Courageous Conversations

Sermon Datchworth and Tewin Lent 2017

 Our theme this week, in the series of values that we are looking at in our Lent course and reflections, is that of courage. It can come in many forms; courage in the face of danger, courage in the face of illness, courage in the face of death, but this morning, in the light of issues which are being discussed in the Church of England, I wanted to talk a little about the quiet, hidden, courage that has been going on in the background for the last two years – in what has been known as Shared conversations.

 Incase you are unsure what this relates to, let me just cover a little bit of background.

 For over 20 years, the Church of England and wider Anglican churches, have been wrestling with issues of human sexuality – in particular, what it means to be gay and a Christian.

There are many varying views – and my guess is, that if you were brought up in the church, like me, then you would have been very familiar with the views that hold that same-sex relationships are not on a par with heterosexual relationships, and that celibacy was the only option for a member of the lesbian and gay community, should they wish to be a faithful Christian. Indeed, that may still be your view – and will be still be the teaching in some churches.

 But of course, it’s not the only view and the Church of England, is, as we know, a broad church, and so we have an ongoing struggle between those who want the church to fully affirm LGBT relationships, and to end any form of discrimination in terms of marriage or blessing or ordination, and those who believe that Scripture is clear that anything outside of a heterosexual relationship cannot be blessed by God.

Yet little in Scripture is as clear as is sometimes claimed. Whether we admit it or not, we are always sifting the instructions and standards that are set, balancing them with our own experience, knowledge and reason. The same set of laws that forbids homosexuality in the book of Leviticus also banns tattoos and the weaving of two different cloths (any of you wearing nylon today, are breaking those rules). So we do need to ask, why some laws are easy to be ignored and others we claim to be immutable? Yes, it will be right that some commands carry greater weight, but we must be conscious and honest of the process we go through to discern which ones.

 The context of Scripture, its cultural background, has allowed us to move in a different direction before. For example slavery has been recognized as a moral wrong, even though St Paul, in the letter to Philemon, seems to condone it. Women no longer have to cover their heads and be quiet, despite instruction in 1 Corinthians. Divorced couples can be offered the compassion of second chances, with Jesus’ pattern of forgiveness given more weight than his few recorded words about divorce in Luke’s gospel.

And we might remember that Jesus says nothing, at all, about gay relationships. Nothing. But he does say a lot about wealth, and what we should do with it. It’s funny how Christians don’t often get so hung up on that.
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 But the church is in a difficult place and the church does have differing views. And it’s made more complex by recognizing that we are part of the wider Anglican Communion – with our own Archbishop Justin being a focal point of unity, with that communion having church communities in every continent – in very different cultural contexts, where a change in teaching in one church, does impact on the lives of others. And so in the light of this – and I guess in the light of the move of our culture where LGBT rights have much greater recognition, and where the marriage bill now allows same-sex marriage not only in civil ceremonies, but also in churches of other denominations if they so wish (but currently not on the Church of England) – Justin Welby had set up these “Shared conversations’ as they have been known.

 In these Christians with differing views have been engaged in listening to one another. In small groups LGBT Christians have spoken to those with traditional views on sexuality. Perhaps telling their story of what it has been like for them, being gay or transgender. Perhaps what it has felt like for them, in churches where they have not been welcome. Perhaps what it has been like to be rejected by family or church leaders. What it means to them to be a Christian. What it is about Jesus that has been life-giving. Perhaps about the bible and what it tells them about love.

And then those who hold views that are different to these, also speak about what is important to them. Perhaps about the desire to be faithful, about their understanding of Scripture, perhaps about fears of change.

 And I say ‘perhaps’ a lot, because truth be told, we don’t know the exact content of those conversations. They have deliberately been done behind closed doors, in secret, with those who have taken part, heeding the instruction not to speak others about the details.

 It’s been quite counter-cultural. So much of life is about argument, winning sides, spinning the truth, trying to gain supporters. The church too can be as infected with that as any part of society. But what the Archbishop wanted was conversations that were about listening and not about winning. People were not speaking to one another in order to change their minds, but simply to sit face to face with those with whom they disagreed – and to listen. To try to gain insight and understanding about their experience, their hopes, their fears, their pain. It was important conversations were kept private, in order that people could be deeply honest. And it was important that the conversations were not broadcast, in order to remove this from the shallow world of sensationalist headlines, which often trample harshly over the complexity of each human story.

 This week, at Deanery Synod – our local gathering of church representatives from Welwyn/Hatfield, we heard from Tim Flemming – who was part of those shared conversations. I’ve heard him speak before about them too. And what he talks of, without going into details of what was shared, was despite the absolute vastness of the spectrums of belief and desire in his group – each time they met he encountered genuine, respectful, sincere listening from each member.

 As we think about courage – I think these conversations have been a sign of courage at work in the church – Courage to speak to those with whom you profoundly disagree. Courage to listen to their pain, and realise that maybe you have a part in that. Courage to open yourself up completely, to be honest in front of strangers and friends, about who you are, when you know that may well cause judgement (and I’m talking about each person of every perspective having to show a vulnerability). And courage to stick with a church, where there are emotively different views than your own, and not to walk away. Because that takes courage.

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Our gospel reading today, has shown us an encounter where all those things occur. Two people with differing theologies and outlooks talk to each other. One is Jesus, and one a Samaritan woman. Jesus, yet again, breaks the respectable religious norms of the day by approaching her and asking for a drink. She, already knowing judgement and rejection it seems because of her many relationships with men, takes a risk, by engaging in conversation with this Jew.

But Jesus has a knack of seeing people for who they really are. And as he tells her, of her past, we might note there is no judgement in what he says – just a sign that he knows her fully – and still invites her to know him. To know his life.  And then the story ends, with courage, as well, as this woman, used to rejection, but now touched with the acceptance of Jesus, flings herself back down to the village to share with others the good news of this man, with whom she did not need to deny any part of herself.

 The church, as yet, does not have such a neat ending. But there was a final act of courage following these conversations. After the conversations ended, the Bishops put together a report on where the church had got to in terms of moving forward with these differing views. Except that when those involved in the conversations and debates at Synod read it, many felt let down, (again that is on both sides) that their voices had been encouraged to speak out, but somehow had been ignored in what had been written. General Synod, you may well have read, failed to officially take note, accept, the report. In what was unprecedented, the Archbishops immediately drafted a letter, which said they had not got it right and would think again.

May we all, no matter what side of this debate that we sit, have the courage to listen to those who think differently to us, to see others with the love that Jesus sees them – and to keep seeking truth, acknowledging that sometimes we, like Archbishops, may need to think again.

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