Sermon preached on 15 July 2018 (Pride Weekend)

Is this the word of the Lord?

Is this the gospel?

“What should I ask for” said Herodias.

“The head of the Baptist” said her mother.

And it was so.

And where is the good news in any of that?

It is one of the worst, most barbaric and miserable stories in all of scripture.

Herodias whom we know by the name of Salome in popular culture danced before the tyrant and demanded the head of the one who had stood up to Herod as he rode roughshod over the law.

(David on the other hand, danced through the streets for joy in the first reading and distributed food for everyone – but we’ll get to him later).

What about Salome? Why do we read this sorry and sordid tale?

This is not some saucy burlesque after all but a dance of death.

Where is the good news to be found?

This story comes around quite a lot – we get rather a lot about the Baptist in the lectionary. We get this story on this Sunday and we also get it for the day we remember John the Baptist’s death too.

This is not a story which ends with all the boys being brought safely from the dark and frightening cave. It is the story that ends with John’s state sponsored arbitrary execution.

Every time I read it, someone asks why.

If I’m honest, I sometimes feel the same when I am reading it too.

People will know that I rather like the theatre.

Going to the theatre is what I do when I have time off.

I am apt to get myself to places where there are lots of shows on and just book things that I fancy on the off chance that they might be that great night out that you will remember forever.

(Which is how I once booked myself tickets for the Tempest and spent the first few lines thinking that I didn’t remember the sailors in the storm being Russian sailors and got a full five minutes into what is, to say the least a long and complex night out before realising that the whole thing was going to be in Russian).

And I did the same with a production by a famous theatre producer of a play by the famously witty Oscar Wilde and glued to my seat in horror when I realised that Salome, the title of the play was not the story of some saucy socialite but just a retelling of the horror story that I’ve just read from the bible.

To put it bluntly – there are no jokes here.

But when people ask why we read it in church my answer is always the same.

We read it because it is true. We read it because brothers and sisters are suffering. We read it because John the Baptists who stand up to power still end up in prison cells. We read it because conniving plotters like Herodias and her ma still send good people to needless and pointless deaths. We read it because people still suffer under Herods.

We read it in short because tyrants still exist. And it is fear of similar tyranny that brought people out onto George Square in protest on Friday evening.

We stories like this it because notwithstanding the good news that Jesus came to share, he came to share good news so that we could share it with those who need it most.

We read it because it is true. And we’ll keep on reading it until it is true no more.

For standing up to abuses of power is surely a part of who we are and what we do.

Yesterday, I stood for hours, literally hours, in Kelvingrove Park listening to people talk about their experiences of faith and of the church.

It is a shock for people to see someone in a dog collar at a Pride celebration (or an anti-Trump protest come to that) and dozens of people wanted to chat.

And I spoke to people who wanted to change the world like John the Baptist and speak truth to power – not least yesterday, those leading the campaign for Inclusive Education in Scotland – their time has come.

Scotland’s children need them to win what they asking for.

And over the last 28 hours, I’ve spoken to people who were dressed a little differently to most of you here this morning. People who, like John the Baptist like to dress in things that wouldn’t look so respectable in Byers Road. There were not so many hair shirts on display yesterday but there were one of two leather girdles a bit like John used to wear.

But my predominant memory is of speaking to one John the Baptist after another who are trapped in caves of despair. And who think that the church is the evil empire and that Herod is in fact one of us – for people who look like me look all too much like the oppressor to them.

A particular memory of yesterday is of speaking to dozens of heart-broken Roman Catholics who feel lost and abandoned by their faith.

We never talk about that kind of thing in ecumenical conversations, which is why so many ecumenical conversations are so utterly futile and why the ecumenical age is all but over.

There will be no new ecumenical spring until we can talk about the difficult things like heartbroken Roman Catholics at Pride and about the way our streets in the summer are taken over by those claiming to be protestants banging drums of hatred.

There was different drumming on our streets yesterday.

The Scottish Episcopalians at Pride were just in front of the Co-Op brass band who encouraged us around town and up Blythswood Hill to a small selection of well-known disco hits.

As the road became steep they broke out into Abba songs of years ago.

“Do I look like a Dancing Queen?” I wondered as they blasted it out behind us before deciding that I probably did and that the only way to keep going was to shimmy.

Which brings us to David dancing for joy before the Ark of the Covenant.

The murder of the Baptist by Herod with the connivance of Herodias and her wicked mother is one of my least favourite readings in the bible. But we read it because it is true.

The story of David dancing through the city in a linen kilt to the scandal of those who thought they knew better including his wife, is one of my absolute favourites.

We read that story because it is true too.

We dance when we’re in love.

We dance because we are happy and full of joy.

And we dance because God is good.

David dances as though no-one is watching, even when he knows they are.

And if ever there was an example from scripture to emulate, I want to dance like David before the Lord.

The things we read in scripture are true – all of them. The horrors as well as the loves.

The Lord gives us choices.

To walk the way of the tyrant. Or to protest and shout for justice from the earth.

To dance the dance of death with Herodias. Or to dance the dance of life with David.

Choose life – and all the earth will be fed.

Choose life – and dance through the streets for joy like no-one is watching.

Choose life – for what other choice is worth making.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit. Amen.

Civil Partnerships – What now for the churches?

It has just been announced that a man and a woman have won their fight to enable them to register a Civil Partnership.

At first sight, it will seem only just and right to most people. If same-sex couples can enter either a marriage or a civil partnership then why shouldn’t an opposite-sex couple?

Put like that, it is a matter of simple justice and it is unsurprising that the Supreme Court has found as it has done.

However, if I’m honest, though I  believe that same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples should be treated in the same way, I don’t think that this was the best solution.

It seems to me now to be inevitable that we will have two statuses of partnership open to all couples – marriage and civil partnership. One gives fewer benefits than the other. Get married and you are far more likely to be treated as married when you travel than if you enter into a civil partnership. The benefits here in the UK are almost exactly the same. (I use the word almost even though I can’t now think of any differences at all apart from the name and the manner in which one can enter a civil partnership). The benefits when travelling the world will differ significantly. We fought for same-sex couples to be able to access marriage which conveys more benefits whilst now an opposite sex couple has fought for the right to be treated less well than married people.

Why people would want to fight to be legally partnered in a system which was once discriminatory to gay couples is complex but it usually is justified by the phrase “Well, Civil Partnership doesn’t carry the patriarchal baggage of marriage”.

Those who make this claim are denying all the work done over the last century to remove the patriarchal baggage around marriage. They are claiming that marriage hasn’t changed and are denying reality.

Personally, I would have preferred the Civil Partnership system to have come to an end once same-sex couples were allowed to get married. I’d have allowed those in Civil Partnerships to remain in them but not allowed any new ones to be registered.

This opinion sometimes leads to loud howls of protest from people who think (entirely wrongly) that marriage is inherently a religious institution. Anyone thinking it to be so simply doesn’t comprehend either the law of the land nor the history of marriage.  (Marriage was around before the church – no, really it was). This confusion is even promoted by the likes of the BBC which claimed today that “Civil Partnership is free of the religious connotations of marriage” as though entering marriage though a civil ceremony is a fraud.

The odd thing is that those who howl most loudly about this are people that I know to have rejoiced most loudly at the Irish marriage referendum which resulted in the Irish state doing exactly what I’d have wished for here – closing the Civil Partnership system and allowing all couples access to marriage.

I suspect that “the patriarchal baggage of marriage” is in fact a euphemism for stigma about divorce, which a good many righteous people have made worse over the years. (Yes, you know exactly to whom I am referring). And anyway, whilst we can argue about whether marriage carries patriarchal baggage there’s no argument about civil partnerships – they very certainly carry the baggage of inequality and oppression.

I think it may still be legally possible for the governments within  the UK to resolve this as I’d have hoped it to be resolved though I suspect that the momentum is with so-called “straight civil partnerships” now and politically their creation is inevitable.

But never mind what I think, what about the churches?

Interestingly, there was a proposal put forward to the Scottish Episcopal Church to allow Civil Partnerships (between same-sex couples) to be registered in churches. A number of us argued successfully against this in the General Synod three years ago, to the considerable surprise of some liberal friends who just presumed that the gays wanted everything offered to them. Th gays, so to speak, could see this coming over the horizon and had a fair idea that the church would end up in a terrible mess if we proceeded in that way. Firstly it would have lessened the case for allowing the marriage of same-sex couples in the Scottish Episcopal Church and secondly it would have led sooner or later to decisions about whether or not to allow opposite sex couples to do something in church that looked like marriage but which wasn’t marriage. And so, I joined others in arguing against it and that vote was comprehensively lost.

(As a side note, it is worth remembering that if those who might be characterised as being opponents of same-sex marriage had come forward with support for civil partnerships in church 10 years ago then I’d probably have bitten their hands off and I don’t think we would be anywhere near marrying same-sex couples now).

But back to the churches.

Where now for those who thought that Civil Partnership was a tidy hiding hole for the unfortunate people who feel the need to enter into gay coupledom who are not really fully human but can’t really help themselves?  (The Church of England, I’m talking about you, though not you alone). Seems to me that this judgement puts you even deeper into the mire.

Here are the obvious questions:

  • Will a man and a woman remain in good standing with a church if they enter a Civil Partnership?
  • In the Church of England will they remain in good standing only if they enter into a Civil Partnership but promise their bishop they won’t have sex?
  • Will anyone in a Civil Partnership be able to become ordained without the need of getting married?
  • Can a bishop (or archbishop) be in a Civil Partnership only if he or she is part of a same-sex couple?
  • How long will it be before there are liturgical resources for recognising Civil Partnerships in churches?
  • Will pro-gay campaigners, particularly in the Church of England now realise the absurdity of campaigning for anything that falls short of marriage?
  • Will those advocating the church recognise Civil Partnership continue to do so now if it is open to opposite sex couples?
  • What is the difference between a Civil Partnership and a Marriage?
  • Do the churches care about the fact that the number of marriages will now inevitably decline?
  • Will the churches see marriage as a better institution for opposite-sex couples than Civil Partnership and what will this say about their current and previous policy towards God’s beloved gay children?
  • Which churches will regard children born in a civil partnership differently from children born in a marriage?
  • Will this lead to greater equality in churches or less equality in churches?
  • Is the Church of England going to find itself in the absurd position of supporting Civil Partnerships for opposite sex couples in order to retain them for same-sex couples so as to deny marriage to same-sex couples? And what will the Global South make of that?