Progressing towards a fully inclusive church? - Adrian Alker
‘We are people who…. seek to build communities that accept all who wish to share companionship without insisting on conformity.’
PCN Britain has from its outset sought to promote a fully inclusive understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus and a member of the Christian Church. The fifth of our eight points states: ‘We are people who…. seek to build communities that accept all who wish to share companionship without insisting on conformity.’ These eight points have been revised since the earliest adoption of them from our sister USA organisation and I rather preferred the much more specific referencing to inclusion which was there in the original fourth point, which read:
‘We are Christians who invite all people to participate in our community and worship life without insisting that they become like us in order to be acceptable (including but not limited to):
• believers and agnostics
• conventional Christians and questioning sceptics, women and men
• those of all sexual orientations and gender identities
• those of all races and cultures
• those of all classes and abilities
• those who hope for a better world and those who have lost hope
We know that so much of Christian history has been not only a mixture of love, compassion and the fight for justice but also a story of violence and strife, exclusion, prejudice and hatred. In the last century Christian churches across the world have, in the main, sought to become more inclusive of people of different cultures and backgrounds. No longer in my own Church of England are divorced people excluded from taking holy communion. No longer are black communities made to feel that
the C of E is not really ‘for them’ as they did in the 1950s and 60’s.No longer are women barred from taking up office as a priest or bishop. No longer are single mothers bringing a child for baptism made to feel guilty. No longer are gay and lesbian people told they are sinful per se. Of course these generalities cannot reveal the many situations where churches and congregations may be less than graceful and generous towards those who pass through their doors but in this article I want to concentrate particularly on the progress (or not) made in the area of love, marriage and relationships, especially in regard to same sex marriages.
The last barrier to overcome?
Churches and Christians across the globe have been bitterly divided over recent decades over the acceptance of gay and lesbian people and same sex love, alongside the more recent issues around gender identity. The acceptance or rejection of homosexual people is a far bigger issue than solely in the Christian tradition and churches. All major world faiths have their different convictions and secular societies also differ in their attitudes to gay and lesbian and transgender people. Nine countries still practice the death penalty for those convicted of homosexual practice and a further 59 countries still have prison sentences or fines in their legislation. However, through the influence of the UN Commission on Human Rights, through the work of Amnesty International and a plethora of campaigning organisations, we see that countries such as India and Sri Lanka and many other countries, especially in Africa and parts of Asia are relaxing or abolishing discriminatory legislation. At the other end of the spectrum, there are now 29 countries in Europe, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand where same sex marriages are performed. In the United Kingdom such legislation to allow same sex marriage was passed in England and Wales in July 2013, then in Scotland in 2014 and Northern Ireland in 2019.
The responses of the Christian churches in the UK has been instructive. After various consultations and theological debate, we have arrived at the situation in the Spring of 2020 when gay and lesbian people are able to be married in the Scottish Episcopal Church, the United Reformed Church, the Quakers and Unitarian and Baptist churches. Arrangements differ in all of these churches and the conscience of ministers is built into the regulations. Nevertheless this does represent a significant sea-change in the understanding of marriage.
The situation in the Methodist Church in the UK is that the Methodist Conference in 2019 was presented with a very substantial document, ‘God In Love Unites Us’ which recommended changes to allow churches to be registered for same sex marriages with various allied proposals to do with conscience clauses and resources. At that 2019 Conference the motion to allow such marriages to take place was passed by 247 votes to 48 but must now return to the 2020 Conference for a second vote.
Now what about the Church of England? Until the twentieth century the Church of England, as the established church, largely set the framework of marriage in its own canons and articles of faith and civil legislation accepted this framework of life-long heterosexual marriage within which children would be conceived and raised. To Victorian minds, it would be inconceivable that children should be born outside wedlock or that divorce should be tolerated. In the Book of Common Prayer the
three-fold aim of marriage is clearly stated to be the procreation of children, a remedy against fornication, and the mutual help and comfort of the two persons to be joined together. It is almost unbelievable to think that when I was married in 1977 such was the official thinking of my church! And yet the Book of Common Prayer and its liturgies are still de facto the established position of the Church of England.
The twentieth century of course saw many important developments in legislation – the Abortion Act of 1967, various divorce bills, the Civil Partnership Act of 2004 and the legislation to allow same sex unions. This was in some ways, secular society come of age, no longer guided by the doctrines of the churches. And as ever the Church of England could be said to be in the guards-van and not the vanguard, seeking to oppose and then slowly having to accept such changes in our national life.
The Anglican Communion and the Church of England has been awash with reports, theological discussions, Lambeth Conferences and national synod debates since the late 1970s. Progressive dioceses in the Episcopal Church of the USA have ordained homosexual bishops, leading to splits in the Communion, with many Provinces across the world refusing to associate with those who have ordained gay people to the ministry. This has affected the Church of England as the ‘mother church’. In trying to hold together such a disparate organisation as the Anglican Communion, Archbishops of Canterbury have found themselves in impossible
situations in trying to hold together the many Provinces with their wide difference in practice in regard to gay and lesbian churchgoers and the willingness of the church to marry them.
The General Synod of the Church of England has set up yet another process of consultation and debate under the title of ‘Living in Love and Faith’, with the stated intention ‘that the resources make connections with the questions, faith stories, views and experiences of people who span a range of ages, ethnicities, theological convictions, sexualities and genders’. Will this consultation and the eventual debate come to a view on same sex marriages? We wait and see. Meanwhile a recent YouGov poll suggested that almost half (48%) of self-identified Anglicans in England believe that same sex marriage is ‘right’. For over a decade now the C of E has been tossed about over sexuality matters. A number of parish clergy and some bishops have come out as gay. Those living in open partnership and not ‘in celibacy’ have been debarred from office. Many clergy who are in same sex partnerships prefer understandably to stay under the radar or who have a sympathetic bishop
who turns a blind eye to their ‘situation’. Clearly this dishonesty cannot be a sustained course of action and during the coming twelve months there will surely be moves to allow same sex marriages in parish churches in line with the denominations mentioned earlier. Then the Roman Catholic church would be the only mainstream denomination unable or unwilling to perform same gender marriages.
PCN Britain will try to keep abreast of developments in this whole area of love and marriage. We are in a supportive relationship with organisations such as One Body One Faith and encourage all our members and groups to add their voice in support of a fully inclusive church. For further information about these matters you can go to the various websites of the church denominations. Recent books offering personal stories include those from Vicky Beeching and Jayne Ozell, both lesbians
from a more evangelical Christian tradition. Background reading on love, marriage and sex can be found in the many books and articles written by Professor Adrian Thatcher. Our own short film, ‘Nathaniel’s Story,’ which will soon be made available, deals not only with the challenges faced by many young people on ‘coming out’ but also for some with the stigma of being HIV positive.
I hope that this short overview serves to be informative, to provoke further responses, comment, personal stories and perhaps resources and organisations which you have found helpful. Please lets continue the conversation below.
Adrian Alker, Chair PCN Britain.
Thoughts on ‘God in Love Unites us’ Philip Sudworth
The Methodist Evangelicals Together leaflet on this topic highlights the role and authority of the bible in the discussion. However, as the Conference report in 1998 on the nature of authority and the place of the bible in the Methodist Church pointed out, there are several ways of approaching and interpreting the bible which conform to the Methodist constitution. So perhaps we need to address this issue first.
The bible is wonderful. Over the centuries it has profoundly influenced billions of people. God has worked through it to transform both individual lives and also societies. Alongside its message of redemption and salvation, of reconciliation and wholeness, of the power that the experience of God can provide within us, it has afforded comfort and challenge, and the prospect of change and development and an enhanced life. “The truth that shall set you free” has provided a vision for liberation and its message of love, hope, reconciliation, peace and social justice has been the inspiration for social action and reform.
Sadly, scripture has also been used to oppress, and there is a long history of the powerful using selected texts (rather than the overall message) to dominate the powerless, to repress minorities, and to exclude those who are different in some way. It has been quoted to justify the excommunication, imprisonment, torture and burning of dissenters, homosexuals, witches, of scientists whose theories clashed with a literal reading of the Old Testament, and even of those who first made the New Testament available in English.
Martin Luther based the hatred of Jews, expressed in his “On the Jews and Their Lies”, on bible texts about the Jews being the enemies of God. He paved the way for the Holocaust by advocating that synagogues and Jewish schools and homes be set on fire, and Jews’ property and money confiscated. He declared that the Jews should be shown no mercy or kindness, afforded no legal protection, and should be drafted into forced labour camps or expelled from the country. He also wrote, “We are at fault in not slaying them”.
The Southern Baptist Union, the very heart of the Bible Belt in the U.S.A., broke away originally from the northern church specifically to fight for “the very evident truth in the Bible” that God had ordained slavery. The Reformed Church in South Africa played a significant role in providing a theological backing for Apartheid based on scriptural texts which they interpreted as demanding the separation of races.
The ordination of women in the Church of England has only happened within the last 30 years, against strong opposition based on bible texts, and the first appointment of a woman bishop was just five years ago. Male clergy can still refuse to accept female authority. The largest Christian denominations still interpret the bible as forbidding women from key leadership roles in the church.
The church has been slow to adopt change. God has given us a perfect revelation, runs the argument; and so church teaching must remain unchanged, because eternal truth cannot be amended. It is tempting to take refuge in this. The message that God is “the same yesterday, today and tomorrow” is comforting in this age of rapid development. Yet God can only reveal himself within the limits of our understanding. If a people believe in a small 3-tier universe with a flat earth at the centre, God will reveal himself in terms to which they can relate. An unchanging God does not mean that his self-revelation and our perception of him cannot alter, as we develop greater understanding.
We need to put “unchangeable truths” into perspective. Views of God changed over the 1,600 years during which the bible was written. The tribal war god, leading his worshippers to bloody victory over their enemies, demanding execution for recalcitrant children, Sabbath breakers, homosexuals and also ordering genocide for defeated enemies later becomes the universal Father, who cares for a great multitude out of every nation and encourages them to work towards a worldwide kingdom of peace and righteousness. He was now a God of grace and forgiveness as well as of justice and retribution, who demanded not conformity with rules and rituals but a relationship with God. based on a real change of heart and a new way of living. Ideas about God have continued to develop in the last 2,000 years, exemplified in the Reformation, the Evangelical revival, the second Vatican Council and other theological developments. Development is an integral part of a living faith. God’s Spirit is a creative power, whose dynamic presence is marked by excitement, growth and progress. We should expect a Spirit-led church to evolve to meet the spiritual needs of the day.
The bible is a living document, not an historical one. We should not trap ourselves within first century thinking, but allow God to speak to us through the bible in terms that make sense in a 21st century world of quantum uncertainty, with an immensely diverse humanity, set in a universe (parallel universes?) of unfathomable size, and with rapidly advancing technological innovations and scientific discoveries. We must read the bible through the lenses of tradition, our personal experience and our God-given reason, if we are to apply the divine self-revelation in our lives, and if we are to relate it to the other ways God still speaks to us today.
Inevitably, our upbringing, our knowledge and understanding, our personalities and our particular personal circumstances, together with our own hopes and fears, prejudices and priorities, will all affect how we interpret what we read in the bible and where we place the emphasis. We will feel challenged by it in different ways, because we have different roles to play in God’s kingdom. Oscar Pfister, a Calvinist pastor and psychoanalyst, maintained: ‘Tell me what you find in your bible and I will tell you what sort of person you are.’
It has been suggested in the debate that the first of the two great love commandments must have precedence over the second one. Yet Jesus’ words suggest that it is not that simple, and that these two commandments are neither as hierarchical nor as distinct as we might assume. In the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus praises the Samaritan who involved himself in the messy, uncomfortable and costly business of caring for others rather than the priest and the Levite, who were concerned to keep themselves pure so that they could serve God in the temple. In the parable of the sheep and goats we have “whatever you did or didn’t do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did or didn’t do for me.” Are divorcees, separated couples, cohabitees and homosexuals perhaps among the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters? Many of them feel like that within the church. In many churches they are refused communion and other sacraments as being ‘unfit people’. Yet Jesus spent much of his ministry reaching out to those regarded as unclean by the religious leaders of the day.
For many years I worked with broken families, when I led the local child contact centre. I know all too well the hurt a church can add to an already painful situation by making pronouncements about a family’s situation without making any attempt to understand the underlying circumstances. In the last two months alone half a dozen people have told me how they escaped from an unhappy, unhealthy and even downright dangerous domestic situation, only to be told by their vicar or priest that they were unacceptable to God until they (and their children) returned to the marital home. If these people later find happiness with someone else, many clergy will refuse to recognise their second marriage.
“Love your neighbour as yourself,” must surely include “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you” and “Wish for others what you would want for yourself” and “Don’t apply rules and judgments to others that you wouldn’t want applied to you.” I have gained a great deal from my personal, physical relationship with my wife. It has fulfilled our relationship. I would not want to deprive anyone of the comfort of a kiss, a caress or a cuddle or the joy of full intimacy with a loved one. Whilst I respect those who choose celibacy, I would not feel it right to advocate that any group must remain celibate, unless I were prepared to be celibate myself; unless I were personally prepared to sacrifice the physical closeness and tenderness that I sought to deny to them.
The great gift of intimacy between a loving couple is surely not confined to those who are fortunate to have a happy conventional marriage. Sexual intimacy is best expressed within the fidelity and commitment of a Christian marriage. Why would we deny anyone that?
I want to conclude with a story.
Towards the end of the second world war a platoon of American GIs was making its way eastward through France when one of their number was killed by a sniper. The men, who had been together for many months, were really upset. Knowing that their fallen comrade was a devout Christian they approached the local priest and asked if their friend could be buried in the church graveyard. “Was he a Catholic?” asked the priest, “Because the rules are very strict about only baptised Catholics being buried in consecrated ground.” The soldiers admitted that their friend had been a Protestant. The priest compromised by offering to conduct the committal service and arranged for the soldier to be buried on waste land just outside the graveyard boundary. Afterwards the platoon sadly went back to war.
A few weeks later the war ended. Three of the platoon decided to visit their friend’s grave before they returned to the USA. However, when they searched just outside the graveyard they could not find the grave. Angrily, they approached the presbytery and saw the priest hurrying towards them. “I’m so glad you came back,” he said. “I saw how upset you were about your friend and my decision; and it troubled me. When I got back inside I prayed long and hard and then I had a period of meditation. During that, I looked up at the face of Christ on my crucifix, and then I knew what I had to do. I went out the next morning and bought that piece of wasteland. Then I pushed the boundary outwards. Now your friend is included within the church boundary; he lies in consecrated earth.”
Gay Marriage - Nigel Jones
I am basing this on BERT ( Bible, Experience, Reason and Tradition.)
One passage clearly opposes gay relationships of any kind, Leviticus 20, v.13 and one might oppose it, Romans 1, v.26.
The former cannot prove the matter, because there are so many other clear rules in Leviticus that have long been rejected since it was written. Accepting that verse would imply accepting the rest, including one that forbids disabled people of any kind from making an altar offering, which was very serious in those times. It says that people should be put to death for adultery of various kinds and yet Jesus forgives the woman caught in adultery and sets her free with no punishment at all.
Romans 1 has been shown to refer to casual relationships, shrine prostitution and idolatry; the remaining verses of that chapter show that Paul is referring to people whose behaviour and character is nothing like people in a committed gay relationship.
Another passage used (including in the NT) is Genesis 2, about a man and a woman coming together. It does not forbid other close relationships and the emphasis in both testaments is about commitment to each other being the supreme human need. Paul (in a passage written when the end of the world was assumed close) says the ideal is for everyone to be single, yet says it is better to marry than burn with desire. Given what we now know about sexual orientation this can be applied to gay people.
It is likely the writers were assuming two people coming together physically was for reproduction and in all cases in both testaments, there almost certainly was no understanding of the natural source of same sex orientation. For the Romans there was no word in their language (Latin) for sexual orientation of any kind, so the distinctions we now make were not realised.
We now see that the Bible has been wrongly used in the past. For example, Martin Luther and Melanchthon (the first systematic theologian of the Reformation) utterly condemned people who supported those who said the Earth was not flat, using passages of scripture to “preserve the truth as revealed by God”.
Similarly about the role of women even though the first Christians progressed beyond tradition. They were allowed a small place serving the organisation of the church, but Paul issued strict instructions in 1 Timothy 2 about women not being allowed to speak in worship at all. These are very clear indeed, yet we now see that these passages cannot justify continuing the way women were treated by Christians in the past.
In the treatment of slaves, the first Christians progressed beyond the Old Testament and tradition, yet Christians later used the Bible to justify possessing slaves and even trading them. William Wilberforce, although supported by John Wesley, was dismissed for ‘deliberate abandonment of the authority of Scripture’. He did not base his case on isolated proof texts, because he understood scripture was not dictated directly by God.
Steve Chalke, Baptist Minister points out (in an article written in 2013) that our compass for applying faith to current issues is Jesus, who “challenged social norms and perceived orthodoxy” and always approached people with a view to inclusion. (Does that mean we greatly qualify those New Testament passages that talk of people being excluded and condemned ?) In addition, we need to look at the “trajectory of Scripture” which moved forward within the testaments to a more caring approach to people. Keith Ward, a Christian professor at Oxford university takes the same view, citing among other passages, the way in which Jesus says in Matthew 5 “you have heard that our forefathers were told…..but what I tell you is this.”
This is to make full use of hermeneutics, which is more than exegesis of single passages. The Bible must be taken as a whole, rather than simply ignoring passages that we disagree with or basing our interpretation on selected passages. Jesus is the central base (using the word agape, not just eros, hence the emphasis is on person to person commitment).
Steve’s key words for interpretation of scripture are inclusion and justice. He strongly argues we must go further than simply not discriminating against gay people. “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.” Note the use of the word equality.
It is also worth noting what St. Augustine of Hippo said about bible interpretation. According to Karen Armstrong (in her book ‘The Bible’), St. Augustine said the spirit of love is the guiding principle for reading any passage of scripture, “whatever the author had originally intended”. If a passage was not conducive to love then it must be interpreted figuratively. She demonstrates this with a quote from Augustine:
“Whoever therefore thinks that he understands the divine scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbour, does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, he has not been deceived. “
I was Baptised as a teenager and then at university joined a Baptist student group and became aware of homosexuality. I was very uncomfortable both with such people and with the discrimination against them practiced by society and some Christians. Then in London I and my friends were introduced by a Baptist minister (The Revd. Dr Howard Williams) to a group of gay Christians. After much discussion on a range of issues, I concluded there was no way that we should treat them less equally than other people. That was 45 years ago and I feel that Christ-like love cannot possibly treat people of this kind in the way that the church still does.
Then I came to know a Methodist minister, who eventually I became aware was gay, confirming further how wrong the official church really is.
Past events show how gay people have been seriously harmed in the past with attitudes and behaviours supported by the church. This is a major issue for which the church, looking back with hindsight, might well need to apologise. Steve Chalke is clear that the church has been wrong and writes (in an article written in 2013) that he is passionate about this issue “Because people’s health and safety as well as their lives are at stake. Numerous studies show that suicide rates among gay people especially young people, are comparatively high. Church leaders sometimes use this data to argue that homosexuality is unhealthy when tragically it is anti-gay stigma, propped up by Church attitudes, which all too often drives these statistics.” His long experience as a pastor has made him do whatever he can to change the church, forming his own group called Affirming Baptists and in 2016 produced the ‘Open Church Charter’, for gay marriage.
Gay people simply by being gay, do no harm by their active relationships either to themselves or other people. Trouble can happen in all intimate relationships, heterosexual or gay.
Gay marriage enables them to have long-lasting relationships. It encourages them to live good lives the same as others; stability is good not only for them, but for society.
Steve Chalke writes “When we refuse to make room for gay people to live in loving, stable relationships, we consign them to lives of loneliness, secrecy, fear and even of deceit. It is one thing to be critical of a promiscuous lifestyle, but shouldn’t the Church consider nurturing positive models for permanent and monogamous homosexual relationships ?”
Equality of treatment for gay people, on a par with heterosexuals, is therefore not only logical and fair, but positively good. If we do this, then we can look forward to a future in which there will be no need for gay parades. The church is meant to be a Christian community that cares for people, not simply a cause for doctrinal messaging.
As to having children, we have now reached the point where some element of reduction in population growth is needed for the sake of the planet. This will vary from country to country; in some places there is an economic need for more children while in other places the opposite is needed and can only be achieved if poverty is reduced. This means we no longer need intimate relationships to be primarily for the purpose of bearing children.
The BMA conference in 2010 said that attempts to convert people from gay orientation are usually harmful. This is now a fact to be taken into account.
John Boswell from the USA (in his book ‘Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe’ published in 1996) shows that not only were gay partnerships widely accepted in the church until the 14th Century, but they were solemnised in church. More recently in the Methodist Recorder, Graham Hellier revealed similar information with details about services written for this purpose at various times since about 500CE.
Many references to tradition have assumed that marriage is primarily for the production of children, but as pointed out above, this is no longer necessarily the case.
These are good reasons to question the claim that restricting marriage to a man and woman is church tradition that must be continued. It is rather a matter of how people feel, especially if they have never seriously questioned that tradition nor considered properly the nature and needs of gay people.
In Africa, the tradition is stronger and tends to be based on the assumption that people come together only for the purpose of having children. This is widespread but not universal. Desmond Tutu and Njongonkulu Ndungane former Archbishop of Southern Africa are examples of the opposite view and a few years ago at a weekend conference, I met a couple of African Christian women who strongly held that gay relationships should be supported.
Tradition is one factor that in this case can prevent the church making progress; as often happens, rigid religion rather than the flexibility of love, exerts its power. That flexibility of love means the tradition must be bent in a way that cares for those who the church has neglected in the recent past, while caring also for those who feel very uncomfortable about change.
Nigel Jones (Methodist Local Preacher 2020)