Pictures to think about #2

There I was last week standing in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, staring up (as you do) at the stunning mosaics high up on the walls. The pictures are astonishing and I may get round to posting some of them online later.

My attention was distracted though by a small boy rushing backwards and forwards in front of the altar. Whilst everyone’s eyes were up towards the ceiling, he was staring intently down at the floor.

image

Backwards and forwards he went – to and fro. It took me a few moments to realise that there was a pattern to his movements. He alone in the place had realised that there was an old labyrinth laid into the floor right in front of the altar. He was following in the pathway right into the middle, at which point he ran off to find some other entertainment.

It is a fairly small labyrinth – about 12 feet wide and made more for small feet than my own feet. (Labyrinths – Young Church, hmmm…)

All the same, I started to walk it and soon found myself thinking about those whom I had brought with me on my travels in my mind. As a priest it is a kindness to your congregation to forget about most of them when you go away on holiday. Everyone needs time off and you can serve better when you get home if you have a rest for a while. All the same, some people linger in your mind and I found some of them with me as I travelled the circles in front of the altar. And those whom I think about from my own life too – the people I carry in my heart wherever I go, some of whom do the same for me and some of whom would be astonished to know they were being prayed for in a sixth century basilica in modern day Italy.

Pictures to think about #1

I’ve been away from St Mary’s for the last week or so travelling, so no time to write much. However, I did take a lot of photographs and thought I would post one or two things here which made me think. As usual, comments welcome. image

Well-meaning but homophobic

A week has now passed since the Guardian published the following snippet commenting on the twitter exchange that I had with the Director of Communications for the Church of England after Vicky Beeching came out.

The Church of England’s director of communications communicated himself into a corner last week, after a well-meaning but homophobic tweet about Vicky Beeching, the gospel singer who’s just come out as gay. The Rev Arun Arora tweeted that Vicky was welcome in church because “we are all broken”. In a cringe-inducing exchange with Kelvin Holdsworth, provost of St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow, @RevArun defended his comparison of Vicky’s sexuality to the brokenness of humanity. Holdsworth tweeted: “It would be racist to say that black people are welcome in church because all are broken. It is homophobic to suggest same re LGBT.” The the reverend went strangely quiet.

Now that the dust has settled a little bit it seems to me to be worthwhile just reflecting on what happened.

It strikes me first of all that the phrase “well-meaning but homophobic” is perfectly judged. I’ve always said that I knew that Arun Arora had no intention of causing the offense that he caused. The trouble is, that lack of awareness seems these days to be rather culpable for anyone, never mind someone who is in charge of communications for a large and supposedly caring institution. Not knowing how offensive it was is worse in a way than being fully aware.

“Well-meaning but homophobic” – doesn’t just capture last week’s unfortunate tweet though. It perfectly captures the way that the Church of England in particular and the churches in general might be viewed by the general public. Well, actually, many people think that the churches are not even well-meaning these days but there’s still many in society who would acknowledge Christianity as a force for good. Many of those people are bewildered at how the churches seem to find themselves so badly led on this issue. “Well-meaning but homophobic” seems to me to describe something that is more complex than a simple lack of awareness of what can be said by an individual in polite society these days. It seems to me to describe something more systemic – more institutional than merely personal.

I was trying to explain the complexity of the situation in the church to someone the other night. After listening to me talk for some time about why some churches are progressive on the issue and some positively harmful, after listening to theological explanations, after listening to sociological explanations he simply shrugged and said, “Yes, but it is still us who get queerbashed in the end”.

And he was right.

Let’s just focus on the piece from the Guardian for a moment again. The Guardian reports that I compared a particular situation involving someone coming out as gay to a situation dealing with race.

Let me just do that again.  What do you think would have happened if the Church of England had been reported by a national newspaper as having a Director of Communications who was tweeting things that were “well meaning but racist”?

I hope that a week later there would have been clear statements that such behaviour was unacceptable. I hope that there would have been an apology. I might also hope that there would be an advert for a new Director of Communications being hastily written for the Church Times. I hope that it would have been completely unacceptable.

I ask these questions fully aware that things are not all sweetness and light for those who do happen to be black and in the church.

But I ask, respectfully and persistently why things are different when the issue is sexuality to when the issue is race? I don’t forget that people have used the bible plenty of times to justify racist behaviour, so I know it isn’t just that the bible says it should be so.

Well-meaning and homophobic.

The Director of Communications of the Church of England was described last week in a national newspaper as tweeting something that was well-meaning and homophobic and of course, nothing has happened since.

There has been no statement from the Archbishop of Canterbury. None from the Archbishops’ Council. Nothing from those who run the national institutions of the Church of England. Nothing at all.

And what’s more, most people wouldn’t expect there to be any reaction at all.

And that’s why I find myself wondering whether another analogy between race and LGBT issues might continue to be helpful.

Very many gay people would say that “well-meaning but homophobic” behaviour from individuals and corporate bodies contributes to getting people dead.

Remember when the Metropolitan Police accepted that their behaviour over Stephen Lawrence amounted to “institutional racism”.

Why do I find myself thinking that “well-meaning but homophobic” behaviour on the part of whole denominations amounts to nothing less than institutional homophobia?

 

 

I nominate these guys

baptismal candidates

Can you change the world by pouring water over someone?

Well, we had a go yesterday in St Mary’s with two lovely baptisms in a great service yesterday morning.

In the course of the service, we were reminded of Moses being scooped from the water of the River Nile and going on to set a whole people free from slavery. Then we heard a bit of St Paul which reminded us that transformation of the heart was connected with accepting that we all have gifts that differ. (What a fabulous reading for a baptism). Then we had a reading from the gospels which told us that in trying to work out who Jesus was, Peter the apostle actually found himself named and commissioned for service.

What will these children do in their lives?

There is so much trouble in the world at the moment that it is important to be reminded of the hope and the joy that isn’t just part of what happens when new life comes into a family with the birth of a child but also the new life  and hope which is intrinsic to our faith.

Yesterday morning was a little Easter for us at St Mary’s. And a packed church was buzzing with the ideas that new life, hope and love are real and for sharing.

I don’t know who is going to sort the world out and allow the kingdom of love to be seen for real. But I nominate these guys, freshly baptized, and all like them who are entering the world anew. May they be a generation that brings faith, hope and love to bear on a world that needs to be baptised with every drop of goodness it can get.

Slow Eucharist – Teaching Mass – Lord’s Supper with FAQ

I’m doing something a bit different on Monday. It happens to be the Feast of St Bartholomew and normally we would have a celebratory Eucharist in the morning instead of morning prayer. Now, I’m the master of having all the works in less than half an hour.  Clouds of smoke, a simple sung plainsong setting a wee homily and some prayers and off we go into the world refreshed by being inspired by the saint of the day. It all has to be sharp and to the point but it is fun none the less.

However on Monday I’ve shifted the Eucharist to the evening and instead of it being over before you can blink, I’ve advertised it as a slow eucharist.

The idea is that we’ll take time over it and I welcome questions throughout the service. I’ll probably have some questions to think about too.

I’ve done a few services like this in my time.

When I’ve done this before, it has been enjoyed by a range of people. It is particularly suitable for anyone who comes to the Eucharist and has been wondering about how the service hangs together. What do the individual bit mean? Why do we do it this way? I’ve also known parents who believe (in the face of the church telling them otherwise) that children should “understand” communion before receiving it enjoy bringing their kids. (My experience is that kids do understand it and adults have the questions, but that’s OK). It is particularly suitable for anyone of any age who wants to begin receiving communion but who hasn’t received so far because they don’t quite get it or have wondered whether or not they should.

The kinds of questions that have come up in the past have included…

  • Why do you wear that colour on that day and how do you know?
  • Why do we have wafers when other people have bread?
  • Why do you do that with your hands?
  • Why do we sometimes have three people at the altar – what are they all doing there?
  • How do you know who is who by what they are wearing?
  • What really happens to the bread and wine?
  • What do all Anglicans believe about this
  • What are the secret prayers that the priest says?
  • What do you mean secret prayers?!!!
  • Why do people have different names for the service – Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, Mass, which is it?
  • Can you receive communion if you’ve arrived at the last minute?
  • If Jesus only gave communion to men then why do we give it to women too?
  • Did Jesus know he was starting something that would go on and on through the centuries?
  • What’s that called?
  • Who is allowed to receive communion? Is there anyone you would refuse communion to?
  • Can you be excommunicated from the Scottish Episcopal Church?
  • Why did I have to be confirmed to receive communion and now people don’t?
  • Why? Just why?
  • Why do we do this, when we used to do that?

I’ll give plenty of time for questions and answers. Don’t presume I have all the answers. My hunch is that the best answers will come from the community that gathers.

It will be fun. It will be informal. It will be holy.

No question too silly.

All welcome on Monday at 6.30 pm. Depending on numbers, we may start with a sacristy safari to gether all the bits and pieces together. If there are too many of us, we’ll reschedule that bit for another day. We should be all out of the building by 8.30 pm so slow but not interminable. (Length depends on the number of questions).

Comments and questions welcome on here too.

 

On turning down Big Brother

This morning could have been so very different. I could have been waking in a room of sleeping pseudo-clebs and instead of writing a blog post I could have been called to the diary room.

The funniest telephone call I’ve taken in the last year was from an agent looking for candidates for the Big Brother House who was ringing to ask whether I would be interested in auditioning for Celebrity Big Brother. I didn’t stop laughing for days. It didn’t need a moment’s thought to know that the BB House was not the place for me.

I have to say that my first thought was that I wasn’t a celebrity but then looking down the list of those who have actually made it into the house, I’m not sure that should have been a worry.

I was never entirely sure why I got that call. The only thing I can think of is that they were going down the Pink List that the Independent kindly publish every year and asking everyone on it whether they might be interested. (The fact that they got to me would indicate that rather a lot of people turned them down before I got the chance to say no). Maybe this blog was a plus point in their minds too.

But how our lives have changed over the years that Big Brother has been in existence on our television screens. The blurring of the public and the private is one of the major themes of modern Western life and one that I think we still don’t quite understand. And the profusion of cameras in our lives is something that I didn’t see coming. I have a little one on top of my computer screen waiting for any moment when I want to make a video call or for when online evening prayer starts up again. As I walk to work, I’ve no idea how many cameras will record my movements nor who will look at the images.

And the idea of confessional diaries that all the world can read – well, blogging has become unremarkable now.

My hunch is that many of the people who started blogs have fallen by the wayside. Perhaps they’ve got bored, perhaps they have been bitten on the behind as things they have written have come back to haunt them and perhaps they just didn’t get the celebrity that they were hoping for. How painful to be a celebrity in your heart that no-one pays any attention to at all.

There’s still mileage in blogging but it is changing. We are seeing fewer bloggers stick it out but I think many of those who are keeping going for the long-term are learning how to do it successfully. The increasing ubiquity of social media means that it is hard to be a successful blogger without knowing one’s way around some of those platforms too.

But people still read blogs. The thousands of people who read my post last week about the offense caused to many by the Director of Communications of the Church of England in one little tweet, were clearly interested in a perspective that they wouldn’t find in the mainstream media.

Very happy to have turned down Big Brother. Very happy to still be on here.

Why Travelodge got it right in removing Gideon Bibles

I gather that the Travelodge hotel chain has decided to remove Gideon bibles from their hotel rooms.

I remember the last time I stayed in a Travelodge room being surprised that there was still a bible provided. It seemed something of an anachronism.

It is hard not to admire the tenacity and the determination by which the Gideons exercise their ministry. They give a lot of money and time into providing bibles in hotel rooms, schools and to other people and other places. However, as a Christian charity they’ve not really kept up with the times.

Here are the reasons that I think that Christians have nothing to fear in Travelodge removing the bibles.

  • The Gideons have remained fixed in their view that the New International Version is the most appropriate book to leave around for people. It is a determinedly Evangelical translation of the bible. (See this recent post for reasons I might have reservations about that: 10 Things Evangelicals Don’t Tell You at First). But not only that, the Gideons seem, so far as I can tell to remain wedded to an old version of the NIV which has the distinction of using language which makes the least attempt to treat men and women equally.
  • I wonder just how successful their ministry is. In all my years working in the church, I’ve never ever met anyone who talked about coming to faith as a result of reading a Gideon bible. Indeed, I’ve never encountered anyone who talked about ever reading a Gideon bible. Maybe I’m wrong but perhaps there might be strategies to get people reading the bible that might be more successful than simply leaving old fashioned bibles around.
  • It seems to me that the world is becoming a more secular place and less something that we can recognise as Christendom. That means that it can’t be assumed that Christianity is going to be privileged in particular ways in the future in ways that it has been in the past. I don’t think this is a bad thing. I also think that Christianity might stand more of a chance of thriving if it got on with telling people that God loves them rather than always seeming to be defending those privileges of old. Moaning about Gideon bibles being removed is not a strategy that is going to be successful or worthwhile and nor does it spread any kind of message that is going to leave anyone feeling better disposed towards Christianity.
  • Increasingly people who stay in hotel rooms are going to be unfamiliar with the idea of reading anything in a book.
  • If you do accept bibles as a hotel chain then you are really going to have to accept anything else offered. Does it really do the Christian message any use to have a New International Version of the Bible sitting there with Buddhist scriptures, Hindu Vedas and whatever the atheists are going to want to slip into the mix?
  • I think part of the point of most modern hotel chains is that the rooms are functional, comfortable and neutral. It is easy to see how having a bible changes that.

Whilst we are on the topic of the Gideons, did you know that you can’t become a Gideon if you are a woman? Or that you can’t become a Gideon if you are a Roman Catholic?  See here for details – http://www.gideons.org/FAQ/FAQ.aspx

I like to encourage people to read the bible. That’s why I published my Where to Get Started with the Bible post recently which a lot of people have seemed to find helpful.

However, I don’t feel inclined to lament Travelodge’s decision. Indeed, I’m surprised it has taken them so long. I think they’ve probably made a choice that was inevitable.

I’d rather stay in a hotel room unadorned by the beliefs of the hotel’s owners.

Travelodge have indicated that they’d be happy to supply bibles from their front desk. And anyway, anyone with a smartphone can access the bible.

Christians should be encouraging new ways of engaging with the text.

Christianity doesn’t depend on having bibles in hotel rooms. Bibles in hotel rooms depended on Christendom, but that is now gone.

I don’t think faith has much to fear.

 

A wee homily for Derek and Nelson

Derek and Nelson – you have come here to St Mary’s today to declare your love for one another and so that we can share your joy and give thanks with you.

Today is a feast day in the church. It is the Feast of St Mary – and here we all are in a church dedicated to her, St Mary’s Cathedral. And on a feast day we share in joy….and in thanksgiving.

Now, on this day the church remembers different events that happened in the Mary’s life. We remember her at the beginning of Jesus’s life sharing the joy of his birth and we remember her at the end of his life sharing her sorrows with others. And on this day, you’ve chosen a gospel reading all about another event in her life. You’ve chosen the reading about the wedding at Cana of Galilee.

As we’ve just heard, Mary was the guest at a wedding and at a given point in the proceedings, she nudged her son and declared that there needed to be more wine and that he should do something about it.

And sure enough, water was brought out and it was changed into wine and the party went on. No doubt there was joy, and considerable thanksgiving.

Looking around at all of you gathered here, I don’t know whether you believe in miracles or what you make of stories like that. I also don’t know how you all feel today – beyond being sure that you come here with a sense of joy and of thanksgiving and of love for Derek and Nelson. My guess is that many of you are sitting here surprised to find yourselves here – still surprised that such a ceremony like this is possible.

The truth is, for a lot of us who grew up as gay people, this was completely outside our expectations. We never expected to be able to celebrate a partnership in this way. It just wasn’t conceivable.

Yet here we all are.

I don’t know whether you believe in miracles. But for some of us here today, we have watched things change over the last few years. They have changed in ways that once we could never have believed. Those of us who are gay have watched water change into wine in front of our very eyes. And we have begun to drink. And the wine tastes absolutely wonderful.

Joy. And thanksgiving. And wonder.

Those are the things we celebrate here today.

Mary clearly wanted all the cups at the feast to be full, absolutely full to the brim. And running over.

And so it shall be.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen

Calling out Homophobia in the Church of England

It is very, very rare that I accuse someone of homophobia. Those who know me in Scotland, who happen to hold different views to me will know that it simply isn’t an accusation that I throw around.

However, I did make that accusation last night, against the Director of Communications of the Church of England.

Here’s the conversation. You need to know that Patrick Strud is the journalist to whom Christian rock musician Vicky Beeching told her coming out story which was printed in the Independent. Rev Arun Arora is the Director of Communications for the Church of England. Andrew Forshew-Cain is a priest in the Church of England.

In responding to a tweet about Vicky Beeching and the future of the Church of England, Arun Arora said that she was welcome in the church because all are broken. This is an entirely inadequate response to someone who has just come out. It is fine to say that all are broken – it isn’t fine to link that brokenness to the identity of groups of people who know prejudice at first hand. It wouldn’t be acceptable to say that black people are welcome in church because everyone is broken and so they are welcome – that would be racist. It is the same with those of us who are gay.

I think that Andrew Forshew-Cain and I might well be regarded as people well qualified to know what church sponsored homophobia looks like.

I’ve woken up today to many posts on facebook and on twitter from people agreeing that this tweet was unacceptable.

I’m absolutely prepared to agree that Arun Arora did not mean to be offensive in his post. However, he needs to learn from the people on facebook and twitter who have found it offensive.

[Read more...]

A blessing for Vicky Beeching

I see from my twitter feed that there is a big church story in the press just breaking as I write this. Vicky Beeching has talked about being a gay woman for the first time. It is a big story because she has a strong public profile which she has worked hard to build up and because a lot of her music is sung in big evangelical churches in the USA and elsewhere.

Earlier this year she revealed that she was supportive of LGBT people and causes and received both support from some and condemnation from others. Vicky’s situation seemed particularly poignant since her income partly depends on her songs continuing to be circulated and sung by some of the very people who might be inclined to condemn her.

At the time, she was quoted as saying:

It’s important to me to retain evangelicalism as part my Christian identity. I don’t think the two [evangelicalism and supporting same-sex relationships] are incompatible. I don’t want to lose what evangelical means; there are so many good aspects of it. The Bible is as important as ever; my LGBT theology comes from a high view of scripture, not throwing the Bible out the window. People have accused me of watering down what the Bible says, but for me it’s about using the brain God has given us to put the verses [about homosexuality] into their proper historical context.

I simply don’t know whether the attempt to retain evangelicalism as an identity whilst being lesbian or gay is possible – it wasn’t for me. However I’d want to wish her the very best in trying to work it out.

My own experience of coming out quite publicly (ie in the pulpit) at a similar age is that everyone I heard from was supportive. If there were any who were upset or critical they managed to keep it to themselves.

All this is highly pertinent to the post I wrote about what it means to be an Evangelical. There are people who attend Evangelical churches who wouldn’t recognise my description – for them the camaraderie and the music are far more definitive of who they are than anything about theology, the cross or the bible.

I don’t know what will happen to Vicky Beeching’s reputation amongst Evangelicals now.  However, just as Alan Bennett famously said that Cranmer didn’t die for English Prose, neither is Evangelicalism defined by the sexuality of who writes its choruses. At least, one hopes not.

I want to wish Vicky Beeching a blessing as she negotiates a new world. What she has done in being honest is a big thing. She must not be defined by whether others accept her or not. So, a big blessing for Vicky Beeching today, I say. She will have given lots of people a lot of hope and helped many to stay in touch with God simply by doing what she has done so publicly.

Eternal God of truth and love,
bless those who come out this day with joy and delight,
bless those who fear honesty with greater maturity,
bless those who look for love this day and every day.
Amen.