Getting your ducks in a row

The campus of York University is a fantastic place if you are a fan of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Tweet of the Day’, or are a ‘twitcher’ or simply love wildfowl.  The place is full of geese and moorhens and ducks.  This morning as I walked to breakfast (I have had to arrive early because of meetings I have to attend this morning, pre-Synod) the ducks were all taking a break, getting their strength together before performing for the members of the Synod – skimming the water, eating the biscuit crumbs and generally pooing where you need to walk.

Synod 1

Ducks in repose – the Chamber awaits our arrival

Yes, it’s July and we are back for the latest Group of Sessions. As I have said before, the York Synod is more relaxed than the febrile atmosphere of the Westminster ones.  Bishops dress down in shorts, Bahama shirt and pectoral cross, sandals and socks (m bête noire) can be spotted. Ladies are in tie-die and there is a lot of linen around. Sartorial elegance is not a feature of a gathering of the Church of England because we have much more important things to think about.

The accusation is often made that we spend too much time on ‘church’ issues. Well, not this time.  The agenda is varied and a great deal of it is outward looking.  Of course we do need to continue to address the issue of safeguarding in the life of the church, creating a safe church for all people and especially our children, young people and vulnerable adults.  So the first real debate on Saturday is about the latest report to emerge from the church.  Saturday afternoon is taken up by seminars on a variety of subjects.  But then on Sunday, after joining the bereft congregation at York Minster (Dean Viv is now Bishop Viv), a series of fascinating debates will take place.

Watch out for the debate on our investments in companies dealing in fossil fuels. The main arguments of the debate have already been rehearsed  on the radio between the Bishop of Manchester and the Bishop of Oxford – do we dis-invest now as we have agreed to do or do we have more effective levers by retaining those investments for the time being? That debate is followed by an associated one brought to Synod by the Diocese of London on climate change and the urgency of the church’s response.

Back in the heady days of 1982 when the Church of England dared challenge the Thatcher Government with ‘Faith in the City’ there was another report that emerged called ‘The Church and the Bomb’. At this Synod we return to the subject when we debate ‘The Ethics of Nuclear Weapons’.  It was ‘The Church and the Bomb’ that convinced me to become a member of CND.  I have to admit – and given the other debates on the environment and the need to escape the effect of fossil fuels I feel a bit conflicted – I still have deep misgivings about the rush into nuclear power given that, as far as I know, the problem of waste fuel still exists.  But this debate will be about weapons and the evil they represent (there I’ve given away my opinion!).

There is a great deal of legislation on the agenda and the budget but then we are a legislative and a governance body, before we then get to another timely debate.  Having celebrated yesterday the 70th anniversary of the National Health Service we will be debating ‘The Long Term Sustainability of the National Health Service’.  From its foundation the CofE has been deeply involved in the NHS, not just through clergy being regular visitors to bedsides of parishioners but because there are Anglican chaplains in most hospitals.  This has been a huge area of ministry that we remain committed to.

There are reports on evangelism, pensions, finance and Standing Orders and then something that sounds very internal, the Report of the Cathedrals Working Group.  This report came out of the experiences at Peterborough and Exeter Cathedrals.  It was suggested by the Bishop of Peterborough in his Visitation Report on his own cathedral that the Church needed to give a thorough look at the governance of cathedrals.  Some people didn’t need to be invited twice!  There is a great deal of envy and suspicion out there at what St Paul describes as ‘the freedom we have in Christ’ (Galatians 2.4) and so a power-grab is proposed.  Well, that’s how I see it.  My big fear is that the radical engagement with the world that makes cathedrals so ‘successful’ will be reigned in by a controlling group of bishops and laity.  Cathedrals deal on a daily basis with the big issues of the day which so many parishes and so many parts of the hierarchy simply cannot or will not.

Synod 2

Flying with Pride outside the Synod Chamber

It is ironic that the Pride flag is flying outside the chamber in which the Synod will gather.  This is one area where Southwark Cathedral has given a lead and a witness – but not without some cost. Would we be able to do that if the report came into force?  We will see.

So, an interesting Synod, potentially.  Pray for us as we pray for you – and lets hope all the ducks behave!

O God, without you we are not able to please you;
mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit
may in all things direct and rule our hearts;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Avoiding the crash

I had the joy of seeing the production of ‘Carousel’ at the Coliseum Theatre in London earlier this year – perhaps one of the darkest musicals around but it has some lovely tunes!  Watching it though took me back to going to the fair when it arrived in town.  You remember how it was.  All of a sudden posters would appear in the shop windows on the local parade – the fair was coming.  ‘Mum, Mum, can we go … please?’ and eventually we would go.  To be honest, as a certified wimp, I’m no good at the scary rides but I did enjoy the dodgems.  It was that mixture of the sparks and the smell and the invitation to crash into someone that was the real joy of the ride. The screams, the fun, the joy of bashing into each other.

dodgem_cars

What fun!

 

Whilst London hosted it’s biggest Pride March in this 50th anniversary year of the decriminalisation of homosexual practice, the General Synod of the Church of England settled down to debate whether it was right or not to try to ‘cure’ gay people of their sexual desires through what is known as ‘Conversion Therapy’.  A Private Members Motion had been tabled by Jayne Ozanne, a lay member of the Synod who, through personal experience believed that such therapies are wrong, abusive and destructive.

There are some well meaning and sincere Christians who believe that offering healing to people with ‘same-sex attraction’ is exactly what we should be doing.  One speaker, in an attempt to justify his position, quoted Paul at us from his First Letter to the Christians in Corinth

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. (1 Corinthians 6.9-11)

This is the NIV version of the text which was the one the speaker read to us.  Give him his due, Paul did not pull his punches; it is explicit and, he said, it shows the radical Christian inclusion of which we speak. These people were included in the local church, but their lives had been changed, for as Paul says, ‘that is what some of you were.’ Their former sinful nature which excluded them from salvation, from the Kingdom of God, had been transformed through the ministry of Christ through his church.

Fortunately we heard other speakers who saw things differently and especially two young members of the Synod who spoke from their own personal experience.  One had himself been subject to these therapies, which had for him led to severe bouts of depression, the other told us that for most young people their impression was that the church is inhospitable to LGBTI+ people.  Their contributions and others, such as that of the Bishop of Liverpool, were greeted with fulsome applause.

To be honest there wasn’t enough debate as we were faced with four complex amendments each of which was subject (at the will of Synod) to a vote by Houses.  We ended up with a twice amended Motion.  The final voting, by Houses was as follows

Bishops For 36 Against 1 Abstentions 0
Clergy For 135 Against 25 Abstentions 13
Laity For 127 Against 48 Abstentions 13

So it was passed in all three houses.  The car crash was avoided and for a second time this year the Synod has spoken strongly to the nation and to the church that those who view LGBTI+ people as disordered and needing healing or exclusion are in a minority.  I had such pride in the Synod, in the tone of the debate and the care that was taken.

The rest of the day had been taken up with a good debate on ‘Presence and Engagement’ at which I was called to speak about our own engagement with the Muslim community in the light of the attack on London Bridge and the Borough Market; in legislative business; and with a presentation, workshops and a debate on the ‘National Support for Local Churches’.

So what could have been a disaster became a sign that, perhaps, we are turning a corner. But there are a few more corners to negotiate before we see gay people finding the same welcome in the church as they already find in the ever embracing arms of the God who created, without distinction, each one of us, his rainbow and beautiful people.

Stay with us, O God, this night,
so that by your strength
we may rise with the new day
to rejoice in the resurrection of your Son,
Jesus Christ our Saviour.
Amen.

A day of pride?

It’s a beautiful morning in York.  I’ve just opened my windows to clear blue skies and lovely sunshine.  As long as it doesn’t get too hot in the Chamber we should be ok.  My thoughts and prayers are, of course, with the group of 50 people from Southwark Cathedral taking part in London Pride.  It’s a big day for us.  After having for so long been talking about the place of LGBT+ people in the life of the church and being encouraged by our Archbishops who have called for a ‘radical Christian inclusion’ we decided that we needed to walk with people.

That walking with people is something that we see in Jesus. One of the things I love about the Gospels is the way in which so much of it takes place on the road, not in buildings, not where the rich and powerful were, but out there where the people were and walking with them and encountering them. People came out to meet him where he was – leaders of synagogues, centurions, the distressed, the sick, the curious, the joyous, everyone.

Bart

Present and engaged

 

One such occasion was the meeting with Bartimaeus and we are told in St Mark’s Gospel

‘As Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.’ (Mark 10.46)

That huge crowd, marching with Jesus down the road and then finding someone who needed him. Out on the road, out on the march we can meet people we would not stumble over in any other way.

One of the things we will be thinking about today, along with sexuality on the day of London Pride, will be the programme called ‘Presence and Engagement’. That basically means, as I understand it, being there, being out there, doing the Jesus thing of being with people, of all kinds. It seems strange that we have, as a church, to make this explicit as a policy.  After all, as I was taught when being formed for priesthood, this is what the church is, out there, reflecting the real presence of Jesus, reflecting the engagement of God with the whole of creation, outside of the church, in community.  Sadly, in many places the church has retreated into its buildings, concerned about ‘internal’ issues rather than the ‘external’ world where we find God.

There is a wonderful poem by R S Thomas called ‘The Empty Church’ which speaks to me of this.

They laid this stone trap
for him, enticing him with candles,
as though he would come like some huge moth
out of the darkness to beat there.
Ah, he had burned himself
before in the human flame
and escaped, leaving the reason
torn. He will not come any more

to our lure. Why, then, do I kneel still
striking my prayers on a stone
heart? Is it in hope one
of them will ignite yet and throw
on its illuminated walls the shadow
of someone greater than I can understand?

We can hide away in the ‘stone trap’ or be out there, present and engaged, with people of all kinds, of all faiths and none.

I hope that in all the debates today I will have pride in the church – but I wait to see.

God, ever present with us,
ever engaged with us,
where we are,
may I know your presence now
and be engaged
with all my sisters and brothers.
Amen.

‘We’re all going …

.. on a summer holiday’ sang Cliff Richard, boarding his red London bus and heading off to the continent with his mates. The days were that when I was coming to Yorkshire (long before I trained as a priest here and then worked here in a parish) I was off on holiday.  Mum and Dad had their honeymoon in Scarborough and I remember getting hopelessly lost on the ‘zig-zag’ path heading down the cliff there when I was about seven.  According to my mother, I zigged whilst they zagged!

summerholiday-1

Well, heading to Yorkshire in July now means coming to the summer Group of Sessions of the General Synod of the Church of England. Apart from the fact that it is Synod, I don’t really mind – a nice environment, lots of people I know, a chance to worship in the Minster (will there be bells?) are all side benefits.  The downside is that you have to sit for hours in the stifling heat of the Synod chamber, which is the Central Hall on this campus, whilst the Church of England does its version of zigging and zagging!

You will remember that in February we left Synod after the Bishops had lost the take-note debate on same-sex relationships. This is the first time we have met after that momentous vote.  The Archbishops had to come up with something of a way forward and they spoke then about a ‘radical Christian inclusion’ and the need for study and a pastoral response. We will have the opportunity to debate the proposals that are being brought forward for the latter of those promises.  On the face of it the proposals look good.  But as we know, there’s always plenty of opportunity for zigging and zagging in the Church of England.

It is remarkable that since we met the Scottish Episcopal Church has grasped the nettle with both hands and has voted in favour of equal marriage.  So has the presbyterian Church of Scotland. Who would have thought that this was possible? We have also seen two very irregular consecrations, one of a bishop in Newcastle, the other of a GAFCON missionary bishop. We are in a mess and I am afraid it is of our own making.

Whilst we are in York, London will see the annual Gay Pride Parade. For the first time Southwark Cathedral will take part in that march.  50 members of the congregation will march behind our new banner affirming our solidarity with the LGBT+ community.  I’m sorry I won’t be there to march with them. Those marching are by no means all members of the LGBT+ community, but as with our wonderful Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, they are people who are determined to stand with people regardless of their sexuality, simply taking pride in people taking pride in themselves.

Ironically on the same day as pride is being displayed in London we will be in York debating a Private Members Motion highlighting the dangers of ‘Conversion Therapy’. This is the practice advocated by some churches which is aimed at ‘curing’ LGBT+ people of their ‘unwanted’ same-sex attraction. It is a dangerous practice because it can result in deep psychological damage and add to some people’s feelings of self-hate and the idea that if they are homosexual there is something ‘wrong with them’.

Members of General Synod have, of course, been inundated with ‘evidence’ from both sides of the argument about whether such therapy works, whether such prayer works, and whether the negative effects spoken of by some are grounded in any kind of reality. So once again the Church of England does double-speak and is in danger of looking vicious, nasty and uncaring.  On the one hand we are talking about radical inclusion and a pastoral response and then we will have people standing up advocating not inclusion but elimination, not pastoral care but pastoral abuse.

rainbow_flag_insert_by_torbakhopper_via_Flickr

Taking proper pride in one another

 

There was an encounter between Jesus and a rich young man. It turned out that the man wasn’t yet ready to walk with Jesus.  But there is the most beautiful line in that story that I keep going back to

‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him.’ (Mark 10.21)

Those six words tell me something beautiful about the God who created me, and created you, and created every person, whoever they are. Jesus looks at us and simply loves us, God looks at us and simply loves us. But some look at others and see a problem to be solved, an illness to be cured. God has pride in the richness of creation, we fail to have pride in each other and so people fail to have pride in who they are – and that is destructive. Defining other groups in society as ‘sick’ and in need of healing or elimination can lead, in some situations, to the very worst of crimes against our brothers and sisters. In the last 100 years in Europe we have seen where that can lead, where ‘cures’ for homosexuals was but one aspect of the horrors unleashed on a variety of ethnic and religious groups.

This Group of Sessions, however, will begin with a debate on a motion being led by the Archbishop of York in response to the recent General Election. The debate is called ‘After the General Election – a still small voice of calm.’ The latter part of that is drawn from the hymn we all love singing ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’ by John Whittier. The final verse says

Breathe through the heats of our desire
thy coolness and thy balm;
let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.

It is a beautiful verse, from a beautiful hymn, the inspiration coming from Elijah’s encounter with God on the mountain in 1 Kings 19.11-12. God was experienced not in the wind and the fire and the earthquake but in that still, small voice, the voice that brings calm.

What this debate will produce no one knows – I hear that there many amendments to the motion have been received already. But we need to listen to the voice of calm, in the nation and in the church. Knowing that you are praying for us always helps me to put everything into a proper perspective.  This is God’s church and not ours, not the bishops’, not the clergies’ not the laity’s, not for the now but for eternity – and thank God for that.

Lord of the Church,
bless this meeting of Synod
that we may look on each other with the eyes of love,
your love,
as you look with love on us.
Amen.

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