Drawing The Line

This latest article hosted by Janme Ozanne on ViaMedia.News, is written by The Rt. Revd. Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool, reflecting on his theological movement from the institutional homophobia and sexism of the earlier Church of England, towards his current understanding of what these attitudes have done for the mission and credibility of the Church until today. Recognising the damage done by basically mistaken attitudes towards LGBTQ people, Bishop Paul is now one of the primary advocates of change in the Church of England.

Having become Chair of the Ozanne Foundation, which promotes the human rights of LGBTQ people in the Church, he is anxious to bring the Church into a new era of inclusivity and a more pastoral understanding of the problems encountered by such people – especially in the area of the discredited and potentially dangerous advocacy and use of ‘Gay Conversion Therapy’ (now outlawed by the British Society of Registered Psychotherapists); which has blighted the lives of many people already, and turned many away from the church whose needs may be greater than many others of understanding and radical acceptance as both members and ministers of an ‘Inclusive Church of England’.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.[1]

It’s not that long ago that the word “inclusive” used to irritate me. I saw it as a party slogan, rather like the use of “orthodox” or “godly” in other parts of our Church. It annoyed me, even as it nagged at me.

This is because I hoped to rise above such divisive words. In particular, in my early days as a bishop I tried to inhabit a vacuum of opinion. I believed that this vacuum is the proper place for a bishop, the only place that a “symbol of unity” in the Church could possibly sit. Such a vacuum is certainly a good place to live if you want a quiet life: in space, no one can hear you scream.

Well, over the years things changed for me. As with so many others in the long history of the Church, events and wounded people approached me and I came to know them, and they changed me. Now, as I approach my retirement, the place and voice of a disciple involves (to quote Dan Berrigan SJ as I so often do), “knowing where you stand, and standing there”.

So I have done my best to say what I think about a whole range of things, including one or two which are contended in today’s church. I’ve tried to speak for, to make room for, the lives of people for whom there was no room in the past. Overall I’ve tried to set my compass by what the Roman Catholic Church has called the preferential option for the poor; what my predecessor David Sheppard called the bias to the poor.

As I’ve done so there has been no shortage of people to tell me that by making this journey at all, I have fallen short of my discipleship in general and of my episcopal vocation in particular. I’m told that I have gone wrong in one or both of two ways: by being a heretic and/or by being a maverick.

Those who think I’m a heretic usually write to me. They tend to be unrestrained in the use of their language. Many of them believe that my eternal destiny is at stake and that they need to help me with my salvation by setting me straight. From the tone of their letters they clearly believe that the job will best be done by shaming me into heaven, reminding me forcibly of my mistakes, inaccuracies, ignorances, underlining how offended they are by my words. I try always to reply to these letters and emails with thanks, but I have to say that none of them has yet succeeded in its aim. Shaming and anger are poor persuaders.

Those who think I’m a maverick are usually more restrained in their style. They tend not to write but to speak privately, or to express themselves non-verbally, in the raising of an eyebrow of the rolling of an eye. They communicate more in sorrow than in anger. What a pity, brother, that from time to time you have so noisily flouted the agreed norms of polite Christian behaviour. How unfortunate that you seem to be questioning or resisting or pre-empting the necessarily slow deliberations of the Church. What a shame that you keep banging on about one or two issues, rather than spreading your indignations more carefully, seamlessly and evenly about the place. How sad that you’re so… well, untactful.

For me, as for a number of my colleagues retired and serving in all orders of the Church, being seen as a maverick is unpleasant and unwelcome. Unwelcome, since our belief is that we live in the mainstream of discipleship and not on its margins. Making the option for the poor, being there for those on the edge of things, is the mainspring of our witness. But we ourselves do not wilfully seek to be on the edge of things. Still less do we want to be treated as a mildly tolerated presence on the edge, like pepper in a stew, piquant but mercifully optional.

Anyway, as the year’s end approaches, and with around fifty days to go before my farewell service in Liverpool, I have been reflecting on this question: how have I, who used to be so annoyed by the word “inclusive”, come to be seen as an annoying maverick/heretic now?

Perhaps it’s because I have entered in to a greater faithfulness to what I was taught about God and about his only-begotten Son. That at any rate is my hope and prayer.

Here is a short passage from the Lutheran liturgical theologian, Gordon Lathrop. I read it years ago, and I quote it often:

Draw a line that includes us and excludes many others, and Jesus Christ is always on the other side of the line. At least that is so if we are speaking of the biblical, historic Christ who eats with sinners and outsiders, who is made a curse and sin itself for us, who justifies the ungodly, and who is himself the hole in any system.[2]

In the week of my forty-second Christmas as an ordained minister, I look again as a disciple to the paradox of the Incarnation. I look to the Infant of Days, to the scrap of humanity who couldn’t find a room yet who is fully God, who grew up to dine with sinners, to scandalise the religious, to die an unclean death outside the city. I look to him and I agree with Gordon Lathrop. Jesus is himself the hole in any human system of righteousness, and Divine righteousness is a gift given to those on both sides of any line. And I will live in this mystery with all the integrity I can muster.

Another long-remembered thing. As a sixth-form student I read a book by Daniel Berrigan SJ, the US Catholic priest and peace protestor whose words I quoted above. The book was called “America is Hard to Find”. That book drew me into the peace movement, as a member of which I was honoured to have been arrested and held three or four times for standing or sitting in the wrong place, with Quakers and Catholics and Methodists and a few other Anglicans, acting as a heretic or a maverick over against the laws of England, when instruments of mass destruction were found on the streets, at Cruisewatch near Greenham Common, or at RAF Lakenheath, or in places where decisions were taken about the use of such weapons, such as 10 Downing Street (where in those days you could indeed stand or sit on the street outside). This has been a wellspring of my witness, and I remain glad that I stood there, although doing that too brought criticism to me.

Perhaps all these criticisms are justified, perhaps one day I’ll grow up enough to understand them and to repudiate my life’s journey. Or perhaps not.

In any case mine is far from being the unblemished journey of a saint or a prophet. It’s been full of twists and turns, mistakes and apologies, depressions and re-commitments. It has led me from a seat on the road outside 10 Downing Street to (briefly) a seat in the House of Lords, and many would say that sums up a road of contradiction and paradox and compromise and complicity.

But as a result of that journey, I am more and more convinced that if we draw a line that includes us and excludes many others, then Jesus Christ is always on the other side of the line, among the people outside. I want to be there with Him. I have become unashamedly inclusive, for Christ’s sake.

And on that road I hope to keep walking, through Christmas and through retirement and on into my own future, as part of the future of this broken and excluding world which needs Jesus so much.

As I prepare to enter another chapter of my life and ministry, I commend the life of looking beyond lines to you all. I hope that you’ll walk on that road yourself, unafraid. God is with you. Have a blessed Christmas, and a happy and spirit-filled New Year!

© Paul Bayes 2021

[1] 1 Peter 3:14

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About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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