A Christmas sermon that cost a man his job as a minister…

frank schaefer

And what a sermon. Here it is in full.

It was given by Frank Schaefer (no, not that one– different spelling) who was defrocked by the United Methodist Church last week for officiating at his son’s marriage to another man.

Whatever your theological stance on this issue (it will not surprise you that I am with Frank) you have to admire this man’s courage.

Frank said this;

Being a United Methodist minister is the only way I know how to minister. All of my children have been baptised in the United Methodist Church. It was our church. This is our church.

I knew that I had to confess what in my heart I knew to be true, and I had to stand against the church – not the entire church – but the institution of the United Methodist organisation to say “I believe that this rule is discriminatory and wrong”, and I knew I had to tell my lawyers that.

And so when I sat in the stand, and it came to that moment to share about my true faith, and to stand against the church. I was sick to my stomach. And I was thinking, “can I actually get those words out”? And as I was in that moment, I looked out into the room, and I saw my family. Behind my family there were people sitting. Some of the people were from this church, wearing rainbow stoles. And all of a sudden it was like I could feel their prayers, and I heard myself say to the jury: “I will put on this stole, this rainbow colored stole, as a sign that I will from now on stand in advocacy of the LGBT community of our church”.

And I heard myself say, “I want you to know, that if I am going to be a United Methodist minister tomorrow, I will not refuse ministry to anyone based on their sexual orientation.”

And I heard myself say:

I can no longer be a silent supporter. I will always be an advocate and I will tell the church that these laws are discriminatory. And that we treat our LGBT brothers and sisters as second-class Christians, and that the hate, the hate speech of the church has to stop.

Rowan Williams on spirituality and whinging Christians…

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He always was worth listening to carefully. Sure he never got used to packaging up media friendly sound bites, and even though many counted this in a list of his faults whilst in office, I always loved the fact that there was depth and intellect in everything he said. I have wondered how his voice might develop after being released from all the pressure of his post.

Early signs seem to be business as usual. Here are a couple of extracts, courtesy of The Guardian;

Firstly on whinging Christians, by which I mean those who see Christians in this country as under some kind of attack from the forces of evil. Check out the pages of Christian Voice and you will see what I mean;

Christians in Britain and the US who claim that they are persecuted should “grow up” and not exaggerate what amounts to feeling “mildly uncomfortable”, according to Rowan Williams, who last year stepped down as archbishop of Canterbury after an often turbulent decade.

“When you’ve had any contact with real persecuted minorities you learn to use the word very chastely,” he said. “Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable. ‘For goodness sake, grow up,’ I want to say.”

True persecution was “systematic brutality and often murderous hostility that means that every morning you wonder if you and your children are going to live through the day”. He cited the experience of a woman he met in India “who had seen her husband butchered by a mob”.

Nothing confirms some Christians in their sense of persecution more than issues around homosexuality- it is almost as if every legal/social step forward offered to gay people is seen as some kind of prod of the devil-horns into the side of the church. Considering the fact that gay people have suffered (and still suffer) actual persecution this always seems to me to be a terrible miss-representation of the Gospel.

Rowan Williams then started out on a wider theme- that of ‘Spirituality’;

Sharing a platform at the Edinburgh international book festival with Julia Neuberger, president of the Liberal Judaism movement, Williams launched a withering critique of popular ideas about spirituality. “The last thing it is about is the placid hum of a well-conducted meditation,” he said.

He said the word “spiritual” in today’s society was frequently misused in two ways: either to mean “unworldly and useless, which is probably the sense in which it has been used about me”, or “meaning ‘I’m serious about my inner life, I want to cultivate my sensibility'”.

He added: “Speaking from the Christian tradition, the idea that being spiritual is just about having nice experiences is rather laughable. Most people who have written seriously about the life of the spirit in Christianity and Judaism spend a lot of their time telling you how absolutely bloody awful it is.” Neuberger said she found some uses of the word self-indulgent and offensive. Williams argued that true spirituality was not simply about fostering the inner life but was about the individual’s interaction with others.

I am still working on a collection of ‘Spiritual’ poetry. I think I just found a quote for the introduction!

 

Cardinals, McLaren and the charge of hypocrisy…

Cardinal O'Brian

No one could have missed the story of Cardinal O’Brian and the scandal engulfing the Catholic Church at the moment, but just in case you have, it goes something like this;

Cardinal O’Brian, the only British Cardinal, starts off (20 years ago) as a moderate within the church, upsetting conservative Catholics with his liberal views on contraception, homosexuality and whether priests should marry. Over time however, as the Vatican became increasingly hard line, he seemed to swing towards the right, becoming a strident and belligerent voice proclaiming the need to Christian morality, family values and for Conservative Catholicism. There was even talk of him being the next Pope.

Last year he made a splash because of his rather bizarre comment comparing Gay Marriage to slavery. I wrote about it at the time, here. 

Then, totally out of the blue, in the wake of the shocking resignation of the Pope, just as Cardinal O’Brian is about to go to Rome to take part in the election of the next Pope, 4 men- three priests and one ex-priest, let it be known that he used his power and authority to impose sexual acts on them whilst they were young men.

He initially denies it. The Church starts to close ranks. Then he admits it and resigns his office.

I have avoided discussing this matter up until now on this blog- partly because I did not want anything I wrote to seem triumphalist. I have ‘come out’ as a Christian who has a very different position on  the (unfortunately) totemic issue of homosexuality to that espoused by the Cardinal (and many other good people, including close friends.)

I was also staggered by the scale of the fall of this man- for whom I feel great sympathy. I know what it is like to be trapped in an unyielding and inflexible hermaneutic- to resort to compartmentalism to cope with the cognitive dissonance. Many people describe O’Brian as a good man, a kind man who has the capacity for so much good. None of us are just one thing, we are all many- and those who attack him should beware throwing the first stone.

Finally, I feel a collective shame for the Church. Scandals like this confirm the worst of prejudice about what the Church has become- it tells the world that we are that most despicable thing- we are hypocrites. This story proves our guilt- and the guilt is collective. As soon as we (the Church) begin to stand on moral high ground, we will always be in danger of the crumbling cliff edge.

That is NOT to say that we should have no moral voice. Our job is to be a people who present a radical alternative. We are to be an irritant  and conscience of those in power, not because we are better than others, but because we are prepared to try this thing called love. All morality is captured by this simple word- love. As soon as love is subordinate to morality, then morality becomes the worst form of religion.

So in this sense, Cardinal O’Brian is both perpetrator and victim of a system of faith that makes individual salvation from private sin the most important issue. It IS an important issue- but we all have logs in our own eyes. And there are other issues…

Which were brought to me again when listening to clip in my previous post.

brian-mclaren

Brian McLaren, speaking in St Paul’s Cathedral mentioned that he had a son who was gay. I have read and listened to a lot of his stuff, but did not know this. It seems that he performed a marriage ceremony for his son and partner last year, which predictably got him in to a lot of trouble. A case in point is this entry on his blog, in response to a man who had publicly ‘broken rank’ with him as a result of his stance on homosexuality, and his decision to participate in his sons marriage ceremony. Some of his response is as follows;

My view on human sexuality has indeed changed over a period of thirty years, and actually, the views of most conservative Christians have also been changing over that period. It wasn’t too long ago that the only conservative position was, “It’s a choice and an abomination.” When that position became untenable due to increasing data, the conservative position evolved to “it’s a changeable disposition, and we know how to change it.” When fewer and fewer people who claimed to have been reoriented were able to sustain the reorientation, the position shifted to “it’s a hard-to-change disposition, but it can be done with great difficulty.” More recently, I hear conservatives say “the disposition may be unchangeable but the behavior is a choice, so people may choose to live a celibate life or a heterosexual life, even against their orientation.” All that’s to say that it would be unfair of me to break fellowship with people who are themselves on a journey, just because they aren’t where I am at this point…

In my case, I inherited a theology that told me exactly what you said: homosexuality is a sin, so although we should not condemn (i.e. stone them), we must tell people to “go and sin no more.” Believe me, for many years as a pastor I tried to faithfully uphold this position, and sadly, I now feel that I unintentionally damaged many people in doing so. Thankfully, I had a long succession of friends who were gay. And then I had a long succession of parishioners come out to me. They endured my pronouncements. They listened and responded patiently as I brought up the famous six or seven Bible passages again and again. They didn’t break ranks with me and in fact showed amazing grace and patience to me when I was showing something much less to them.

Over time, I could not square their stories and experiences with the theology I had inherited. So I re-opened the issue, read a lot of books, re-studied the Scriptures, and eventually came to believe that just as the Western church had been wrong on slavery, wrong on colonialism, wrong on environmental plunder, wrong on subordinating women, wrong on segregation and apartheid (all of which it justified biblically) … we had been wrong on this issue. In this process, I did not reject the Bible. In fact, my love and reverence for the Bible increased when I became more aware of the hermeneutical assumptions on which many now-discredited traditional interpretations were based and defended. I was able to distinguish “what the Bible says” from “what this school of interpretation says the Bible says,” and that helped me in many ways.

So – many years before I learned I had members of my own close family who were gay – my view changed. As you can imagine, when this issue suddenly became a live issue in my own family, I was relieved that I was already in a place where I would not harm them as (I’m ashamed to say this) I had harmed some gay people (other people’s sons and daughters) earlier in my ministry…

This post hints at what must have been great personal pain through all this, but also a great strength- the sort that feels (to me at least) right. McLaren ends his post like this;

I want to add one more brief comment. You ask, if we change our way of interpreting the Bible on this issue (my words, not yours) “- what else will happen next?” Here’s what I hope will happen. After acknowledging the full humanity and human rights of gay people, I hope we will tackle the elephant in the room, so to speak – the big subject of poverty. If homosexuality directly and indirectly affects 6 – 30% of the population, poverty indirectly and directly affects 60 – 100%. What would happen if we acknowledged the full humanity and full human rights of poor people? And then people with physical disabilities and mental illnesses and impairments? And then, what after that? What would happen if we acknowledged the spiritual, theological, moral value – far beyond monetary or corporate value – of the birds of the air, the flowers of the field, of seas and mountains and valleys and ecosystems? To me, Jesus’ proclamation of the reign or commonwealth of God requires us to keep pressing forward, opening blind eyes, setting captives free, proclaiming God’s amazing grace to all creation.

What he is able to do here is lift our eyes from a  grubby obsession with what goes on in people private bedroom space to the call of the Kingdom of God.

This is the greater charge of hypocrisy that I feel myself constantly to be under. How all the distractions and comforts of my life and lifestyle prevent me from living as a full agent of  the commonwealth of God as spelled out above.

In this, as with the Cardinal, I am reliant on Grace, and the hope that I may yet become what I aspire to be…

Open letter to ‘Pray for Scotland’ in relation to recent prayer call around gay marriage…

gay-marriage1

I received a prayer bulletin from Pray for Scotland today. This is an organisation run by some wonderful people whom it was a great privilege to meet and spend time with a few years ago when Michaela and I first arrived in Scotland, hungry for connection, and to understand what God might be up to north of the border. Pray for Scotland can be characterised as evangelical, charismatic and apostolic in their aims- full of people who believe that prayer can make a difference to the very character of our nation.

It was through PFS that I first heard of people who genuinely believed and hoped for a revival, as prophesied by Jean Darnell- something I have written about before on this blog- here.

However, I had some trepidation as I opened the e-mail as I could guess what the content would be. Both the media and the church are full of talk about gay marriage at the moment, and so I was both saddened by, and not surprised, to read the content of this newsletter. Here are a few extracts;

Dear Praying friends

I’m sending out this extra E-letter regarding the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill 2012-13 . The bill is being read in the House of Commons today 5 February 2013  and we think its important that we all join together to pray for our leaders. I have brought some material together  for prayer and information on the issues.

Let’s storm heaven with our petitions of  ‘ His kingdom come’ in the UK government and  ‘His will to be done’ .

At the very beginning I found myself wondering about our common understanding of the Kingdom of God, and whether we would ever want to ‘storm heaven’.

Dear Friends, Tuesday. 5th Feb. will be the second reading of a bill in Westminster on redefining marriage.
We would appreciate if you would pray at a convenient time during the day.
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There will be a bill come to the Scottish parliament, however Westminster will influence Scotland particularly in the area of equality bill and protection of people in ministry and public offices eg. registrars, teachers, social workers.
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On Sunday many people prayed in churches and the following was the suggested corporate prayer—
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 ‘Heavenly Father, we thank you for the gift of marriage which you established at the dawn of time, to be a blessing throughout the earth, down through the ages. We pray you would fill every marriage with your love and grace, and that every husband and wife would know the joy that comes from sharing and giving. We thank you for establishing marriage to be a secure and stable environment for raising children.
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We pray for all those who do not enjoy these blessings, remembering you are a father to the orphan and a husband to the widow. We pray, as you have commanded us, for those in positions of civil authority. We pray that our government will act with wisdom and righteousness, upholding marriage as the voluntary union of one man to one woman for life, for the good of all people.
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We pray for forgiveness for our nation as our government seeks to redefine marriage. We pray for ourselves that we would speak out in support of marriage with gentleness and kindness, also with courage and confidence. in the name of our lord Jesus Christ, amen. –
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Jean Black(Mrs)
Director Pray for Scotland
I have met Jean, and have the utmost respect for her as a gentle, thoughtful and loving person. However, this prayer troubled me greatly. The newsletter went on to quote CARE, and also the World Prayer Centre, who suggested these points of prayer;
  •  That marriage will not be redefined, and that real marriage will be promoted in society for the good of all.
  • That as many MPs as possible will vote against the Bill to redefine marriage.
  • For David Burrowes, MP and others, as they lead opposition to the Government’s plans in the House of Commons.
  • For the Coalition for Marriage group as it campaigns to defend the true meaning of marriage.
  • For politicians and others in public life to have the courage to stand up for what is right and true.
  • For the news media, that they would report the issue widely, fairly, and accurately.
  • That the true consequences of redefining marriage would be publicly known and properly discussed.
  • That people would not face discrimination, in the workplace or elsewhere, because of their sincere beliefs about marriage.

I decided that I would reply to Pray for Scotland in the form of an open letter. I do so with some trepidation as I do not like conflict, nor am I ever happy to offend anyone. However I have come to believe that this is one of those issues that I can not stay silent on- that unless other people see that there is a real debate going on in the church as to what is the right way to respond to changes in society around homosexual rights then we do a disservice to Jesus and everything that he was.

Here is my reply;

Dear praying friends

Firstly thank you for your faithfulness in continuing to encourage those of us who are seeking to follow Jesus in Scotland to pray. However please forgive me, but I felt that I needed to respond to your latest prayer bulletin. I have made this the subject of an ‘open letter’ via my blog, and am happy for you to re-use these words as you see fit.

The issue of marriage and the underlying (but primary) issue of the Church’s correct stance towards people who are homosexual are ones that have the capacity to polarise and I have little interested in becoming involved in endless circuitous debates. However, your bulletin appears to assume that there is only one perspective on this issue and that all praying Christians will have come to the same view as the organisations you quote about the sanctity of marriage and the inherent sinfulness of a homosexual ‘lifestyle’.

I would respectfully suggest that this is not the case. There are many Christians, like myself, who have come to a different position after years of prayerful engagement with scripture and the traditional teachings of Evangelical churches.  I think many of us were very heartened to read Steve Chalke‘s (Oasis Trust) piece on this issue, which was quoted in Christianity Magazine, and can be read in full here; http://www.oasisuk.org/article.aspx?menuId=31887 I will not seek to rehearse the theology, as Steve has done it far better than I could.

Although I am aware that some will be scandalised by what Steve has to say (and its implications for the way we read the Bible) as Pray for Scotland  seek to unite Christians in prayer for our nation I consider it vital that we bear in mind that this is not a marginal view- rather it is one that an increasingly large part of the Body of Christ in Scotland are beginning to awake to.

I have read and re-read Jean’s suggested prayer, which is full of grace as I know her to be. However, I simply can not join you in many of the prayer points you outline. I am excluded from being able to do this because I believe that the Holy Spirit is leading us on a new path- towards the radical inclusion of the outsider that Jesus modeled for us in everything that he was. I accept that some of you will be convinced of my error in understanding Scripture and my conviction that the new marriage bill poses no danger whatsoever to this nation, nor to the intrinsic value of marriage. Even in our disagreement I would however ask you to consider whether the views you hold allow us to join in a universal prayer for Scotland

In my own prayers, I decided I could join you in prayer in these ways;

  • Thanking God for the gift of marriage- for the blessing it has been in my own life, and the life of others all around me.
  • Praying for those who are married, that their relationships may be characterised by peace, productivity, life long loyalty and blessing. Praying that this kind of relationship will be available to all.
  • Praying particularly for people whose marriages have NOT been like this- for those who have known pain, abuse and brokenness in their marriages. For divorced people, for those alone. Praying for them to find peace, and renewed companionship.
  • Praying in particular for the children born to marriages like the one above. The children born to these marriages will have all sorts of disadvantages and damage, and so I will pray that these might be turned towards healing by grace.
  • I will also say sorry to God that I am part of a society that constantly tends towards selfishness, over consumption, empire building and trivialisation, whilst at the same time undervaluing the principles of love and justice that would lead us always towards the other- particularly those who are marginalised and stigmatised by society.

May you be richly blessed

Chris Goan.

(Comments on this piece are welcome, but will be strictly moderated- let us discuss this issue with love and respect or not at all.)

Steve Chalke raises his head above the parapet on homosexuality…

steve chalke

My mate Simon pointed me to this article, written by Steve Chalke, of the Oasis Trust, and published in this months Christianity Magazine. For those who do not know this publication, it is the voice of Evangelicalism in the UK- read by mostly fundementalist, bible-first, charismatic (with a small c), conservative (also with a small c) Christians. I used to read it myself years ago, but found that it made me too cross.

In this instance however, well done to the magazine for giving air to Steve, who has no doubt summoned down the wrath of many of its readers on his head, but in doing so has opened up an important debate from on the ‘inside’.

Here are some of the things he had to say;

I feel both compelled and afraid to write this article. Compelled because, in my understanding, the principles of justice, reconciliation and inclusion sit at the very heart of Jesus’ message. Afraid because I recognise the Bible is understood by many to teach that the practice of homosexuality, in any circumstance, is ‘a grotesque and sinful subversion’, an ‘objective disorder’ or, perhaps slightly more liberally, ‘less than God’s best’.

Some will think that I have strayed from Scripture – that I am no longer an evangelical. I have formed my view, however, not out of any disregard for the Bible’s authority, but by way of grappling with it and, through prayerful reflection, seeking to take it seriously. My prayer, in writing, is therefore to encourage a gracious and mature conversation around an extremely important pastoral and theological issue that impacts the lives of so many people…

In autumn 2012 I conducted a dedication and blessing service following the Civil Partnership of two wonderful gay Christians. Why? Not to challenge the traditional understanding of marriage – far from it – but to extend to these people what I would do to others – the love and support of our local church. Our service also gave them the opportunity, surrounded by their family and friends, to publicly recognise their dependence on God and their need to be part of a supportive Christ-centred community to strengthen them in fulfilling their promises to one another.

Too often, those who seek to enter an exclusive, same-sex relationship have found themselves stigmatised and excluded by the Church. I have come to believe this is an injustice and out of step with God’s character as seen through Christ. I leave it to others to debate whether a Civil Partnership plus a dedication and blessing should equal a marriage or not. But I do believe that the Church has a God given responsibility to include those who have for so long found themselves excluded…

In my view, although motivated by a laudable concern for inclusion, many of the arguments that have been constructed in the attempt to soften or nullify what is the clear and uncompromising stance of Scripture unintentionally end up clouding the real issue – one of wider hermeneutics rather than simply exegesis.

Through my hermeneutical lens, the Bible is the account of the ancient conversation initiated, inspired and guided by God with and among humanity. It is a conversation where various, sometimes harmonious and sometimes discordant, human voices contribute to the gradually growing picture of the character of Yahweh; fully revealed only in Jesus.  But it is also a conversation that, rather than ending with the finalisation of the canon, continues beyond it involving all of those who give themselves to Christ’s on-going redemptive movement.

Rather than condemn and exclude, can we dare to create an environment for homosexual people where issues of self-esteem and wellbeing can be talked about; where the virtues of loyalty, respect, interdependence and faithfulness can be nurtured, and where exclusive and permanent same-sex relationships can be supported?

Tolerance is not the same as Christ-like love. Christ-like love calls us to go beyond tolerance to want for the other the same respect, freedom, and equality one wants for oneself. We should find ways to formally support and encourage those who are in, or wish to enter into, faithful same-sex partnerships, as well as in their wider role as members of Christ’s body.

I end where I started; in the coming months there will be huge and often heated debate around gay marriage. I am committed to listening and trying to understand the intricacies of the arguments on both sides. But, whatever the outcome and whichever side of the debate we find ourselves on, my hope is that as Christians we face what I think is the central issue – what does real, Christ-like, inclusion look like?

For those who want to engage with the theology of his argument, I recommend reading the article in full.

And in the mean time, I commend you Steve for using your apostolic voice to raise this issue in such a thoughtful and gentle way. I know this is an easy thing to do when someone agrees with your own opinion- it is much harder to feel respect for those on the other side of a debate.

Let us hope that there may yet be a time when the Church can be a place of radical inclusion of out groups- which is after all the Jesus way.