Is Justin Welby’s evangelical faith ready to transform the Church and the experience of LGB&T Christians?

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the all-glorious Father, may confer on you the spiritual gifts of wisdom and vision, with the knowledge of him that they bring. I pray that your inward eyes may be enlightened, so that you may know what is the hope to which he calls you, how rich and glorious is the share he offers you among his people in their inheritance, and how vast are the resources of his power open to us who have faith.

He put all things in subjection beneath his feet, and gave himself as head over all things to the church which is his body, the fullness of him who is filling the universe in all its parts.

Ephesians 1.17-19, 22-23

I wrote most of this blog early this morning before reading the verses from Ephesians in today’s lectionary. One question had been at the back of my mind, is permanently at the back of my mind, a question I rarely speak out. Do the belief systems and dogmas of other Christians do damage to me as a gay man? How do other constructs of faith (because that, for all of us, is what they are – chosen or inherited constructs of faith), how do they diminish my capacity to live life in all its fullness, the rich and glorious life which is our inheritance, mine as well as theirs? How do they diminish my freedom to be the person who, in my healthy core, I know with a deep awareness God has created me to be?

Which for me means, how do other people’s and Christian groups belief systems, their dogmas, their allegiance to a set of biblical and historical ideas and teaching, result in me being treated less graciously, with less than full dignity and respect, which is the rightful inheritance in Christ of us all? Other groups of people are faced with the same question – women, racial and ethnic groups, people living with disabilities – well, maybe ALL groups or sets of people are faced with this universal question – why am I not treated with respect fee from intolerance or judgement?

This thought arose when earlier this morning the memory of a dire experience of “attending” a church service recently floated into my consciousness. The service left me feeling despair, wondering why people go to church and tolerate or endure such dire qualities of preaching and the conduct of worship. I escaped as quickly as I could at the end of the service.

This led me to a further reflection, another thought I have all the time but I rarely articulate. “Attending” church or being a “member” of a congregation doesn’t seem to inspire people to transformation of life, to inward enlightenment. Of course, “going to church” and “belonging to a church” can result in positive qualities and experiences and values. But what people are fed in church are often attitudes and ideas that impact on me in negative ways as a gay man.

“Going to church” (all the phrases that come to mind are too passive) doesn’t necessarily transform people in an ‘Ephesians’ way because the imagination of those leading worship and preaching and teaching isn’t inspired in their core by experiences of the divine, holy God of Jesus the Christ which break open conventions and the adherence to “our set of traditions” so that people are liberated to flourish and grow through the whole of their lives and a whole-life experience.

On the contrary, from my experience, I know that Christian worship is often complacent, reinforcing tradition, focussed on maintenance and survival, bums on pews, money on the plate, rather than the redeeming, liberating power of being born anew in the Holy Spirit into the resurrection energy of Christ. (And a danger here is to think emotionalism equates with this experience – I’m writing about something far deeper and more disturbing)

I don’t think that what I’m trying to describe has been researched. Maybe it’s impossible to research because as I know from experience, it’s hard to talk about and describe to other people, the feelings, ideas, insights, intuitions, that can flow when, in stillness, silence and open-hearted contemplation you open yourself to the infinitely loving presence of the living God. In that space, resistance melts, dogma becomes irrelevant, and deep truth seems to grasp awareness. This is something Francis Spufford writes about in the first chapter of his book Awareness.

Now, the next question that comes to mind is, is this something that very few people can experience or is it potentially at least universal? Is it only experienced by the few because those in the Church responsible for introducing people to faith and teaching them to follow the way of Jesus Christ haven’t sufficiently experienced God’s transforming presence themselves? I suspect the answer is yes, based on 55 years of post-adolescent experience of the Church.

Changing attitudes about people’s experiences of God is, I believe, fundamental to Changing Attitude’s goal of changing Christian teaching and attitudes toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. How can the Church overcome negative teaching and beliefs about LGB&T people unless it first sees that God has created us, all of us in our sexual and gender differences, loves us, blesses us (and our relationships), rejoices in our lives – and doesn’t expect us to conform to constricting teaching which leads to abuse and worse because of seven biblical passages and one set of interpretations of Genesis about gender complementarity and God’s plan for all of us in marriage.

I have been musing about these ideas in advance of a meeting on Thursday between the Archbishop of Canterbury and six members of the LGB&T Anglican Coalition. I am one of the members participating in the conversation. In my heart and soul my thoughts and questions have an insistent urgency. But how to describe something so personal and universal in an hour long conversation conducted in formal circumstances and appropriate protocol? Whatever the content of the conversation, I won’t be reporting it. The conversation will be confidential.

Perhaps a member of the Lambeth Palace staff will read this and bring it to Justin Welby’s attention before the meeting. Perhaps he will read it himself, being a man connected online, unlike his predecessor. I know many LGB&T people, our colleagues, friends, partners, families, children, congregations, are bursting with frustration at the caution of the Church and her failure to liberate not only us, with our particular agenda, but those who experience faith as a liberating, colourful, energised, and transforming power in their lives, opening us to life in all its fullness.

Comments

  1. Clare says

    Having spent 2 years as a novice in a contemplative religious community I came to the same conclusion that it’s is all but impossible to describe what often happens when “in stillness, silence and open-hearted contemplation you open yourself to the infinitely loving presence of the living God.” All the literature claims that this consequence of contemplation is something innately open to all humanity and I do believe that. Unfortunately there are so many in the Church who either claim that contemplation is ‘opening oneself to demons and/or deception’ or who have practiced a form of contemplation that is more an inward contemplation of oneself than of God, or who have simply not been in an environment where they are encourage to persist for long enough to ‘taste and see’ our Father in this way. This applies to priests as much as to lay people, especially since everyone not in an enclosed contemplative monastery needs to make a huge & determined effort to deepen into contemplative practice in this busy world, and why would they if so few have sincerely tasted what is to be found?

    • Changing Attitude says

      Clare,
      I hadn’t really had any kind of personal prayer life until I arrived at Westcott House at the age of 31. I’m not sure that the selection conferences explored my pattern of prayer. Maybe I didn’t answer honestly, if they did!

      The expectation at Westcott House was that you would observe a period of contemplative prayer every day, and if you lived in the House, this was communal, in chapel, before the morning office and communion. Part of me was and still is obedient to the expectations of the institution, so I was there every morning. Behind me were Mark Santer, John Armson and Rowan Williams. Mark taught a spirituality class in the first year, and there must have been some teaching about silence and how to use it, but if there was, I don’t remember the content.

      I think I tried to reduce my levels of stress and anxiety in my 30 minutes each day. I knew something serious could happen in the silence because of the presence of the three members of staff behind me. Their example laid the foundation for my commitment to a period of contemplation every day. My experience of silence has been encouraged and nurtured since then by my spirtual directors – Bill Kirkpatrick, Una Kroll and Henry Morgan, just 3 people in 34 years.

      As a parish priest I modelled the practice with them and encouraged them to risk the same. What I wasn’t taught at Westcott was how to teach other people. That is something that has come with my greater confidence in the silent space – the experience of finding both myself more intensely and the OTHER more intensely. All you have to do is be there and bring yourself back when you wander so easy and so difficult for most people to bother with.

      There is another secret, I think, and this might be the subject of another blog. The secret is having confidence in knowing that you will find God of infinite love, presence, goodness, generosity and welcome. This isn’t easy for a gay man who has been constantly told by parts of the Church that I am intrinsically inadequate to God’s purpose. I think it’s important to have the confident expectation that in the silence you will encounter the most benign, self-giving, loving presence imaginable.
      Colin

      • Clare says

        Colin,
        You are very right that “it’s important to have the confident expectation that in the silence you will encounter the most benign, self-giving, loving presence imaginable.”
        As a transwoman myself, I had actually been a novice nun for 18 months before I finally became convinced that God did in fact love me as I am. Prior to that my daily prayer had been full of anguish that perhaps God didn’t even hear me because I was innately sinful.
        Through work with my spiritual director and novice guardian I was finally able to hear and experience God’s love for me, and the first words I heard from Him were an invitation to cease being so cruel to myself. He said, “Please do not hate what I love!” Since that time I have always known myself entirely loved, and my prayer was forever changed.
        I wish I could more easily share this wherever I go.
        with love,
        Clare.

  2. says

    Beautiful post, Colin. I pray that your conversation with Justin will bear good fruit.

    Your words come very close to my experience of God’s presence and how resistance melts away. I quoted and linked on my blog, and I will share on Facebook. Blessings.

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