Dear… the next LGBT St Anselmer

While my Year in God’s Time is over, a new cohort of the Community of St Anselm will this week be moving in to Lambeth Palace, being measured up for their albs, and wondering what on earth they’ve let themselves in for.

And statistically speaking, it’s almost certain that one or more of them, resident and/or non-resident, will be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise queer.

So I offer these words in the hope they’ll reach those for whom they might be helpful.

St Anselmer cross on red patterned jumperDear New LGBT St Anselmer,

What you’re doing this year is something deeply personal, transformative, and unique – no-one else will ever experience exactly what you do in the next 10 months.

Including me.

Your journey, individually and as a community, will of course be different to mine – and I can’t speak into exactly what you’ll experience. But these are a few thoughts and words of advice from my own time with the Community, which might help you navigate the year to come:

1. Begin with your eyes on God 

At first it can see a little overwhelming – you’re spending a year at the very heart of the Anglican Communion, under an Abbot who is the spiritual leader of more than 85 million people. Perhaps there’s already part of you wondering how to make the most of such an opportunity. If you’re out as an LGBT person, there’ll certainly be those who’d like you to use it for politicking and point-making.

But above all else, your year is a year to come close to God, to learn from Jesus, to live step by step with the Spirit. That will impact every area of your life, not least how you understand and communicate about your sexuality. But start everything with your eyes on God, and don’t move them for a moment. Begin with a longing for his agenda, and be prepared to be surprised at what he has in mind.

2. Decide for yourself how out to be and when

It was my first ‘sharing group’ time when I explained that I was in a relatively new relationship, but I didn’t know how to tell them she was another woman. So I started my coming out less formally, chatting with the new friend I trusted most. Encouraged by her positive reaction, I dropped my partner’s name and gender into more and more conversations, until word spread and everyone knew.

Your sexuality, partner or gender identity might be so important to how you understand yourself that you bring it up in your first introductions. It might be something you’ve never told anyone about before. Both of those are okay. Expect to find it natural to open up more as you grow in intimacy with one another; expect to find it awkward sometimes to share more than any social norms dictate.

Be too open, and there will be those who feel uncomfortable by being confronted with your sexuality. Keep too much private, and there will be those who feel you’re lacking in transparency and trust. I say this not to make you feel you can’t win – but to show that it’s fruitless to choose how open to be based on other’s expectations.

Pray. Engage with your instincts and challenge them. And err on the side of faith, trust and friendship.

3. Know that they can’t unchoose you

One of the most profound privileges of being part of the Community of St Anselm is that each of you chooses to commit to the others before you know a thing about one another – except that you are all followers of Jesus who desire to follow him more closely.

Your community will include those who are LGBT, those who have never knowingly met a gay person, those who can’t understand how a Christian could condone same-sex relationships, and those who can’t understand why this is an issue at all. And probably everyone in between.

You can’t unchoose a member of that community when you discover they take a very different position to you. And they cannot unchoose you. This is the freest you will ever be to engage honestly and share openly about who you are and who you love – because even those who disagree are deeply committed to you. Have confidence. You don’t need to be anyone else.

4. Treat every issue as a community issue

Depending on where you’re from, you’ll be more or less used to some issues being private – for some people, faith is a deeply personal matter, and relationships are usually only between two people. But in community, it’s never only about you. Everyone has a stake in one another’s beliefs, experiences and even conflicts. That’s a frustrating, sometimes painful reality that makes no sense outside of a community. But as you begin to accept it, you’ll see the opportunities – to listen deeply, to love freely, and to practise reconciliation and forgiveness.

5. Expect relationships to change you all

I’ve got some really good arguments. I’ve got some great explanations. I’m sometimes sure that if I could just sit people down for long enough and talk at them, they’d have to come around to my way of understanding a Christian and biblical perspective on same-sex relationships. But of course that’s not true. Just like I don’t imagine that someone of a different view lecturing me is going to change my mind.

But relationships will make a difference. The single thing that will make the most impact for people who have only ever thought about sexuality in terms of arguments and verses, is knowing you. Be kind. Be generous. Be invested in their lives. Cry over what hurts them. Celebrate their successes. Pray with them and for them. Worship side by side. Share communion together. And be prepared for both of you to change.

I haven’t changed my mind about my relationship. I’m still as convinced as ever of God’s blessing upon it. But I’ll never be able to write off everyone who believes differently as a homophobic bigot – because I can see the faces of my friends, people who were part of a community with me and shared their lives and their worship with me. And I hope they too will never be able to write off every gay person as a promiscuous God-denier, because they know me. They’ve seen my faith. They’ve witnessed my love. And so all we can do is listen to one another, learn from one another and hold one another in prayer.

All the best, New LGBT St Anselmer, whoever you are and wherever you’re coming from. You’ll be in my prayers this year, and if you’d like to chat as the months unfold, get in touch.

Love,
Claire
x

 

 

Posted in Community of St Anselm, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Yes, it’s racist: 5 objections to The Gospel Coalition’s article

I’ve never written about race before. And for that, I’m sorry.

The racism that is still prevalent in white Christian circles and in the structures of our society demands both words and action to make change. And those words and actions can’t just be the responsibility of black people – it’s for us to repent, to listen, to learn, to challenge, to change. So here’s a start.

The Gospel Coalition (an American conservative evangelical organisation, led by a Council of 55 men – naturally) has published an article called ‘When God sends your white daughter a black husband’. Have a read:

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I tweeted about this article as ‘barely disguised racism’ – and although many people seem to agree, a few have asked me what’s wrong with it. Surely it’s a story redemption, of a woman overcoming her prejudice and realising that we’re all equal?

In response, I thought I’d show a few tweets and responses from others, grouped together by ‘ways this article is deeply flawed’.

  1. The premise of the article – that having a black man marry into your family is an issue to address. By publishing the article, TGC legitimises white people’s feelings of discomfort at black people being part of their family.Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 11.04.14Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 11.01.27Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 11.08.45
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    Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 10.46.37


  2. The erasing of Glenn’s identity – the way that the writer comes to accept her son in law is to stop seeing him as black.
    Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 10.55.04Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 10.55.14Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 11.01.13


  3. The answers given are about learning to cope with the issue as a challenge or a trial, not to repent of your racism. 
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  4. It even suggests that white people shouldn’t challenge others on their overt racism – showing more concern to appease the prejudices of white family members and keep the peace than for black people being treated as less.  Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 10.56.19Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 10.56.29Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 11.02.22

  5. The article addresses an issue of racism by giving voice only to the person with power and privilege – not to the oppressed person.

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Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 10.47.29Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 12.32.52Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 12.29.00 Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 12.31.22


To sum up – the piece is apparently meant to show us how a woman overcame her racism and now loves her black son-in-law. But instead, it reassured racist parents that it’s normal to hope for your children to marry a white person. It framed a woman marrying a black man as a spiritual trial for her mother, who had to ‘die to her expectations’ – as if accepting a black son-in-law is a sacrifice for her.

The lessons for parents facing a similar situation don’t touch on repenting of your racism (the author bizarrely insists that she was never prejudiced, despite hoping for a white son-in-law), but instead suggest theological ways to erase the black man’s identity and look past it, rather than loving who he is as a black man.

The article prioritises white people – by suggesting that you take the side of prejudiced white family members over your new black family members, and by publishing the story of a white woman’s struggle with her own racism rather than the experience of black people on the receiving end of her prejudice.

White Christians, we have to do better than this. 

Posted in Evangelicalism | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned…

I’ve struggled at various times with what ‘sin’ really means. I wrote about it a few years ago, in ‘Reclaiming sin for myself‘ and ‘Sexual guilt, and how to do it better‘. But in the last few months, everything has changed again. 

Fondazione Cariplo -  Molteni Giuseppe, 'La confessione'

Fondazione Cariplo – Molteni Giuseppe, ‘La confessione’

Head propped in my hands and elbows resting on my knees, I replay the worst moments of my week, searching hard for sins. Some weeks there’s an obvious choice: I just picture the face of that boy I shouldn’t have kissed. If I have a boyfriend at the time, it’s even easier: I remember with shame the times we were tempted to go too far, the times we might have ‘slipped up’. We’ve probably already repented solemnly together, but it can’t hurt to feel a good amount of guilt all over again.

But if the week has been free from amorous events, either because I’m going through a strong patch of self-control or, more likely, for lack of opportunity, then it’s much harder. I can’t remember, if I’m honest, much detail from my week – only major drama really sticks in my mind, which is otherwise occupied with family chaos, upcoming exams,  university applications. None of those seem to be sinful, so I’m stumped.

The liturgy offers an alternative, reminding me I could also have sinned by things I’ve failed to do. But that’s even harder to bring to mind. Unless I’ve left a bleeding friend to die, left an abandoned baby on the street, or spitefully refused to give an old lady 10p to make enough for her bus fare, I haven’t been conscious of my sins of omission either.  Sighing, I think back to the lustful thought I had last week and decide to repent of that all over again.

This pattern constituted my understanding of sin, from the age of 14 (when I discovered that I wasn’t perfect and also discovered boys) to the age of about 21. In that time, every confession time in church, every chat with a youth leader or mentor, every Bible study with  my student group drew my mind to the same place. To confess my sin, I had to think up individual acts that I’d done, feel guilty about them, and then make the guilt go away by being conscious of Jesus being punished for them instead of me (an image guaranteed to make anyone feel more guilty rather than less). And almost every time, no matter what else was going on in my life, the only things that really came to mind were those related to sex and relationships.

When it came to sin, I thought I knew a God of justice – the God of Isaiah 53, who had to crush Jesus for each and every one of my iniquities.


At about 21, sometime in my second year of university, my understanding of sin started to shift. Perhaps it was because I started to become aware of the world around me – the homelessness prevalent in Oxford, the human trafficking prevalent around the world, the deep injustices ingrained in our society according to gender, race, class, sexuality, education, wealth. Or perhaps I just got bored of feeling guilty for the same things. Either way, while I started to read the Bible with fresh eyes and figure out my own sexual ethics, my understand of sin was turned upside down.

In the four years or so since, it’s been the plural pronouns in ‘forgive us our sins’ that have really stuck out to me – our corporate sins, and my personal part in them, have been impressed deeply on my conscience. Garment makers working for pennies in sweatshops, because I don’t want to shell out for my new jeans. Tea producers struggling to make ends meet, because I think the Fairtrade version doesn’t taste quite as good. Increasingly erratic rainfall in Kenya making it impossible for farmers to get a good harvest, more powerful storms in the Philippines, floods devastating family homes more often in Bangladesh… and I can’t be bothered to sort my recycling or write to my MP about our climate change targets.

I’ve come to know the God of justice – the God of James 5 who hears the cries of the unpaid workers and warns the fat-cats of their coming downfall. 


I thought that was it, for my theology of sin. After all, I still haven’t sorted out all my recycling, short-haul flights, Fairtrade clothing or plastic-free eating. But in the last few months, I’ve noticed yet another shift. Instead of replacing one view of sin with another in my mind, God seems to be drawing them together in a new way. Here’s what it looks like:

I wrote a few weeks ago about how my time with the Community of St Anselm had given me a “new and growing nearness to him”, that life had been transformed by living “hour by hour, minute by minute in communion with God”. This sense of sharing daily life with God, not presenting him with my plans at the beginning of the day for him to bless and cause to succeed, but rather offering my day openly to him, asking “what next?” and listening to his prompting in every situation – for me, that’s what life is about now.

And that changes what I understand by sin. The point isn’t which particular actions I do or leave undone, which words I use or what thoughts I indulge in. The point isn’t how much of my time I dedicate to fighting global injustice and feeling guilty for every Chinese takeaway that could have paid for someone’s anti-retroviral drugs.

Instead, if the point of life is to live in close communion with God, sin is to step to away from that. It’s to go through my days without pausing, offering my thoughts, ideas and plans to God, and asking “what next?”. And when I do that, I’m less likely to resist temptation, less likely to be conscious of the impact of my actions on the poorest people in the world, less likely to take chances to be generous and kind. But that’s not the point – the point is not how good I can be. The point is walking step by step with God.

This is the God of Revelation 3:20, the God who knocks at my door, asking to come in for dinner. The God who speaks with me over a meal (and probably a glass of wine), the God who confides in me, listens to me, and invites me to share in his wisdom and his plans.

Of course that teenager, head in hands in youth group, couldn’t remember the good deeds I’d left undone in any given week. If I hadn’t been going about my day asking God to nudge me and inspire me, I wouldn’t have had my eyes wide open to the possibilities that he had in mind. Similarly, it makes sense of why I’ve struggled to feel guilty for actions that I’ve been told are wrong by churches or Christian books – because deep down, I’ve known that I have been listening to God, have been alert to his promptings, and still had a clear conscience as I did those things. That tells me they weren’t what God calls sin – perhaps they were human attempts to add extra boundaries and fences around the law to protect me, but instead they only served to bind up and damage.

So now, when I repent of sin, I remember the days that I forgot to check in – when I went into new situations, not listening for what God might have for me to do in them, when I encountered people without asking how God might ask me to embody his love for them, when I tuned out his nudging, when I ploughed headlong into my own ideas without offering them up to him first and listening for his voice.

The great part is, that there’s no hanging my head in shame involved. The moment I come back to God and recognise how I’ve left him out, how i’ve tried to travel alone – at that moment, I’m right back there with him, and there’s no time to dwell on the past. Hand in hand, we’re off again into a new day, and nothing can stop us together.


And that’s where I am now. I don’t think God calls me to abide by a cold list of ever-binding rules, checking my behaviour against them at the end of the week and nailing each disobedient act to the cross. I don’t think God makes me personally responsible for ending world poverty by living in it myself, or that he demands a gold-standard of activism and ethical living to count myself a worthy person.

What he asks is not a standard of behaviour at all. Instead, what he wants takes all of me, every moment of every day. What he asks for is my company, my attention, my trust.

Each day, I wake up knowing that all God asks is that I show up for life with him. He’ll let me know what to do from there, and it’s an unpredictable adventure every day. I need only to listen. 

Posted in Discipleship, Evangelicalism, My life and faith | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

No longer a nun: the conclusion

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Well, it’s over. My ‘year in God’s time’* is up, and we’ve been commissioned by Archbishop Justin (/Bob Geldof) to go and “feed the world”.

There’s so much I already want to say as I reflect on the last 10 months, and I’m certain that I’ll only go on to discover more of the significance of the experience in the months and even years ahead.

But I was glad to be given the chance, at our commissioning service to formally mark the end of the year, to sum up in three minutes what God has done in me over this time. And among all the thoughts and reflections that will be still to come, I wanted to share this first – my attempt at distilling the core of what I’ve experienced. It’s all very internal – I didn’t have time to detail any practical out-workings of what I said, though perhaps in future posts.

For now, and for my own record as much as anything, here is the testimony I shared at that event.


What God has done in my Year in God’s Time:

Testimony given at Community of St Anselm Commissioning Service,
The Great Hall, Lambeth Palace, 20 June 2016.

A year ago, most people I knew were asking me why on earth I was signing up to spend a year giving up my freedom, joining a community of people I’d never met, living by a rule of life I hadn’t chosen – and if you’d have asked me that question, I would have told you that I needed to have my character sorted out.

I’ve been a Christian for many years, and I’ve started to recognise the gifts and skills that God has given me to use in serving him. I’ve always been confident in what I can do for God. But I’ve never been happy about who I am. For a long time, I’ve believed there to be something broken, something wrong about my character, that would need sorting out, disciplining before I could really give myself to a lifetime of ministry. I saw myself as a servant of God, but an unruly servant; a child of God but a wayward child; a friend of God, but a flaky friend.

So I became part of the Community of St Anselm asking God to rein me in, to get me under control.

But what he’s actually done is to set me free, more liberated than I had ever imagined.

My experience this year has been one of growing in nearness to God. I thought we’d mostly spend our time looking at the various disciplines of the rule of life, confessing where we’d failed and urging one another to do better. But much more than that, we’ve spent time growing in intimacy with God, learning from Jesus, listening to the Holy Spirit.

And as we’ve done that, the first thing God did with me was to shatter that lie I believed. Powerfully, clearly and undeniably, he set me free from the belief that who I am is bad, and he spoke over me truth about who he says I am – that he’s made me, loves me, delights in me, and invites me to adventure with him, no qualifications, no buts.

This freedom from shame means that I can live in nearness to God, in each moment of each day. In the past I might have rolled my eyes at the sort of people who say, “God said to me”, but now it’s a part of my daily vocabulary – it turns out that if I’m ready to listen, God rarely stops speaking – in ideas that come to me in the shower, in gentle nudges in my conversations with others. From my work life to my relationships to my plans for the future, I don’t think there’s anything that hasn’t been transformed by living hour by hour, minute by minute in communion with God.

If I’ve found myself calmed down and seen my character grow, it’s because I’ve come to know the beautiful character of God better, and to see how he delights in sharing my life with me – how he laughs with me, how he comforts me, how he never says ‘I told you so’, how he loves to see me open every good gift he gives. There have been hugely difficult parts to this year, both inside and outside of community life – and even there, God has been showing me the opportunity to come near to the sufferings of Christ, to know his grief and pain as well as his joy.

I thought that what I needed to set me up for a life of ministry and service was a better character, more integrity, a life more tightly under control. What God has offered me, as I step out now to begin that life of ministry and service, is a new and growing nearness to him, being rooted and anchored in his unflinching love – and it’s a true freedom that I will spend the rest of my life being thankful for.


*While a day is like a thousand years to the Lord, a year in his time is in fact only 10 months.

To compare this testimony to what I wrote just before I started the year, see Why I’m becoming a part-time nun (sort of) – and note numbers 2 and 3 on the list in particular! 

Posted in Community of St Anselm | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Praying with Pride.

Yesterday’s Pride in London saw thousands of LGBTI people, including hundreds of Christians, march through London joyfully proclaiming and celebrating who we are. At a packed-out service at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, we came together to remember those who suffer and die because of their sexuality, and to celebrate the God whose love for us is perfect.

I was there on behalf of Christian Aid, whose partners across the world work for equality for all – and a few people have asked for the words of the prayers I prayed. Here they are, please feel free to use them if they’re helpful in your context. 

God whose love is never limited, we pray to you for those whose experience of life contains more fear and hatred than love. For those who stay indoors, who look over their shoulder, who never relax – for those who suffer attacks for their sexuality or gender identity and live under the weight of fear. We pray to you for our LGBTI family in many places where freedom is in short supply, for LGBTI people in Russia… Sudan… Uganda… Syria… Brazil… Somalia… Albania… El Salvador… Nigeria… Iraq… Azerbaijan… among many, many others.

God of life, stop the killing.
God of peace, end the violence.
God of justice, bring fair laws.
God of love, set love free.

We speak up with those who are silenced and afraid, determined to work for equality for all – and together we say:

Goodness is stronger than evil.
Love is stronger than hate. 

God who knows grief, we pray to you for those who mourn today, whose bodies feel heavy under the weight of loss – for all who lost loved ones in Orlando, friends, family, much-loved partners. Remembering victims through the years and across the world of transphobia and homophobia, we lift to you all whose grief will never be known – and remember that it’s known to you.

God of all comfort, bring relief.
God of healing, bind up broken hearts.
God who is with us, be very close.

With those who mourn, we share the silence of grief, and the words that are true – together we say:

Goodness is stronger than evil.
Love is stronger than hate.

God who was abandoned and betrayed, we pray to you for all who face rejection because of you who they are. For those who have been kicked out or made unwelcome by parents… family… friends… churches… or communities. We pray especially for LGBTI people facing homelessness, addiction, low incomes and insecurity – for those who have been left to face the world alone.

God of reconciliation, bring calm where there is chaos.
God of community, surround those who are alone with true family.
God of the outsider, strengthen our love for one another.

We choose to reach out to those who have no one, and to them and with them, together we say:

Goodness is stronger than evil.
Love is stronger than hate.

God who knows every hair on our head and every fibre of our beings, we pray to you for all those LGBTI people who struggle with mental health, for those who have taken a battering from the world that’s left them anxious or depressed… and we pray especially for those who can’t get the care they need, who are afraid of speaking out, who live in places where to do so would open them up to more discrimination and fear.

God of order, give peace to troubled minds.
God of freedom, break the power of stigma.
God who is our rock, give solid support.

We each come with our own battles, some in the past, some still raging, and with clear confidence or with shaking voices, we choose to remember what is true – together we say:

Goodness is stronger than evil.
Love is stronger than hate.

God of endless energy, we pray to you for those who challenge prejudice and work for equality for all, for people of every sexual orientation and gender identity. We especially pray for those who keep up the fight in difficult contexts – for campaigners who stand up against anti-LGBTI laws at risk to themselves, for those who risk their jobs, their safety and their reputations to reach out in support to LGBTI people. We pray for small organisations like Comcavis Trans, an organisation for trans rights in El Salvador supported by Christian Aid, and the many others all over the world who blaze a trail towards a fairer future.

God our shelter, protect those who struggle on.
God of surprises, give joy in their work.
God of hope, light a fire in us all that keeps burning.

We join our voices with those who’ve gone before us, and from the shoulders of giants, together we say:

Goodness is stronger than evil.
Love is stronger than hate.

God who gives us a vision of a future free from fear, where all are valued and loved, where there are no more tears or mourning, we thank you today for all those who inspire us – for the teachers helping students to navigate and celebrate their queer identities, for young people making their schools safer for others, for the people of faith who are insisting their churches include everyone, for the ordinary people who make waves everyday. And in a moment of silence, we name in our hearts the people who we are most grateful for, who help us to live as freely and fully ourselves.

God of all life, inspire us to use the lives we have to create a world where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and all queer people are free to love and be loved.

We join our voices with the voices of heaven as together we say:

Goodness is stronger than evil.
Love is stronger than hate.

(Claire Jones, Christian Aid, June 2016. Attribution appreciated if you put any part of these prayers in print). 

Posted in Sex and sexuality | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

A straight man, the Church, and my deepest desires.

Photo: Oasis Foundation, twitter.com/OasisFound

Photo: Oasis Foundation, twitter.com/OasisFound

I haven’t cried at a Christian conference since the summers of big tops, neon lights and smoke machines at festivals I went to as a teenager. And I’ve never shed tears at events related LGBT issues – I pride myself on being able to sit through debates, discussions and even strong opposition to truths I hold very dear, without being caught up in hurt or angry reactions.

But it was an altogether different experience that finally got me: a straight, male church leader articulating one of my deepest desires as a bisexual woman to an auditorium full of people.

I doubt he knew he was doing it. I hadn’t primed Steve Chalke beforehand on what he could say that would tug on my heart strings. He wasn’t talking about me really at all – he was introducing the new Open Church Charter, a commitment for churches to sign up to as they work on truly, fully including LGBT people in the life of their churches.

And one thing among the points of the charter really got to the core of me. A very simple sentence, the significance of which may well be missed by many straight people, supportive or otherwise.

“We will offer celebration, preparation and support for same-sex marriage partners in loving, healthy monogamous relationships.”

Steve went on to talk about the celebrations in a church when two of its much-loved family members get engaged. He mentioned the formal and informal support, the marriage prep courses that straight couples often go on, and the wisdom and advice from older members of a congregation.

That’s what I want, I realised at that moment. That’s what I want, in the deepest part of me, not just now but for the rest of my lifelong relationship.

Love and celebration in the arms of Christian family, as straight couples rightly expect.

I want the the older couples who will take us under their wing and give us tips for building a healthy marriage and the teenagers who will be keen to babysit our kids when we have them. I wish we could have banns of marriage read, and share the moment afterwards when a whole congregation prays for our life together, in our last few weeks of preparations for it.

That’s what true inclusion would feel like:

Not simply being allowed to to be part of a church (despite my orientation), not even being permitted to use my gifts and to serve at every level in the church (despite my relationship) – but to be able to bring my whole self, including my loving-and-being-loved self, and knowing that all of me and my partner’s life together is welcomed, supported, and helped to flourish under God.

Too often, what we’ve thought of as being a welcoming, affirming inclusive church has really been a sort of silent, presumed inclusion. It goes a little like this:

The Vicar assumes that his congregation know his affirming stance, so there’s no need to make anyone uncomfortable by bringing it up – so sexuality is never mentioned and questions go politely unasked. But the nervous gay couple sat at the back of church have no idea if they’re being silently welcomed or silently judged. When a marriage course is announced in the notices, they have no idea if they’d be allowed to go. They read about the Dads and Kids Saturday morning breakfast, described as chance to ‘give Mum a lie-in’, and they hear the message that this is a church for heterosexual couples and their children. Lingering over coffee, they overhear an disparaging comment about a gay priest in the neighbouring parish, and assume that everyone in the church feels the same. And the next Sunday, they decide not to go back.

So, affirming straight Christian, what can you do to make LGBT folk like me feel truly included in your church life? How can you break the conspiracy of silence?

  1. Take the same interest in my relationship as you would a straight couple. Ask how my partner’s doing when she’s not there. Refer to her as such, rather than as my ‘friend’. Make the same cringey jokes about young love as you do to embarrass the young, straight couples you know. I might blush, but inside, I’m so glad you’ve acknowledged my love.
  2. Don’t make assumptions about anyone’s orientation before you know it. Ask if I have a partner, not a boyfriend. I know many LGBT people who’ve squirmed through the well-meaning prayers of older Christians that they’d find a godly husband, when they really long for a godly wife. So train yourself to talk about relationships, partners, other halves, spouses, significant others instead. It’s tiring enough to ‘come out’ to every new community you become part of,  but it’s even more difficult when you have to correct the assumption they’ve already made. There’s no shortage of inclusive language you can learn.
  3. Be conscious of marking life-events – new relationships, engagements, civil partnerships, marriages, births, adoptions – in whatever way is appropriate. Often that’ll be in exactly the same way as you do for straight couples. A round of applause in the service for news of an engagement. Asking how the wedding plans are going over coffee. But sometimes you’ll need to be more creative: you can’t read banns of marriage in an Anglican church for a gay couple, but why not have them up the front to pray for them a few weeks before the big day?
  4. Be more explicit than you think you need to be in offering your support. If you hold an event for married couples, include ‘and civilly partnered couples’ on the publicity too. If you have younger gay couples in your church, offer to mentor them  or just invite them round for dinner – you might be the only older person they know who has shown that care. Put up signs, posters or statements that show your church is welcoming to everyone, especially those who are sometimes excluded – LGBT people, people with disabilities, refugees, homeless people, anyone who might not be 100% sure that they are included in your welcome. Make it clear.

You may well feel that you’re making an unnecessary political statement. You are making a political statement – but it’s a necessary one, a radical one, one that Jesus got in trouble for making.

All are welcome in the Kingdom of God, all should be welcome in your church. But for those who’ve been excluded as a matter of course, that welcome needs to be explicit, persistent and loud. It’s just what Jesus did.

Posted in Evangelicalism, Sex and sexuality | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

When I lived the Downton dream

I’d had the best kind of evening; low-key, but the sort that makes me sigh with contentment. Good friends, relaxed cooking, wine flowing, music playing, laughing and planning and dreaming. Reluctant to leave, but knowing I’d regret a late night midweek, I made my way to the train station still grinning.

Train cancelled. A half hour wait for the next one, it would be over an hour before I could be home, and I didn’t fancy sitting in the empty station, cold and bored.

Four taps was all it took – open app > destination > ‘home’ > request. Little more than four seconds to order, and a predicted four minute wait. He didn’t take that long. Driver pulled up, wound down his window and said my name, and I was en route. Sat in the comfort of my air-conditioned private ride, I considered what had just happened.

When I watch Downton Abbey, I marvel at the privileged lifestyle of the Earl’s family, treated almost as royalty with people employed to serve their every whim. I gawp at the inequality of that world – how those who work the hardest are always the least rewarded, while to those who have, much more is given. What must it be like, I wonder, to live the kind of life where you can ring a bell for afternoon tea to appear, where someone else attends to your clothes and hair, where a private car appears to save you a walk or a wait…

I tend to think I don’t spend much money on myself; I like to imagine I live fairly frugally and my empty bank account at the end of each month is just because London is so damn expensive. But really, all I mean is that I don’t spend much on things that I don’t want that some other people do spend their money on. I don’t wear much makeup and I hate trying on clothes, so if you looked at that snapshot of my budget perhaps you’d think I lived a modest lifestyle.

But in my world, far removed as I think it is from the luxury of Downton Abbey, I didn’t think twice about tapping through my order for a driver and a car to take me home – just to save me the inconvenience of a half hour wait for a much cheaper trip on public transport. In my world, I didn’t think twice about buying a bottle of wine to take to my friends’ house that night. In my world, I don’t think twice about buying lunch on the go, or buying a drink or two so I can write my blogs in a pub instead of at home (both of which I’ve done today).

In my world, I pay people to make my life more comfortable and enjoyable on a daily basis: to cook me food, to pour me drinks, to cut my hair, to make me coffee, to deliver my shopping, to mend my shoes, to transport me across the country or just down the road. In my world, I can afford to take time out from work, as I am doing this week, to retreat and relax and reflect.

And in my world, there are people who have never had a day off the struggle to survive.

There are people, people who Jesus calls my neighbour, who live in the grip of poverty, the fear of flooding and storms, the despair that comes from never being able to earn more than it takes to eat that day. When Jesus said to love my neighbour, he meant every neighbour – not just the ones who come from my country, my tribe, my faith or my background. He meant neighbours like Morsheda, whose story is the focus of this year’s Christian Aid Week.

It’s a tired Sunday school cliché, and a bit of a wet one at that, to encourage us to ‘think of those less fortunate than ourselves’. It’s wet and it’s useless really, if all we ever do is think about how lucky we are and feel a little bit guilty about it… before continuing as we were. No wonder it sounds cringey and dated.

But I don’t think Jesus asks us to think of those less fortunate. I think he calls us to feel deeply angry at the injustice, the inequality of the world we inhabit and in which many of us are at the very top of the structures of social privilege at the expense of those below. I don’t think he asks us to feel guilty about the circumstances of our birth, but to allow ourselves to feel deeply uncomfortable about the way our choices and lifestyles uphold that inequality.

And most of all, I think he calls us to turn that discomfort and anger to action.

Sometimes that means radical action – some choose to combat the injustice of climate change by giving up meat, or trying to live without plastic. Sometime that means major action – some choose to give up lucrative careers to serve the marginalised and the poor. But often, it means simple, ordinary action – all of us can cultivate habits that address inequality, little by little, whenever we can. That might mean writing to our MPs about issues of global justice, and it might mean taking the chances offered by charities to give money, making a habit of emptying whatever’s in our pockets to the buckets we pass on high streets and in train stations.

It’s Christian Aid Week this week, the week when hundreds of thousands of people in the UK take simple, ordinary actions that together raise millions of pounds for people overcoming poverty. I see that money not as patronising pity or guilt offering. I see it a bold statement of solidarity that says, ‘We’re cheering you on.’

None of us can end poverty with a few quid in a bucket. But millions of people are working their arses off to create a secure income for themselves and an education for their kids, battling the impacts of a changing climate and fighting for their communities’ rights to life’s essentials. As we make our contributions, however much or little they might be, we’re standing in the crowd shouting, ‘Go for it!’

I hope you’ll take the chance to join in – putting money in the Christian Aid Week envelope that may well come through your door, joining in a Big Brekkie event, sponsoring a friend, buying something from a cake sale, book sale, plant sale… there’ll be a church near you contributing. Or, if you want to join in without leaving your bed, you can donate in a few clicks at caweek.org.

If you’ve got no idea how much you can give, try what I did – check the price of your last Uber.

Posted in Social justice and politics | Tagged , | 1 Comment