Inclusive Church Sunday 2013

Today is the first Inclusive Church Sunday.  As a Church we are very involved in Inclusive Church and are very committed to its cause.  However, as as a white married man I have been asked by several people (including more than one Bishop!) why this maters to me.  So I hope you will forgive my self indulgence of explaining why it matters.

My story in brief: 
I was brought up as a Baptist in Northern Ireland.  I was a Protestant, lived in a Protestant area, I went to a Protestant school.  In the Protestant world the most obvious form of exclusion was of Roman Catholics.  (In Northern Ireland both communities feel like the persecuted minority: Catholics are the minority in Northern Ireland, Protestants the minority in Ireland as a whole.  Seeing a first had the result of fear and suspicion was how I grew up…)  
So I started my spiritual journey as a Baptist, then I left the church for a while, before getting involved in a Pentecostal Church.  The forms of exclusion at work here were obvious: people who smoked, drank, used bad language or slept around were excluded…  (I must also add that women were excluded from from leadership, as were the divorced, gay men and lesbians… but remember I was a teenager… so it was the drinking and sleeping around that attracted my attention…)
I never understood Christian teetotalism – after all Jesus turned water into wine, and the one act of worship Jesus gave us involves sharing wine… I also never understood swearing – why one word for sex or genitalia is allowed and one is not… I also read the Bible a lot at this time and I found that the bible was concerned with justice, with usury and gluttony, and none of these seemed to get a mention…
Then while I dithered about what I wanted to do with my life I spent  year working for Scripture Union in Zimbabwe.  Here I encountered issues of race – I was the minority (but also the uber-privileged).  I lived in a huge township called Mkobo, just outside Gweru, where I was the only white person – people were amazingly friendly, but I was always a novelty…  I couldn’t have a single conversation for more than two minutes without the subject of how different I was coming in to it…
Then I studied theology at Kings College London.  I hadn’t thought much about issues of sexuality up to this point, but I ended up sharing a house with several people, including three gay men, two of whom were called to the ordained ministry, and I saw their difficulties as they approached a homophobic institution.
Yet at this time I became an Anglican.  I became an Anglican because of the diversity of the Anglican Church.  It contains both Protestant and Catholic spirituality, it contains both liberal and conservative theology, it contains different races, different social classes, and many other forms of difference…

I felt that the Church of England had been conservative on issues of gender politics and sexuality, but so had society as a whole, and like society as a whole the Church was changing.

But then came the scandal of a good and holy man called Jeffrey John being forced to resign as Bishop of Reading because of his sexuality.

As a result Inclusive Church was born on 11th August 2003 at St Mary’s Putney, at a Eucharist attended by over 400 people. 

An on-line Petition was set up requesting assent to the following Declaration of Belief:

 “We affirm that the Church’s mission, in obedience to Holy Scripture, is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in every generation.
We acknowledge that this is Good News for people regardless of their sex, race or sexual orientation.
We believe that, in order to strengthen the Gospel’s proclamation of justice to the world, and for the greater glory of God, the Church’s own common life must be justly ordered.
To that end, we call on our Church to live out the promise of the Gospel; to celebrate the diverse gifts of all members of the body of Christ; and in the ordering of our common life to open the ministries of deacon, priest and bishop to those so called to serve by God, regardless of their sex, race or sexual orientation”

I believe that “being inclusive” has nothing whatsoever to do with being ‘politically correct’ or ‘feminist’ or ‘left wing’ – it has everything to do with living out the Gospel.  There shouldn’t have to be an organisation called “inclusive church” because to be the church should necessarily mean we are inclusive.

As this morning’s Gospel Reading made clear, Jesus whole ministry is about including the outcast, and it’s a theme throughout Jesus’ ministry: 

  • Jesus speaks to woman as equals
  • He accepts Zachaeus and Matthew the collaberating tax collectors
  • He accepts Simon the revolutionary zealot
  • He invites the rough, uneducated fisherman to follow 
  • He accepts and befriends prostitutes
  • He ministers to a Roman Centurian
  • He ministers to slaves and servants
  • He embraces lepers
  • He helps the ‘demon possessed’

So why do we need inclusive church?  Why do we have to argue for what many of us see as the bleedin‘ obvious? Because the Church, the institution that hands these stories down, has so often got it wrong.

The church’s mission is to bring people closer to God. But all too often we see ourselves as ‘gatekeepers’ and ‘guardians’ who keep certain individuals out, rather than the prophets and priests that bring Christ out to everyone.

When I was training at Ripon College Cuddesdon we were told that he motto of the college used to be “guard he deposit” – but the motto had fallen from use, and the only place the archivist could find it inscribed was on an old college bed pan.  (Don’t think about that too much!). 

But our job is not to guard, but to proclaim.  This lager mentality, of circling the wagons, and refusing to engage with the best of secular thinking, is what allows outdated prejudices to flourish, and could kill the church…

Inclusion is the Gospel.  The Good news is that every one of us is invited to live in God’s kingdom.

Jesus said: “Come onto me all who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  Jesus did not say “Come onto me you heterosexual people (and men only if you are interested in the episcopate…)”

“Come onto me all who are heavy laden…”  “all

Jesus “all” goes beyond the superficial boundaries of gender, sexuality, ethnicity & social class…

Yet so often the Church of England has become a straight, white gentleman’s club.

This does involve a change in our thinking, because the Church, for most of its history, has condemned homosexuality, and denied women leadership roles.  We can argue that the church tradition has not been quite as uniformly sexist and homophobic as most people imagine, but we could not say the church has ‘led the way’ in these issues.

The Church has a long tradition of homophobia, just like it has a long tradition of anti-semitism.  I think if we want to see how the church can turn around, a good example is how we have changed is the Christian approach to slavery.

For most of the Church’s history it accepted slavery.  The Bible allows slavery – we must be fair to our slaves, says Scripture, but slavery is explicitly allowed.

“Slavery was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilisation, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.”
So said Jefferson Davis, President, Confederate States of America

But the Church was able to see beyond the letter of Scripture to the spirit

The spirit that showed that all people are created in God’s image, that human life is of infinite value, and taking that to its logical conclusion, slavery, buying and selling God’s children, is an affront too their creator.  And now no sane Christian would see slavery as anything other than an evil, a grave sin…

Equality on the basis of gender and sexuality is legally enshrined – the Church’s position on this looks like we are still accepting slavery.  At best we look laughably out of date, at worst we  are seen as a force for evil…

Homophobia is still out there in society- but so is racism, and just like racism, it is seen as a moral evil.  Except in the Church!

This argument is long won.  What Inclusive Church is campaigning for is not simply inclusion, it is the future of the church.  Holding homophobic views is is not just toxic to our common life, it is toxic to the survival of the institution (it is toxic publicity).  To the general public not have women or gay bishops is no different to refusing to have black bishops.  And if I am honest I think the comparison is a good one…

A Bible story to help us see how to deal with this:  The Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13):

 24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
   27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
   28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
   “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
   29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

At first I used this passage to argue that we should not try and remove gay and lesbian clergy from ministry or hinder their progression to high office in the Church.  But no, this parable is the one I tell myself to check my rage against the homophobia and prejudice I see in the Church, from the House of Bishops and many others…  I can’t understand how some prejudiced attitudes could be described as ‘Christian’ or how exclusive practices could have anything to do with following Christ.  But we let God be the judge.

Our message to the institution is:

Isaiah 54.2
  “Enlarge the place of your tent,

    stretch your tent curtains wide, 
   do not hold back; 
   lengthen your cords, 
   strengthen your stakes.

God’s Kingdom already stretches out beyond the boundaries of the Church, we must now run to catch up.

Mary, Martha and the Good Samaritan

Luke 10.38-42

38 Now as Jesus and his disciples went on their way,  he entered a certain village,  where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary,  who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks;  so she came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care  that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her then to help me.’ 41 But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part,  which will not be taken away from her.’

Image

The story of Mary and Martha is a story for our time.  Martha is highly motivated.  Jesus is coming – the house must be tidy and clean, the silver service has to be buffed up, the butter-roasted guinea fowl needs preparing, a suitable desert wine must be chosen to go with the Chocolate and chilli pudding with coconut sorbet.

Maybe not quite how it was – but you get the idea of a lot of effort going into hosting by Martha, in contrast to Mary sitting down to relax with Jesus.

Our culture values effort hard work above almost all else.  I think we perhaps value that false God of success most of all, but I believe that the harder people work the more valuable they are seen to be.  Martha has a lot to do, she wants to please Jesus by getting all the important jobs done.  Her efforts seem highly commendable.  Most, if not all, of us gathered here this morning would do the same.

Jesus attitude to Mary and Martha must always come as a shock to us busy Christians.  Mary gains her Lord’s approval by just siting and listening.

Although we must not be too hard on poor Martha, we need to see this story in context.  Last week we heard the passage immediately before this one: the story of the Good Samaritan.  In that story the Priest and the Levite are holy and spiritual, but they walk on by on the other side of the road; the Samaritan, who was religiously in error, a heretic in the eyes of Jesus and his disciples, the Samaritan does the right thing before God by caring for the wounded man by the road side.

We need to see the Good Samaritan and this passage as part of the same story, as creating a bigger picture.  Jesus does not say it is all about work, nor does he say it is all about ‘spending time with Jesus’ – its both/and not either/or.

If our spirituality is all about sitting at Jesus feet like Mary, we can become self-indulgent, a faith that is no more than our own therapy.

If our spirituality is all about work like Martha, we end up acting out of a sense of duty – and, like Martha, we end up begrudging our labours.  We have all been helped by people who end up making us feel much worse – often this is because our helper is suffering from Martha-syndrome.

What we do for the church and for God should not come from a sense of duty, but from a sense of love.  If we are working from duty we may need to take a step back and spend some time, like Mary, sitting with Jesus (metaphorically) to try and remember why we are here…

Trying to get the balance as a church and as individuals is not as easy as it sounds.  It requires life-long commitment, self-examination and effort.

As a church we have been doing some self-examination, starting at our Annual Meeting and carrying on through Margaret’s list of priorities that many of you circled.

In order to carry forward these priorities we all need to play a part.  Studies show that between 80 and 90 % of people who come to a service for the first time do so because someone personally invited them.

I think we are not very good at this and we are missing out because as well-meaning liberals we don’t like to ‘evangelise’ we don’t believe that our faith makes us better than anyone else, so we don’t like to be holier-than-thou.

But the simple truth is that unless liberal Christians are prepared to tell people that our faith gives us life / inspiration / strength / joy (whatever it is that our faith gives us) then all the outreach will be left to the crazy fundamentalists.

As a church we are small, and that’s OK – it’s easy to get to know everybody and we don’t get lost in the crowd.  Except… we do a huge amount in our local community with ESOL and the Wash House and Lewcas (and if you don’t know what these are, come along tomorrow night at 7.30 and you can find out!) but we could do so, so much more with a few more people.

What we have here is good.  It’s a good community, doing good things, it is simply selfish not to share it with our neighbours and friends.

In September we will be setting up a group to put our priorities for outreach into action.  We are looking for volunteers…  It’s not simply yet another committee it will not be a ‘talking shop’ but a group of people prepared to roll up their metaphorical sleeves.  For example be on a rota to look after newcomers (and oldcomers) if they are on their own at coffee time after church or help them with the vast piles of hymn books and sheets of paper that are sometimes given out…  Or to look out for people who have stopped attending – not to chase after them, but to make sure they are alright.  Or to produce and deliver a regular newsletter to help our communication… We have had lots more suggestions involving everything from sharing meals to knocking on doors in the Blackheath Hill development, giving our Children birthday cards and baptism anniversary cards…

But for all this to happen we need you.

All this is exciting, and it’s things that we should be doing, its our responsibility as Christians to reach outside our walls…

But we actually have no choice in the matter.  All charities are suffering in the current financial crisis, and the church is no different.  The diocese has to cut clergy jobs, and it is the smallest churches that will have their clergy cut first!

I don’t want to be alarmist, but our future is not guaranteed.

I believe we can double the number attending this church.  We could do that in less than a year if everyone here pulls their weight to the full.

A handful of mostly illiterate disciples turned the world upside down, we could transform ourselves from a small, slightly struggling church into a thriving, bustling church helping our community and providing a place for reflection and faith for everyone.

But there is more to this passage than just this powerful message.

Looking at the Gospels from our early 21st century perspective we loose much of the power of the events and teachings recorded.  Mary sits at Jesus feet – ‘so what?’ we may ask.  For the story to regain its full impact we must imagine the culture in which Jesus lived and moved.  A culture in which Jesus attitude to Mary was revolutionary.

In Jewish culture, the picture of someone sitting at the feet of another and listening would conjure up the image of a student sitting at the feet of a Rabbi to learn the faith.  (In much the same way that people sat in rows of desks listening to someone talk at a chalk-board would conjure to us a image of school or college.)  But the important thing for us to remember is that in Jesus time a woman could never, ever become the pupil of a Rabbi.  The legal status of women in Jesus time was that of property.  Either the property of their parents or relatives, or the property of their husband.  The Hebrew Scriptures are full of Laws to protect women, especially when widowed (when women had no one to look after, or own, them they were in real trouble).  The Scriptures have many Laws to protect orphans, strangers, and widows.

The Law may have offered protection, but the bottom line was that women were property.   And it was seen as a waste of time to educate women.  A Rabbi would never take a woman pupil.  So it would have been a strange sight indeed, to have a woman sitting at the feet of a renowned teacher.

We can imagine Martha’s rage.  There is work to be done, and Mary is not only failing to pull her weight, she is behaving extremely foolishly, and by daring to sit like a disciple, she is behaving scandalously.

Martha is rushing around trying to make this visit as great an occasion as possible, and Mary is being outrageous.  She has ideas above her station.

Do we dare to confound expectation and be daring for our faith?

That is our challenge, to transform our lives and our church and our community by being prepared to learn from Jesus and then to act.

Amen.

Mary Magdalene – a sermon by Margaret Offerman

Mary Magdalene, was one of Jesus’s most celebrated disciples, and the most important female disciple in the Jesus movement. Luke’s gospel in chapter 8 tells us: He made his way through towns and villages , preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. With him went the Twelve as well as certain women – Mary of Magdala, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Suzanna and several others who provided for them out of their own resources. Mary Magdalene became Jesus’s close friend and most prominent during his last days, at the cross and at his burial. She was the first person to see the post-Easter Jesus according to both John and Mark .

But the Mary Magdalene that lives in our memories is quite different from this wealthy woman disciple. In art, she’s often semi-naked, or wearing low-cut, voluptuous clothes. Her primary link with Jesus is as the woman washing and anointing his feet. Traditon casts her as a prostitute.

The whole story of Mary as a prostitute, who is a sinner and forgiven, is a very powerful image of redemption, a signal that no matter how low a woman has fallen, she can be redeemed.

Powerful as this image may be, it is not the story of Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is mentioned in each of the four gospels, but not once do the writers mention that she was a prostitute. At some point Mary Magdalene became confused with two other women in the Bible: Mary, the sister of Martha, and the unnamed sinner from chapter 7 of Luke’s gospel both of whom dry Jesus’ feet with their hair. In the 6th Century, Pope Gregory the Great made the prostitute story official by declaring in a sermon that these three characters were actually the same person: Mary Magdalene, repentant sinner and saint. The Catholic Church did later declare that Mary Magdalene was not the penitent sinner, but this was not until 1969. After so long the reputation was entrenched, particularly in art.

Mary the mother of Jesus is cast as demure, self-effacing, virginal, distraught witness of the death of her son, never the robust champion of justice for the poor and oppressed, the Mary of the Magnificat. In the same way Mary Magdalene has become a symbol of wanton sexuality finally brought to see the error of her ways, rather than the first person to recognise that death had not vanquished her friend and her leader. I’m not aware of any painting that shows Mary Magdalene throwing her dignity to the winds and sprinting back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples that she had seen the lord.

Why has church tradition treated these women as stereotypes? Why did the church disregard the biblical record of the lives of these women? And why today in the governing hierarchy of the church are women seen as a problem? How can opponents of the consecration of women bishops talk of women as a source of taint?

We see the word ‘taint’ used quite frequently eg in reports of business dealings which have been tainted by corruption. G4S was described last week as being tainted by arrogance and incompetence. It’s a word associated with evil or immorality. To suggest that a Christian congregation should be protected from the taint of a woman is deeply shocking.

It was fortunate for the church that the news headlines two weeks ago were all about the chance that Andy Murray could win the Winbledon singles title. Otherwise, some journalist at a loose end might have unpicked the amendment clause that caused such a furore at the General Synod. The original proposal was to legislate for full female bishops, but on the understanding that they would agree to stand aside and allow a man to step in and perform duties where particular congregations objected, and thereby avoid a split or an unpleasant scene. This appeasement proposal was agreed by 42 out of 44 dioceses through their diocesan synods. But the amendment includes the right of any male bishop to declare he will not ordain women as bishops and priests, thereby keeping himself unsullied by women.

It’s this provision that introduces the idea of ‘taint’: that anyone who ordains women as priests or bishops is ‘tainted’ by those actions and therefore unacceptable to those opposed. It endorses in law the principle that for many of those opposed it’s not sufficient to have the ministry of a male rather than a female bishop, but that the only acceptable bishops are those who have kept themselves apart from their episcopal colleagues in not ordaining women as priests or bishops. This is a powerful declaration of separation.

What are we saying to the world at large about our church? And how can we proclaim the gospel to all nations, as Jesus did in the towns and villages with the Twelve and the women if we have misogny and inequality at our core?

The same specious reasons are paraded by the opponents of women bishops as have been used for decades. Jesus’s chosen Twelve were male apostles. So they were. They were also Jews. They would all have been circumsized. Several were fishermen. How many of these criteria must we apply when selecting our minsters? There was an MP once who stood up in the House of Commons and said that he was aware that everything that could conceivably be said on the subject of the debate had already been said many times, but not by him. How long are we going to hear opinions that ceased to be valid centuries ago endlessly repeated as if they were revelations of the divine will?

The debate in the Synod was adjourned a fortnight ago but there is no guarantee that the amendment, if it’s reintroduced, won’t succeed in the autumn. So we must carry on presenting our view of what is right for our church and our world, in the name of integrity and justice for women and men.

When Mary Magdalen encountered the gardener on the resurrection morning, he addressed her as ‘woman’, though he clearly knew her name. When his mother asked him for help at the wedding at Cana, Jesus called her ‘woman’. He must surely have known her name and her relationship to him. We heard the story of Jairus’s daughter a few weeks ago. When Jesus went into the bedroom of this unconscious child he addressed her as ‘little girl’. I think the gospel writers want us to realise that Jesus, a product of his own time, was nevertheless keen to assert that he saw the human dignity in women and girl children as naturally as he saw it in men. Women and little girls stood very low in the social hierarchy of Jesus’s day, below men and boys but above slaves. But Jesus defied the social conventions and when he talked to Mary Magdalen and Mary his mother and Jairus’s daughter, he did so as if they represented and affirmed the female sex.

If Jesus could do it, surely the church can do the same.

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