Friday, 12 August 2016

Personal Response to the 'Open Letter to the College & House of Bishops'

“We are committed to building a church that is genuinely welcoming to all people, irrespective of the pattern of sexual attraction which they experience. We would welcome initiatives to help local churches do so in a way that is affirming of and consistent with Scripture and would hope to support suggestions you might wish to bring to Synod to that effect.”

The above is an extract from an open letter to the College and House of Bishops from 72 ‘conservative’ members of the Church of England’s General Synod. The full text can be found here.

The letter essentially seeks to encourage the Bishops to refrain from considering “any proposals that fly in the face of the historic understanding of the church”. The signatories feel that “much more biblical study is needed before we will be able as a Synod to make theologically informed decisions about human anthropology and sexuality.”

For an extensive response to the letter from a liberal/affirming perspective read Andrew Lightbown’s blog.

I want to offer a brief comment on the paragraph quoted at the top of this article.

When the signatories say “we are committed to building a church that is genuinely welcoming to all people, irrespective of the pattern of sexual attraction which they experience” I actually don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I'm sorry if some of you think this is an inappropriate response, but it's genuinely thrown me.

I am simply bewildered. I acknowledge that I am a bear of little brain, but I can’t begin to get my paltry grey cells around it.

Because what it seems to be saying – behind the words – is ‘We are committed to a church that is ‘genuinely welcoming’, but…”

For, as the letter unfolds, it would seem that ‘genuinely welcoming’ is not be defined in relationship to people who actually might like to be welcomed (i.e. outsiders, visitors, gay people who would like to have their relationship celebrated in the sight of God), but by the those who are already the ‘gate-keepers’.

Now, ‘gatekeeping’ is inevitably part of being human. We probably all carry around within us ideas about what ‘genuine welcome’ looks like. It will be drawn from Biblical, cultural, inter-cultural ideas and experience.

Yet – call me odd – but my experience of what constitutes ‘genuine welcome’ is a dialectical matter.

So, as a vicar I might say, ‘My church is very welcoming…indeed, it’s trying to be genuinely welcoming.’ And perhaps I could adduce all sorts of examples of how welcoming our church is, primarily drawn from people who are already ‘within’ I suspect. (I suspect that when church's do 'audits' about welcome they draw far too often from the experiences of 'insiders' rather people on the edge or new members.)

But surely it’s a crummy account of ‘welcome’ that precisely excludes the experience of those who are not ‘on the inside’, who aren’t the ‘gatekeepers’.

It would be like me, as a vicar, being told (as I have been from time to time), ‘Vicar, your church isn’t very welcoming because of x, y, z,’ but insisting that – while that feedback is welcome – it’s not the visitor/stranger/outsider’s job to tell ‘us’ how welcoming we are. They are not the arbiters of what welcome looks like.

And I think that – given the rhetorical formats this letter uses (e.g. talking about ‘patterns of sexual attraction they experience’ rather than someone’s ‘sexuality’) – the signatories aren’t really that interested in hearing these constantly reiterated refrains:

"A symptom of the Church’s lack of welcome and affirmation of LGBT people is the refusal to bless and celebrate our committed, loving relationships.

When 'we' (LGBT people) repeatedly say that the Church is a bit rubbish at welcoming us can you please take that seriously? We're not making it up.

That to talk of ‘genuine welcome’ while treating our relationships and lives as failed, second-rate or to be carefully ‘controlled’ is not what welcome looks like."

Here’s what the Church's 'position' typically communicates:

"We like to talk about ‘genuine welcome’ but what we really mean (wrapped up in hand-wringing, and an apologetic shrug’) is ‘conditional welcome’.

We like to put up signs saying ‘genuinely welcome’, but how often we invite people into limited affirmation, love and a bleakness that encourages self-loathing."

And even affirming LGBT priests like me feel the cheapness of that welcome. For time and again I’ve said to LGBT couple friends who want to marry in church, ‘Sorry, hun, I can’t marry you in church…but I can offer private prayer.”

And if 'we' think offering, e.g. private prayer as an alternative to blessing or marriage constitutes ‘genuine welcome’ in the modern world, we’ve probably had a very limited experience of being ‘unwelcome.’

And – here’s the thing – I reckon most everyone in the pews and in ministry (even in some relatively conservative settings) gets that ‘conditional’ welcome is not the same as ‘genuine’ welcome.

Because actually most Christians are suckers for commitment and love and want to celebrate and bless it. Because they see God blessing those people’s committed lives.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

'Love Wins' - LGBT Relationships and Christianity

There have been all sorts of fascinating stories from the Olympics so far. However, I was struck particularly by a brief BBC report about one of those quirky stories that often bring a bit of leaven to the over-the-top medal fest.

It concerned a volunteer at the Games who proposed marriage to her partner, a Brazilian Rugby Sevens player. As the BBC reported, in the wake of the medal ceremony for Australia's victorious Sevens team, Games volunteer Marjorie Enya entered the pitch and asked Brazil player Isadora Cerullo to marry her. Enya said, "I know rugby people are amazing and they would embrace it. The Olympic Games can look like closure but, for me, it's starting a new life with someone. I wanted to show people that love wins."  

The report took Enya’s words “Love Wins” as its title, and the reporter said, “I think I have something behind my contact lens.”

The phrase, ‘Love Wins’ has become something of a refrain from within the LGBT* community, a way of acknowledging the centrality of love in our faithful commitments. As the International Business Times of 26th June 2015 acknowledged, it’s become one of the most shared hashtags ever, its use prompted not least by the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage.

I’ve been thinking about how the phrase plays out in Christian contexts, especially more conservative Evangelical ones.

For surely all Christians, whether we be of Evangelical or Liberal hue, are inclined to say – at a deep level – ‘Love Wins’. That is, that God is definitive for ‘the World’ (in the Kantian sense of ‘the World’) and God is Love. The mark of that Love and its very fulfilment is Jesus Christ.

So what kind of response might a Christian make to something like the story of Cerullo and Enya, or any other person – gay or straight – who holds up an LGBT relationship as an example of ‘Love Wins’?

From a broadly liberal and/or radical perspective it’s obviously not that tricky to take the example of a committed gay relationship as an example of Love. A pretty ready narrative is available to account for it. Those relationships, just like straight ones, can embody love in erotic, sacrificial, friendship and intellectual senses. From my own perspective, it strikes me as hardly offensive or problematic to talk of a committed gay relationship as potentially an example of Love, of God’s work of redeeming the World.

From a more conservative perspective I’m guessing there might be a number of responses to claims that LGBT relationships demonstrate God’s redeeming love.

One strategy is to claim that a relationship like Cerullo and Enya’s demonstrates a failure of Love. That it’s not Love at all. It’s pure sin or wickedness.

That is an option. But that can hardly be an attractive conclusion for most conservative Christians.

For that would be for a Christian to position him or herself as lacking comprehension of some of the meanings of the term ‘love’. It’s to risk looking ridiculous. For, many people (even people who might be a wee bit skeptical about, e.g., gay marriage) would be inclined to respond, ‘Well, this couple or that couple actually look as committed as straight couples and have shown their faithfulness over time. They have given themselves to each other in their relationship. Surely that’s one of the things we mean by ‘love’.”

Of course, some Christians might be happy to be seen as ‘odd’ on the matter of Love. They have no need to be credible or understood by non-Christians or the wider world, for their sense of justification will come from being ‘separate’; from understanding themselves as, for example, a ‘faithful remnant’ who hold to ‘God’s truth’. The sense of being at odds with the world will only make that sense of justification seem stronger. (In the way that one suspects some evangelistic groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormon missionaries ‘evangelise’ not so much to convert as to use the constant rebuffs as a way to confirm their ‘chosenness’.)

I suppose a strategy available to those who wish to indicate that committed LGBT relationships cannot exemplify the Love at the heart of God is to simply claim that the reason they’re not ‘loving’ is as a result of divine command or fiat.

In other words, that it is a matter of God’s command, structured through a focus of authority (a holy book or the command of the institution or an authority figure, or combinations of all three).

This approach will be powerful for some people. Obedience to God is a potent motivator for the religious mind (though how that plays out in practice is a kind of precis of Christian history). It enables the critic of LGBT relations to say, ‘Well, yes, I can see that you are in a relationship, and indeed that you are committed and, hey, I might even be able to admit that you have some love going on’, but this is not what God (who after all is the ultimate arbiter of everything) wants, likes or expects.’

And when someone asks why God’s got such a downer on LGBT relations, the response (in essence) is, ‘Well, that’s not what God’s plan is for us. Sorry, but it’s not.’ And people will start talking about the ‘nature’ of men and women and God’s plan for that ‘divine order’ and the whole thing goes around and around.

One of the issues with the ‘command and control’ picture of God is that practically no one buys it as a ‘whole package’, even those who are tempted to. When people say, ‘This is what God says, we all just need to get with the programme,’ it strikes me they’ve already committed to a work of hermeneutics; at least I hope so, unless the Bible, Koran, other Holy Book etc. operate as step-by-step Haynes Manuals.  But, in the case of the Bible at least, to treat it as a series of commands or categorical propositions seems to be willfully ignorant of its composition and complexity. The nearest we get to the pure command is ‘Love God etc and love your neighbour as yourself.’ But even that is subject to hermeneutic work. It does not read itself. It is contextualized in other texts, lives and contexts. That’s not to say that theology isn’t involved in robust analysis and synthesis but is a profound hermeneutic work.

So perhaps another route is to say that a committed gay relationship has a ‘bit of love’ but isn’t a full expression of God’s love. That is, that, while it might embody a bit of love, it falls short of what love looks like at its fullest in human relationships.

This seems to offer a more fruitful route for the conservative Christian. For, the strategy sets up space for the conservative Christian to claim that gay relationships – even if they actually can partially represent the love at the heart of the universe – aren’t properly loving. And one answer to what is meant by ‘properly loving’ would be for them to be ‘fruitful’ – i.e. ‘generate children and thereby embody love in and through new relationships’.

There is a logic here. However, I suspect that there are more questions raised than answered.

Firstly, arguably, the ‘hetero relations embody God’s love because they’re potentially fruitful’ view is (to be crude) ‘ a bit unChristian’. That is, there are reasons for thinking it ignores the Pauline view in the Bible. For, Paul seems to be more interested in what we might broadly call ‘celibacy’ and on singlehearted focus on God as the route to loving fruitfulness, rather than on older (Jewish) ideas of fruitfulness through family and fecundity.

Even if that’s a crude take on what’s going on in the Bible, then some elements of Paul at least offers reasons for saying that the fullness of love is not to be found in any human sexual relationship – hetero or otherwise. The locus of love is God alone and our devotion to him. Any kind of sexual relationship is a falling short of God’s plan.

But, let’s suppose that the potential bodily fruitfulness/fecundity of hetero relationships is majored on as iconic of love. That feels barely credible in a post-modern society where both hetero and gay people access IVF and have a range of options for ‘fruitfulness’. Our concepts of ‘natural’ have been bust open by science. (Though, if memory serves, Hume offered a devastating analysis in the 18th century of the use of the term ‘natural’ in discourse. Criticism of the term is hardly recent.)

It’s also potentially insulting to the extraordinary range of ‘fruitfulness’ on offer in human relations. It runs the risk of idealizing particular structures of ‘family’ that are as potentially damaging as they can be life-giving. (Most abuse happens, for example, within family relations.)

In short, there is a credibility gap for those who might wish to deploy a version of what might be called ‘natural theology’ – the claim to discern God’s will in the ordering of the ‘natural’ world. Philosophically terms like ‘natural’ or ‘fruitfulness’ are non-neutral terms and belong to complex, power-laden language.

At a practical level, the claim that ‘God just says LGBT love is a rubbish and sinful version of love and therefore desist from calling it love’ has about as much credibility in the UK’s wider public narrative as claiming that God made the universe in six earth days.

Credibility does matter. Christians of all sorts of hues wish to make truth claims and also accept that some of those claims may be treated with incredulity. Yet, for those who wish to participate in the public square and also to be involved in proclaiming good news of God’s love there is a desire to make rich connections with the wider world.

Love is one of the most potent words in the language. One doesn’t need to be a person of faith to have practical, living embodied experience of love. Indeed, insofar as Christians wish to call non-Christians into a deeper relationship with the God of love that call is predicated on a continuity in comprehension. I.e. when we talk of love in setting A it has ‘connective tissue’ with talk of love in setting B. The Christian wishes to say that God’s love connects with human love and vice versa, but if I’m going to speak of ‘God’s love’ to non-Christians with any kind of authenticity or value my use of ‘God’s love’ needs some family resemblance with locutions of love in wider settings.

So, to return to ‘Love Wins’ and the story of Enya and Cerullo. I guess Christians have a choice. To discern love active in relationships like theirs and celebrate them, or say ‘No, that’s not love’ or ‘It’s a rubbish version of it.’

It must be awful to be left in a situation where one says (feels one has to say), ‘No, these relationships are a bit rubbish or they’re just sinful’. Because that is to be left in a situation where one feels ‘left behind’ by rich understandings of terms like ‘love’ and ‘grace’ and ‘joy’. It’s to be left in a situation where one’s treasured narratives about grace and love have been exposed as wanting. No one wants to see themselves as the baddie, but that’s what our new world of acceptance has done to a group of people who want to see themselves as ‘loving’ and ‘gracious’.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I think this is what has happened to the conservative Christian position. Non-religious and, frankly, most religious people in our society have looked around and seen that love is not a thing which evaporates when x or y commit to a non-hetero relationship. They’ve judged the claims of the conservative Christian for themselves and, for the most part, say, ‘Nah, we think we know what ‘Love Wins’ looks like and the conservative Christian position isn’t an example of it.’