Monday, 14 July 2014

Reflections on #DollyParton & #LondonPride weekend ...

It's been a few weeks now since London Pride weekend. I really should have reflected on the whole experience a lot more quickly, but time and emotions ran away with me, and here we are.

The weekend started for us, with two tickets to see Dolly Parton's Blue Smoke Tour at the O2. Dolly always amazes me with how down-to-earth she comes across, and how musically talented she is.  She didn't disappoint. She filled the O2, started the show on time - with no support act - and performed solidly, taking only a 20 minute break during the interval, she played several musical instruments, and interjected with stories from her life that were open, honest and endeared herself to her audience.

One of the things that always amazes me about Dolly Parton is that she quite openly and proudly speaks of her faith in God, but does so in a way that shares the unconditional love of God with her audience, and the audience respond well.  She told at least 12,000 of her faith in God, and how much God loves her & them, & they listened and responded positively.

I recognise I may be a bit biased when it comes to Dolly Parton, but I am in awe every time we see her live, at her talent, her warm faith and her authenticity.

Dolly comes across as real, as genuine, but more importantly for me, as inclusive. She is inclusive of all people, irrespective of gender, sexual orientation, race, colour or creed. The LGBT community love her and the faith community loves her & she loves them.

So when she says that she loves God, and that God loves us all so much ... people respond with warmth.  Those that don't have a faith listen patiently, while those who do are encouraged, and all are affirmed.

I was quite emotional by the end of the show, because I was both massively affirmed by hearing faith expressed in such an affirming and inclusive way, but also because I was saddened that much of the leadership of the Church couldn't manage to express faith like that, preferring instead to push people to the outside.

On the Saturday, we made our way into Central London for Pride, where Mike joined me in marching with the Christians at Pride group - a collaboration between the various LGBTQII+ Christian charity & campaign groups.  The group was made up of people from LGCM, Diverse Church, Metropolitan Community Church, Two:23, Accepting Evangelicals, Changing Attitude, Quest and Inclusive Church.

With the vile homophobia coming out of some parts of the Church at the moment, and the very real threat of discipline faced by those clergy in same-sex relationships who marry their life partners, we felt it particularly important this year to be a part of an LGBTQII affirming faith voice.

We were joined by a 14ft Jesus with a rainbow sash, who worked the crowd like a pro, and we marched along to the Sister Act soundtrack, some of us handing out leaflets apologising for the pain that the Church had caused, others with leaflets with an LGBTQII-affirming message of faith or details of some of the LGBTQII-affirming faith organisations.

I was amazed at how appreciative the crowd was at finally hearing something positive from people of faith. Some people even wept openly at hearing an inclusive message for the first time, several people mouthed their thanks to us and for us there was a real pride in being a Christian and in being able to bring something positive to the day because of faith, not despite it.

I found the weekend hugely positive and emotional, receiving more affirmation from strangers over Pride weekend than I have from the leadership of my own denomination in a long time. It was a reminder of what is important in faith, but also a reminder of how much of the Church is getting it so wrong.

To summarise:

I heard more about the love of God from Dolly Parton, and saw more of Christ among the outcast at Pride, than I have from many of our Church leaders.

But that's nothing new, is it? Christ has always existed outside the institution - with it's neat rules, dotted i's and crossed t's - and we lose something when we assume that theology and faith is the preserve of those with a qualification.

If you're LGBTQII and have been hurt by religion, I apologise. So have I ... repeatedly. If you have questions or comments, I would encourage you to find an LGBTQII inclusive faith group (try the links above), and have a conversation with them.  If you have a faith and are looking for an inclusive worshipping community, again, try the links above.

If you don't identify as a person of faith, rather than speaking against religion, would you consider speaking against homophobia & bigotry in religion instead and encourage inclusive faith groups to help them bring change from within our faith communities?

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Reflections on #EqualMarriage from a colleague ...

A colleague prepared the below reflection for a congregation on his struggles with Equal Marriage, and his desire to be true to both his heart & his head, but not to discriminate while he does so.

This is an honest account, and I wish others were as gracious.

Do feel free to share your comments, but remember, the piece is not mine, and I can't identify my colleague.  I personally am 100% in support of Equal Marriage and hope to see the day where we can celebrate with our LGBT+ community in our churches (& even allow clergy to wed their same-sex partners, without disciplinary action or rebuke).


A view from sitting on the fence! (Psalm 45 and Matthew 19:1-11)

The Conference of the British Methodist Church recently met in Birmingham. The subject matter of one of the reports received and debated was The Methodist Church’s response to recent changes in legislation in regard of Civil Partnerships and Same Sex Marriages in the UK. This followed a wide ranging national consultation earlier in the year.

Having read the report, having followed the debate live online on Wednesday, and having reflected on the resolutions passed; I would like to share with you where I now find myself:  I find myself sitting right on top of the fence.  And this seems a very good place to be-at least for now!

It is a very good place to be because I find myself in very good company.  I sense many other individual Methodists are sitting up here with me, from a wide range of theological positions and sexual orientations.  Indeed, it would appear that, at least constitutionally, the whole of British Methodism is now encamped on said fence with me (for at least the next two years).

For the Methodist Church has now committed to a two year period of listening, reflecting and discernment following the legislation of same-sex marriage in England, Wales and Scotland earlier this year. 

The Methodist Church, in line with scripture and traditional teaching, still believes that marriage is a gift of God and that it is God's intention that a marriage should be a life-long union in body, mind and spirit of one man and one woman. The Methodist Conference did not vote on changing this understanding, or 'opting in' so as to permit Methodist Church buildings to be registered for same-sex marriage ceremonies or Methodist ministers to be authorised to conduct them.

However, the Conference did resolve that its previous ruling that there was no reason per se to prevent anyone within the Church, ordained or lay, from entering into a civil partnership, should now also extend to those entering into legally contracted same-sex marriages.

The Conference also agreed revised guidelines that will allow local churches and ministers to consider the appropriate pastoral response to requests for prayers and blessings of same-sex couples-effectively allowing local ministers and congregations to act according to their conscience.

The Conference then directed the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion committee to work on the production and dissemination of clear guidance on what is to be regarded as homophobia.

Finally a new working party was appointed to oversee the two-year period of reflection concerning relationships and living with difference, and to report to the Conference in 2016.

So here we all are, sitting together, up on top of the fence.  

I humbly suggest that there are now two main tasks we need to undertake.

1: We need to find our balance.
For what it is worth I now feel as if I am standing on top of the fence juggling with my Bible in one hand and my sense of Reason in the other.  At the same time I find my head pulls towards the very good Experience I have of relationships with homosexual friends and colleagues, whilst my heart still pulls in the (apparently) opposite direction of the Church’s Traditional Teaching on marriage. This can feel very ‘wobbly’ at times!

So how do I get centred and balanced?  Well, if I was a dancer or gymnast on a balance beam I would be taught to find my balance by ‘spotting’. I would have to learn to fix my eyes on something directly ahead of me; something which fixed, reliable-unmoving.

As young children in Church weren’t many of us taught to ‘fix (or turn) our eyes upon Jesus!’

Surely this is a key to our future unity in Christ on this, and other serious matters of faith and conduct, as we try to find our ‘balance’ together as the people of God.  So I humbly suggest the very first thing ‘fence dwellers’ need to do is to continually fix their eyes upon Jesus: To continue together in prayer and worship, as they travel along what may seem like a rather ‘narrow way’.

The other reason I believe sitting of the fence is great is because:

2: It is a good place to listen.
My wife and I have recently moved. Our kitchen door opens out onto our garden and is right next to our neighbours. But there is a six foot fence in between the two doors. When the weather is hot we leave our kitchen door open most of the time-as do our neighbours. We can hear their pots clanging; we can smell their baking; our dog can sense the very near presence of their cat; and we even like some of the music they listen to on their radio. But the one thing we cannot do is hear what they are saying. We know when they are having a conversation but their voices, their words, are indistinct, muffled, distant.

However, if I was to climb up onto the fence I could not only hear everything they were saying I could actually join in their conversation:  And even potentially include my wife in it whilst she continued to potter at the far end of our garden.  The point is someone’s got to sit on top of the fence, to include everyone in the conversation, until we are ready to pull the fence down!

Yet, there is some One else we surely need to listen to. The freeholder: The One who not only owns the property but all our lives; in eternal love, grace, and unity.

Amongst other things, truly listening to God, from on top of the fence, requires a reading of (wrestling with) scripture based on the principle “Those who have ears, let them hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

As I have tried to listen to what the Spirit is presently saying to the Methodist Church I have been drawn to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19:1-11

Here I humbly share my personal reflections on these verses:

First, let us note the context and motivation. The Pharisees don’t want to know about ‘marriage’ they want to trap Jesus with a question about divorce: “is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

Second, we must note the main point of Jesus’ reply: “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Third, we must also note the surprising reaction of the disciples to Jesus’ teaching: “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” In other words, ‘wow Jesus that’s a pretty tall order perhaps it’s better not to get married at all!’

It seems to me that the consistent message of Jesus regarding marriage, throughout the gospels-and especially in Matthew, is one of FAITHFULNESS:  It’s ‘till death us do "partedness"!

You see in Jesus’ day the idea of ‘same sex marriage’ had not even entered the imagination of the Jewish people but 101 legal ways of divorcing your wife had; even amongst the Pharisees.  The standard Jesus raises is one of life long faithfulness.

It is also worth noting Jesus’ work of salvation on earth begins with one man’s decision to be faithful to his young pregnant fiancĂ© against all the odds, and his society’s social and religious expectations.

“Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to expose Mary to public disgrace; he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:19f)

And so Jesus’ work of salvation continues to this day.

I have a dream-that fence dwellers might stand together and shout out across the rooftops of our fragmentary and broken society: “Ok we haven’t got it all sorted out but this one thing we do agree on: WE BELIEVE IN FAITHFUL RELATIONSHIPS BECAUSE WE BELIEVE IN A FAITHFUL GOD!”
Which is the more important phrase-‘one man and one woman’ or ‘for better for worse; ‘till death us do part’?

Finally, let me say I know it is hard. Faithfulness is not an easy option. I have been married for 24 years. It has not been easy….for my wife!

In Psalm 45 we read a wonderfully romantic Wedding Song (to the tune of ‘Lillies’, of the Sons of Korah) which was probably composed for one of King David’s weddings. What do we discover just six psalms later?

Psalm 51: (A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba).
Beginning with a sentiment which we all we do well to follow: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to your unfailing love…..”

Here on earth, with all our imperfection and brokenness, the true passion of human faithfulness is only possible when fuelled by the love, grace and forgiveness that flows from the heart of God.

Furthermore, any list of qualities for a good marriage will probably have the word LOVE at the very top. But as Christians (possibly sitting on the fence together) we always need to remember what LOVE really is:
“This is what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And (therefore) we ought to lay down our lives for one another!” (1 John 3:16): Whatever our theological persuasion and whatever our sexual orientation.

Please sit with me up on the fence and let us seek God and work this out together, not for our own comfort, but for the sake of a hurting world presently being consumed by broken relationships.

Can Christian businesses discriminate?

Having shared my thoughts on the cases involving Christian owners of Bed & Breakfasts who were fighting in court that they should be able to turn away LGBT customers in this blog post (, I'm sad to see another business owned by Christians in the press today, for denying service to someone that doesn't fit within their expression of faith.

This time the controversy surrounds Ashers Baking Company in Northern Ireland, who turned away a customer who'd ordered a celebration cake with an image of the fictional characters Bert & Ernie from Sesame Street, with the wording "Celebrate Gay Marriage" and the logo of Queerspace, a volunteer-led LGBT campaign group.  Their reasoning was their Biblical values.

The BBC news story is here, and the Pink News article is here.

It saddens me to see this happening again, because it seems that people just aren't learning that you can't use your views to discriminate against others, no matter how important those beliefs are to you. If that was allowed, we would fall over the precipice to the place where service providers and businesses could refuse to serve people of other cultures or faiths, or refuse to serve people who don't live a life that they approve of. Where does that stop ... could we see a shop owner refusing to serve an unmarried mother because she had premarital sex, or refusing to welcome a person from another faith tradition because they believe that 2 Corinthians 6:14 calls them to not mix with non-believers?

2 Corinthians 6:14 "Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness?" [NRSV].
It also saddens me to see that the Christian Institute have picked up the fight and are turning this into more than it needs to be, because this is such a senseless waste of money, fighting against people, when those time and money resources could be put to serious use in addressing issues of poverty, hunger, malnourishment ... so many other things that are serious issues that would seriously promote Christian values of good works, loving their neighbour, sharing the GOOD NEWS of Jesus. This does feel more like trying to fight against the LGBT community for the sake of it.

In the case of Ashers, Daniel MacArthur seems like a nice guy. He seems like a guy that's really convinced he's doing the right thing, and sticking by his beliefs, which are absolutely infallible, something he feels he needs to take a stand on. However, he needs to learn that his actions and views are based on a biased and discriminatory reading of Scripture, one which encourages discrimination. Those views are enforcing a particular brand of Christianity, but not representative of all Christianity.

It's interesting that he mentions specifically that they couldn't complete the order because it was "in contradiction with what the Bible teaches," as he's contradicting Leviticus 19:27 ("Do not trim off the hair on your temples or trim your beards."), and as a bakery they are directly disobeying a number of Scripture verses;
  • He's sat in front of two posters advertising savoury sausage rolls and chilli sausage rolls, when Leviticus 11 clearly forbids using pork.
  • In fact, Leviticus 3:17 forbids eating any fat ... bit of a tricky one for a bakery. 
  • Leviticus 19:9 forbids reaping to the very edge of your fields ... I wonder if they strictly check their flour suppliers for adherence to this code.
Running a bakery by what the Bible teaches is a particularly tricky business, when so much is written about foodstuffs.

I suspect they and their supporters would say that these verses are now irrelevant, and they follow other verses ... which is probably the whole crux of the matter ... they choose which verses apply to them.

They may claim that those are all Old Testament laws, and - as Christians - they live under the new covenant sealed with the blood of Jesus.  However, they will happily quote from the Old Testament code when arguing against Equal Marriage.

However, the New Testament also says some fairly atrocious things, such as women should remain silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35) ... which some of the anti-LGBT Christian charities seem to completely unaware of, while heaping restrictions on others. 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 speaks clearly against divorce and the remarriage of divorced wives ... I wonder if Ashers ask for proof that it's the first marriage when baking wedding cakes? 
It may be worth a few Christian business owners reading the equality law properly, and realising that having a faith doesn't give them the right to discriminate. If they want the freedom to discriminate, then they need to change their business model so that they function as a religious organisation (in the case of the B&B owners, this may mean considering running a Christian retreat house instead), as commercial organisations do not qualify for exemptions from the prohibition on discrimination.

Of particular relevance in cases like this are the words in the New Testament, in 1 Peter 2:13-14 , which call for obedience to the law ... "13 For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, 14 or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right."

Considering that there are laws that they're willing to ignore and others they're willing to enforce when it comes to others, it would seem it's not so much about living or working by Biblical standards, it's about using the Bible selectively to enforce their own viewpoints. It's not they who serve Scripture, but Scripture that serves them.

It may also be worth their while meditating on the words of Matthew 23:3-33 as a warning against being too sure and proud in religiosity.

May the God of love and of all creation continue to change hearts of stone into hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26 - A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh).