Thursday 28 October 2010

Lead us into all truth with words that take shape in our hearts

In 1975 when Canon Nigel Harley, then Rector of St Michael’s Basingstoke where I worshipped, asked me if I was going to be ordained, I had no idea whether I had a vocation or not. I thought about the question overnight, took a risk, and the next day asked Nigel to put my name forward. At each stage of the subsequent selection process I felt a greater conviction that what I was doing was absolutely the right thing.

I didn’t believe in the creeds as factual statements of truth, nor did I believe in the Bible with any greater degree of certainty, the Book of Common Prayer had always been a stumbling block liturgically and theologically and the 39 Articles were archaic. Nor did I have a more coherent or defined understanding of the Eucharist and a conviction about it’s efficacy. The level of my conviction about creeds, scripture and communion remained roughly as they had been formed in my teens and twenties, from reading Honest to God and allied books by Eric James and others, engaging with South Bank Religion, and learning from a holy incumbent and an innovative curate at my childhood church.

My relationship with the creeds, the BCP and the 39 Articles hasn’t grown any closer with the passage of time – quite the reverse. It has always been somewhat indifferent. Their influence on my Christian formation has been primarily negative. However, my relationship with scripture is renewed daily and my eyes continue to be opened and my heart and soul nourished and nurtured by the Bible. My relationship with the Eucharist remains ambivalent. I know it’s good for me to be there but it’s rarely an unalloyed spiritual pleasure – something to do with the words and theology of hymns, the tunes, clergy voices, sermon content, the disembodied, cerebral routine.

I have been formed by daily reading of the Bible, prayer and meditation and a largely intuitive, innate sense of what I’m about as a Christian, living the life without ever quite knowing where I was on the path. I was convinced of certain truths about what it means to be a Christian gleaned from the Bible and the pattern of Jesus, moving more deeply into a contemplative pattern of prayer, rooted in the body, in the present moment, infinite and intimate.

I live by intuition, by an innate sense of who God is calling me to be and become as a follower of the Way. My sexuality is formed in the same way, by intuition and an innate awareness, conviction, of who I am in Christ. Nothing the church teaches is ever going to get in the way of my conviction about the nature of God and the nature of my own sexuality. The church is so, so wrong about my gay identity. From my perspective it is also often wrong about the nature of God, creation and the spiritual life.

Dogmas, creedal formulations, approved liturgies, ‘orthodox’ biblical interpretation, none of these has really inspired my search for the God of love, truth, justice and a life lived towards God. I have been inspired in my life of prayer and by the holy, unorthodox, saintly people who have accompanied me on my journey.

And now I’m reaching a double crisis. The Anglican Communion’s inability to deal with my sexuality is intolerable. Christian (and Moslem) teaching and preaching about homosexuality affects millions of people across the globe, consigning them to lives of fear, hatred, self-doubt, depression, lies and lovelessness. Homophobia describes a global mental and emotional attitude of prejudice and fear of difference. I hate it because it is hate-full, and time is running out for the church because millions of LGBT people need to be freed, now, from the yoke of ignorance and oppression. I’m in crisis because my heart screams with pain for my brothers and sisters whose lives are made intolerable by religion.

The second crisis concerns the way in which the church constructs its identity around allegiance to dogmas and formularies, concepts of sin, guilt and judgement, concepts of God and God’s relationship with the world and creation. We are still so incredibly obsessed by law rather than grace and by rules of belonging. We are tribal, literal in our beliefs, failing to respond to the potentially liberating insights of scientific research and discovery, spiritual renewal and global imagination.

I’m not going to explain this very well, but the God who encounters me and who I encounter in Jesus of Nazareth continues to be trapped by a failure of imagination and courage in the church – and I know it will always be so – that’s the nature of institutions and human systems. But we live at a time when people’s perspectives and imaginations are being transformed by new discoveries. They know there is more to life, to being fully alive and spiritual, than either secular agencies or the churches offer.

The church has become a battleground not just around the issue of human sexuality but for the survival of my integrity and my innate spirituality and faith. I don’t believe for one moment that God is concerned about our conformity to rules and dogmas, creeds and doctrinal formulations that define individual denominations and congregations. What I yearn towards is my immersion in the infinite, divine energy of love, goodness, truth, creativity and justice. Against this there is no law.

The trustees of Changing Attitude meet this weekend for a 3 day residential near York. Reflecting on our faith and spirituality, on the authenticity of our Christian lives and on our dynamic encounter with God which fuels our campaign for justice for LGBT people will occupy much of our time together. Next week I may be able to develop this theme further, with more insight into my own soul and greater clarity about how the Spirit is speaking to the churches.

Colin Coward

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  1. Anonymous continues to be a prolific poster of comments, often the first to each new blog. His comment on this post is that my “identity is to be a man and to be a treasured son of the Most High God. His love for you means that His strength within you to resist the behaviors that are outside of his will. God's provision for the expression of sexuality is within male-female marriage and you don't have to be a slave to any creedal formulation to accept that. I'd be careful of any assurances to the contrary from any of these trustees, remembering that homosexuality has now become self-delusion as a group effort.”

    Many of you will be familiar with this version of reality. It isn’t mine, and I am not beholden to it, and it would be tedious to post comments in the same vein from anonymous. We have very different experiences of God, paths of faith, and understandings of human sexuality. I don’t post his or her comments because they are obsessive and abusive to those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender Christians, people of deep faith and prayerfulness.

    I do read your comments, anonymous. It's just that I profoundly disagree with you and I'm not subjecting other followers of this blog to your partisan obsession.

  2. I agree with all you say. I am convinced more and more by Karl Rahner's assertion that unless Christianity re-discovers mysticism and contemplation in this century it will die out (or words to that effect), and the voices of people like James Alison and Richard Rohr who point in the same direction.

    James Alison is particularly helpful because he shows how we do not have to be caught up in the church battles. We can remain in the church, we can even remain activists, but emotionally, we can free ourselves from this counterproductive and co-dependent "you're wrong" "no, you're wrong" spiral that ends in an emotional wasteland.