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!'


Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Antisemitism, Blood Libel and Norwich ...

As in many other towns and cities across the UK, Norwich held its annual event to mark Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27th, the anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The city of Norwich has its own particular event in the past that echoes down the centuries as we remember such cruel acts of brutality and discrimination. We recall how in 1144 the first recorded case of blood libel anywhere in the world took place in our city: the libel that a child was murdered and their blood used by the Jewish community in the making of unleavened bread for their Passover commemoration.

At the time when this happened medieval Norwich was the second city in the country after London and it saw several outbursts of anti-Jewish persecution. On this particular occasion, a young lad, William was murdered and his death was wrongly blamed on the Jews of the city. Over the next few years a cult grew up at the newly built Cathedral which venerated William as a Christian martyr, and pilgrims, bringing prosperity in their wake flocked to his shrine for several centuries, until it was abolished at the time of the Protestant Reformation.

This notion of blood libel was exported from our city, first to other places in the UK, and then across Europe. It became one of the themes in Der Sturmer, the Nazi magazine of the 1930s which was used to stir up antisemitism within Germany and prepare the way for the slaughter of 6,000,000 Jews in the decade that followed. This wrongful slander against the Jews is not an event much marked in Norwich’s own account of its history but it is remembered in the Chapel of the Holy Innocents in Norwich Cathedral; a memorial that places the victims of the Nazi Holocaust alongside the children murdered by King Herod in Bethlehem.
To help ourselves deal better with this event in the history of our city, we are holding a study day on March 26th where Jews and Christians together will be able to reflect on the issue of such antisemitism and work out ways of remembering it more effectively, as well as devising programmes to educate today’s tourists and pilgrims about all forms of discrimination and hate crimes against those who are different from ourselves.
In preparation for this day I have been looking at some contemporary incidents of anti-Semitism of which there are still too many in the UK. The definition of an anti-Semitic incident used by the authorities is ‘any malicious act aimed at Jewish people or property where there is evidence that the act has anti-Semitic motivation or content, or that the victim was targeted because they are Jewish.’ Thankfully such incidents have recently been decreasing in the UK, but there is no room for complacency.
In 2012, the last year for which figures are available, there were still 640 confirmed antisemitic incidents, the majority occurring in London and Manchester where the largest Jewish communities are to be found. These incidents range from violent assaults against people to desecration of buildings and monuments. Although the overall figures show a downward trend the reverse has been true in schools and colleges where there has been an increase. An example of this kind of incident occurred when two Jewish schoolboys boarded a bus and went to sit upstairs. There were two white males sitting near the back of the bus, one of whom addressed them with the words, ‘a f**king Jew. I hate f**king Jews, they really p**s me off… What are you looking at? Keep looking and I’ll push your f**king head through the window.’ We can all immediately sense the horror of such an experience in the life of a teenager.
Over the years various world events have produced spikes in such antisemitic incidents, e.g. the conflict in Gaza in 2009 led to the highest recorded total in the UK. The pattern of a rise in antisemitism as a result of such events is paralleled also by an increase in Islamophobia when terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists hit the headlines. At such times fear and anger too readily look for a victim to punish for events with which they have no personal connection.
At the same time, the ongoing and near-intractable situation in Israel Palestine has led to confusion in the minds of many about what constitutes antisemitism. To some, any robust criticism of the policies or actions of the government of the State of Israel is seen as antisemitism. While to those, both Christian and Jew who are committed to particular Zionist convictions, any criticism of the state of Israel may offend their strongly held beliefs, fair criticism on the grounds of justice is not rightly to be judged as anti-Semitic. If such criticism is given in a manner that recognizes the right of Israel to exist within secure borders, it must surely be accepted as valid opinion and conviction.
The Jewish organization particularly concerned with the protection of their community (the CST) acknowledges the validity of the distinction between anti-Semitic incidents and anti-Israel activity. They often reject reporting certain incidents because they are the latter rather than anti-Semitic, though they sometimes find it difficult to decide in a given case. To quote from their most recent report, ‘Graffiti reading ‘F**k Israel’ would probably be classified as an anti-Semitic incident if it appears to be targeted at an area known for having a large Jewish community but would probably not be counted as anti-Semitic if it appears in an area where few Jews live.’
Naturally Christians have a particular affinity with our fellow Christians in Israel Palestine and feel an obligation to protest at the injustices they suffer as a result of certain actions and policies of the Israeli government. We also, of course, have a natural affinity in religion with our siblings within Judaism - as well as those within the Muslim community, our other Abrahamic near neighbours. With these different relationships often pulling us in different directions, even the most caring among us, must take care that as we seek justice for one group we also exhibit care for those who may also become innocent victims themselves of others’ prejudices.