Over the edge

A few years ago I was leading a pilgrimage around Armenia.  It was for a group from Southwark Cathedral.  It was a wonderful experience, seeing a country that had experienced recent genocide and a church with a tradition ancient, honourable and distinct. We saw many churches all in the same domed cruciform style.  But one thing sticks in my mind and came back to me today as we began this Group of Sessions of the General Synod.

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They attempt to throw Jesus over the cliff

 

We had visited a church and were wandering through the churchyard.  It was a church set amongst blocks of Soviet-style housing, so, in a very real community.  One gravestone grabbed our attention.  It was new and recorded the death of a group of young people from the village. They had all died in an accident.  The car they were in went over the edge of a nearby cliff.  The faces of all the young people were engraved into the stone – but so was a depiction of the accident, a car going over the edge of a cliff.  All we could do was to look in disbelief.  No Chancellor in the Church of England, I suspect, would have allowed such a stone in one of our churchyards! And the horror of the depiction was engraved on my consciousness.

It has not been an easy beginning to this Synod.  I tweeted ‘Have you ever watched a car crash? If not come to @GenSyn’. Watching the Church of England heading for the edge of an avoidable precipice, watching the church we love act in a way which can easily be seen as operating as institutionally homophobic, whether or not the bishops accept that this is the case, is deeply disturbing.

What was most shocking was when Canon Butler asked about the safeguarding implications for those members of the Synod who are from the LGBTI communities and the answer was that there were no safeguarding implications.  So there we have it? ‘Sticks and stones …..’ It is simply not true, of course, and I have already talked to many people who are deeply hurt, feeling extremely vulnerable and concerned that they are complicit with an abusive relationship with a church that should incarnate the love of God for the whole of creation, including LGBTI people who God has created as reflecting something of the divine nature.  But then if you think that that cannot be and that LGBTI people are a manifestation of a disordered creation, people who need to be healed and counselled back to ‘normality’ … well you arrive at where we seem to be heading.

So an interesting day.  Of course we’ve done other stuff; debated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we have listened to a Presidential Address given by the Archbishop of Canterbury and listened to answers to numerous questions of which the first 26 were all about sexuality.  But everything is being overshadowed by Wednesday.

Of course the people of Nazareth attempted to throw Jesus off the cliff.

‘They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.’ (Luke 4.29-30)

Jesus had just read from Isaiah in their Synagogue and proclaimed his mission priorities of inclusive liberation. People weren’t interested then and the church isn’t interested now. But Jesus survived then and Jesus will survive now – but will the church, which is his body and the people that he loves?

Lord Jesus,
save us and help us
we humbly beseech you.
Amen.

Back in the room

I promised I’d be back – well, here I am. The Shared Conversations ended just before lunch on Tuesday and the members of the General Synod rapidly dispersed.  There was life to get back to; I had to get a train that would get me back to Southwark Cathedral to welcome those who would come to the first ever Legal Service in the Cathedral.  Life and ministry goes on.

But all of that has given me time to reflect on what happened over those last two days during which, whilst we were in the process, we were asked not to comment. Of course, things were continuing to change around us and for once I’m not talking about the political situation in the UK post-Brexit. Over in Canada the Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada was also discussing their response to same-sex marriage.

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‘And the banner over me is love.’

 

News emerged that that Synod had narrowly voted against allowing same-sex marriage in church.  That was dismal news – and then it all changed. There was what was akin to a re-count and the decision was actually in favour.  Talking to friends in Canada since then it sounds not so dissimilar with what happened to our own electronic voting system on Friday! So, another Province decides on a positive course of action.

But back to York and my experience.  This was my third set of Shared Conversations. The first was the regional ones, the second diocesan ones and now this set.  As I entered the room where Group 15 was to meet (we were allocated to one of 23 groups) I didn’t know what to expect.  But there were some familiar faces there and some new ones to me.  Each group had a facilitator who guided us through the stages of the process – it felt safe, it felt good.

We began with telling and sharing our own story, focusing on our faith journey and anything else that was significant to us.  There was no pressure to speak about anything you weren’t comfortable talking about.  As always, when you have the privilege of listening to someone else telling their story this was very moving.  That took up the first afternoon.

Monday morning focused in on scripture as we were firstly resourced by three biblical scholars who talked about the authority of scripture and particularly in relation to human sexuality, from their own perspective.  That session was too short but rich and fascinating.  Then we shared our own significant scripture passage in small groups.  Mine was this

‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’ (John 10.10)

I chose that for two reasons.  Firstly, it seems to me that that is the essence of Jesus’ ministry and what he brings to my life.  And that abundance to me is all about fruitfulness. Jesus wants me, wants you, wants us to flourish and I believe that is regardless of any of those ways in which we define, describe ourselves according to gender, ethnicity, ability, sexual identity grounds and beyond, for as St Paul says to the

‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3.28)

The gifts of abundant living are to us as created and loved not because of any definition we or others may apply to us.

My second reason was that I first became aware of this text when our curate back when I was a young teenager preached on it.  Fr Irving Richards, the first black priest I had ever seen let alone known, was formative in the story of my own vocation but also in sowing this text deep within me.  It remains something I live by and, for me, it challenges the church which can too often diminishes people.

From scripture we moved to culture, hearing three sets of presentations from the perspective of younger adults, older people and from across the Communion about the changing cultures in which we are set.  It was a rich and challenging afternoon – far too much to take in but you wouldn’t have wanted to have missed a word of it.

SC

Finally, on the last morning we looked at what ‘gifts’ we wanted to take back into a plenary of all the members of the Synod.  There was a sense in that discussion of where do we go from here and I suspect, if you are reading this, you are asking the same question. My answer is, I don’t know.

As a process it was good and it enabled the members of Synod to build relationships and take time out of the normal Synodical routine.  This will have a deep influence on the life of this quinquennium and I think was hugely valuable.

To be honest we were too kind to each other, we all agreed when we knew that there was a huge level of disagreement.  There wasn’t enough time spent wrestling with scripture; the trunk of the elephant barely entered the room; the issue of how we can even begin to compromise when some see responding physically to same-sex attraction as inherently sinful and therefore inappropriate to bless and others see it as natural and good and potentially holy.  That is a vast chasm to bridge – but the church is called to be a bridge builder and a wall destroyer.

As we began to meet Andy Murray was being crowned a champion of Wimbledon.  So, to grab an analogy from that convergence of events, the ball is in the bishops court.  It is they who, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, must discern where we go to next.  Few, I think, what this to drag on, we all want to move beyond conversations about sexuality to how we bring good news to the people of this generation.  But the truth is that there are LGBTIQ people amongst this generation and I believe that they too need to hear good news, the real Good News that Jesus wants their life to be ‘abundant’.

God of abundant life,
guide your church,
that she may preach good news
to every person,
whoever they are,
whoever I am.
Amen.

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