All Are Welcome?
There is something which appeals to me in all of the verses and speaks of the faith which is so important to me. I can’t say that I always live up to the ideals of it but it is what I want to see in the Church which is to be the body of Christ on earth. This describes something of the Church that I want to be part of, reflecting God who loves all humankind and sent Jesus because of that love for all the world.
So it is with great sadness that I accept that, for the time being, the Methodist Church which has given me such support over the years, is not yet in a place to move forward with its official views on sexuality which were set out in the Methodist Conference of 1993. (Known as the Derby resolutions so far because that Conference was held in Derby. I wasn’t at the Derby Conference but I am pretty sure that these were not the only resolutions which were passed! It does make us look rather obsessed with the issue of sex and sexuality).
That’s certainly how South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu feels about the Anglican Church and its leadership for its attitudes to homosexuality just now. I was interested to hear him speak on a radio programme this week – listening to what he said rather than what the media picked out from what he said! He didn’t say that the Church wasn’t doing any of the things it should be because of it’s stance on homosexuality but that this was a distraction from what matters most – the kingdom of God. There is nothing in the Bible where Jesus says anything about homosexuality. Ann Widdecombe MP, speaking on the same programme as Desmond Tutu, pointed us to the story of the woman caught in adultery and how as well as saying to the crowd, “Let those without sin cast the first stone”, Jesus also said to the woman – “go and sin no more”. I don’t think there is any doubt that adultery is a sin – it’s cheating, breaking our promises and not just about a sexual act. When Jesus meets the woman at the well and shows that he knows of her chequered sexual background and the fact that she is now living with a man and not married to him, he doesn’t say to her – go and sin no more. He invites her to discover more of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus does speak out against divorce, and the Methodist Church has decided to be compassionate in looking at remarriage of divorcees whilst allowing for ministers who wish to take a stronger line to do so. Why can’t we move to a similar way of looking at things in relation to human sexuality, particularly in relation to homosexuality? Many congregations would be empty of young adults (and possibly more older ones than we might guess at – including officers of the Church), if you excluded those who were living together in committed relationships without “the benefit of clergy” – and most ministers and congregations do not make a big issue of this, even though the Derby resolutions can be read to be against it. I do wonder if that is because most of us have people in our family, or among our friends, who we know are in such relationships.
The Derby resolutions require chastity rather than celibacy in relationships. I understand that chastity means to live purely, in other words, to use God’s gift of being a woman or man in the way we are meant to. Every Christian is called to be chaste in their relationships. I think couples in committed long term relationships can have chaste relationships and this need not undermine the importance of marriage. I understand celibacy as a particular form of chastity in which a person does not enter into relationships which are sexually involved.
I hope that the decision not to revisit the resolutions (whatever name they are known by) in the Methodist Church for the time being will enable people to have open and affirming conversations with each other about how we read the Bible and how to be a Church that is truly welcoming to all. One of the difficulties for me is that I also want to make a stance about what I see as a justice issue, whilst continuing in relationship with those who see things differently from me. This can be difficult. I look back at how long William Wilberforce had to keep raising the situation of the Slave Trade before people would see that as a justice issue. Many Christians used the Bible to justify the slave trade. We think that is very odd now. Similarly the Bible was used to exclude women from ordained ministry but the Methodist Church has been able to consider how it interprets the Bible on this.
I do not think that the way the Derby Resolutions are interpreted by many reflects the love of God for all people and the combination of spiritual holiness and social justice which drew me into the Methodist Church.
I am proud to be part of a Methodist Church which has worked for the end to unwarranted discrimination against black people and against women even when others have continued to use scripture to back up their views. It is with sadness that I find people challenging me about a church which is supposed to reflect the love of God for all but which appears to exclude people. I have recently joined a group called “Accepting Evangelicals” which is trying to encourage this. See http://www.acceptingevangelicals.org/ Its membership includes people whose interpretation of scripture is more conservative than mine but are willing to accept the integrity of views like mine.
I am concerned about our ability to relate to young gay people, and their families and friends, who see the Church as being against them and certainly against them finding a partner. I would not want to wish on them the difficulties which his sexuality put on George Thomas, former Vice President of the Methodist Conference and Speaker of the House of Commons. The Church must certainly ensure that it does not contribute further to the high suicide rate for young gay people. This means we must talk about these issues in love. I would love to find ways of doing that and hope people will invite me to be involved in conversations with them, particularly during this year.
For now I will continue to interpret the Derby resolutions as I say above, rejoicing in committed chaste relationships and long for the day when I can sing “All are welcome” and know that we really show that we mean it.
Vice President of the Methodist Conference 2007-08
This article first appeared in the Methodist Recorder on 6 December 2007