THE CHURCH, GAY MARRIAGE & NOT ‘TAKING NOTE’

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The Rt. Revd Graham James (Bishop of Norwich) addressing General Synod

Last week (15th February 2017), the media gave the impression that the Church of England had taken another step towards accepting gay marriage after its ‘controversial report’ (as described by the BBC) proposing that only men and women could be married in church was rejected by the ‘house of clergy’ who voted 100 to 93 against. This was seen as a victory for the liberal establishment and a snub towards the Bishops who had not only drafted the report, but overwhelmingly voted in favour of it, 43-1 (although it later transpired that this single vote against had been made in error). The Laity also voted in favour 106-83, but as ever, nothing is quite as straight forward as the news headlines would suggest. Yes, of course campaigners for gay marriage were delighted, seeing it as a ‘victory for love and equality’, but equally it appears that following an ambiguous comment made by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the motion was rejected by some conservatives who feared that ‘pastoral practice’ following the motion wouldn’t be ‘conservative enough’. This is because the paper didn’t actually contain any objective proposals. It was simply designed for ‘taking note’ and once passed would simply form the backdrop to church practice without any further discussion required at General Synod. As it stands, the status quo will prevail as the motion cannot be reconsidered within the life of this synod.

The difficulty is, I suggest, one of public perception. The campaigners for same sex marriage would have us believe that the public cannot understand why the church is so behind the times, and so anti-gay marriage which they see as nothing but antiquated, homophobic and prejudiced. As campaigner Peter Tatchell remarked, ‘the church denies the right of same-sex couples to be blessed in church when they will bless cats and dogs’ – but of course it doesn’t take a moment to appreciate that the cats and dogs in question aren’t seeking a blessing upon their relationship. And it’s this sort of rhetoric which makes life so difficult for all concerned.  The church doesn’t deny that people of the same sex can have very warm and affirming relationships, but it doesn’t believe that sexual relations between two people of the same sex, however loving, can be equated with marriage as traditionally understood and expressed between a man and a woman. However affirming they may be, the two scenarios are not the same or equivalent. The problem is compounded by the weight of theology that is attached to the Christian concept of marriage (so much more than the simple notion of ‘two people loving each other’) which becomes unravelled if marriage isn’t between the two different sexes.

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” Matthew 19.5-6

In a sense, the general public may not appreciate that shouting loudly about ‘inclusiveness and equality’ (which the church has traditionally championed) rather misses the point and doesn’t resolve the dichotomy presented here – for the church can’t really accept gay-marriage without doing fundamental harm or damage to itself or its message. So, however painful it may be to those who wish it was otherwise, it doesn’t seem to me that a loving church can possibly bless that with which it fundamentally, theologically and scripturally disagrees , nor is it reasonable nor loving of others to expect it to do so.

The upshot of all these discussions is that we are still in a difficult place with many people from all sides feeling somewhat unhappy and dissatisfied, and so much prayer, thought and discussion will still be needed. Perhaps it’s best to leave the final words with the Revd Sam Allberry, who is himself gay and went on to remind Synod that Jesus Christ was ‘the most fully human and complete person who had ever lived’ and yet ‘he never married, was never in a romantic relationship and never had sex’. Therefore ‘Sexuality is not a matter of identity for me, and that has become good news”.


“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men…” Revelation 21.2-3


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GOOD MORNING, MR PRESIDENT!

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By the time, you get to read this letter, Donald J Trump will have been sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America, and life, it seems will never be the same again. Adopting Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan, Donald Trump will set about ‘making America great again’, but not without some controversy. Will Donald J Trump build a wall between the United States and Mexico? Will he impose import taxes on US companies that create product intended for the US market whilst using foreign workers in foreign plants? Will he continue to stir up controversy with China whilst seeking to improve relations with Russia? Will he continue to denounce the workings of the American Intelligence agencies, and with regard to Russia – is he politically compromised? The list of controversial questions seems to be added to each day with a flurry of response being sent on Twitter.

But can President Trump ‘make America great again’ and is he really that powerful? Well, in a sense the answer is both yes and no! As President, he certainly commands a lot of power, but in theory even he is subject to the higher authority of the American Constitution. It is this document which is so sacred to Americans which is considered to be the ultimate resort. Congress may make laws, but it is the American courts which interpret them according to the Constitution and determine how they should ultimately be applied – a system designed, it is said, to prevent any one person having too much power or being subject to corruption. However, this means that ultimate power can be said to reside with the unelected members of the Supreme Court. To counter their influence American Presidents are able to appoint a number of ‘Justices’ to the Supreme Court according to their political persuasion; Republicans tend to appoint conservatives or ‘originalist’ judges and justices who will always try to interpret the law according to the Constitution as it was originally understood by the ‘founding fathers’. Democrats will say that the Constitution is a ‘living document’ which needs to be interpreted according to the issues of the day and so will appoint Liberal or ‘activist’ judges and justices, and try to promote their own particular agenda on modern day issues of concern (e.g. abortion). This is one of the main reasons why Presidential campaigns become so messy as everyone wants to get their candidate elected so that they might be able to shape and influence society and politics not just within Congress but through the courts. The problem with Donald Trump it seems, is that because of his outlandish statements and apparent policy making ‘on the hoof’ he’s been quite capable of upsetting both Republicans and Democrats and so his candidacy as President hasn’t always been easy for either side to settle with or predict.

So where does this leave us? Well, the Christian response has always been to pray for those in authority that they will govern wisely and well for the benefit of all people, and do all that they can to support and encourage them in that task. Equally, in a period of so much change and uncertainty, we are encouraged to think about what do we consider to be our ultimate guide and authority? For many Christians that guide would be the Bible, which has been the foundation and backbone of so many of our laws and legal frameworks within British Society for countless generations, but the constant task is of course, not only to understand the context in which the Bible was originally written, but how we can also best apply it to today’s modern society. We may call ourselves Great Britain, but in my own humble opinion, our national status would be greatly enhanced if we were to spend a little more time quietly, prayerfully, and intelligently reflecting upon some of the biblical and Christian principles which have served us so well in the past.


 “Pray for all people … kings and all those in authority, that we may live a tranquil and peaceful life in all godliness and dignity” 1 Timothy 2.2


 

CHRISTMAS – ARE WE IN DANGER OF MISSING THE POINT?

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There’s nothing quite like a traditional British Christmas! The hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping; the writing of cards and the exchange of presents; the decoration of houses both inside and out, and the turning on of lights on the Christmas tree. Christmas is a time for rest and relaxation, family get-togethers and stories of childhood. A time for mulled wine, cake and mince pies besides a real open fire. It’s a time to fondly remember those who are no longer with us and make plans for all we shall see in the new year. It’s a time to ‘eat, drink and be merry’, ‘peace and good will to all men’ and dream of snow, Rudolf, robins and Father Christmas. And – O yes – there’s church for those who want it!

Of course, there is nothing wrong with any of the things listed above – but if Christmas really is, just about rest and relaxation and time spent with families – then are we as individuals (and indeed as a nation), in danger of missing the point? It would certainly seem so if the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent conversations are anything to go by. The Telegraph has printed a story where Justin Welby notes that there is a fundamental lack of ‘religious literacy’ in Government circles about those who are religious. They want the church to back them when it comes to promoting basic “British Values” but fail to appreciate that many of these values stem from our Christian religious heritage. In their efforts to understand religious extremism (mainly Islamic) they fail to understand that Christians are also motivated ‘first and foremost’ by their Christian faith and are desperately playing ‘catch up’ when it comes to appreciating the differences between these two religions and others.

So like government, have we all tended to take our ‘Christian Heritage’ for granted, so much so, that like music in a shopping mall it just becomes background noise and largely filtered out? So, in a world which is desperately crying out for peace, have we largely forgotten the ‘Prince of Peace’? Have we forgotten the real meaning of Christmas? I hope not! Christmas is about a loving God, who so loved the world that despite its shortcomings he literally steps into it. Christmas is about a young man who was both at one with his humanity but also his divinity. Christmas is not just about a baby that was born in Bethlehem but the man who died in Jerusalem and rose again. Christmas is all about the one who died for our sins so that we might be forgiven of them. Christmas is all about the start of a process where a loving God puts things right through the power of the resurrection – including us. Christmas is therefore fundamentally a celebration for all about a God who loves us.

So on Christmas Day, we could be left with a lot of empty parcels, that we may or may not, appreciate on Boxing Day, but the significance of Christmas for Christians is that in Jesus Christ every day is Christmas Day and worth celebrating. That’s the point of Christmas!

So may I wish you all a very happy Christmas and warmly invite you to celebrate it with us. God bless you all.


‘The angel said, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born… he is Christ the Lord”.’ Luke 2.10-11


 

NO GREATER LOVE THAN THIS …..

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“Some of us remembered that sunny last evening in June, when we had assembled with such high hopes in the trenches, the day before the Somme offensive began. How we had jested and joked, even collecting pieces of chalk wherewith to label as our trophies the guns we were so sure of taking! Some of us too, remembered the next night, when, with every officer but one a casualty, and our dead hanging thick on the German wire, we had been withdrawn, sweating and shaking and shattered. It took us three months to recover from that blow.” November 1916

These words are taken from Twelve Days on the Somme by Sidney Rogerson, and although they make uncomfortable reading, I think it’s right, upon this 100th anniversary, that we should be reminded of what life was actually like for those soldiers who endured that particular conflict.

The first war, was of course described as ‘The Great War’, the war to end all wars and with 20, 000 British troops dying on the first day of that particular battle, we can see why many thought that they had already paid a sufficiently high price to ensure the nation’s peace and trusted that surely, the world wouldn’t fall into such a sad and terrible situation again – and yet as we all know barely 30 years later the Second World war was upon us, and there have been various other conflicts since.

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We are mindful of the fact that Jesus said “Greater love has no one, than he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15.13) and its significance for those who have died in conflict defending their country and way of life is obvious. Yet we need to remember that the context of this verse is not war, death or pain – but love, for it immediately follows the command ‘to love one another as I have loved you’ (John 15.12). Military people know the importance of following commands and this is an important one for us all, for we must never allow anger, hatred or pain to define us as human beings. For if we do, then we have allowed these sentiments to rob us of a precious part of our humanity. ‘Loving God and our neighbours as ourselves’ doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fight for what we know to be right or make sacrifices, but we do so precisely because we wish to preserve all that is right, decent and honourable. This sometimes means that we have to lift ourselves above a basic ‘tit-for-tat’ mentality (which may be no more than a basic desire for revenge) and strive to reach those higher standards and ideals that we cherish and wish all people to live by. The men who died upon the Somme and other such conflicts, ultimately did so because although they hated war, they were striving to preserve our way of life, freedom and peace. They were fighting for something greater than themselves. To this extent, their selfless act echoes the one made by Jesus when he died upon the cross, the one dying for the many, but achieving in his case for each one of us, the forgiveness of sins and salvation. It certainly wasn’t anger, fear or hatred which drove him to the cross but love, which is why we remember him and all those who have died in a similar selfless fashion with the greatest of respect, praise and gratitude. ‘The Great War’ may not have been the war to end all wars, but we value and respect all those whose efforts tried to make it so. Please join us this Remembrance Sunday as together we commemorate all those who have laid down their lives for us.

 


“Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John 15.13


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THE PARALYMPICS, ‘THE LAST LEG’ AND THE FREEDOM TO BE OURSELVES

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Bethany Firth – Celebrates having won three gold medals and a silver in the S14 classification at Rio 2016

What a joy the Paralympics have been! The Olympics were glorious, but the Paralympics have been truly stunning and inspirational. Athletes that many of us only first heard about at London 2012 have now become household names – Hannah Cockcroft, Jonnie Peacock, Ellie Simmonds, Dame Sarah Storey and Richard Whitehead have all lived up to their billing at Rio 2016 and deserve the much heralded superlative of ‘superhumans’. At the time of writing the medal tally for Team GB in Rio has surpassed that of London 2012 and a whole new bunch of athletes have been introduced to the world.  The high-lights programme with Claire Balding combined with the comedy and sense of fun that comes withThe Last Legteam (Adam Hills, Josh Widecombe and Alex Brooker) have helped us all, without being patronizing or sentimental, to look beyond the disability and see the athletes for the people they really are. This doesn’t trivialise the tragedy and trauma that some people experience but celebrates their strength of character, the human spirit and their various accomplishments in the light of it.

However, it was the theme tune of The Last Leg permeating the sport which really caught my attention. This rap song called ‘Harder than You Think’ performed by the hip hop group Public Enemy contains the phrase ‘thank you for letting us be ourselves’ and it got me thinking. Every parent tries to encourage their child to be independent, to learn to think for themselves, stand up for themselves and be creative rather than to simply ‘go with the flow’ or be negatively influenced by others. We hate it when people try to coerce us into being something that we are not, either by steering us down a certain path or restricting our choice or freedom of expression. We resent being ‘put in a box’ and told that we can’t do something when we think we can. Essentially what we hate is any attempt to manipulate us or restrict our freedom to be ourselves. Although parents can (and should) offer advice and guidance, the willingness to let your child be free, to find their own way and lead their own lives is really an act of love – but it’s risky, because with freedom of choice comes the possibility of making mistakes.

Sadly, the world in which we live isn’t perfect, because alongside the many joys of life are sadness and sorrow as people behave badly and make mistakes. The Christian perspective is one that says that although God initially made the world perfect, he also graciously and kindly gave us human beings the freedom of thought, expression and choice; he gave us the freedom to be ourselves because that was the loving thing to do. God no doubt saw the future and understood the risks but he willingly gave us the freedom to be ourselves precisely because he isn’t a dictator and neither are we his mindless slaves or robots. The incredible thing is that despite our many failings and mistakes, God still loves us and right from the start had a plan to put things right, and that plan – was Jesus! God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son to death upon the cross, so that by that terrible process, we might be forgiven of our sins and spared the consequences of our actions. This shows just how deeply God loves us and the true extent to which he is willing to go in order that we might have the freedom to be ourselves. So whatever challenges in life we personally face, let us like our inspirational Paralympians, be ourselves to the best of our ability.


“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3.16


THE OLYMPIC STORY BEHIND CHRIST THE REDEEMER!

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What a wonderful Olympics it has been! After months of worry and uncertainly about the Stadium, the Zika virus and political unrest, Rio 2016 has been a great success. Certainly from a British point of view there has been a lot to cheer about – not only have the women’s eight matched the men with gold medals in the rowing for the first time ever, but Max Whitlock has become Team GB’s first ever gymnastics champion (twice!); Justin Rose became the first man to win the golf at the Olympics since it was last played in 1904 and Andy Murray put us all through the mill as he successfully defended his tennis title first won at London 2012. At this time of writing, the athletics is well underway and Team GB find themselves, somewhat surprisingly second on the medal table in front of China – but will it last? But of course, the tales of inspirational human endeavour aren’t simply tied to those who’ve come away with a medal but to all those who have done their best to be ‘the best they can be’ despite the odds (who can forget the efforts made by the Refugees Team, competing under the Olympic flag) and all such athletes should be proud. However, the sporting arena is not the only source of wonder and appreciation – the Brazilians have been commended for their warm welcome, hospitality and sense of fun, along with their beautiful country, ranging from the beautiful Copacabana beach at Rio to the magnificent statue of ‘Christ the Redeemer’ looking down upon the city from the Corcovado Mountain.

Although the statute isn’t the largest statue of Jesus to be found in the world it is considered to be an ‘art-deco’ masterpiece and is hugely iconic of Rio de Janeiro and symbolic of Brazil’s Catholic Christian heritage. The statue is 98 feet tall (not including it’s 26-foot-tall pedestal) and weighs 635 tonnes. There were several designs initially proposed but the familiar statue we recognise today with its open arms (measuring 92 feet wide) was specifically chosen to represent the love of Christ for the world who will warmly welcome and embrace all who come to him. The statue was originally built in 1922 and took 9 years to complete, and was officially declared one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’ on 7th July 2007.

This wonderful statue of Jesus is of course called ‘Christ the Redeemer’ but why and what is so special about redemption? Well, redemption literally means ‘buying back’ and was often used in the ancient world of slaves buying their freedom or having it bought for them. One of the greatest acts of redemption in the Bible (and which has coloured the way this word is used ever since) was when God bought his people out of slavery in Egypt to give them freedom in the promised land. The problem was, that over the years the people found themselves repeatedly bound as slaves by successive regimes and therefore in need of a ‘new redemption’. The early Christians understood this in the most radical of ways, they saw it as pointing to the poverty of their own human condition, they were constantly ‘in slavery to death and sin’. What they needed was a redeemer! Someone who would be able to pay the price for their sin and lead them to freedom and new life. That person was Jesus! His self-giving, sacrificial death upon the cross was truly Olympic in its magnitude, the most dramatic, inspiring and generous gift of God’s love the world had ever seen. His death was the price paid for our ‘redemption’, the innocent dying for the guilty, but of course the Gospel story doesn’t conclude with Christ’s death but his resurrection! His rising from the grave was the first sign, evidence and promise of future hope and life everlasting. A precious gift warmly and freely given to anyone who wishes to receive it and puts their faith and trust in Jesus as their personal Lord, Saviour and Redeemer. The Olympics may be glorious; the games have been thankfully largely harmonious, and the athletic achievements truly inspirational – but the story behind the Christ the Redeemer statue is even more so and gives us all the chance of reaching our full potential and ‘being better than we can be despite the odds’.


We are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Romans 3.24