Saturday, 28 July 2018

A short piece I wrote to explain to folk at Norwich Pride why Christians at Pride are celebrating - both LGBT+ and allies.


                                      Why we are here

Some of us are here because we are LGBT+ Christians and we want to enjoy the day along with everyone else - and to show that there are many who are both gay and Christian!

Others of us are here with our LGBT+ fellow Christians because we wish to celebrate with them and thank God for the great and colourful diversity of all creation!

We also want to say ‘Sorry’ to all LGBT+ because the Church has often been very unfriendly, openly hostile and homophobic. Sadly there is still far too much of that around. We are offended by all this negative and hostile stuff. We want to shout loudly that God loves all humanity, male and female, gay and straight, trans and intersex - and all of us who are still trying to work it all out. 

Traditionally the Church has said that to be gay is not what God intends for anybody. We strongly disagree! God made us all in our rich diversity and loves us all equally. God wants us all to be able to rejoice in who we are and how we are made.

Jesus never said anything against being gay or trans etc ...  Rather, he came to show God’s love to all - and was drawn particularly to those in his day who were marginalised. Today we are sad (and angry) that so many LGBT+ people, are marginalised, and much worse. Like Jesus we want to include and embrace all equally. 

We are sad, as noted in a recent survey, that many LGBT+ are afraid to hold hands in public. We are glad that today in Norwich holding hands is fully OK  - as a sign of friendship, acceptance, and love!

Let’s celebrate!

Friday, 14 July 2017

Press Release

Looking Forward to Norwich Pride July 29th - with glances back to London Pride

There will be Christians supporting and marching in The Norwich Pride March on July 29th. It’s an opportunity for us to rejoice that God creates all people equal and with enormous variety - rainbow variety! It is a time for LGBT folk to celebrate their presence and contribution to society, and increasingly it’s becoming an opportunity for other Christians to say, ‘We love you and celebrate with you!’

A few weeks ago, at the London Pride March I was part of the large group of Christians who were there to show that we welcome the LGBT community as a valuable part of both church and society. There were hundreds of LGBT Christians walking in the march, and many more with banners of welcome in the crowd.

Last year I walked, as an Anglican bishop on the London march and was overwhelmed by the numbers in the watching crowds who beckoned me over and asked me to bless them or pray for them. That doesn’t usually happen on the streets of London!

This year, as I stood along the route in London with many other Christians, people on the march would see my bishop’s purple shirt & cross and come over to hug me - with enormous gratitude that here was the church saying, ‘We love you and welcome you!’ Because sadly the church has often said, ‘No!’ to the gay community. Now many of us want to be at Pride to say that God loves all equally, whether you are gay or straight. We are also there to apologise for the church’s negative attitude towards the gay community over the years.

Thankfully things are changing, and with increasing speed. Now, fifty years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, most in our country accept that marriage is open to all, gay or straight. The last marriage I attended was a family wedding between my nephew and his male partner - and, as it happens, the next one I attend this summer is between two gay men who are friends of mine.

Sadly there are still far too many times when LGBT people are abused and sidelined - but Pride is an opportunity to share and rejoice in God’s good creation with our gay friends - and help to make a difference! That’s why I and other Christians will be there at Norwich Pride.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Positive about Scripture: Positive about Equal Marriage

Many of the discussions I have been involved in about ‘Equal Marriage’ have come up against the assumption that those who believe that same sex relationships can be part of God’s purpose for gay men and women have abandoned their belief in the Bible’s authority.

Of course that can be the way some have developed in their theology but I believe that a fresh understanding of the breadth of marriage can also arise from a deeper view of the Bible’s authority over our lives. This blog summarises the approach I have taken when speaking in various contexts on this issue.

Many evangelicals, in particular, base their approach on an understanding of propositional revelation; in short, that the Bible has one meaning and that the will of God can be read off from the pages of Scripture so that there is a correct answer to all major questions of ethics. Over the years many of us add a deeper and more nuanced understanding to this starting point.

For me a major influence has been the approach of the American theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, and his championing of Narrative Theology. This reminds us that the Bible is first and foremost a story, the story of God’s involvement with humanity. It is the story which provides the framework for the whole of our understanding and way of life. Its authority is transformative, not just in the truths it reveals at first glance, but in the way it invites us to inhabit the story and discover its life transforming power in our daily lives. As God’s story it has the power to change and direct all that we are and do.

Narrative theology asks that we take time to inhabit the story; to leave the story as story as it does its work with the people of God today. We will not too quickly form ethical conclusions and moral rules which apply to all people for all time. We are prepared to stand back awhile and see how God’s story is inviting us to live now. It is clear to us from the story that God deals with the followers of Christ in different ways and provides appropriately for the forgiveness, wellbeing and flourishing of humanity at different times and in different places. And when by God’s Spirit we recognize and accept our place in the story we act on the truth it has given us.

I am also indebted to the approach of Walter Brueggemman who counsels us to believe that there is often more than one appropriate answer to an issue when we consider a particular verse or passage of the Bible. He criticizes ‘the pervasive Western, Christian propensity to flatten, to refuse ambiguity, to lose density, and to give universalizing closure… Classical Western theological discourse, wants to overcome all ambiguity and give closure in the interest of certitude (‘Theology of the Old Testament’ 1997, page 81 & 82).

To consider a passage broadly before asserting the definitive position and to live with the various possibilities of the story adds a greater degree of humility to our theology. We believe in the authority and power of the scriptures no less, and we are cautious not to use an all-too-certain interpretation of a Bible verse or passage as a way of exercising power over others. Many people, and in particular our LGBT brothers and sisters have often experienced being silenced and excluded by a lack of such an approach. The use of the six or so verses in the Bible, which in some way or another refer to same-sex activity, can be experienced as one group of Christians exercising power over them and forbidding to them what God wills for the whole of humanity.

Embracing this narrative approach as part of the transformative power of the Bible means that we notice many of our fellow human beings inhabiting God’s story differently from ourselves. I am therefore careful not too quickly to censor or criticize another Christian who has arrived at a different way of following Christ. At any given time, I may be wrong, or they may be wrong, but we may both be right! This approach fosters a more generous approach - in line with our all generous God

Application to Equal Marriage

Is there some way in which we can understand how an LGBT person may inhabit the bible’s stories and hear God slightly differently from the rest of us? Is it possible that there are several contrasting stories, or different interpretations of the same story – rather than a point blank, ‘Thou shalt not…’? As one indication of how I have approached the question of equal marriage I reflect on the creation story in Genesis 2.

Some words written by a gay friend of mine set the context of how he may well read this particular bible story: ‘We are all created by God to be who we are, including gays and lesbians. It’s just as natural and spiritually correct to be gay as it is to be left-handed.’ Such a statement abbreviates all the debates about ‘nature or nurture’ and the respective balance between the two - probably different in different people. But most churches will have some, maybe quite a few LGBT individuals or couples who live in a society where it is fully legal for them to be married to one of their own sex. Some of these will feel called to remain single as their way of following Christ, but some will wish to live in a faithful loving intimate relationship as part of how they live out their Christian discipleship.  

My gay friends and I both read the same bible and are called to inhabit the same stories. As we approach the paradigmatic story in Genesis 2 which describes the wonder of discovering our life’s partner, we both feel drawn to the divine announcement, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone.’ Central to the story is the need to find a life partner who will be fully suitable to the needs of both and sustain them as they leave the parental home and launch out on life together. At first there comes the almost comical process of looking around at different possible partners -  and for some of us that can take a long time in reality, though all the ‘possibles’ in our list will be human! Then as I walk in the garden and am presented with this range of possible partners – as was Adam – I am unsatisfied until I see the other human being – the one who became my wife – and I exclaim, ‘this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!’ As von Rad writes of this moment, ‘Now God himself, like the father of the bride, leads the woman to the man. The man in supreme joy at once recognizes the new creature as one belonging completely to him.’ (Genesis. London.1972. p.84) For me, and for most others I know this encounter has been one of the most thrilling of all life’s discoveries.

The main point of this story is finding someone who is equal to our needs, the same as me, not someone who is different (like the animals) but of the same stuff as Adam. The animals will not do - because they are different. For most of us this deepest fulfilment will be in a human being of the opposite sex – but that is not so for all….

Furthermore, this portion of scripture is such an important and powerful story that it must not merely be reduced into a universal moral code or an immutable set of ethical rules. It must also be allowed to speak afresh to us as story. However, the uncomfortable truth is that LGBT people usually hear interpretations of this story that say – ‘This is not for you; this is forbidden’

But for a moment allow a gay Christian man to inhabit the story. In terms of narrative theology, a gay person is there in the garden asking God to find a partner for him who is fully equal to his needs. He wishes to discover mutual support that will sustain them both as a couple through the whole of their life’s journey together and with God. As God presents various possible partners to him – as in the original drama - he sees all of these as inadequate for his deepest needs. He does not recognize one who will be a soul mate in whom depths of sexual intimacy can be found. Various young women are presented to him and, though he wants to be friends they do not awaken in him that deep recognition that here is one who is his partner for life. Then after a while a man is presented to him. There is a different level of recognition and response. This for him is the beginnings of what he has been longing for and he exclaims, 'This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!’ They can become one.

My hope and prayer is that more and more people will see that there is more than one way to inhabit God’s story in the Bible. As this happens many more will be asking the church to interpret its understanding of marriage in a fully inclusive way - or at the very least hoping that others who disagree will allow blessings of same sex marriages. They will hope that the church will accept a diversity of practice - leaving two contrasting stories/interpretations on the table to allow the dialogue to continue. 

I see this approach as ‘generous orthodoxy’. It enables the Church to offer God’s blessing to all couples who wish to make a faithful life-long commitment in love to one another. It gives us a gospel that proclaims God’s love equally to all.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

A bishop marching with Gay Pride, London

I felt compelled ... I wanted to ... I was glad I did!

This year I marched in London Pride with the group, Christians at Pride. My LGBT friends have been unanimously supportive of this, welcoming the fellowship of a few of us 'allies' who walked with them.  A good number of my other friends have been supportive. When I preached about it in my very ordinary local parish church in conservative Norfolk this morning there was a wide and joyful acceptance of what I had done.  Yet some of my Christian friends elsewhere, some but not all, evangelicals like me, cannot understand why I did it.

Here's why ...

A week before I had the enormous privilege of speaking at the Two23 service in London for LGBT Christians and their families - most of them, though not all, from evangelical churches. My address had included the assurances - 'God loves you, God has made you as you are, and God wants you to know that he blesses your relationships.' It was a wonderful occasion with lots of good conversations afterwards - with both singles and couples.

Several of them, lay and ordained asked me if I would be walking in the Pride march the following Saturday. Returning on the train I thought, 'Why, not? Here are a whole group of Christians who often have had a rough time of it from the church. Perhaps my being with them would say something more positive.'  Yet when I spoke with one of my non-gay evangelical friends he urged me not to march.
The next day we heard the dreadful news about the slaughter of 49 people in the gay club in Orlando, killed solely because of their sexual orientation.  Thinking of all my gay friends I was deeply affected by this outrage.

I thought of the old wrist band I had - WWJD? What would Jesus do? As I prayed about the tragedy of Orlando and phoned and messaged some of my LGBT friends to support them, I was very clear of the answer - 'Jesus would have gone on the Gay Pride March, and so must I.'

There was a real sense of compulsion. I must go ... and what's more,  I wanted to go!

I was hesitant about asking for one of the limited number of places allotted to Christians at Pride and so I approached the leader and asked if it would be appropriate for me as a bishop to join them. I wondered whether some would think, 'This is our day … Just for us'. I couldn't have been more wrong! I was assured that I would be warmly welcomed  - and preferably dressed in clerical collar.

As it happened my resolve and desire was strengthened even more the next day when I attended the Vigil for Orlando on the City Hall steps in Norwich organised by Norwich Pride. Sadly there were only a very few of us there from the church.

After the Vigil I was speaking with a young gay married couple who, though they were totally nonChurch were grateful that I had attended the vigil.  These two had no idea that the Church of England have so far refused to marry or bless the marriage of gay couples, and neither had they ever met a priest, let alone a bishop before. Yet they were surprised that I was supportive of them. They began to tell me of the deep impact the massacre of Orlando had on them and their LGBT friends. 'Gay bars and clubs are our sanctuary. It's where we can feel safe and be ourselves. Where we can show affection like non-gay couples are allowed to do in public without fear or embarrassment. Now that very idea of sanctuary has been threatened!'

In the days that followed I was exercised by this idea of sanctuary. I thought of the Old Testament idea of cities of refuge and the centuries long idea of churches as places of refuge and sanctuary.

Safe places. We all need them. And yet for many gay Christians churches are not safe places for them, though thankfully many are becoming more inclusive. I began to see the London Pride March as a safe place, a sanctuary for LGBT people where they could be themselves without fear.

And so it turned out. Not a sanctuary because there were lots of police along the route - most of them joined in the fun of the whole thing!

It was a Sanctuary because the million lining the route cheered us all along the way. It was a day where gay couples could hold hands walking down the street and be cheered! It was a day of unadulterated joy that temporarily overlaid the sense of disappointment most of us there had because of the Brexit vote of two days before. Never before had I experienced such a sense of the wonderful diversity and delight in humanity which God has created - 'he saw all that he had made and behold it was very good!'

On numerous occasions I was hugged by people in the crowds lining the route and asked by others to bless them! It was the most wonderful witness imaginable of the all inclusive love of God on the streets of the greatest city in the world - including the presence of the mayor of London on the March, and walking for a time with the group of LGBT Muslims.

Afterwards we had a communion service together in Bloomsbury Central Baptist church where I had spoken the week before at the Two23 service. This time Kate Bottley (of Gogglebox fame) gave a great address at the end of a wonderful day.

I am deeply grateful to God and for the LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ with whom I shared fellowship both at the Two23 service and at London Pride. And now, a week on I would still say that 'Christians at Pride' was one of the most powerful testimonies I have experienced that 'we are all one in Christ... ,'

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Psalm 23: Shepherds, Bishops, and my Gay and Lesbian Friends

Each day throughout Lent my early morning meditation is focusing on a verse or two from the Psalms, linking this in with a photo I have taken, or one taken of me, over the past decades - and then sharing it on Facebook. This morning I found my praying impelled in a very specific direction as I meditated on two familiar verses from Psalm 23. This is how I shared it on Facebook-

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake. Psalm 23:2,3

Strange you may think, but as I meditated on these two verses I was led to pray for my many clergy friends who are gay or lesbian. My meditation developed along these lines ....

 When I was privileged to spend a day with a hill farmer in South Lancashire shadowing him throughout his long and demanding day's work, I saw something of the close bonding between shepherd and sheep: the relationship of trust and confidence that the shepherd would not fail the lamb who stuck close to his side.

They speak to me, as to many, of the calling to be a shepherd, a guide, a confidante for others. To be the one who will not fail or lead astray. Yet, at times we struggle to find those green pastures for those who look to us for sustenance and support.

I see that at the moment particularly with my gay and lesbian clergy friends. How can their shepherds (or bishops) help them find still waters in the rough seas developing between and within our Church of England and the law of the land on equal marriage.

There are green pastures and still waters ahead, of that I am confident, though the terrain is pretty rocky at the moment, and the waters are decidedly choppy! But I find it a privilege to stand alongside my brothers and sisters and search for that right path for them in the relationships that God has given them.


...  and two further thoughts

... the thought to which I return again and again is that the Church is in the business of blessing and promoting lifelong faithful love. My wife and I were richly blessed by God, the church, and all our friends and neighbours without exception throughout our married life - and I am convinced that God desires similar for those who are born for union with one of the same sex. With the first same sex marriages taking place this Friday the Church must find ways of supporting, blessing and celebrating with those who chose a life of faithful committed love with their partner.

... and I know that many bishops are conflicted as to how to be a shepherd to their LGBT clergy (and lay people as well) so I pray for them too.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Christians and Jews in Norwich: a turbulent history
On Wednesday 26th March we are holding a study day for members of the Christian and Jewish communities in Norwich to consider together our shared history from medieval times and into the present day.  Norwich is the home of the first accusation of Blood Libel against the Jewish community. In 1144 a young boy, William was murdered and the Jews falsely blamed. The Christian community at the time accepted the falsehood that William was murdered and his blood used by the Jews; his story was wildly exaggerated and he became a saint with his own shrine in the newly built Cathedral.

Today, this early example of anti-Semitism is remembered in the Cathedral. Our study day will hopefully help us to commemorate this event more fittingly for today’s citizens.

It is also just over a year ago that we buried the remains of 17 bodies which were found down a medieval well-shaft during the construction of a new shopping centre in the city in 2004. A television programme, Cold Case suggested these may have been Jewish so they were buried in the Norwich Jewish ceremony and I was privileged to give the eulogy on that occasion.  I referred back to the William of Norwich incident in my talk which I reproduce here -

Address at the Burial of Medieval Citizens of Norwich    19.03. 2013

As we meet in solemn remembrance of the six adults and eleven children whose lives were so brutally ended in this city of ours about 8 centuries ago I want to express the thanks of the Christian community that we have been invited to share with you in this sacred occasion.

As I have pondered what to say I have found myself drawn to images of some of the tombs in the Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries.  Many, as with all of these 17 whom we remember today, have no name.  The stone simply says, A soldier of the Great War.There's a poignancy in those words – for they forever remain an anonymous person to us but then at the bottom of the stone, are the words, Known unto God.

In medieval Norwich these 17 were brutally disposed of down a well shaft. Today we meet to honour them and mourn for them, conscious that they are and always have been - known to God. And we lay to rest their bodies in repentance and hope for the eternal rest of their souls.

For 150 years or so in medieval England the Christian and Jewish communities lived together in this city. They did business together, at times relations were respectful and cordial but as we all know there was a much darker side.  Today, as our two communities are met here in prayer, I have the opportunity as a Christian bishop in the 21st century to offer words of repentance and apology for the suffering meted out to the Jewish community by my community in this city all those centuries ago. 

Today is not the time to go into details but we are all aware of the pain and agony often caused for the Jewish community following the false accusations of blood libel with the murder of the young boy William in 1144 not, of course by a member of the Jewish community as the majority were encouraged to believe at the time. In the 150 years following that there were sporadic periods of suffering and danger for the Jewish community of this city leading up to the expulsion of all Jewish communities by order of the King in 1290. 

Then, of course, we could not have met together like this and acknowledged our common spiritual commitment to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Thankfully today we can.  Both our communities share the fundamental commitment so clearly expressed at the very beginning of the Torah that each and every one of us is made in the image of God.  Each of us has equal dignity and honour before God or as the psalmist says, humanity is just a little lower than the angels.  Sadly these and many others through the centuries including our own time have been treated in death as less than human. We will all have our own thoughts as we stand here today for me they are ones of repentance and sorrow for how my community of faith has at times failed to live up to this central vocation of humanity created in the image of God.

Hopefully as we gather together today as representatives of the present Jewish and Christian communities of this city we give witness to our own mutual compassion and friendship as we provide a prayerful burial for these people whose memory has been so long abused through unwitting neglect over the past centuries. 

As we give them this final resting place on earth I trust that we pledge ourselves to live and work in our generation for supportive and respectful relationships between our two communities.

As these men, women and children finally find rest here, our intention as the Christian community is that they will also be later commemorated in a memorial in St Stephens churchyard, the parish in which their mortal remains have lain, unremembered for so many centuries.

We intend to put words from the Hebrew scriptures on that plaque which I trust both now and forever will be true for these 17 former inhabitants of our city - they are the profound words of trust and hope uttered by the psalmist, Return, O my soul to your rest.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Celebrating Unadulterated Love with a Mixed Bunch of Christians

I wrote this for Accepting Evangelicals a couple of weeks ago but forgot to put it up here -
My Catholic friends tell me that I should always do something special and memorable on my Naming Day which, for me is March 1st, St David's Day.  And this year I did; I attended the celebration, 'Unadulterated Love' arranged by Changing Attitude in London.

It was the first of their events I had attended and I went mainly because It was suggested to me that as a bishop and an evangelical who had formerly been principal of Trinity College Bristol it would show support and bring encouragement to many LGBT people. Well, I am always sceptical about how my being at something can be much of an encouragement, but events certainly proved me wrong!

I was one of two bishops there and, being soon after the House of Bishops guidelines on same sex marriage had been issued, our presence was seen as significant - even though neither of us are members of the House (me because I am retired). I was asked to facilitate a couple of group sessions where there would be opportunity for both straight and LGBT folk to share their stories and challenges etc.

Pervading the occasion was a note of celebration and mutual support, some touches of confusion and sadness, but to my surprise very little anger about how the church was handling the issue of same sex relationships. Rather I detected a sense of compassion for a church that would soon hopefully embrace a wider understanding of the all-encompassing love of our gracious and welcoming God.

There were other evangelicals there who, like me had  come to an understanding of scripture and the gospel which impels us to support those who are, by their God-given nature attracted to people of the same sex, both those who are single and those in a relationship. We exchanged some experiences of how our theological and pastoral position meant we were suspect by a number of our evangelical friends, but also how many more of them were also seeing the gospel and scripture in a more inclusive and accepting light.  My personal concern in the group sessions was to share how important it is for me to celebrate together with my LGBT friends the acceptance of God and his blessing upon all committed faithful relationships, such as my wife and myself had known throughout the whole of our married life together.

But for those who shared with me, the main talking point was how a good number of them had found it difficult as gay and lesbian Christians to be accepted and comfortable within their own evangelical churches, whether they were single or in a relationship. Some spoke of years during which members of their own fellowship ignored them and never spoke to them once they had been open about their sexuality. Others told of similar cold shouldering at evangelical theological colleges. For some there was a determination to continue in the spiritual tradition which had nurtured them, but others spoke of how they felt forced out by the coldness to look for a fellowship which would be more supportive and accepting even though that meant them leaving behind some close Christian friends and the spirituality they had long valued.

However there were indications that the tide was turning. Some were determined to stay within their fellowships and were gradually seeing a dawning of a new sense of acceptance and joy in their relationships with straight Christians in their local church. This sense of acceptance was clearly more marked in the younger age group but it was also evident that many lay folk in evangelical churches were more open than some clergy. Was this, some wondered, because the close ties within the evangelical clergy-world meant that a good number hesitated to embrace a fresh understanding because their friends and colleagues would cold shoulder them too?

 But I did not leave the day despondent about the place of LGBT folk within evangelical churches. It is still clearly very hard for many, but the tide is turning and I am confident that the facilitated discussions which are being set up in the wake of the Pilling report will be one means through which many evangelicals will reevaluate their position. I believe also that Accepting Evangelicals will have an increasingly important role to play in accompanying many, particularly clergy as they take a closer look at their understanding of scripture, the gospel and our mission in a society where equal marriage will soon be seen as part of the natural landscape. I know of some evangelical clergy who already offer services of blessing for those in civil partnerships and are also looking for greater freedom to celebrate with those who enter into same sex married relationships as the law allows. Clearly we are in the midst of considerable turmoil over this issue within the Church, but I believe, to quote a phrase that several of us used during the day, 'the dam is about to burst!'