2. That its central proposal of maintaining the status quo in terms of law, liturgy and doctrine, while seeking to allow ‘maximum freedom’ within Church Law was inadequate and flawed.

The first of these has been well articulated by the retired Bishops’ letter which preceded the debate and we would not want to add to that.

The second point however, does require the further explanation:

Very few people expected that this report would signal a rapid change in the Church of England’s Doctrine of Marriage. We understand that determining if or when this is appropriate will be a lengthy process. What was hoped for by many however, was a clear sign that the recent statements about radical welcome for LGBT people and repentance of the way they have been treated, would lead to concrete moves towards creating a liturgy of blessing of thanksgiving for those in Civil Partnerships and same-sex marriage.

Such a development would not require a change in doctrine on marriage, just as the introduction of a liturgy of thanksgiving for people who have remarried after divorce did not require a change in doctrine to exclude the understanding of marriage as a lifelong commitment.

We believe that the creation of such a liturgy is essential if LGBT people are to feel they have a place in the Church of England. The present pastoral accommodations do not give that assurance. They lead to LGBT people feeling tolerated at best, problematic at times, and ultimately unwelcome – even in many parish churches which would like to be fully welcoming of LGBT people.

As is often said, the heart of the Church of England is found and expressed in its liturgy. As long as there is no provision for the celebration of loving, committed LGBT relationships, LGBT people and especially couples, will feel that they are marginalised or excluded from the life and worship of the Church at a fundamental level – that of their relationship with a person they deeply love.

Thus, the report is both inadequate in that its proposals do not address this vital area and flawed because without movement of this kind, all positive statements by the Church of England towards LGBT people will be seen as mere empty words.

If the Church of England is genuinely serious about recognising and welcoming the faith, life and ministry of LGBT women and men, this cannot be omitted.

Our misgivings and disappointment mean we are pleased that the ‘Take note’ motion at Synod was lost last week, as we hope that this defeat will cause the House of Bishops to reconsider its approach and its leadership of the Church of England in this matter.

We also hope that the defeat of the motion will lead to a greater recognition of changing attitudes within the Church of England towards recognition of LGBT people as our sisters and brothers, made in the image of God, and not problems or issues (as the Archbishops’ letter makes clear).

Evidence of this change can be clearly seen in the opening speech by Ven. Nikki Groarke, who, as an Evangelical, spoke in support of the introduction of a pastoral liturgy for the blessing of gay couples in committed partnerships, despite her continuing concerns about marriage.

Evidence for these changing attitudes can also be found in the election of Canon Simon Butler, (also an Evangelical) as Prolocutor of the Province of Canterbury even though he is openly gay with a same-sex partner.

In the light of the Shared Conversations and the debate at General Synod, we would want to endorse strongly the need for a substantial re-evaluation of the House of Bishops’ response and leadership, towards the genuine inclusion of LGBT people in the Church of England.

In conclusion, we would like to commend to the House of Bishops a modern day parable, written by one of our Trustees. We would humbly suggest that consideration of this parable and the questions it raises, should be included in the meeting of the House of Bishops in May.

We would like to assure you of our prayers for you in charting a difficult, yet vital path for the Church of England. ‘Maximum freedom’ under our current rules will not resolve the impasse. We need to find a place for our LGBT brothers and sisters in the heart of the Church of England – in its liturgy.

Elaine Sommers
Martin Stears-Handscomb

Co-Chairs of Accepting Evangelicals.

 

Modern Parable for the Church of England…

So I went to my local cinema with a friend.

We got to the box office to buy our tickets, but when we said which film we wanted to see, the cinema usher suddenly looked uncomfortable.  The colour slowly drained from her cheeks.

After an agonising pause, she finally said, “I’m sorry but this film isn’t really for you.  It’s for other people… you know, people who aren’t like you.”

My friend and I stood there, caught somewhere between amazement and incredulity.  We began to argue with the usher.  “What do you mean – it’s not for us?  Why can’t we go in?  What sort of cinema is this anyway?”

The more we argued, the more uncomfortable she looked, mumbling things like, “I know, I know… it doesn’t seem fair…  If it were up to me, I would let you in… you are more than welcome to see other films, but not this one – its company policy.”

We stood our ground, continued to argue and after a while, she offered to talk to the cinema manager and see what he could do.  While this was far from ideal, we reluctantly agreed and she disappeared into his office, leaving us standing there wondering if it was really worth staying.

In the end, we decided to wait, and eventually she came back with a smile.

“I’ve talked to the manager, and he doesn’t agree with the company policy either, but his hands are tied.  We can’t sell you tickets to that film – but we can get around it!   If you want, I can sneak you in through the side door, and sit you in a corner where no one will see you.  I’m afraid you won’t be able the whole screen, but you will get the gist of the film you want to see.”

Now we were completely incredulous.

“But” she continued, “you have to agree not to tell anybody, and you mustn’t let anyone see you, and if you hear certain words – words like ‘thanksgiving’ or ‘blessing’ or ‘ring’ – you must put your hands over your ears and remember that those words don’t apply to you.”

Now we didn’t know what to do.  We really wanted to see the film.  We had been looking forward to it, ever since it came out.  We had made a commitment to each other to see it together.

Yet now, faced with all these conditions… faced with the way we were being treated… faced with all the difficulty our presence was creating… we just felt a mixture of angry, deflated, and sad.  All the joy and excitement had gone.

Should we stay and take what we’ve been offered, even though it’s not what we want?  Should we walk away?  Find another cinema?  Surely they can’t all be like this? Perhaps we should just wait for the DVD? But that wouldn’t be the same either…

The cinema usher asked us again, “So… do you want me to sneak you in?”

Tell us, Church of England, what should we do?

 

Bringing an end to sin-shaming

My heart is heavy whenever I hear a minister of religion taking the opportunity to publicly suggest that gay people should repent of their sins. While I think that I understand the concern behind this – that gay people in sexually active relationships (even civil partnerships and marriages) may remain in a state of unrepentant sin, I’m always troubled by the glaring inconsistency.  Surely, if we are concerned about gay people remaining in unrepentant sin, we should call them to repentance for all their sins, the ones of which we are aware and the ones of which we are unaware. If we itemise one sin (to the exclusion of all the other sins they may or may not be committing), it becomes obvious that this is the ‘sin’ causing us the most difficulty. Further, if we are concerned that gay people may remain in unrepentant sin, then surely we should be equally concerned for all other people remaining in unrepentant sin (and truly there will be an awful lot of people and an awful lot of sin – calls to repentance will keep us all busy for some time). 

To highlight one particular people group (gay people) for one particular sin (possible sex in their civil partnerships or marriages) says far more about our current difficulties in accepting civil partnered and same-sex married people into our church congregations than it ever does about the nature of repentance or the nature of sin. It really looks as if we have a particular axe to grind, a particular agenda to further.

LGBT+ people (and also straight people in society who believe in equal treatment for LGBT+ people) hear ‘gay people should repent of their sins’ and notice that they are subject to specialised treatment. Gay people may interpret this as ‘You are not acceptable to us as you are and you will need to change if you want to be part of us’ to which they may well reply ‘That’s fine. You have your own point of view. We’ll stick with Buddhism’.  Bridge-building efforts underway (perhaps for months or years) between individual church members and their gay friends, family members, work colleagues and neighbours may take a blow from which it is difficult to recover.

I hear too the suggestion that gay people, on coming to faith, will be called, as we all are, to ‘carry our cross’ and that, in their case, this may mean a commitment to celibacy.  This seems to some of us to be the answer to the problem. But of course, it is Jesus who calls us to carry our cross and our crosses are tailor-made for each of us, given our individual journeys of faith. No human has the power or authority to tell another human how heavy his cross will be or for how long he will be carrying it – this authority belongs to Jesus alone. I dare to suggest (but I can’t prescribe) that some of us may find that Jesus calls us to ‘carry our cross’ when we are asked to fellowship with particular people whose inclusion in our church communities we struggle with. I appreciate that this too will be a costly discipleship.

I am an evangelical and so I desire greatly that gay people (indeed, all people) in my community come to faith in Jesus and even to be part of my own church.  I am sure that they are happy with Buddhism but my belief and experience is that a living, ongoing relationship with Jesus is an adventure not to be missed.

My Bible points me to God who wants to draw all people (straight and gay) to himself, who can bring people to metanoia (a turning away from those things that harm us and a turning towards a life of flourishing lived in him) and who can convict of sin and effect transformation.  All of these are God’s work and beyond the abilities of us mere mortals. Further, my Bible and my experience reinforce my belief that God works in very different ways with different people over different issues in different timescales – our own prescriptive ‘you will change in x way, in y time, in order to be part of us’ may thwart God’s particular plans for a  particular person.  We take our Bible seriously but surely we take God and the outworking of his plans for individual people more seriously still.

It’s unfortunate for gay people that, in committing to civil partnerships or same-sex marriages, they are ‘wearing their sin on their sleeve’, but all the same, can we bring an end to this arbitrary sin-shaming? Can we surrender our plans to God’s plans, our comfort to his unpredictability, and our need for control to his desire to see people come to faith? Can we submit to the Holy Spirit and see where this adventure takes us?

Statement from Trustees

Many readers will be aware that Jayne Ozanne has recently stepped down as director of Accepting Evangelicals and has written an explanation in a statement on her personal blog.

The Trustees of Accepting Evangelicals would like to take this opportunity to express their gratitude to Jayne for her Directorship of Accepting Evangelicals. Throughout her time with us, we have been galvanised by Jayne’s drive and vision, encouraged by her tireless work for LGBTI inclusion, and thrilled at the opportunities she has taken to raise the profile of Accepting Evangelicals.

The Trustees acknowledge Jayne’s commitment to an exclusively Anglican focus and respect her decision to stand down to pursue other projects, especially within General Synod. We recognise and support the exciting new developments she is initiating and look forward to seeing them bear fruit.

Please pray for Jayne in her new role and please pray for the Trustees as we continue our work within an interdenominational and grassroots context.

Resolutely passionate

NewYearFreshStart

So what will your New Year’s Resolution be? Will you even bother I wonder? Why even think about it when you know you’ll just give them up after a few weeks and settle back down into old habits, which are as familiar as the time-worn Christmas carols you’ve just been singing for the umpteenth time?

Except this year it could just possibly be different.

This year you could chose to do something that will change the very heart of how the gospel is heard and received in our time. You could determine to alter just one tiny little thing that might have a snowball effect, and so create a chain reaction that will – like dominos – knock everything over.

And no, I’m not trying to persuade you to change your mind about a sincere belief that you hold.

I’m talking about something quite different. Very different.

I’m talking about how we chose to see the world – the metaphorical glasses we put on each morning. Of course, many may well already be wearing them – in which case perhaps a little clean might be in order?

It’s just I’ve noticed a worrying trend recently, something that seems to becoming a norm – particularly amongst Anglicans. Maybe I should have more faith, and trust that God is in control – even if we can’t always see him at work. After all, the darkest part of the night is just before the dawn isn’t it?

You see we Brits seem to have a habit, perhaps honed by our politicians, of steering clear of difficult issues that we don’t know the answer to. If you don’t believe me, think of our attitude to immigration, to Syria and to the problems in the NHS. We close our eyes and wish that they would all just “go away”. Disappear. Vanish. For out of sight is out of mind, and quite frankly we’ve too much else on our plate. So we slide the issues silently to one side into the “will someone else please deal with this pile”. It’s like that news story we’d rather not listen to, so we flick the remote and watch another channel instead.

But the problem is that left untouched and in the dark these issues just continue to fester, the sores get deeper until the whole body begins to suffer. They will never “just go away” – indeed they will grow and eventually become life threatening. Like that annoying knocking sound in a car engine, it will become worse and worse until there’s suddenly a loud bang, where the whole vehicle is brought to a shuddering halt.

So, just to be completely clear what I’m talking about – we LGBT Christians are not going away. We’re here to stay. We’re part of the Body of Christ too – just like you. We’ve had enough pain. Enough rejection. Enough judgement. Enough of being slandered as “pedophiles and perverts”. We are your sons and daughters, your neighbours and your friends. We are decent, honourable human beings who just want to be able to live normal lives like you do – we want the joy of being loved, of being chosen, of being desired and adored.

So please don’t “switch channels”! Don’t turn off and pretend that we are someone else’s problem – because we’re not. We all belong to one Body of Christ – as we all share in one baptism, one faith and one hope.

So please, I implore you, make one simple and small New Year’s resolution – decide not to avoid this critical issue. Don’t leave it for others to sort out. If you’re unsure about where you stand – talk to people you trust and discuss it together. Better still – talk to some gay Christians, or contact any of the LGBT Christian groups.

You see, I passionately believe that the greatest evils at work in our Church today are the Twins of Fear – the Fear of the Unknown, and the Fear of Change. It is these fears that keep people locked in their prisons of ignorance and prejudice, where they buy into slanderous stereotypes that demean and dishonor parts of the body, their own body, that they are unfamiliar with. As we know, the only thing that will cast out these fears is the passionate self-sacrificing love that comes from above, which like an antiseptic balm will treat our festering wounds and allow peace once again to reign in our hearts.

So then, what will your New Year’s Resolution be? Might it be to stop side-stepping the difficult questions? Will it be to engage in a debate you have hitherto avoided? Are there hidden fears that you know you need to address? Do you need to clean your glasses so that any smudges are wiped away?

Whatever the issue, can I suggest there is one resolution that is so small and simple, yet has the power to transform us all – ask the Lord of the Passion to give you his Passion for that which you fear the most!

For godly passion transforms us all.

Published in Church of England Newspaper.

Confession Time

I couldn’t help smiling to myself – the little boy of about six stood in front of his younger sister, who he’d obviously just upset, and drawled slowly “Sooorrrryy”. His exasperated mother shook him firmly by the shoulder and loudly whispered “Now say it like you mean it – say it from your heart!”

How often does God want to do the same to us, I wonder? What does it mean for us to truly say we are sorry – to mean it, to feel it, to own it so that we can honestly say that it comes “from the heart”?

It’s of course far easier to apologise for the things we’re conscious of getting wrong, when we have knowingly upset or hurt someone. It’s far more difficult I think to say sorry for things that we have been unknowing perpetrators of – where we have unwittingly inflicted pain and trauma on whole communities. Be it the horrors of the slave trade, sexism within Church or past colonial wrongs – there are countless examples of where a heartfelt apology could do so much to heal old wounds.

But to coin an old phrase – “Sorry” always seems to be the hardest word…

It’s something I too have found great difficulty with. A couple of weeks ago I was confronted by some LGBT Christians as to whether I had publicly repented for being an evangelical! I must admit I was quite taken aback by this, especially given the pain they knew I had been through in “coming out” to my evangelical friends and family.

However, I could see that their question was of deep importance to them, and one that required an answer. What they meant, I think, was had I repented for my part of unwittingly adding to the harm and pain of LGBT Christians given the views I once held – which are so prevalent amongst so many in my “wing” of the Church?

I’ve taken time to reflect on this. My immediate response was that I felt quite hurt to be asked this as I believed myself to be a victim, having sat under teachings that had caused me to reject who I was in Christ. I therefore felt that there was nothing I needed to repent of – save perhaps asking forgiveness of myself for not coming to terms with how God had created me to be earlier.

But they are right of course – I have not actively sought their forgiveness for being part of the church that has sought to deny the humanity of a significant part of our Christian family. Nor have I publicly repented of being so fearful of rejection I that I had failed to challenge those in authority. I’m trying to do my best now, at some cost, but I know that there are hundreds if not thousands who could have been helped if I – and others – had found a voice sooner.

I’m truly sorry for the pain that this has caused, and the way that evangelical churches I have been part of have demeaned and marginalised those who are not born heterosexual. I hope that somehow they can find it in their hearts to forgive me, and know that I am now trying to do all I can to right that wrong.

Interestingly, this was a point that Archbishop Justin also chose to make in front of a packed St Aldate’s in Oxford last month. To an astonished congregation he declared that it was critically important that the Church recognised that it had got things “deeply, deeply wrong” in the past with regards to sexuality, and that it had often treated LGBT community as “sub-human”.

Both he and the authors of the Pilling Report have urged the Church to take steps to repent and say sorry for how they have collectively treated this important part of Christ’s family – but we have yet to see much action.

Saying sorry for the pain the Church has caused and the rejection it has knowingly and unknowingly inflicted is, I believe, a prerequisite for any meaningful Shared Conversation. Without it words will sound like clanging cymbals, where prejudice is seen to speak to angry hearts that are deaf to listen.

What would it take, I wonder, for churches across the land to find a day when they could openly repent of the pain the Church has caused, ask forgiveness for the rejection that it has inflicted and look to embrace the LGBT community that has so bravely continued to worship with dignity and grace in its midst? Then, and only then, might we be able to find a way through all of this.

But we’d have to say sorry from the depths of our hearts – and really mean it!

Published in 

The Stature of Waiting (or… To Act or Not to Act?)

womanwithhourglass

The Apostle James reminds us that faith without works is dead, and in so doing we are enjoined to show our faith by our actions. But is it always right to act? Are there times when it is wiser – and indeed far more challenging to our faith – to hold back, wait and prayerfully trust that God has an even greater plan that he is in the process of unveiling? It is a conundrum I am sure many of us know only too well, and one that appears particularly poignant for those within the House of Bishops – and dare I say even for the occasional Archbishop. When is it right to act and when is it right to just wait, reflect and seemingly “do nothing”? When should we use the power that is vested in us, and when should we cast a seemingly ‘blind eye’?

As Vanstone so eloquently sets out in his magisterial work, The Stature of Waiting, the triumph of the cross is Christ’s willingness to enter into his own period of Passion, where he willingly lets himself be ‘handed over’ by Judas into the final chapter of his life. This – the culmination of his time on earth, where he has already told his disciples he has ‘completed all that his Father has commanded him to do’ – is where he passively allows himself to be subjected to all that ‘the world’ can possibly choose to throw at him. And through it all – he loves. Unconditionally, unboundedly and unceasingly. Why? So that the Son of Man is glorified – and very visibly so, as testified by the soldiers watching him! Who would have believed it – the most powerful man that has ever lived hanging ‘helplessly’ on a tree. Passion, passivity and pain. So then, when should we ourselves choose to act and when should we just learn to ‘be’?

The answer is naturally completely dependent on circumstance. I would offer, however, that there are certain characteristics that will always be present in helping us discern the most appropriate pathway to take. The first is of without doubt – which is the most loving course of action to take? The second – which route requires the most courage? The third, which is the path that leads more people to the foot of the Cross? For people paralysed by fear (one understandable form of inaction) – know that Christ will stand with you as you do or say all that you know is sitting in your heart to do or say. This is particularly true for all those who are still seeking the courage to embrace the truth of who they are. Please know the truth will always set you free, and God will always honour you in this. That said, for people keen to make a stand – who feel led to act, no matter what the cost… can I gently ask – are you sure that this is honestly what God has called you to do?

Are you sure he has told you to act on this particular issue, at this particular time and in this particular way? Difficult questions – which require a level of honesty that not all will be comfortable with. The critical factor, it would seem to me, is that we learn to discern God’s voice above all others – and that we only do what we feel he has specifically called us to do. One thing is clear through it all though … a broken and contrite heart God will never despise, whilst he resists the proud he gives grace to the humble. It all therefore depends so much on the spirit in which we come before him and seek to listen to his will. The next few years will be filled with challenging situations when many will be baying for action, particularly from those in leadership. This will not always be the wisest thing to do. The great challenge will therefore be to discern what God is calling us to do – or not do!

Published in Church of England Newspaper.

A Tale of Two Archbishops

apple-made-an-uplifting-tribute-to-the-lgbt-community

I wonder if I was the only one to notice the irony of the starkly differing messages emanating from Bishopthorpe and Lambeth Palaces during this summer. On the one hand we had the Archbishop of Canterbury extolling the virtues of reconciliation, and the need for us to love each other despite how strongly we may disagree; whilst on the other we had the Archbishop of York saying that he would remove the licence of a Reader –alay person, whose ministry is fully embraced by the parishes he serves – if he chose to convert his long standing civil partnership into a marriage.

Sadly, the latter is an act that will be seen by many – particularly in the LGBT community – as deeply divisive, particularly at a time when many believe we should be looking to build bridges of understanding that strengthen rather than undermine trust and respect. No wonder that so many in society appear bemused by us all… or rather, no wonder that so many have precious little time for an institution that they feel is out of touch, out of date and out of sorts with their hurting LGBTI brothers, sisters and friends.

Of course both of the individuals concerned have the right to say and do whatever they see fit – they are our Archbishops, who are called to be Guardians of the Faith whilst seeking to embody both grace and truth. Forgive me, however, if I voice a murmur of discontent from the “back pews”. Isn’t it about time that we saw these two wonderful men of God working together on this core issue that so deeply divides our Church? Do they not see what a mixed set of messages they are giving to a world that is fast becoming deaf to theirs and the Church’s voice, and therefore to the Gospel? How might this look, I wonder? What actions might we hope they would take to ensure that they are seen to listen to and protect those who feel so marginalised and oppressed, particularly by the Church? I believe the gospels give us some clear examples – primarily that we should always seek to prioritise those who have no voice over those who have the metaphorical microphone. Who might these be?

Well in practice I believe the latter are frequently seen as those who have “all the power” as they have “all the money” – such as the large evangelical churches who tragically threaten to withhold their parish share, or large international lobby groups – who are thought to be driving “the gay agenda”. My reading of scripture says that we should never give favour to the “rich man”, but should instead be looking to honour those who are marginalised and on the fringes. The sad thing about the “Great Fudge” that we are now trying to live with as a Church is that there is so little clarity, consistency or, dareIsay, honesty about what is really going on in our dioceses. Fear keeps too many people from saying what they truly think, or in the case of many of our Christian colleagues – keeps them from having the courage to openly embrace who they are in Christ. Evangelical churches are swift to petition their bishops when they judge someone has broken a particular piece of Canon Law that they want upheld, whilst forgetting that most of them break Canon Law that others hold so dear every Sunday – such as in their choice (or rather lack) of vestments.

This is not to mention the use of unapproved worship by many parts of the church or the side-stepping of vastly differing attitudes towards Confirmations and Infant Baptisms. We have become a Church whereathin veneer of hypocrisy is built into the very fabric of the way our different traditions have learnt to co-exist, where fear of reprisal (such as non-preferment) has silenced truth and where the marginalised are side-lined still further. Would that we could find the courage to speak out, and the grace to admit “we have left undone the things we ought to have done, we have done those things which we ought not to have done and there is no health in us”.

So what should we do? Perhaps we need to learn to look for the planks in our own eyes instead of seeking out the specks in others’. Maybe we should try and stand in each other’s shoes and imagine what it feels like to be rejected, either for our views or indeed for the way we have been created? Can we try and consider the wider impact of our actions and our words, and in so doing look to extend a hand of loving friendship to those with whom we disagree, just as Christ has done for us?

Published in Church of England Newspaper

The Love of God

by Liz Styan, England

(based on Psalm 36)

Your love, O God, breaks the small boundaries of our understanding.
Your faithfulness is not constrained by etiquette and protocol.
Your righteousness is as firm, yet as fluid as the ever-changing face of the mountains.
Your justice can plumb the depths of our humanity and raise us up to new heights.

You, O God, have created both the Gay and the Straight.
You love and nurture us all.
You preserve and honour our lives.
In you we find refuge and strength, inspiration and courage,
From the abundance of your spirit, without partiality, you give of yourself to us all.
For with you is the fountain of life, in you we find acceptance and renewal. 

To Offer Our Inner Wealth

by WL Wallace, New Zealand

May we, O God,
cease to imagine our value lies in isolation
but sacramentally, sacrificially, sensuously
offer our inner wealth to the whole
and in that offering open ourselves
To its gracious hospitality.

Dialogue Together

by Chris Glaser, USA

(Ephesians 3:18-19)

Creative Conversationalist,
You speak to us through Scripture,
Even today;
You cry to us through the oppressed,
Even today;
You rejoice with us through the uplifted,
Even today;
You pray with us through the church,
Even today;
Remind us through your incessant chattering
      That we do not need to stop talking among ourselves,
      No matter what conclusions we seem to arrive at.
Keep us talking.
Keep us listening.
Speak to us and through us:
Cry, rejoice and pray with us,
Even now.
In Christ.
In Spirit.