Your likeness in all your children – Second Sunday before Lent 2014

 

 In theory we are meant to be thinking about creation and related issues today. But I want to speak about something else, which has been on my mind all week. Last weekend the House of Bishops of the Church of England issued a Statement and Pastoral Guidance in view of the first same-sex marriages which are scheduled to take place at the end of next month. Such marriages will only be conducted by civil registrars, but the bishops wished to advise the English clergy on what the church’s response should be. In short, such couples and their families are to be welcomed and included, and not to be denied the sacraments. However, should such a couple request a church blessing, this is not to be given; instead, they are to be invited to explain their reasons for departing from the church’s teaching that such relationships are wrong, and some other sort of prayer to be offered instead. The clergy themselves are forbidden to enter a same-sex marriage (although they may enter a civil partnership, on the understanding that no sex is involved). Candidates for ordination must not be in such a marriage.

As you can imagine, there has been a considerable reaction. Some of the conservative evangelical groups are dissatisfied that persons whose lifetsyle is regarded as against church teaching are nonetheless to be included and not called to repentance. But the liberal and accepting groups are in considerable dismay. The Church of England has even more gay clergy and laity than we have, some of whom were hoping to avail of the forthcoming provisions to marry their partners. For those who have made a philosophy of inclusion the bedrock of their parishes, as being most consonant with the example of Jesus, this undermines their work. For those who seek to relate the Christian message to the contemporary generation, who often view the church with a mixture of apathy and contempt, this reinforces the impression of a fossil society that discriminates against women and gay people – “akin to racism”, as the Archbishop of Canterbury put it.

In fairness to the bishops, they are as divided on this subject as the church is generally. I think the intention was to avoid upsetting conservatives by re-iterating the principle that “same-sex behaviour is wrong”, while trying to include  a group of people who very often are deeply involved in their parishes. Hate the sin but love the sinner, perhaps. I suspect that in some dioceses at least there would be no serious inquiry into whether the vicar’s lodger was anything more than a gentleman friend, as I once heard it quaintly expressed. The overall tone suggests the old “don’t ask, don’t tell” principle; in short, back into the closet. Relationships that must be lived out in secret, are not healthy; it is really bad news when what should be your core foundation of safety and support becomes a threat to your home and livelihood. What ever else this statement is, pastoral it is not.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” has been the usual Church of Ireland approach to matters of sexuality. People have quite often known that John and Pat, or Linda and Maggie, are “very good friends”, and no-one would have the bad manners to ask any further. In a society which is not very accepting of difference, such a merciful blind eye provides a welcome haven; if we were in Uganda at the moment such a policy would be a godsend. But this is contemporary Britain, where society has moved on; the Church’s response is not adequate. If gay people are sinning by expressing their love, that needs to said without dissimulation. If we do not believe that – and I for one do not believe that – then that needs to said loudly and unambiguously. We can’t have it both ways, for the sake of the gay people in our families, our congregations, and our communities. I have believed in the acceptance of gay people for thirty years and more. I would hope that I always manage to express this belief. Imagine my mortification, speaking to a former pupil, now clearly “out”, to discover that he thought I was against gays. We need clarity here, whatever our personal opinion is. We can’t afford the luxury of a pious fudge.

I have been talking about the situation in England. It is possible that same-sex marriage will come in here in the next few years. Even if it doesn’t, the question of where we stand with regard to our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender brothers and sisters is a present issue. I have come to the conclusion that those of us who favour acceptance need to be more direct and vocal about it. Some time ago I began to look at the possibility of becoming an “Inclusive Church” with an agreed policy of welcome and acceptance.  I intend to look again, in the hope that our group of parishes might be willing to stand up and be counted on this one.

In today’s lovely collect, we ask that we may recognise the creator’s hand in all his work, and his likeness in all his children. 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