On Saturday 23 July I participated in the blessing of a marriage in St Agnes Church, North Reddish, between the priest in charge, Clive Larsen, and his partner John. It was a wonderful occasion, celebrated by the congregation with family members and friends.
Two days later, Ian Paul published a guest blog by Peter Ould on his web site raising legal questions about my involvement in the service and looking for answers from the Bishops of Manchester and Salisbury without which “such direct challenges to their authority and to the Doctrine of the Church of England go completely unchallenged and unimpeded.”
I have yet to hear from the Bishop of Salisbury.
I have sketched notes at least four times for a possible response to Peter’s blog but abandoned them each time. I have no wish to argue on Ian and Paul’s terms or be held to account by their hostile, negative attitude to LGBTI Christians who are in my mind ‘doing the right thing’.
Some conservative Christians use the Bible as an authoritative source of teaching about anything and everything, including the legitimacy of adult, permanent, faithful, stable, loving same-sex relationships. Used in this way, Christianity becomes a form of social control which can lead to the abuse of individuals in the church and a systemic culture of abuse which can affect and infect all of us. The groups targeted change in the course of time. In recent decades, the target has slowly moved from the place of women in the church to the place of LGBTI people.
Christian teaching and practice is always infected with Biblical interpretations and usage. Those who focus on the need for regular public confession because their brand of theology majors on guilt and sin result in attitudes and teachings, some of which have very negative effects on individuals, congregations, and communities.
The Church of England requires clergy to submit to the teaching of the House of Bishops about same-sex marriage. It is, in theory, not allowed. I grew up at a time when secrecy was necessary for my survival as a gay man. I never dreamed it would be possible for lesbian and gay couples to fall in love and live together, let alone marry. It took a Labour government to introduce civil partnerships and a Conservative government to introduce equal marriage to show that it’s possible to enfold same-sex intimacy and love within a legal contract and with the same joy and respect given to heterosexuals who marry.
That joy and respect was present in abundance at Clive and John’s wedding blessing with love, warmth, applause and excitement enfolding the couple, as no doubt it has at every civil partnership, marriage, same-sex blessing and service of dedication, whether held in a secular venue or in church.
As Phyllis Tickle argues in The Great Emergence, we are living at a time of dizzying upheaval and change, a major paradigm shift of social, cultural and religious change. We are living through a period of evolution which is dramatically affecting the place of faith communities on society and the ways in which people conceive of God and our place in the universe.
We live in evolution. Every period of history is evolutionary and all life is life in process of change. In life, we are always discovering new knowledge, new freedoms from old shibboleths, new awareness and new truths. In this evolutionary period human knowledge and awareness is being transformed. The creative energies of change are inevitably shadowed by reactionary movements fuelled by fears and anxieties. At the extreme, some people resort to violence and terrorism in response to loss of potency, economic and social autonomy and extreme inequality of wealth and status.
The Christian Churches are exhibiting particularly defensive patterns of behaviour in response to the evolutionary energies of our time. Christianity has a tendency to externalise experience, continuing to conceive of God (despite a century of engagement with a changed view of reality), in anthropomorphic terms, as a being or object existing as a supra-being in creation. The Church as institution has a body of teaching which is poorly understood and inadequate to respond to the changes experienced by the global human community. Old ways of understanding and interpreting reality are reinforced by liturgy, hymns, prayers and teaching. The system is too dogmatic, hierarchical, controlling, and infantilising – all of which results in abusive patterns of behaviour.
The Church as a body does not know how to integrate body, heart, soul, and spirit, with mind. It is far too head-centred. Academic achievement in still over-valued. The Church has yet to discover that teaching people how to be grounded, to live in the present moment, to value and trust their feelings, to imagine the unconditional and infinite and love to characterise the God of Jesus the Christ, love which melts anxiety and the existential fear of difference, loneliness and separation.
Christianity has evolved into a system and culture which almost deliberately denies life, freedom and energy to people, to women, to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, to people with disabilities, black minority ethnic people, people who don’t conform to an archaic version of ‘the teaching’, and in truth to all people because everyone is affected by diminished respect for, freedom for, the affirmation of all people, regardless of gender, sexuality or race. The Bible continues to be used as an instrument of ‘orthodoxy’ and oppression to impose judgement and discipline on categories of people. For LGBTI people the effect is to suppress love and relationships and people’s innate, divine gifts.
Thanks to the evolutionary discoveries of the past century we are now far more (potentially) aware of our inner lives, of relationships and human dynamics, the human psyche, and of what each one of us needs to flourish in the unfolding of our life. I am far more aware now of the elements of Christian practice which damage and suppress the life force in people, elements which do not lead towards holiness and which can smother the divine creative spark within each human being.
There is much in Christian teaching that can enhance life and despite the negative environment I can experience in church. Christianity is the source of my faith and the inspiration for my spirituality and the deep interiority of my relationship with the divine.
This is the blog it has taken me nearly three weeks to write because I knew that engaging with the hostile energy of the Peter Ould’s blog was futile. Our wisdom, attention, time, and creative energy needs to be focused not on engaging with those defending abusive, hierarchical, dogmatic ways of thinking and acting based on Scripture and an anthropomorphic idea of God but on the divine energy which is always evolving and flowing through creation and inspires people, despite the unfortunate endeavours of the church, to trust their feelings and intuition, marry the person they love, live with the person they choose, and share uninhibitedly the glorious liberty and freedom of creation in which the poor and disenfranchised are tenderly blessed by God, “the internal, the infinite, and unnameable”, to quote my young, wise South African friend Zinana.