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Sermon for Ordinary 13 Year A

By The Rev Dr Joan Crossley

I would love to tell you this morning that peace has broken out in the Anglican Communion, but as always, that just isn’t the case. Next week I shall be at General Synod in York where the debate on how women can be made Bishops will go on, and on and on. The degree of dispute within the Church in England is very dispiriting and a constant distraction from what you might consider to be the important issues of the day: the very survival of our species, poverty, hunger and war. Meanwhile the Church continues to bicker amongst itself.
 

The most depressing matter, at present, is the bitter split that exists between Christians over the appointment of an openly gay bishop in North America. But it isn’t only about that. The argument involves whether Christians can accept homosexuality as God-given and “normal”, whether Christians should accept homosexuality in its clergy or whether it should do so and just keep very quiet about it. So within the anti-gay bishop debate there are a lot of different debates going on and there are complicated feelings about homosexuality as well mixed in with the theology.
 

At the basis of the dispute is how you read the Bible. I do not believe that you can understand it as a literal document to be followed in the same way that you follow an instruction manual for setting up your computer. For one thing the Bible contradicts itself quite a lot, so which instruction would you follow? It is true that it says in the Bible that homosexual acts are wrong but then it says the same about other rules we regularly disregard, for example we would not consider stoning adulterers or condoning slavery, both of which also feature in the Bible. On a lighter level we do not consider it to be unforgivable for a man to shave his beard. I believe that the Bible is a God-given gift to His people, but that it has to be read as a series of writings made at specific times and was therefore influenced by the culture in which it was written. Given these problems, I try and apply my mind, heart and soul to understanding God’s word for us and apply it to the world in which we live. Every generation has done this. The world and the faith have always moved on, not always together. Sometimes the Church is prophetic and speaks truths which the world is not yet ready for: sometimes the church is brought kicking and screaming to amend its laws to accommodate beliefs long held in the wider world. It seems to me to be central to hold before our eyes, not Laws or moral judgements or what is popular but what we know of Jesus and what we believe he taught.
 

You will each of you have your own beliefs about homosexuality. Partly this is due to your age and the people you have happened to meet in your life-time. It is so much more open these days. My gran, who was born in the 1890s, did not believe that there was such a thing as people who were attracted to those of the same sex until after her marriage in 1914 when it was explained to her! Queen Victoria, it is said, would not believe in Lesbianism and so female homosexual acts were not made illegal as was male homosexual acts. In Victorian England the law was toughened up and hundreds of men were executed for committing homosexual acts. There has been a dramatic shift in attitude in the last hundred years, leading up to the repeal of the anti-homosexuality laws in the 1960s, through to our own time. The mainstream view in Britain today is that homosexuality is normal for some people. Recent research shows that there are physiological differences between gay and straight people, which suggests that the spectrum of what is “normal” is much wider than we once knew. Now there is a belief amongst some evangelical conservatives that gay people are just straight people who have been led astray and that they should be converted to being “normal”. I do not believe that this is true and think it is both damaging to the person to try and convert them and imposes a view that heterosexual is how God made us all to be.
 

Friends of mine who have taught at Bedford Modern for many years have observed that even in less open times, it was possible to see boys who would grow up to be gay men, from a very early age, maybe as early as seven or eight. They said they had rarely been surprised by who turned put to be gay in their later lives. I have a friend, who, when I first met him, I assumed he was gay. Imagine my surprise on hearing that he was married with a couple of children. Four years later he left his wife and “came out”. Everything about him said he was gay but his formation as an evangelical Christian had made it impossible for him to accept himself and his sexuality and so he had married to try and conform. A great deal of hurt was caused by him having to eventually acknowledge who he truly was. A great many gay Christians, especially those called to the priesthood have lived with their real selves concealed. If they meet someone to love from their own sex, then they were forced to hide the fact or deny their deep need for love and companionship. This seems to me to be both painful and wrong. I do not believe that Christ calls us to live out our lives in secrecy.
 

Given that I and many others, believe there are those for whom it is natural to be gay, what do we expect them to do? Do we expect them never to seek a partner to love? And if they do find a partner, should the Church hold them at arm’s length? The church at present allows men and women who are not in Holy Orders to have a homosexual relationship and even teaches that they should be treated with tolerance and respect. But at present the Church in England will not allow gay couples to be blessed in church. It is not just that they may not be married: they may not even be prayed for as a couple. I accept that marriage is always a legal contract made in the sight of God between a man and a woman. But why should we not ask for God to bless two people who have promised to love and care for one another?
 

A book written a couple of years back John Boswell: 'The Marriage of Likeness: Same Sex Unions in Pre Modern europe' shows that there were liturgies for the blessing of relationships between men, from the very earliest times of the church. So the precedent exists although it has long been forgotten as social understanding of homosexuality changed from that of the more liberal Greco-Roman world.
 

I don’t think that there is a chance that the Church will “marry” gay couples, but is there any reason why God should be excluded from the bond which is made in the Civil partnerships which are now possible by law? My personal feeling, is that God should be part of every relationship in life and that it is impossible to see two people who love one another and not feel that God is somehow present in that love.
 

I don’t know how het up you feel about the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act? It was a hotly contested issue in the Victorian Church. You cannot imagine how the Church fell out over the topic. Arguments over theology flew around. Conservatives and reformers attacked and insulted one another. When the artist Holman Hunt married his dead wife’s sister, he was forced to do so abroad to avoid the law and his wife was never received at Court by Queen Victoria. In 1907 the prohibition was eventually removed although individual clergy retained the right to refuse to marry a couple who were connected through marriage in this way.
 

The point I am making is that we are now in the position of the church in the later 19th century on the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act. We have many gay clergy, some openly gay and some not so open. I expect some of you here will wish there were no gay people at all. There will be some of you who will wish there are no gay clergy and you have a right to your view, as I have a right to mine. The issue is how do we react, given that such clergy and bishops exist? Are we going to invoke the laws of Leviticus and denounce them as evil sinners, denying their right to exist? Are we going to insist that they conceal who and what they are? These seem to me very undesirable alternatives: either to cite laws to oppress a substantial and significant minority of clergy or to deny them the right to live in loving and committed relationships. Jesus never mentioned homosexual relationships, but then he didn’t mention the marriage of the Deceased Wife’s Sister either, although both sides then claimed His approval for their views. It seems to me that one day, our disputes will seem as odd and old fashioned as the wrangling over marriage to your sister in law. Indeed to many outside the church, especially the young, by which I mean the under forties, the current debate seems mad. If the Law allows permanent, stable, loving relationships to be acknowledged then why should not the Church?
 

Many people in our society look at the Church as a bastion of hypocrisy. They see us preach love and reconciliation and then rip one another to pieces. They know, as we all know, that there are many gay clergy and other Bishops who are gay and known to be so, except when the light of publicity is shone. Many clergy support gay relationship blessings but fear for their jobs and career plans should they exercise their consciences to carry out such services. When the light of publicity shines on us, we scuttle away to the shadows and hope that it will go away. When Jeffrey John was nominated as Bishop of Reading, he found himself isolated as one who was open and honest about himself. At present secrecy is the safest course. How can concealment be preferable to God?
 

My view is that we should try at all times to be guided by Jesus’ teachings. Where there are no specific teachings then we must try and be guided by the spirit of his ministry and actions. We know from all we read that Jesus was recorded as embracing those who were shoved to the margins, either by their behaviour or their gender or their race. I find it hard to believe that Jesus would be against expressions of love of any kind, even had it been possible to discuss such matters in the Jewish society in which Jesus chose to come to earth. It wasn’t a relevant discussion for them, as it wasn’t for the Victorians, but it is for us now. How are we going to act towards those whose sexuality does not fit into the neat parameters we have accepted as normal? Are we going to cut them off from acceptance by the Church? Or are we going to offer the blessing and love which comes from God, who is love? I am of the latter view. That we should always err on the side of love and tolerance, acceptance and generosity. The great command to love one another does not come with added provisos or amendments. Jesus expected us to love everyone as much as we love ourselves. No exceptions, love one another.
 

At this present we are not much challenged on these issues here at the Partnership. But we might be. One day a gay couple might ask to have their relationship blessed. What would be your feeling? What if God sends you a new minister who is openly gay? How would you feel? Would it make a difference?
I have worked here for some years now and I know I have the joy and privilege of being loved by many of you. Would you love me less if I lived with someone called Pauline, instead of Paul? Would I be a different person to you? Or would you accept me for trying to be honest about myself? I think you would. I think possibly you would prefer me to try and be truthful and open even if you found my choices unusual
 

I have shared my feelings on this issue because it is at the heart of what I believe and sharing my understanding of God is what I am commanded to do in the Holy Orders I took some years ago. But it is difficult because many of you will not feel the same and if you are offended then I am sorry. If you are in complete or partial disagreement then we can agree to differ. But whatever we believe, how we behave to our brothers and sisters in Christ is more important than anything. We can choose to show love, even if we have reservations, or we can choose to withhold love. We can decide whether we try and transcend human barriers of difference or whether we shelter behind them. Amen