Jeremy Pemberton has been a priest since 1981 and has worked in the north of England, DR Congo and Cambridgeshire. He was an honorary canon of Ely Cathedral and is a canon of Boga Cathedral. Divorced, he has five children, and now lives and works in Nottinghamshire as a community healthcare chaplain and a lay clerk at Southwell Minster.
The Revd Paul Butler who sent a letter of support to the launch of FCAUK is soon to become the next bishop of Southwell and Nottingham.
Sunday 2nd August 2009, Trinity 8
Epistle: Ephesians 4:1-16
Gospel: John 6:24-35
I want to try and do, as Paul put it in our epistle, a little bit of speaking the truth in love this morning. I want to talk about sex and unity.
There – I thought that might get your attention! The reason I want to is that this epistle is a great call to the Church to live out her vocation in unity – and we live in a Church that is dangerously riven by disagreements. Paul is calling the Ephesians to living a worthy Christian life together – and the means to enable that are the unity of the Christian community and its generous sharing of the gifts it has been given by God. It is a wonderful picture of mutuality and generosity and of many being built up – an image of a rich diversity creating something true and beautiful for God. The church’s unity is to be preserved by humility, forbearance, gentleness, patience and love. Her strength will be shown by her ability to face and speak the truth as together her members grow up into Christ, the source and goal of her life.
Now that may be a vision rather than ever having been a reality. But what a contrast with the Church of England today! I don’t know how well you have been following the controversies of the past six or so years. They have all ostensibly been about the rights and wrongs of homosexual relationships, and particularly those of clergy. Two events triggered the present disagreements, which threaten the unity of not only the Anglican Communion, but to a certain extent the Church of England itself. In 2003 Dr Jeffrey John, then Canon Chancellor of Southwark Cathedral was nominated to the see of Reading – one of the suffragan bishops of Oxford Diocese. He was a gay man with a partner, with whom he now said he was in a celibate relationship. Storms of protest from prominent conservative clerics and laypeople focused on the facts that he was still in that relationship, did not repent of having had a sexually active one, and had written in support of permanent, faithful and stable gay partnerships. He withdrew his acceptance of the nomination – and is now Dean of St Alban’s Abbey.
In the USA, the voters of New Hampshire Diocese of the Episcopal Church elected as their bishop Canon Gene Robinson, a divorced father of two, who was now in a long-standing partnership with another man. The election of bishops in the Episcopal Church has to be confirmed by the other bishops giving their consent. In this case these consents were forthcoming – not least because the other bishops could not see any way in which the electoral process has not been followed scrupulously, and Canon Robinson was, as you know, consecrated.
There has been a huge international uproar over this – with conservatives from TEC joining with Primates from Africa, the Southern Cone, and East Asia, to condemn this action. Conferences and declarations in the intervening years have meant that the unity that Paul talks about in our letter is no longer a reality in the Anglican Communion, and as time goes on the divisions widen. In the US, a new ACNA has been founded by former Episcopalians – and they say that they are the true Anglicans and that TEC should be expelled from the Communion. A group holding similar views in England, the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, has been founded, to which our new diocesan bishop has given his support. But before I say any more about all this I want to say that I don’t think the Church of England does sex in general very well.
We live in a world where widespread virginity before marriage is a fairly distant memory – even for most Christian young people. Contraception, not least the pill, changed social attitudes for ever. Fear, a great motivator to chastity, has been removed. Lots of young people get married these days in their late twenties and early thirties, and most have had one or more quite long-term sexually active relationships before they met the person they now intend to marry. I can’t honestly remember the last time I saw a marriage application with two genuinely different addresses on the form. For many others, marriage seems an irrelevance and they never bother. Young and very young people are active in sexual relationships and as a consequence Nottingham, for example, has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe. Across this spectrum of sexual activity there is everything from the extremely casual to the entirely serious.
And what has the Church of England to say? Nothing but: get married! No one bothers much talking about living in sin any more – indeed, only last week a new liturgy was published (with some conservative grumblings) for a Wedding with the simultaneous Baptism of the couple’s children. That is certainly not criticising the fornication of the couple, even if is only a sideways on way of approving it.
Paul, writing to the Ephesians, places great emphasis on the ethical actions he wants the Ephesians to demonstrate: being loving, forbearing, and exercising humility and gentleness. Isn’t it time that we rethought our sexual ethics so that we placed a greater emphasis on the quality of the actions that people engage in and take some of the focus off the formal state they inhabit? In that way we encourage people towards responsibility, permanence, fidelity, even if they are not ready to marry yet, and away from exploitative and careless sexual behaviour. Don’t get me wrong – I am not wanting in any way to undermine marriage, which is undeniably a foundational structure for our society, and the best place for raising children. But if we can’t produce a more modulated sexual ethics, then we have nothing to say that will help lead young people towards marriage, and towards mature and generous and loving and forbearing sexual lives. Like the old anti-drugs campaign – Just Say No – just saying no to sex simply doesn’t work.
Again, what are we to say about the attitude of the Church towards homosexuality? There is no doubt that society has undergone a huge revolution in attitude towards this relatively small minority of the population. Since 1997 we have seen the repeal of Clause 28 banning the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools; the progressive equalisation of the age of consent; a raft of equality legislation which has made discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation illegal (with a few exemptions, including a religious one); and then in December 2005 the beginning of Civil Partnerships – a legal framework for gay and lesbian people which has almost all the rights and responsibilities of heterosexual marriage, and incidentally a measure against which our former diocesan bishop voted.
There has been a sea change in social attitudes as well. Gay people are more visible in the media, at work and so forth. No one has to like or approve of anyone else, but there is a general expectation of toleration of gay people that works itself out in our common life. It is much easier for men and women to acknowledge their sexual orientation to themselves and others as hostility and stigma have been removed. Of course, there is still a risk that some homosexuals will be assaulted and even killed simply for their sexual orientation, but that is thankfully becoming rarer. It is almost impossible to imagine that the Prime Minister’s wife would have marched in the London Gay Pride parade fifteen years ago, but it happened this year.
The church, meanwhile, is tearing itself apart over this very issue. The last substantial piece of teaching was eighteen years ago in 1991. The House of Bishops statement Issues in Human Sexuality said –
that what it called 'homophile' orientation and activity could not be endorsed by the Church. “…Heterosexuality and homosexuality are not equally congruous with the observed order of creation or with the insights of revelation as the Church engages with these in the light of her pastoral ministry.”
Nearly a generation on from that guidance the observed order of creation has revealed hundreds of species where a number of the creatures can and do regularly form homosexual partnerships. There is so little in Scripture about this whole area that enormous tomes have to written to uphold an interpretation of no more than six odd verses scattered about the Bible that would ban homosexual relationships entirely.
But society has moved on – and the walls have not fallen to the barbarians. Loving, committed homosexual partnerships (some of them formalised) are now more visibly all around us. Conservative theologians make great play of the promiscuity and fragility and shallowness of homosexual life, but, as with heterosexuality, it does not have to be, and in many cases, is not like this. And the worst of heterosexual behaviour and the worst of homosexual behaviour are rather worryingly similar. Is it not time to recognise the ethical goods that are evident in the best of these relationships – in the fidelity, mutual support, community engagement, hospitality and so forth that we can see in homosexual partnerships as in heterosexual? Are these things unblessed?
Moreover, the Church of England has managed to think and talk its way through to a new perspective over a question of sexual ethics, while maintaining its unity. That is precisely what we have done over the question of divorce.
When I was a young man there were no divorced clergy or bishops, divorced people could be and were refused the Holy Communion, and there was no thought that divorced people could be remarried in church. Marriage was once, for life, and any deviation from that standard was thought to threaten the whole institution. It is certainly the case that there is apparently substantial Scriptural backing for that position – where Jesus says that anyone divorcing, except under very prescribed circumstances, is committing adultery.
Very slowly and painfully, and with great attention to the pastoral difficulties that this policy was creating in a society with significant numbers of divorced people not only on the streets but also in the pews, the Church has revised its understanding of marriage, divorce and remarriage. There are now hardly any voices to be heard to say that the new policy is unbiblical and sinful, and quietly, up and down the land, divorced people are marrying for the second time in church. We have among us divorced and remarried bishops and clergy. So the transition, the revision of our sexual ethics, in a way that honours the Lord of the Scriptures and also the society in which we are asked to exercise our ministry and mission, can be done, and unity and charity in the church can be maintained.
Paul wanted an extraordinary quality of relationship – a unity that transcended their differences – to characterise the way the Christians of Ephesus grew together. No one is imagining, certainly not him, that this was easy. Forbearance is one of the qualities he singles out to achieve this, and humility and gentleness. We face a world of sexual living that is very very different to the world of fifty years ago. I wonder if it would be possible for the church to find a way to speak differently into this world and encourage the qualities of living that will lead people, heterosexual and homosexual alike, towards the fullness of life that God wants for them. But that is, perhaps, only possible if we exercise a forbearance, a gentleness and a humility that so far the official pronouncements of our church have been unable to get anywhere near.
Jesus said, in everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. Matt 7:12
May God give us grace to exercise gentleness and forbearance, and to welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us. Amen.