May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.
I wonder if any of you have ever read the Declaration of Independence? It was written way back in 1776 by a bunch of upstart rebels against his majesty King George III and we look forward to one day welcoming the American Colonies back into the glorious Empire. I joke of course. But in North America at that time the people had to content with a serious conflict. In that conflict, there was a deep disagreement between those who longed for change and those who did not. There were those who in the late 18th century fought for King, they believed appointed by God, and those who fought for freedom they believed ordained by God. What is interesting in that conflict was the founding Fathers as they are known across the pond, had to use theology, the study of God through scripture, reason and tradition to understand a changing world, to make sense of the new emerging reality of their society, and how best to serve it. Writing the Declaration of Independence, they came up with this immortal line oft repeated which says
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We hold these truths to be self-evident, they write. As they engaged with the new emerging reality of freedom from an empire, they are having to understand how to be Americans in a new and different world. What is more interesting is that the founding Fathers did not write this sentence. It can be found in the writing of Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century and also used by that great theologian Thomas Aquinas in the 12th century. It has its roots in an exposition on a verse in the book of Job. What people at the time of the American Revolution did, faced with a new emerging reality, was to look to tradition, scripture, and reason to come to a conclusion that helped them live and serve well in that culture. Not a new truth mind you, but rather to a rediscovery of an old truth, just in a new context, a truth of liberty and equality for all. This happens continually throughout history. People rediscovering old truths in new contexts. It is also clear that many did not agree with their conclusions in that conflict. Just imagine how different our history could have been, if the rebels had been more accommodating, if the King had been able to change and their had been no split. Just imagine if there had been a movement to see the humanity and salvation in each other rather than to see a label and a problem. These self-evident truths need to be found afresh every generation.
Today, sadly, the national church finds itself in deep conflict, around the blessing of same-sex relationships. Two sides have emerged, one for and one against. Through much debate, prayer and we pray under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church of England has decided to allow same-sex couples to have blessings for their relationships within church. These prayers alongside pastoral guidance can be found at https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/prayers-love-and-faith
No church or priest can be compelled to hold such prayers within services for reasons of conscience. I think what is universally true, unfortunately, is that these prayers serve no one well. For many, they fall far too short of marriage equality. For others they go against their understanding of God’s will and can represent to them a serious departure from the faith. For people either side of this debate, there is a lot of heartache. Unfortunately, there are many, mainly church leaders, who will now not share the bonds of fellowship or communion with other siblings of Christ over their stance on this issue. I may not be sure of much, but I am sure that to do that is not only a nonsense but a great sin. You may think someone is the worst Christian to ever live. But they remain your sibling in Christ. You are to love your enemies. How much more than should you then love those whom Christ has redeemed?
Regardless, now that the churches decision has been made at a national level, it is now time to come to a decision on a local, parish level. As vicar, its important to explain where I stand, why and what I will be commending to the PCC in 10 days’ time. Before that I do want to make this very clear. What we are talking about today goes to the very core of some peoples identity. Precious people made in God’s image for whom He died. We are therefore walking on holy ground, and so if you have questions, queries or worries they are to be directed to me and only to me.
My view, to put it rather simply is that I will be commending these prayers to the PCC. I feel these prayers fall far short of what I pray for and believe is right, that we need marriage equality within the church, where couples regardless of gender are welcomed to have a marriage in their parish church, where they commit themselves to living monogamous, holy, prayerful lives together as a married couple before God. I am as unequivocal about that as I am unapologetic. However small, these prayers do represent, I believe a step in that direction.
This decision was not reached lightly, because I know that for some, they will not be able to understand it. I came to it as best I could through the rigorous way such decisions are made within our denomination, by looking to scripture, reason and tradition, or wisdom. I am not alone in going through this difficult process and there are others who have come to differing conclusions to myself – but more about that in a minute.
There simply isn’t enough time to give a good enough account in detail why I have arrived where I am. I wrote this three times, with the first two attempts being books rather than sermons. In the end I didn’t think they said anything that hasn’t been said elsewhere and more eloquently. But I will briefly say something through the scripture today, to say why I believe this is the right course for our community .
There has been reams of books written about sexuality and faith on both sides of the fence and I am not surprised because so many of our siblings in Christ have also thought deeply about this. For me, I found an article and book helpful. The first is an article written by one of the world’s leading theologian Walter Brueggemann and can be found at this link https://outreach.faith/2022/09/walter-brueggemann-how-to-read-the-bible-on-homosexuality/
The second is a book, currently 99p on Amazon digitally called ‘Affirmative: Why You Can Say Yes to the Bible and Yes to People Who Are LGBTQI+”
you can also purchase hardcopies. These two in general are pieces I can largely, although not entirely agree with. I commend them to you for your own research and reading. They deal with scripture that can be used to argue for and scripture that can be used to argue against same-sex marriage.
What the debate is really about, though, and why I chose the readings that I did, is a debate about who we can love and how in a world which is fast changing, within a new context. In 1 Corinthians 13 we see Paul write so beautifully about love. Love, as we know is at the centre of who we are as people and at the centre of all good marriages and relationships. In fact, love is so powerful, so precious, it defines everything that has worth. When two people love each other, can we really ignore it, or treat it simply as lust? Can two people be deeply in love as deep as any heterosexual marriage? Deeply committed to one another in all ways other marriages are bar the one fact that they are the same sex? I feel the answer is rather obvious. I hold that the truth is self-evident that love exists within same-sex relationships, as much as it does within other marriages.
In the reading from Galatians, we hear Paul speaking to the church in Galatia, a church in deep conflict over whether or not believers should be circumcised, as a sign of being part of the covenanted people of God like the Jews. Paul, thankfully speaks against this need. But he also reminds the Galatians of several truths. He starts by saying remember that Christ has set us free. Not to be slaves to legalistic understandings, of following one rule or another but to be free. He says this in verse 6
‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.’
Here Paul is showing that in reality circumcision counts for nothing in the emerging Christian community, it isn’t the sign of orthodoxy or acceptance but the question really is if faith is working through love. In the same way I am convinced that whether or not a church offers these prayers, they are not the mark of a ‘true’ church or not. I have no time for those who condemn a church which doesn’t wish to use the prayers or condemns those who do, because they have beautifully missed the point. We are not to condemn each other! Rather we are to love each other as parts of His Body the church, not because they are perfect but because they reflect our own brokenness healed through the cross. And my friends there has never been a time in the history of the church where it has all agreed, even from the beginning. The far more pressing question is rather whether a church is full of people with faith working through love. How stupid would it be to condemn a church based on these prayers, but not another church not using the prayers if it were full of fools who had no faith working through love. Later on it says this:
“Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”
Ask yourself, which group do those Christians in same-sex relationships obviously fall into? The Christian same-sex couples I know, have relationships that are full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, often more so than many heterosexual couples – why more? Because same-sex Christian couples face such persecution within the Christian world, persecution from brothers and sisters in Christ who should love them and yet it doesn’t stop them coming to worship the Lord their God. If only I had that resilience! I hold that this truth is self-evident, that the fruits of the Spirit can be discerned within couples in same-sex relationships.
In our gospel reading we hear much from Jesus about loving our enemies and not judging others, which we will come back to. But at the end Jesus says this –
“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.”
The same-sex attracted Christian people and couples I know by and large bear much good fruit as much as anyone else regardless of sexuality within this church community. I hold this truth also to be self-evident also.
I could speak for hours on these passages and many others and the whole narrative of scripture that for me says so much about welcome, emancipation, and salvation. It has so much to say about loving God and neighbour. It has so much to say about monogamous, holy and life-giving marriages. It has so much to say about loving the marginalised and the persecuted. It has so very much to say about love. For me these things are clearly, obviously present in those brave enough to be in same-sex relationships within the church. So, for those reasons, and many more and for the simple reason that I love so many of my brothers and sisters in Christ within same-sex unions I commend these prayers for use here, and it is with my persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ I stand. “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen”
It is really important to say before finishing, I know that for some of you, you will find yourself on the other side of this debate. You will find what I have said to be difficult, perhaps irreconcilably so. We therefore have a wonderful opportunity to show great grace to one another. I expect no difficulty loving or working with those who disagree with me. I believe you can disagree with me and that your view can be held with conviction, integrity and in good-conscience, even if I respectfully disagree. I will not allow discrimination for holding or not holding that view in this church. My plea is rather than doing the easy thing of rejecting or leaving or shunning, perhaps you could walk with me as a sibling in Christ in His love and in prayer? To learn and grow together? I remind you as I frequently remind myself – we are not to abandon each other but do the rather harder thing to:
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
Also our Lord says
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
Anyone within our parish of Cleveleys is welcome to talk to me about my decision, if you wish before we talk and vote on it in PCC on 24th. I am as always available to everyone, regardless. Only know that whatever you think about all this, that you have my entire support and love as I hope I have yours.
The Last word I give to Revd Morgan, a predecessor of mine as vicar here, speaking about something else entirely, which Brian shared with me on Friday, yet his words in his letter in the summer of 1976 ring true nearly 50 years later:
“In all this we are concerned with people. From the Prime Minster downwards we need from everyone a new sense of integrity, altruism, and faith… and for all this there are but two simple rules – Love God, and love neighbour, for it is only those who acknowledge God as Father of all who can know and achieve the true brotherhood of man.”