Sixth formers, as a breed, generally do not need another reason to disregard the church. If they think about church at all, it is usually as a branch of the National Trust that sings hymns, theme park England, a costume drama and what goes with that is irrelevance, disdain and (this was a new one on me) pity.
We had talked before in class about sexuality and the church, when there had been the leisure to theoretically consider biblical texts and the worlds from which they sprang. This time it was personal, this time it had legs; four of them, Jeffrey John’s and Gene Robinson’s though, to be precise, there were eight legs if you counted their respective partners. It is the partners which fuels the sense of offence and, in the absence of a biblicist African bishop, it was me who was held to account.
Why I was so ill at ease was because, it seemed to me, that this group of young people seemed to be much better informed about both the nature of sexual orientation and the emotional range of affective love than has been evident in the recent public news releases of the church. In the past, the church at its best may have called secular culture into account, or, just as likely, been lagging behind secular wisdom while blindly protecting its own interests. In that classroom, I was uncomfortably aware that these young men and women had not needed to be taught about the values of compassionate and inclusive community, for them it was a given. It fell to me to try and interpret for them what appeared to be blind bigotry, and I did not have the heart to know where to begin and neither did I care.
The problem is that I do not have a position on homosexuality. For me it is personal, it has legs, lots of them. I cannot reduce to an issue my liturgy tutor from university who first introduced me to Thomas Tallis, and showed me what it was like to regard the moods of the day as sacred and a resource for prayer, while taking my friends and me out punting in long ago August afternoons. I cannot clinically debate the man who, when it was discovered I may have to preach for a living, took a clumsy sixteen year old with a stammer and began to train his voice over years so he could speak a complete sentence in public. I cannot weigh the spiritual legitimacy of a man and his partner who had no reason at all to keep an unobtrusive eye on me, when I was recently divorced in a foreign country, looking after my three-year-old at weekends. These are sufficient, but there are many more.
As a pastor I have learned that human communities seldom make decisions on the basis of logical issues. If we have an impasse we tell our stories, we show how we came to believe the way we do. I do not know, but I would not be surprised if this had been the hope of the Archbishop at the recent Primates Summit at Lambeth. But, publicly at least, the heat has gone into an issue, and the way back looks like an increasingly distant hope.
What saved me, before the period bell went, was to convey that the gospel, before it is anything else, is news. We have four gospels in the Bible and a few others outside. Each reflects the retelling of Jesus to different communities with different cultures and interests. These have been with us for almost 2,000 years, but we have not yet taken the hint.
We start with their witness, this is one of the characteristics of a Christian outlook, but we do not stop there. We can consult scripture, but we cannot set up camp there, even if we could. Like the gospel writers, we have to take what we have heard and seen and go and live Christ’s world in this one, by living in peace and justice with my neighbours on this earth, whatever amount of confrontation, struggle, recognition and surrender that may involve.
I am here to write this because some individuals, who have been called unclean by my fellow Christians, took time over me and cared for me. What is more important is that I, in my turn do the same. If I wind up caring for those who are being called outcast, and loving them because they are loveable, and that God did not make a mistake when he made them, then maybe I’m not too far off-message.