What does it mean to be an open and affirming church? Part 2
In this second session, we discussed the final three points on the Kent church noticeboard, defining what constitutes an open and affirming church
8. We think that religion must be concerned with injustice and suffering, and see ourselves as a community helping to build a better world, bringing hope to those Jesus called the least of his sisters and brothers.
We all agreed that this side of being a Christian – the things we do to create a better world - should be central to our church life. And yet we understood that for many in the church worship and theology often receive greater attention. Something like the golden rule seems to apply in most religions, even if there are those of a more extreme disposition who seem to ignore this rule.
The ‘problems of the world’ may seem overwhelming and sometimes this drives insularity among church members - the feeling that it is too stressful to pay attention to the news with its talk of climate change and war. People look to their church life to provide comfort, not discomfort. Yet R felt that for her, faith is a springboard into getting involved in action. She aims to give her congregation suggestions as to how they can take the first step towards activism in the cause of social justice.
H advised caution – it might be problematic to expect poorer members of the congregation to eat ethically, for instance. ‘We mustn’t beat people with a stick’ or we may find a ‘hardening of the oughteries’.
‘A’ and M spoke of occasions when churches raising funds for a major reordering of their buildings decided they would simultaneously raise funds for charity, believing that their own needs should not be an excuse for ignoring those worse off than themselves.
H said that donations to charity were not the same thing as ‘getting your hands dirty’ in some form of activism.
R was saddened that the church was so late to pay attention to climate change when it should have led the way. Maybe some Christians think that God will sort it out. Non-religious groups have done far more. A similar tardiness applied to the recognition of same sex marriage. R told us that in Gloucestershire one Methodist church is leaving the connexion over the recent conference decision to permit same sex marriages. The same subject led to splits in M’s church with some leaving the congregation. H and P spoke of their church having come round to the idea of equal marriage. ‘A’ mentioned that Quakers were in favour of same sex marriage over a decade ago.
‘A’ expressed concern about the last part of point 8 – ‘bringing hope to those Jesus called the least of his sisters and brothers.’ He thought it seemed rather superior – like saying ‘we have the solution to your problems’ – placing victims of injustice in an inferior group. R spoke of ‘White Saviour’ notions. She preferred those with resources to offer them without saying how they should be used. She also drew attention the binary phrase, ‘sisters and brothers’. How would a transgender person feel about this? She didn’t feel that ‘siblings’ which has been suggested by the Methodists, was really the answer. Others defended the terms sister and brother.
No 9. We recognise that our ignorance is always going to exceed our understanding, and find more grace in the search for meaning than in the claim to certainty.
‘A’ said he wasn’t sure what this meant. Others replied that it was about humility, about holding faith provisionally, about learning that the more we know, the more we know we don‘t know.
R said she struggles with anyone who claims a monopoly on the truth. But she warned against the search for meaning becoming too individualist. She felt that in the search for God it was OK for a community to set some boundaries – eg ruling out crystal healing or astrology. The search for meaning is better if it is a collective one, even if individuals eventually come to different conclusions.
‘A’ questioned what ‘search for meaning’ meant. H spoke of a faith journey without a need to find simple answers. Peter thought ‘truth’ might be substituted for the word ‘meaning’. R wanted our relationships to be the ground from which ‘meaning’ emerges. As we grow in understanding of other people we inevitably start to live our lives in a different way.
No 10: We recognise that our faith entails costly discipleship and conscientious resistance of evil, as has always been the tradition of the Church.
R thought these terms emerged from Bonhoeffer’s book, ‘The Cost of Discipleship’. Bonhoeffer himself was an active member of the plot to assassinate Hitler. But she reminded us that Jesus spoke of his ‘yolk’ being easy. For her there may be a ‘tough’ side to being a Christian, but there is also comfort.
H was not happy with the ‘hair shirt’ aspect described here. She thought she may be a wimp or naïve, or perhaps that kind of evil is not something we hear of much. R pointed out that the Church has a poor record of jumping in to condemn as evil things which later we decide were not. Eg Homosexuality, Islam, and most of the evils defined by the inquisition. By who’s definition are things judged to be evil?
‘A’ thought that oppression of citizens, such as happened in Palestine under the Roman empire, was evil but he pointed out that Jesus, in asking his followers to walk the second mile with the soldier’s pack, was not calling for confrontation but a subtler form of resistance. P referred to the Roman occupation of Palestine as a ‘police state’. H thought the church should be against all that causes suffering, which in some cases may be inequality.
‘A’ spoke of resisting the Government’s cut in foreign aid from 0.7 to 0.5% of GDP. He thought the impact on the education of girls in the third world could be called evil. He and R had both written to their MPs. Lawrence Robertson (Tewkesbury) had replied supporting R’s request but then eventually voted with the government in the final Parliamentary vote, much to her disgust.
H expressed the view that even with something like foreign aid, it was never possible to know what the knock on effect might be. P spoke of the need not to oppose someone’s position head on, but to hope to win them around eventually. ‘A’ was worried that such fears and reservations might lead to inertia. You have to make a stand sometimes. He quoted Marcus Borg who felt that a Christian should always aim to use their democratic rights - especially in voting for the candidate who is most likely to support the disadvantaged and underprivileged.
M said that wherever a person holds certain principles dear, it is likely to lead to a cost if they decide to make a stand. R said that for her the cost of discipleship is partly about being prepared to take an action which is unpopular.