Category Archives: Newsletter articles

Editorial, Summer 2013

Anthony Woollard

 It seems a long time since our Annual Conference in February, which was one of our most successful ever.  We mustered 30+, our usual modest numbers being amplified by members of The Sibyls with whom the conference was jointly organised.  Transgender issues formed the theme, and we were fortunate to have as our keynote speakers Tina Beardsley and Elaine Sommers.  Below are the notes which Tina used for her PowerPoint presentation (not, alas, reproducible in illustrated and animated form here!) from which readers can gain a flavour of her input; we all sang along with “Getting to Know You” which set the tone for a warm and informative half-hour.  Elaine was more discursive in her approach, not using notes; but much of the material for her contribution can be found in two articles by her on the Changing Attitude website, which I commend.  The session was excellently chaired by one of our Patrons, Bishop John Gladwin.

 There followed our AGM, and I reproduce below the Chair’s report and the accounts.  Unfortunately, no new members came forward for the Committee, which was therefore re-elected en bloc – nor did a new newsletter editor appear, so my job is still open if anyone fancies it!  But it was clear that interest in our activities was increased amongst those who attended, who included a number of non-members. After all these years, our membership and our finances remain just about viable – but too small for the work we have to do.

The day concluded with a panel discussion with a number of transgender people, ably chaired by Susannah Cornwall.  This discussion illustrated the sheer diversity of understandings of gender, from those born male who come to believe “I am not a man, I am a woman” to those who cannot simply identify with either gender.  As Tina pointed out, people who might identify as transgender form a tiny minority – yet we have probably all met some such people, whether we realise it or not.  And they challenge a number of assumptions, not least about the binary male-female divide and “complementarity” which is to be found in conventional readings of Scripture.  That, no doubt, is why they are widely misunderstood and even persecuted within the Churches, particularly those of an evangelical persuasion; we heard many sad stories, which strengthened our resolve to work for a far more generous understanding of gender issues within Christian faith and the interpretation of Scripture.

Since then, we have continued with our work with theological educators.  A wide range of denominations continue to be involved in this, and it becomes ever more timely as the Roman Catholic Church in particular struggles so publicly and painfully with sexual issues.  The dramatic resignation of Cardinal O’Brien, a week or so after our conference, highlights that struggle.  It was most significant that he himself should have bowed out with some radical remarks on clerical celibacy – not that the removal of that burden, should it ever happen, would solve all the Church’s problems, but at least it would open the gates to a more humane understanding of sexuality as an irresistible force in all our lives with which theology must come to terms.

Meanwhile, in the wider Church and world, we have seen the production of a report on marriage, by the House of Bishops of the Church of England, which has received almost universal rubbishing because of its naivete about sex, gender and sexual orientation.  Even the Church Times, hardly the most radical organ, considered that it was “best forgotten”.  This widespread criticism of an apparently impeccably orthodox study of the theology of marriage is of great significance.  It is as if the Church, at a point somewhere nearer the grass-roots than the Bishops are, is finally waking up to the inadequacy of the old theological formulae.

The controversy about gay marriage is clearly the occasion for this publication.  But by purporting to go deeper into marriage and sexual theology generally, the Bishops have “shown their workings” in a way which lays them open to better-informed criticism.  Not the least of its failings is its heavy dependence on the concept of complementarity between women and men.  That concept is not analysed even in theological, let alone psychological, sociological or biological terms.  The most egregious statement is that no human being is “asexual” – all are either men or women.  This is not only a misuse of the term “asexual”, which usually refers to a lack of sexual desire/activity rather than to underlying identity of sex or gender.  It is simply not true, as studies into intersex and transgender (and our own conference) have demonstrated.

I do not think it necessary here to go into more detail about this document now (but note what I say below about the probable theme of our next issue).  I commend the analyses by Susannah Cornwall in her blog, by Jonathan Clatworthy on the Modern Church website, and by Jane Shaw in the Church Times of 26 April.  One of the members of the commission which produced the report, Charlotte Methuen, has written what amounts to a minority report (though her dissent is nowhere acknowledged publicly by the Bishops), and this also is well worth reading.

It is tempting to suggest that CSCS itself should produce an alternative version!  But the seeds of our thinking are well documented – not only in Jo Ind’s Memories of Bliss to which this newsletter constantly refers, but now also in Susannah Cornwall’s excellent SCM Core Text on Theology and Sexuality which we hope to review in a future edition.  What is clear from these books, and the critiques of the report mentioned above, is that “sex”, “gender” and “sexuality/sexual orientation” are three quite different things, all of them immensely complex, and none of them susceptible (beyond the level of the stereotype) of analysis simply by reference to selected Biblical texts and traditional Church teachings.

The widespread negative response to the Bishops’ document gives one hope that our message is at last getting through in at least some places within the Churches.  But that is a slow process.  It must be pursued in the formation of church leaders, which is why CSCS’ work with theological educators is so important – and we hope it could lead to a major conference in 2014.  It must be pursued in the world of academic theology, which is why our journal Theology and Sexuality and the work of our members such as Gerard Loughlin, Adrian Thatcher and Susannah Cornwall need continued support.  And it must be pursued at grass-roots level – so I would welcome many more accounts of local initiatives for discussion such as those which I related from my own parish in the last edition.  Members of the Committee, whether sex educators like Jane Fraser, activists like Martin Pendergast and Rosie Martin, or communicators like Terry Weldon, all have their parts to play.  But so do you, our readers, and we would love to hear from you much more.

As a next step in this process, the Committee propose that both the next edition of this newsletter in the autumn and our Annual Conference next February might be devoted to the theme of “Redefining Marriage?”  Who knows, perhaps this actually will lead to an alternative statement!  In any event, I would particularly invite contributions on that theme.  This is partly about same-sex marriage, but maybe the real point is whether what is on offer, to same-sex or opposite-sex couples alike, should simply be this institution/sacrament/status “as it stands”.  For it has changed, is changing and must continue to change if it is to be “fit for purpose” for society as a whole.  

Gender Varying Faith:  Our Genders – Our Stories Conference Presentation, Christina Beardsley

Prepared for Reality? The slow-moving world of theological education Alison Webster

Poem: So?  Ho Heather Janet


Minutes of AGM, 2013

Chair’s Annual Report 2012-13 Martin Pendergast

CSCS Accounts year ending 31 December 2012 Colin Hart

Prepared for Reality? The slow-moving world of theological education

Alison Webster

 I had a rather startling conversation the other day with a friend of mine – an academic theologian who teaches ordinands as well as ‘ordinary students’. He said to me that the curriculum they teach has altered hardly at all in the last twenty years.

As a social justice adviser in the Church of England, I guess at some level I knew this. If I had a tenner for every conversation I’ve had about how to address important social issues in theological education that went as follows, I’d be a rich woman:

Me (to anyone in charge of any kind of theological education – ordination training, CMD/CME, IME): “It seems really important that those in training for ministry should have some grounding in (insert any social issue: domestic abuse, mental health, community development, gender, sexuality, physical disability, learning disability, rural contexts, urban contexts and poverty, social care, ageing, etc), so that they are equipped to deal with practical and pastoral issues that are likely to arise in the parishes in which they serve/will be serving.”

Theological educator: “Yes, I agree with you, but what you have to realise is that the curriculum is already very intense and overcrowded with essential things like Biblical studies, church history and homiletics. We simply don’t have the space for other things. And even if we did, we can’t simply open up the curriculum to a shopping list of enthusiasms that various individuals lobby us about”.

Me: “So how will your students learn about these issues that will certainly be real for them in ministry?”

Theological educator: “Well, the best we can do is to put on specialist and optional theme weeks that students can opt into. Or they learn ‘on the job’ once in active ministry.”

This is how it was when I worked for the Institute for the Study of Christianity and Sexuality (forerunner of CSCS) in the early to mid 1990s, and apparently it is the same now. Anglican colleagues of mine organise, or help to deliver, theme weeks on issues such as rural ministry, the spiritual care of older people; pastoral studies (which can include sessions on, for instance, domestic abuse and disability) and gender/sexuality. But as far as I know, there is as yet no curriculum which takes the simple yet revolutionary step of organising the curriculum around human reality, bringing the resources of scripture and church history into play to inform and stimulate appropriate responses to the challenges that face real people, with real needs and gifts, in real communities.

I well remember being asked to help resource a theme week at an ecumenical theological college back in the 90s. The briefing I had in advance was rather farcical – along the lines of, “If you tackle the issue of marriage, and sex outside marriage, please bear in mind the fact that our former Principal was dismissed because he left his wife for another woman…Oh, and if you really must address homosexuality, then please be aware that we had an infamous case here 10 years ago where two women declared they were in love with one another, and both of them left without being able to get a job with their respective denominations. Oh, and I nearly forgot, your co-presenter is a closet gay priest, so be sensitive to the fact that he will be studiously trying to avoid being asked difficult questions, or discussion of any issues that get too close to the bone”. And so it went on. Apparently any discussion of relationships and sexuality had to pussy-foot around any and every difficult internal issue, when each of these issues was only ‘difficult’ because the institution itself and the denominations it served, were totally unable to talk sensibly and openly and the vagaries of human sexuality. It was a bit like being asked to coach a sports team to perform well in a sport where the rules were secret, and changeable only by those in charge.

Needless to say, I ignored all the restrictions suggested to me. I took care to establish ground rules at the beginning that, as far as possible, made the learning environment a ‘safe space’ in which the students could really explore issues, and challenge one another, knowing that whatever they said in that environment would not be used against them in the future. I recall having some excellent and enlightening discussions with the students, who found it refreshing to discuss together their thoughts, feelings, anxieties, concerns and (surprise surprise) joys, about human relationships. And reflecting on themselves as sexual beings in ministry was a new departure for them. It was a pity that this learning environment was, for them, for a few days only, and exceptional. How much better would it have been if their whole curriculum had been founded on such honest and open exchanges?

When it comes to theological education about gender and sexuality, there are important theo-political issues at stake. Official church responses to the Equal Marriage Bill remind us, yet again, of how ‘complementarity’ is set forth as a veritable doctrine of the faith: men and women are created to be ‘different’, and it is in the formation of heterosexual couples that human beings become ‘whole’. This, in its entirety, IS the basis of official church responses to all issues pertaining to gender and sexuality. How can good education take place with such paucity of thought at the church’s theological heart?

The tragedy of the CoE’s approach to equal marriage is that it exposes how that institution has insulated itself from developments in other intellectual disciplines over the last thirty years or so. It’s getting on for 25 years since I wrote my book Found Wanting, in which, when reflecting on the lives of women who came into conflict with the church’s teachings on sexuality (either because they were single, divorced, sexually abused by men, or lesbian or bisexual), I coined the phrase, ‘the curse of complementarity’, as this idea seemed to be the foundation of all forms of oppression experienced by women.

The idea that women are ‘equal but different’ is given the lie in most strands of Christian thought, in that it is part of men’s role (conveniently for them) to be those who define the roles of men and women. Women’s role is to be submissive, and do what we’re told – an idea so deep rooted that it came back to the fore in some of the arguments about the role of women as Bishops.

If the church, or the theologians that are supposed to inform it, had not actively put their hands of their ears for the last three decades, and remained resistant to developments in gender studies, post-colonial studies, queer theory, etc, they may have developed tools to engage with the new philosophical world that now informs our social context. Apart from inventing ‘radical orthodoxy’ as a way of dealing with truth claims from different disciplines (the theological response which just says, ‘we have the primal form of revealed truth; all other forms of truth are subservient to it and derivative of it, therefore we don’t really need to listen to them), how different might the church’s response have been to the Equal Marriage Bill? How different might our theological education be, and how much better prepared for reality might generations of minsters in training have been?

Alison currently works as the Social Responsibility Adviser for the Diocese of Oxford. She ran the Institute for the Study of Christianity and Sexuality from 1990 to 1994, and co-founded the international journal, Theology and Sexuality

Poem: So?  Ho

“The Soho Masses cancelled”?
No way!

Last time we had 200 people
And the Archbishop,
Walking round, greeting people,
And saying he’s available
To give any help he can.

How come?
I thought they needed the church
To take care of Anglicans
Who want to be Catholics?
Ah, but this is a Jesuit church
In Mayfair,
Much posher than Soho!

Jesuit, eh?
Like the new Pope!
You’ll invite him to come too
If he comes to London?
For him
Was a choice!

Heather Janet 

CSCS News 45, Spring 2013: Editorial

Anthony Woollard

As our Annual Conference approaches I am still optimistic that a new editor might be found for this newsletter, as well as more new blood for other aspects of CSCS’ work.  There have been times when my editing task has felt a bit like vanity publishing because of the amount that I have had to write myself – though my fellow Committee members have contributed much also.  Perhaps as I come towards what may be the end of my stint in the editor’s chair, I might be permitted some serious vanity?  It is just possible that some readers may find this not only interesting but useful.

 Last spring, in my own parish, there was a series of discussions on issues of sexuality facing the Church of England (and most other churches) today.  The discussions were led by Canon Andrew Dow, a Conservative Evangelical now retired from paid ministry who is attached to the parish; Daphne Cook, well known to many readers as a former treasurer of CSCS and influential in Mothers’ Union circles; and myself.  As might be imagined, Andrew and I were at opposite poles of the spectrum, and Daphne somewhere in between though a good deal nearer to me than to Andrew!  Up to fifty people attended, and the discussions were at times decidedly painful and exhausting, yet, I believe, rewarding.  If nothing like this has been tried in your church, perhaps of my speaking notes reproduced below might give you some ideas?  To offer only my own contributions is of course rather one-sided, but the other contributors made less use of notes, and mine may be of interest as “a (not the!) CSCS perspective”.

Some of the deeper issues may be much harder to discuss.  The Anglican debate about women bishops and  “headship”, when combined for example with certain articles in the latest edition of Christianity and Sexuality and the extraordinary impact of E L James’ books , convinces me increasingly that we need to look far more deeply at words like “surrender” and “submission”.  This is not just about BDSM – like me, few church people will have read Fifty Shades of Grey, and even fewer would admit to having done so – but may play a much wider role in sexual relationships, and it is also a key issue in some widespread expressions of our relationship to God, and may be additionally sensitive for that reason.  Both Martin Pendergast and I touched on “submission” in the last issue.  There is much, much more to be said, but perhaps it is time that someone else said it.

This is not purely a vanity edition, however.  It includes two contributions from Terry Weldon – one in his capacity as CSCS webmaster, and one an address on the history of the LGBT movement in the Churches which he gave to Quest some months ago.  In some ways the latter, so very encouraging and positive about aspects of our enterprise, parallels my little notes and may equally be of use to local groups.  I commend Terry’s blog Queering the Church as another source of news and views about sexuality especially in the LGBT context.  And over the past few weeks he has been at the heart of renewed controversy in Roman Catholic circles, as the Soho Masses have been suspended whilst the Church’s commitment to pastoral care of people of all sexual orientations has been re-emphasised.

How that decision illustrates the ambivalence of so many of the Churches towards sexuality!  At least there has been a move away from regarding anything other than a marriage-based procreation-friendly vanilla heterosexuality as “intrinsically disordered”, and a recognition that people with other sexual orientations are still, first and foremost, people, with pastoral needs; let us be thankful for small mercies.  Yet putting such orientations into practice is still viewed as mortal sin, and what the critics have seen as the creation of a church-within-a-church for those who practice in that way is now to be outlawed.  What nonsense – what hurtful nonsense.  If ever the continued need for CSCS – to get beneath the superficial theologizing about “the gay thing” to the real issues beneath – was demonstrated, it was here, and now.  But we need new blood to carry the torch forward; and so I end this editorial as I began, with challenge and with hope.

Sexual and gender issues in the Church of England: three notes

“Blessed Are the Queer in Faith”: 60 years into a modern resurrection for queer Christians.

A Poem:  Calling (or how to internalize oppression)

Introducing the new CSCS Website

INTERSEX, THEOLOGY AND THE BIBLE:Notice of another upcoming conference

Sexual and gender issues in the Church of England: three notes

Anthony Woollard

Gay Marriage

Before getting into the topic of gay marriage we first have to ask whether gay relationships in any form can ever be right or good.  There is no getting away from the fact that the tiny handful of direct references to homosexuality in Scripture are pretty condemnatory.  On the other hand, Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, condemns many other things – from lending out money at interest, to eating pork, to wearing clothes with mixed fibres – and we don’t necessarily regard those condemnations as binding today.  So why is homosexuality different?

Many people, religious or not, would still see homosexuality as unnatural; surely men and women are meant, or have evolved, to mate with each other and not with their own sex, primarily in order to produce children.  Yet something like what we call homosexuality occurs fairly widely in nature[1].  It is no more unnatural in a literal sense than, say, left-handedness.  And it may be worth remembering that left-handed people – “sinister” people in Latin – have also at times been regarded as unnatural, and persecuted[2].

For most of history, in many cultures, gay people have been regarded as things of horror and pushed to the margins of society, not allowed to form public relationships.  The writers of Scripture could not have known what we now know – that gay people can enter into loving, stable, productive relationships and play a part in the mainstream of society.

We must avoid looking at a few texts in isolation.  A very wise Evangelical used to say “A text without its context is just a pretext”.  And the context in which we look at this question has to include, not only the huge cultural changes since Biblical times, but also and most importantly the teachings of Jesus.  I think of two sayings in particular.  “I am come that they might have life in all its fullness” – and for me, “they” must include all humanity, gay as well as straight.  And “by their fruits you shall know them”.  I know a number of gay Christians and cannot in my deepest conscience deny that the fruits of the Spirit are obvious in them – not in spite of their gayness but perhaps even because of it.

So what about gay marriage?  Gay people have been granted civil partnerships.  In some churches, though not alas the Church of England yet – at least not officially – those partnerships can be separately blessed.    So why insist on marriage?  Isn’t this just those pesky gays demanding absolute equality with “us” straight people?  (I use the us and them language deliberately, but of course it’s not Christian.)

It depends on what you mean by marriage.  Is it inherently about the creation of a new family through the mating of two people of opposite sexes?  I know some gay Christians who would agree with that.  I know others for whom the concept of marriage carries too much baggage to be seen as a partnership of equals.  But equally I know some who are hurting deeply because they feel excluded from an institution which they see as basic to society and affirms everything they want to affirm.  I think of Sharon, a pastor in the Metropolitan Community Church which ministers mostly to gays, and her partner Franka.  I know how much this means to them.

By their fruits you shall know them.  I am come that they might have life in all its fullness.  For me, the fundamental teachings of Jesus have to be determinative in deciding issues like this.  Certainly, if gay marriage were introduced, the nature of marriage as a concept would be changed.  But it has constantly been changing.  If you don’t believe me, read Jane Austen!  In many ways I am agnostic about gay marriage, but I simply have to hear the hurt of my friends Sharon and Franka and thousands like them.

St Peter in Acts chapter 10 was faced with a very irregular and unnatural[3] situation, when a group of Gentiles – outsiders who were banned from membership of God’s people – responded to the Gospel of Jesus and showed signs of being possessed by the Holy Spirit.  This wasn’t meant to happen in Peter’s world!  And he was forced to ask “Could anyone refuse the water of baptism to these people, now that they have received the Holy Spirit just as much as we have?”  I equally find myself forced to ask “Could anyone refuse the sacrament of marriage to Sharon and Franka?”

Marriage and cohabitation, and does it matter?

What do we mean by marriage?  We may think of it as a very defined legal and perhaps religious status based on a once-for-all ceremony without which you aren’t married. It didn’t mean that in this country until the Hardwicke Act of the mid-18th century.  Before that a lot of “marriages” were much more informal – they might start with betrothal or even with pregnancy, and were often tied up (literally) with dowries.  In other cultures, there has been even more variation (see Duncan Dormor, Just Cohabiting?)

There is a lot of teaching about marriage in the Bible – and also a great deal which has been read into that teaching and elaborated it.  Marriage, we are told, is meant to be exclusive – one on one, forsaking all others.  It is meant to be for life, entered into unconditionally.  It is the only safe framework for a sexual relationship[4], and certainly the only proper framework for the upbringing of children.  Interestingly, there is nothing in there about licenses or ceremonies, let alone bridesmaids or confetti.  So the question “what makes a marriage a marriage” is left rather open.

At its best, the Christian vision of marriage is very wonderful.  At its worst, it can be just too much for sinful human beings to bear.  In the form we know it, it is a huge package, a very big deal both for individuals and for society, and it is understandable why some people are nervous about it.

Various developments in society have led to a questioning of formal marriage as the only way for people to get together in a relationship.

One of them relates to the position of women.  A favourite feminist saying goes like this:  In marriage two people become one person – and that person is the husband.  If you read some of the great Biblical passages on marriage, from Genesis to Ephesians, it is very easy to come to that conclusion.  Marriage can be seen as potentially crushing individuality, particularly for women.  There are other passages in Scripture which suggest that this cannot possibly be a true understanding of God’s purposes.  But the direct teaching of Scripture on marriage can be, and has been, used in this way.  Now we have come to re-evaluate the place of women, and this, I believe, is of God.

Our attitude to love and sex has also changed.  The development of pretty reliable contraception is one factor here.  But there is also, for better or worse, a greater emphasis than ever before on individual self-fulfilment; that leads amongst other things to the idea that a relationship between two individuals is their business and no-one else’s.  I don’t think that can be fully true, as a matter of fact or of Christian teaching; but I do think it may be a necessary corrective to a sort of Fascism in which the individual and her needs is completely subjected to society.

And related to all that, our attitude to families has changed.  I mentioned Jane Austen last week.  It’s not so long ago, that amongst the upper classes at least marriage was heavily about things like property and handing it on through the generations, and links between families, and making sure that women were financially secure.  It may be good that we are less obsessed today about family, its preservation and its prosperity.  I would argue that some old-fashioned family values have been used for a sort of extended selfishness – my family right or wrong, and the rest of society can go hang.  Some of this is still part of the baggage that is experienced by those who have doubts about traditional marriage.

We know that a majority of cohabiting relationships today are not, in a legal sense, marriages.  In very many cases they are a stage on the way to formal marriage, and the church report Something to Celebrate  suggested that these should be at least accepted and preferably honoured.  In other cases they are an alternative to formal marriage, and there may be many reasons for this; I believe we should not judge, but, again, celebrate wherever faithful love is found.

So: does marriage matter?  In one sense, obviously, yes; it is as much part of the framework of mainstream society as it ever was, and above all so where children are involved.  In another sense, surely what matters is the integrity of relationships.  Love and faithfulness are important, and hard, but if some people in our flawed world find these outside marriage, they may actually be helping to challenge the misuse to which the ideas behind conventional marriage have often been put.

Can the Anglican Communion survive?

We’ve been looking in this series at some of the issues which divide Christians – including Anglicans – relating to sexual matters.  We have seen over the past decade huge tensions between the broadly liberal Anglican churches of North America and more conservative provinces elsewhere.  We’ve had the debate about a possible “Anglican Covenant” which was intended to put pressure on those parts of the Communion which are seen by others as going out on a limb doctrinally.  It’s all very difficult, and very painful.  Can the Anglican Communion survive – and does it matter?

Anglicanism has always been rather unusual amongst Christian denominations in its overt, built-in breadth.  Catholics, evangelicals and liberals, plus various combinations of all three, have been present and acknowledged for many centuries, sometimes very uneasy bedfellows and yet somehow “holding together” (to use the title of the Bishop of Coventry’s book on the subject).  This goes back to Elizabethan times , when writers like Richard Hooker struggled with the balance in church life between Scripture, tradition and reason – all of them being emphasised by different groups in that fertile society which also gave rise to Shakespeare.  Elizabeth I, who famously refused to open a window into men’s souls, needed a church which would hold together the diversity of her people.  And that is the genius of Anglicanism.  It is also its weakness – but St Paul tells us that God’s power is made perfect in weakness.

Paul also writes very movingly, in both Romans and 1 Corinthians, about diversity in the Body of Christ.  He didn’t deny that there might be limits to that – mainly where people were excluding others by their teachings or their behaviour.  But the overriding message throughout all his letters is that we should accept one another, in all our diversity, as God in Christ accepts us.  And Anglicanism at its best has always modelled that.

I think we have discovered over the past couple of weeks just how much – more than debates about evolution let alone about how many candles on an altar – issues about sex go to the heart of who we are as human beings and how we express that in society.  This is both about how we relate to Scripture (and tradition and reason) and how we relate to culture – and how we process all this in our personal experiences.  None of this is straightforward, and for most of the participants some very serious matters of truth and justice, as well as equally serious matters of personal identity, are at stake.  So maintaining unity is genuinely hard, and we feel that hardness in our guts, more deeply even than all the debates about the nature of resurrection and the place of the sacraments which have stressed out the church in ages past.

But this idea of unity in diversity is at the very heart of the Gospel; not only in Paul, but in so much of what Jesus himself is reported to have said, culminating in that great prayer for unity in John chapter 17.  We must go on struggling, under God.

We have said remarkably little in this series so far about divorce.  Divorces do happen, not just in marriages but also in other human institutions – including churches.  The Reformation was a great divorce, or rather a complex series of divorces.  Such events are, at best, necessary evils.  Some divisions are already happening.  We have seen a small number of clergy and parishes divorcing themselves from the Church of England and remarrying the Church of Rome over the matter of women’s ministry.  Some more conservative provinces from elsewhere in the world have established what is called the Anglican Mission in England.  As St Paul said, again in 1 Corinthians, such divisions are pretty inevitable and may even be necessary in God’s purposes.  We may continue to see some realignments at the margins; some may leave us, some may join us from elsewhere, as happens indeed in the life of Holy Trinity.  But I believe we can and must “hold together” at the centre.

Just one final reflection.  It comes from the experience of Street Pastors, which of course is not Anglican in origin at all.  Recently the national leader of Street Pastors, Les Isaac, himself a black evangelical, issued a statement making plain that Street Pastors was NOT going to oppose gay marriage, because any position on the issue would get in the way of showing the unconditional love of Christ to all on the streets.  One or two Street Pastors, elsewhere though not in Stratford, have left the movement as a result.  The great majority, whatever their personal views, continue to “hold the centre” in the name of the Gospel.  I believe the Church of England and the Anglican Communion can do no less.

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“Blessed Are the Queer in Faith”

60 years into a modern resurrection for queer Christians.

Terry Weldon

This year’s national conference of  Quest, the British association for lesbian and gay Catholics, had as its theme “60 Glorious Years”, tying in with Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee year. For my presentation, I took as my title, “Blessed Are the Queer in Faith, for They Shall Inherit the Church”, later adding as a subtitle, “60 Years Into a Modern Resurrection for LGBT Christians”. With the word “resurrection”  I was suggesting that by the middle of the last century, the collective body of LGBT Christians had in effect been metaphorically killed off in the name of religious belief. But the past 60 years have seen LGBT Christians move from total invisibility, to substantial progress on the road to full inclusion – the beginning (only a beginning) of a modern resurrection!

The Collective Martyrdom of LGBT Christians

By 1952, just 7 years after the Nazi Pink Holocaust and seven centuries after the Inquisition began to hunt down and burn “sodomites”, it was effectively impossible to be openly gay and Christian – to declare oneself as such, was to announce that one was both a criminal by law, and (supposedly) condemned to eternal hellfire by Scripture.

In the West, sodomy no longer earned the death penalty – but legal penalties could include life imprisonment, or castration (eg Alan Turing, currently widely celebrated for his contribution to computer science, in  1954).  Justification was couched in religious language, social penalties included gay bashing, ostracism, career destruction – and often, suicide (including that of Alan Turing)

The persecution in the name of religion continued well into the twentieth century, promoted by the state in some countries, and by individuals and hate groups in others.

Penalties were no longer imposed by the Church – but were often motivated by an insistence that sodomy was the “Sin that cried out to heaven for vengeance”.

And yet – how far we’ve come!

By 2012, things have changed dramatically – at least in some denominations. In just the past few months, one major Christian church has honoured a modern lesbian by declaring her their equivalent of a modern “saint”, and another has unanimously elected an openly gay man as national moderator.

Five Transforming Trends

In attempting to explain how this remarkable transformation has come about, I have identified five distinct but mutually reinforcing and interacting transformative trends that have taken us over the past 60 years from total invisibility, to where we are now: solidly on a path to full LGBT inclusion in church:

  • The Discovery of a Rainbow Bible
  • LGBT clergy emerging from the closet
  • The development of self – ministry & support groups.
  • Queer Contributions and Challenges to Theology
  • The visibility of queer families.

 The Discovery of a Rainbow Bible.

A fundamental reassessment of the scriptural verdict on same – sex relationships. We have, in a sense, discovered or rediscovered a rainbow bible. If the bible really is “good news” for modern people, that must mean good news for all, including queer Christians. Beginning early in our period, a series of scholars have done work to show first, that the “traditional” interpretations of a handful of clobber texts are at best less secure than previously believed, and possibly deeply flawed, possibly even amounting to spiritual harm or “textual abuse”. Others have moved beyond defensive attempts to counter the texts of terror, to uncover and celebrate the vastly more numerous affirmative texts, and to read affirmative interpretations into others.

 LGBT clergy emerging from the closet

Ever since Rev Troy Perry responded to his expulsion from Baptist ministry for having had a sexual relationship with a man not by meekly accepting the verdict, but by forming instead a new denomination with an explicit welcome for lesbian and gay Christians, a continuing stream of clergy, and those seeking ordination, have come out, insisting that there is no conflict between their sexuality and their religious faith.  Responses from their denominations have differed, from acceptance and accommodation to outright hostility, but several denominations have already made explicit provision to accept openly LGBT clergy, or on course to do so, or accept them informally, in a clerical version of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. The visibility of these queer ministers, in public or in local congregations, makes it much easier for individual Christians to find self-acceptance, and to come out in church themselves.

 The development of self – ministry & support groups.

While Troy Perry’s solution for supportive ministry was to found an entirely new denomination, others have formed support groups and ministry structures within mainstream denominations. In the US, Dignity was started by a Catholic priest, originally as a support group for gay Catholic patients in his psychotherapy practice. Similar organizations later followed for Catholics in Australia and the UK, and for just about all other denominations (including Jehovah’s Witnesses), and on all continents. In many Protestant denominations, there has been a parallel movement aimed not at separate support groups, but at getting local congregations to declare themselves “open and affirming”. This development of an expanding base of straight allies has been key to the succession of LGBT support resolutions adopted, or due to be adopted, at various national assemblies – and to the election of queer candidates to leadership positions.

Queer Contributions and Challenges to Theology

 From about the mid 1970′s, there has been the emergence of an increasing number of openly gay and lesbian theologians, contributing to mainstream theology in all its variety, but also creating the brand new academic sub disciplines of gay and lesbian theology, and later queer theology. While this remains a minority pursuit, it has developed sufficiently that it now has its own academic journals, shelf space in theological libraries, and academic reviews of the literature to date. In her summary of the development, Elizabeth Stuart identified the origins in the early pioneers emphasising theology drawing strongly on personal experience, then developing into gay liberation theology (especially for men), and into a theology emphasising relationships (especially by lesbians drawing on feminist theology).  After discussing the challenge to gay and lesbian theologies presented by the AIDS pandemic, she describes how this led to a shift from gay/lesbian theologies to queer theology. In a later, more exhaustive account of queer theology specifically, Susannah Cornwall describes several “Controversies in Queer Theology”, in which she argues (among other things) that a queer perspective on theology is useful even for heterosexuals such as herself, and that there are many insights from queer theology making valuable contributions to mainstream theology.  At the other end of the academic scale, Patrick Cheng’s text “Radical Love” is described as an introductory text book on queer theology for junior college students.

The visibility of queer families.

 Ever since Stonewall, gay men and lesbians have been encouraged to come out, declaring their sexuality publicly.  Many, growing in confidence from the range of faith – based support groups, revisionist interpretations of the biblical evidence, and the insights from gay/ lesbian or queer theology, have done so in church, as well as in the secular world. With growing social acceptance, people of our community are forming stable relationships and families, and taking their place as families in many congregations. Their increasing visibility, coupled with the expanding availability of legal recognition for same – sex unions, is forcing the churches also to consider ways in which they can celebrate these committed, marriage – like relationships, on a basis of equality and free of discrimination.  This is especially so in those denominations which have come to accept the possibility of ordaining openly gay clergy, in partnerships that are committed, faithful and publicly accountable to the community, in a manner comparable to marriage. This requirement is most easily met by providing opportunities for full marriage for all their clergy, gay or straight, without discrimination. It is not surprising then, that while many religious leaders are actively campaigning against marriage equality legislation, some others are actively promoting, or implementing, same – sex marriage, even in church. This is currently available in some denominations and geographic regions, others are likely to approve it in the next few years, and still more are approving arrangements for church blessings of civil unions.

Conclusion: The Modern Resurrection

While many of the features I’ve listed may seem familiar, we tend to be so overwhelmed by the extent of vocal opposition, especially to recognition for marriage and family equality,  that we tend to lose sight of just how far we have come. From the perspective of the grand sweep of history, the past 60 years is a short time indeed, and yet progress, from near invisibility, has been remarkable. What is more, we must remember that each of these five trends continues, and they mutually reinforce each other. The process, and further progress to full LGBT inclusion in church, will surely continue. We really are, I submit, 60 years into a modern resurrection for LGBT Christians.

(This is a summary of a presentation delivered in September 2012, to the annual conference of Quest, a national association of gay and lesbian Catholics. A longer text of the full presentation is published at “Queering the Church“)

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Introducing the new CSCS Website

Terry Weldon

Our new look website is now up and running, and has been for some while. It’s time to introduce our members to the new site, explain the reasons for the redesign, and offer some guidance on how to access and use it.

Why was it necessary?

 The original site was first created a long time ago, when website technology was far more primitive than it has since become. Without updating, it had come to look seriously old and tired, when compared with what people have become generally used to, on pretty well all other sites. In addition, the specific technology that was used was poorly suited to cope with the demands wanted for improved usability that your committee was wanting to introduce, for the benefit of our existing members, and to introduce our work to a wider readership.

 Adapting the technology has made it necessary to adopt a completely new URL, which could be an inconvenience for those who have become used to the old one and perhaps bookmarked it, but we believe that there are substantial benefits that will soon outweigh the short term inconvenience. If you have bookmarked the old website address, we suggest that you should change it now, to:

 What has changed?

 The first and most obvious change is simply that of the appearance, to make it brighter and more attractive. See that for yourself, just by going to the site, and having a look. A cosmetic change to the appearance though, is not the most important new feature.

 My primary purpose in the new design, was to substantially improve the ease of use, and navigation across the site. To achieve this, there are numerous features built in, whether you are simply browsing, looking for material on a specific topic, or even trying to track down a very specific article that you may have seen previously, but can no longer locate.  The primary method of site navigation is now by a hierarchical page structure, listed in a horizontal navigation bar across the top of the page (as before, but with added features). Additional navigation features include a search box, and a system of categories and tags applied to all material. This will improve the efficiency of the search facility, but can also be used by selecting an item from the category listing, or tag cloud, in the right hand side bar. (Not all material has yet been so tagged, but that will improve with time). For more information on site navigation, click on the “Contents” page in the horizontal navigation bar.

 An additional important aim, was to create a means for direct reader response, to the site itself, or to any specific content. The new technology allows for direct reader response, by a “comments” box, to any item on the site – whether a specific newsletter article (see below), or a news flash (also, see below). Comments threads also provide the opportunity to respond not only to the original content, but also to the earlier responses of other readers.

 The heart of the website, at present, is the publication of newsletter material, as before. For each newsletter, the content has been posted twice – once, as a complete newsletter, which may be read from start to finish, and again, as a series of separate posts for each article therein, to facilitate tagging for the search facilities, and to enable direct reader response to specific articles. The next step in this site redevelopment, will be to introduce a “members’ area”, where there will be content restricted to registered members, and (possibly) where members will be able to initiate private correspondence with other members.

 An important further new facility, not previously available, is the use of the website to release major news announcements. These could be our own news, for example, of forthcoming conferences and other events, or pointers to major news developments in the world outside. Examples of how we have done this in recent months, have been for announcements of the Manchester University conference on intersex and faith, and of our own February 2013 conference on transgender and faith, and a post listing news reports from mainstream media about the Church of England Synod’s failure to approve  women bishops. This news alert facility will be substantially upgraded, as we move ahead.

 Our membership at present is limited. One of my hopes for the redesigned website, is that by making it more accessible to the web search engines (through the system of categories and tags, and some other technical means), we can attract new readers who are not at present CSCS members – but who may be drawn in by the website, and so sign up as members. Early indications are that we are indeed attracting at least some of these potential new members.

 To really male the most of these innovations, we need your help. Explore all the features described above – and use the opportunities for feedback, as comments to either the main pages, or to specific posts.

 I look forward to hearing from you, and of your responses.

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Editorial (Autumn 2012)

Anthony Woollard

It may seem strange that, when equal marriage, women bishops, and a renewal of the abortion debate are all on the public agenda, this editorial begins with domestic issues such as the CSCS website.  But we do have a new website, with a new address, thanks to the labours of Terry Weldon.    Since Terry has this year been elected to the Committee, we have a duty to our membership under charity law to record that the Committee has decided to pay him for this work, out of a donation given by a member, specifically for the purpose of website update, before the last AGM.

This is the culmination of a long history during which our website suffered, first from the illness of our former webmaster Phil Gardner – though many of the results of his work have contributed greatly to what we now offer – and then from a malware attack.  Recovering the situation has taken a great deal of work, which continues.  The new address is not yet public, and we need members to access it in due course (work will be ongoing for some weeks yet) and tell us what they think, before it is opened up to web searchers in general.

The website is key to our work for at least three reasons.

  • First, we need it to attract new members.
  • Second, it should form a point of reference for existing members about all aspects of our work.
  • Third, and perhaps not least, it is an outreach tool – offering to many who may never become members a source of information, comfort and challenge, in their personal pilgrimages and also in pastoral and academic work.

It is really important for us to get feedback on how far these purposes are fulfilled.  The subject-matter of our interests is right at the heart of the life of the Churches and the spirituality of their members, yet it is not easy to communicate this when there are so many other voices, conservative and liberal, addressing similar issues.  So please take a little time to give us that feedback.  Particularly we would welcome any views on the sort of “resources” to which we should draw visitors’ attention; at present this mainly comprises a rather outdated booklist, without classification or commentary, and we would warmly welcome suggestions for additions, deletions and other improvements.

But there is more to be said about our current activities.  CSCS is a little like Shakespeare’s “old mole”.  We work in the earth (though not always very fast) and only occasionally do the fruits of this work pop up above the surface.  One such occasion is our annual conference, which often attracts speakers of the greatest interest on topics of enormous importance, but, alas, rarely an audience of a worthy size.  Our most successful conferences have been those where we have worked with partners, such as the joint conference with Modern Church some six years ago, and, more recently, the local conference in Birmingham jointly with LGCM, Changing Attitude and others.  We have agreed with the transgender Christian organisation The Sibyls to hold a joint conference probably on 16 February 2013, and have invited several contributors from the transgender and related communities including Tina Beardsley.  Issues around gender identity and variance are coming to be of increasing importance in church life, both pastorally and theologically (see the recent work by Susannah Cornwall on intersex, which is also reflected in the work of Adrian Thatcher whose latest book is reviewed below – and Susannah will be with us at our conference too).   Such a conference should therefore be timely, and of interest well beyond the membership of the two organisations.  Perhaps readers know of clergy or other pastoral workers who would benefit from a day on the topic?  Who knows, it might even be relevant to bishops – if only because the idea of a spectrum of gender identities blows out of the water many of the arguments advanced in the women bishops debate.  More details of our February conference will be available over the winter.

 Our work with theological educators is also continuing, and we hope it will in due course also bear fruit in one or more conferences of a wider nature, and certainly in making available via the website some of the growing volume of resources on theological education and formation in the area of sexuality and gender.  If the clergy are not properly equipped in these areas, it is unlikely that the Churches as a whole will be.  Too often, such equipping is ad hoc.  The Church of England in particular has spent the past half-century or more wrestling with issues around the nature of marriage, from contraception, through divorce and remarriage – a particularly long and painful saga – to facing up to the fact of widespread cohabitation amongst couples who seek to be married in church (and others).  This has forced clergy and those who train and form them to ask questions about the very nature of (hetero)sexual relationships, probably not very systematically and with varying degrees of success.  Is the result a coherent theology of sexuality, or an uneasy linkage of old shibboleths and new pastoral realities?  Can it yet be said that those who lead our churches – who are human beings with as many sexual hang-ups as the rest of us – address any of these questions with real theological integrity?  If not, then there is still work to be done.

Those of us who do not belong to the LGBT community owe that community a considerable debt in developing Christian thinking about sexuality and gender in general.  This newsletter includes the sermon given at this year’s Pride service, which as will be clear is of much wider application.  (It is reported that at least one anti-Pride protester has been converted as a result of this year’s attendance.)  Such contributions from other groups, irrespective of the sexual and gender identities represented in them, are always welcome in this newsletter.  One such group is Modern Church, who sponsored the latest book by Adrian Thatcher which is reviewed below (and simultaneously in Modern Church’s own newsletter – so apologies to any who read it twice!)  But there are many other smaller groups and events in which members are involved, and we need to have more news from those.

Any voluntary society – particularly a very small one like CSCS – is only as good and as useful as its members.  We know there have been times when continuing membership has not been an obvious option for everyone.  We apologise to anyone who was affected by the recent brief blip in our charitable status, due to a series of accidents leading to a late Annual Return to the Charity Commission; this may have affected one or two people’s subscription payments.  Please bear with us.  It should be obvious from the above that we continue to do valuable work; but we depend on you.  And we are still looking for new Committee members, and, not least, a new editor for this newsletter.

Ecumenical World Pride Service, Bloomsbury Baptist Church, London, 7 July 2012Sermon by The Revd. Dr. Ruth Gouldbourne, Co-Minister, Bloomsbury Baptist Church

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Making Sense of Sex’, Reviewed by Jane Fraser


BOOK REVIEW: ‘Making Sense of Sex’, Adrian Thatcher

Jane Fraser

 Anyone who has ever felt they needed to leave behind their intellectual understanding and experience of sex on entering the Church’s portals will welcome this book which enables the Christian to do what the title says it does.

 As one would expect from Adrian Thatcher, he manages to present this thesis in a form that is both intellectually and theologically rigorous but which is so clearly written and presented that the intelligent lay person (or in my case, a not so academically minded cleric) can find it accessible and a pleasure to read. It also has the distinct advantage of being short (89 pages in all) and thus a boon to the busy.

 This is one of a series of ‘Making Sense of’ books produced by Modern Church in order to make available to Christians a liberal perspective on their faith. Thatcher very helpfully, therefore, starts by giving a brief discussion of theological sources and the character of Liberal Theology, outlining both what it is not as well as what it is and relating this to the theme of the book. This section is just one of what could almost be seen as stand-alone chapters for those with a specific, rather than a general, reason for picking up this book. For example, those engaged in marriage preparation – both the presenter and the participant – will find a feast of understanding of this sacrament in the chapter, ‘Making Sense of Marriage’.

Thatcher has managed to address the problem that many of us in CSCS are struggling with when he says,

The problem for Christian sexual ethics is that for many people on the fringe of or outside the Church, we have become besotted with sex, and the rows about homosexuality appear to be the final desperate attempts of a Church that has almost completely lost its influence to control what people choose to do with their lives.

He goes on to say that

Sexual desire can lead us away from God…. But (it) can lead us to God. It can drive us out of ourselves to seek connection with a beloved other, and in seeking and making this connection we may also connect with another beloved Other who infinitely desires us.

In this, he echoes much of what Jo Ind had to say in her lively discourse on sex in ‘Memories of Bliss: God, Sex, and Us’ (SCM Press, 2003). She, too, asserts that the core doctrine for Christians is one of love – of God, neighbour and self – and should lie at the heart of a Christian sexual ethic.

 Thatcher is also clear that

God has equipped us for joyful sex, not just reproductive sex.

This statement then becomes the key to his rejection of Christianity’s past repudiation of the body as sinful and thus needing to be controlled. On the contrary, he makes much of the act of sexual intercourse giving us an insight into the love of God. In particular, he examines the concept that the surrendering of the one to the other mirrors the communion of the three persons of the Trinity. Even more tellingly, when discussing the embodiment of love, he points us to Jesus’ establishment of the new covenant between God and humanity in the Eucharist where

Jesus holds nothing back. He gives us his body.

 There is also a feast of clear and unambiguous explanation of the origins of a great deal of the confused and erroneous statements made on the subject of sexual difference and homosexuality. He explains how the ancient world understood biological, gender and orientation difference and then leads us on to examine each of these in the light of modern understanding and thus to ‘good theology’ rather than ‘bad ideology’, concluding

“In the mystery of the Trinity, difference is not allowed to become distorted by allowing silly patterns of dominance and submission to ruin the Communion that God is.”

In making sense of homosexuality, he is likewise scathing of the traditionalist case that

is found to be theologically wanting, and a pastoral disaster.

He gives us a useful summary of the dialogue between two groups of theologians (traditionalists and liberal) on the topic of same-sex relations presented in the December 2011 edition of the journal Anglican Theological Review. Having found the liberal case a disappointment, (and the traditionalists’ case a disgrace!) he then enlightens us with an additional and illuminating critique from a liberal perspective.

 For me, the real ‘icing on the cake’ of this little gem of a book lies in Thatcher’s final section on the fruits of the Spirit, taking each – joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control to show how

Life in the Spirit elevates the bonding of shared love into a sacrament of mutual self-giving. It releases love (agape).

 We, as members of CSCS would echo his conclusion.

I long for the day when a robust faith in Christ and a joyful sex life are integrated together for all of God’s children who seek them, irrespective of their status, sex or orientation.”




Ecumenical World Pride Service, Bloomsbury Baptist Church, London, 7 July 2012.

Sermon – The Revd. Dr. Ruth Gouldbourne, Co-Minister, Bloomsbury Baptist Church

During this service, we have affirmed, with joy and delight that, in Jesus, we are accepted by God as who we are, LGBT or straight. And we have affirmed that this acceptance is God’s gift of love to us made flesh and blood in Jesus, and in this we rejoice and celebrate.

And we have confessed our failure to love whole-heartedly and without prejudice, and the times when we trip up and hurt others and damage our selves and spoil the world. And we can dare to do this because we are not caught up in confessing what is not sin – but that must not and does not blind us to what is sinful within us and among us – and the freedom and possibility into which we are released as we dare to trust the gift of forgiveness and the healing it brings.

And we have been challenged to think about just how we love – how far we dare to love, what limits we might want to put on our loving.

 And we have heard Scripture; love one another as I have loved you; words that echo and tease and question the roots of ourselves and leave us nowhere to hide.

 And it is all pretty huge and demanding and overwhelming.

 How do we do it? What would it look like, what shape can it take – and how on earth do we live it out in a world in which we are hated, attacked, condemned, questioned and looked at sideways. Loving, being loved is at the heart of why we are here; the right – the need, the call to love and be loved as we truly are is what the organisation is about. And in a few moments, we will share bread and wine – the gift of love beyond our imagining, our deserving, our capacity to name. And it is a call – a call to us to live in this love, to live out this love, to dare to name this love in ways that change the world.

 Sometimes it can be hard to listen to Paul – he can sound so black and white, so hard-edged and dogmatic. And at other times he can be so complex and his sentences can be so long that we are not really able to follow him, and the subtleties of his arguments can be lost without technical language and careful elucidation.

 And then he says this;

 Be kind.

 Be kind and compassionate to one another.

See, kindness we can manage. Kindness we can grasp. We know what it feels like, when somebody is kind. And we know – usually we know very clearly and without having to ask hard questions and study texts and take all the circumstances into account – what it takes to be kind; how to do it.

Be kind; it’s about paying attention to the other, it’s about meeting them. It’s about choosing to smile and not frown, it’s about picking up the dropped pen at work, and opening the door when the buggy is getting in the way and offering a steadying arm on the escalators and it’s about buying a cup of coffee when somebody’s wallet has been stolen and making the phone call when somebody is stranded and needs help finding a hotel room. It’s usually small, and it’s often practical, and it doesn’t take studying or justifying.

And it changes the world.  That’s what Paul says, anyway.

These verses we have heard come at the end of one of Paul’s powerful descriptions of how we are to live as the people of God; and indeed it is more than a list of instructions about how to do the  people of God thing. The section actually starts with these words a few verses earlier; put on the new self created to be like God – to live the life of God in true righteousness and holiness. And then he goes on to outline all that is to be put off as a result – anger and falsehood and stealing and bearing false witness – and sums the whole thing up with “Be kind”.

To be kind is to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

And just in case we were in any doubt, he goes on to make the link quite explicit; be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, as dearly loved children and live a life of love just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

To be kind is to live like Jesus, it is to live the life and love of God.

And that’s the way round that it is. Not – we must love like Jesus loves ands then we will be kind…. That gets back to being huge and unmanageable. Be kind and we are living like Jesus.

Now of course, Jesus didn’t go around like a wimp or a doormat; he turned the money changers out of the temple, he challenged the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, he was angry – or compassionate – it’s the same word – at the exclusion heaped on the leper who was so unsure of his place in the love of God that he almost didn’t dare ask for his health.  The kindness, the compassion of Jesus wasn’t acquiescent in the face of injustice and oppression. So this “be kind” isn’t about being compliant to injustice, prejudice, hatred and harm. Indeed, it is absolutely the opposite of that; kindness, compassion, forgiveness – this life of Jesus lived out through and among us – it is about a fullness of being human that is rich, accepting and transformative.

Kindness too often is seen as small, weak, feeble. The idea perhaps of turning the other cheek, not letting somebody get to you, being a doormat and putting up with it.

 But it is so far from that – at least in the gospels and in Paul’s description. Take that idea of turning the other cheek…

Strike you on the left cheek, turn the other cheek – demands treating as equal, acknowledging humanity and presence

Take your cloak, give him your shirt; in a culture where to cause another to be naked is to be shamed, this is about saying this is where your actions lead, this is the truth of what you are doing – but doing without diminishing or harming – and also without compromising or denying one-self.

Carrying a pack a second mile; the soldier can, by law demand a mile’s load bearing – but cannot, by law, demand more. So, going the extra mile is both kind – and challenging, exposing the oppression and denying its power.

All of these actions are kind; they do not damage or injure the other. But neither do they give into or condone oppression and hatred.  They are playful, teasing, questioning, opening up possibilities. Confrontational – possibly; but also kind. It doesn’t diminish the other, it doesn’t condemn or violate the other – and nor does it allow the other to remain caught into the domination system of prejudice and scapegoating. It confronts an oppressor with the reality of their position while at the same time undermining it.

It is fundamentally the position that Jesus adopted when confronted with those who tried to tell him who he was and how he should be; he refused their definitions, and challenged them to see him as he was – love for them. And when they killed him, he did not strike back. But nor did he stay dead. He was raised and he came to them, and continues to come to them – and to us, and says – I love you, and there is nothing that will change that.

And Paul says – be kind and compassionate; be imitators of God.

This is kindness, the action, the activity of love that comes not from anxiety to placate, nor anger to dominate and make the other like us; it is rooted, as Paul makes clear, in knowing who we are in Jesus. He did not allow the other to dominate, but neither did he try to force the other to be like him, to dominate the other, or justify, protect himself by obliterating the other. He was kind, out of love and strength, not fear or distress. And as he was to those around him, so he is today – to us and others. And so– we forgive because, as we are forgiven; forgiven not to carry on as we have been, but to live like God in true righteousness and holiness. The attitude – the actions – that we offer to others come out of who we are, not who others want us to be, or try to make us. It is rooted in the compassion we know we have received as those who are held in the love of God, forgiven, renewed and recreated to be the life of God in the world.

It isn’t easy of course. It isn’t just summed up in gentle deeds gently done. To be called to love as Jesus loves is to be called to a cross, as the gospel reading makes clear. But this is a cross that we can carry, we can bear, because it is not about killing who we are before God, but about daring to confront those around us with the truth we have heard, seen, touched and tasted, so that they too can become their new selves. And such a cross is not our death, but is resurrection.

Be kind. It is possible. It is manageable. It may even be playful. It is not so huge that it overwhelms us and sends us back into our safe secure place where we are in control. It is step by step, it is act by act, it is communion by communion. And it comes from knowing who we are – what we have affirmed through the service; those who are accepted, those who are forgiven, those who are challenged, those who are loved.

 Thanks be to God.

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