Including Vicky Beeching

A preview of what I’m writing for the next issue of Marston Times:

Inclusive?

Vicky Beeching is a Christian musician who for a number of years was one of the most popular singers on the multi-million dollar American Christian music scene. She also studied theology at Oxford University, and in more recent years, after returning to the UK, she has worked as a broadcaster, often offering commentary on current events on radio and TV. She has even been tipped as a future presenter of BBC’s Songs of Praise. In August this year, she “came out” in an interview with the Independent newspaper, stating publicly that she is gay.

Hers is a profoundly moving and honest testimony to what has been the experience of many people for whom faith in God is the foundation of their whole lives, and yet who also realise that a sexual orientation towards their own sex is a “given”, an integral part of who they are. She describes how, even as a 12-year old, she realised that she didn’t share her schoolfriends’ interest in boys. Instead, she found herself increasingly attracted to other girls. This caused her intense shame and guilt, because she ‘knew’ it was condemned by Scripture and church teaching – certainly by the conservative churches which she attended. She tried keeping her feelings to herself, changing the way she felt by prayer and will-power, even seeking spiritual healing by going forward at a big prayer and worship gathering. Here she was subjected – by a group of adults and Christian leaders – to what was effectively a form of exorcism as they attempted to drive out the demons of homosexuality that possessed her. It’s hard to imagine the psychological trauma and damage this inflicted on a vulnerable teenage girl, or to forgive the cruelty of the people responsible.

Fortunately, Vicky was intelligent and strong enough to survive, and she knows God well enough to have come to the point where she is able to say, “I’m gay. God made me the way I am, and God loves me just the way I am.”

Such a public statement, from such a public Christian, obviously adds to the heat of the current Church debates on sexuality. There will be some who are so entrenched in their views that they simply refuse to accept the testimony of gay Christians that they haven’t chosen their orientation, it is just their God-given identity. Others may argue that the Church should love and welcome gay people, while not accepting that same-sex relationships can be part of God’s plan. I wonder if it’s really coherent to accept that God created and loves gay people, but wills to deny them the support and blessing that marriage affords to heterosexual people?

For me the issues about inclusiveness in the Christian community really beg the question: who would Jesus exclude? My reading of the stories in the Gospels leads me to think the answer is: No one. Jesus wouldn’t exclude anyone, or condemn anyone as being outside the reach of God’s love. (Look at the way he fed the five thousand, no questions asked; the way he healed lepers and Gentiles; the parable of the lost son – among many other examples.) Actually, I should maybe say the answer is, Probably no one. Because there were some groups of people Jesus had very hard things to say about. These were the hypocrites – people who pretend to be religiously better than everyone else. (Perhaps, like religious people who think they are OK because they are straight, and condemn gay people?) And there were the religious people who cause a more vulnerable person to stumble (Mt. 18.6) – like the people who tried to convince a young girl struggling with her sexuality that she could not be acceptable to or loved by God unless she changed. Would Jesus exclude hypocrites, and these? I don’t think he would – but the fact is they have effectively excluded themselves or cut themselves off from being within God’s plan.

Vicky Beeching has already exposed herself to hatred and abuse from parts of the Christian community that formerly loved her. It would be better for us all to thank God for her courage, pray for her, and pray for ourselves to understand more clearly the amazing richness of the mystery of how God has created human beings, and God’s longing to welcome everyone into the commonwealth of his love.

Money Laundering?

The last section of The Testing of Hearts is the journal Donald Nicholl kept when he was dying of cancer in 1996. Among his reflections on the state of the world, he writes:

Increasingly the human family has 'fallen into the hands of gangsters' (the phrase used by von Preysing at the time the Nazis took over Germany). These global gangsters are described as 'mafias' at a certain level, but they are scarcely distinguishable from the groups who govern many of the countries on earth – 'respectable' people who attend conferences and get themselves elected. There is an interlocking of arms dealing, drug dealing, media lying and monetary fraud of which the profits are 'laundered' into Swiss banks and other 'whited sepulchres'.

Little has changed since he wrote. In fact, it has only got worse. And these are the same gangsters who not only failed to prevent the banking crash of 2008 – who indeed brought it about – but also use the threat of money laundering as a reason to make ordinary people constantly produce private documents and other forms of ID to the banks, to prove who they are. I had to do this again this week. I wonder how many Parochial Church Councils have really been engaged in money laundering, that this particular nut needs this particular (and clearly useless) sledgehammer?

 

The Testing of Hearts, by Donald Nicholl

One of the great things about having your study taken apart book from book and then put back together again, is the opportunity to try and cull some of the titles from the shelves.

(Oh, ye book lovers of tender heart,turn away your ears; it may seem cruel and unusual to you, to even think of getting rid of books, but I'm afraid that is what the lack of space in our home has brought us to. Not even seeing our children grow to adulthood, and set up homes of their own, has released enough space for the quantities of books we have acquired over the years and are still acquiring.)

And after all, if I haven't opened some worthy theological tome since I was at theological college – even assuming I ever opened it then – do I really need to keep it on my shelves?

But the joy among this pain, is to discover some titles I've forgotten, which I read and loved, or in some cases never quite read, and on looking at them again, can't imagine why I didn't.

One of those titles is The Testing of Hearts, by Donald Nicholl. Nicholl was the director of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute from 1981 to 1985, during which time he kept a journal and wrote numerous articles for The Tablet, which are the material for this book. And what a wonderful, humble, insightful book it is! Nicholl's great and holy wisdom was to reflect on the Institute's work of trying to foster understanding and reconciliation in the Israeli-Palestinian situation, and teach that creating peace is impossible unless we first create within ourselves a pure and peaceable heart. Whatever events we experience, provide occasions for this heart-testing which gradually refines and purifies the heart until it can become of use to God in making peace.

Almost every page of this book yields some nugget of pure and peaceable wisdom that you want to underline and treasure, and quote to people as if you had discovered it for yourself. (But what would that say about the purity of your heart?)

I want to blog about lots of them. And maybe I will.

 

My Inner Child is a Hero

In my Twitter profile I describe myself as an ‘intrepid explorer of [my] Inner Child’. If your Inner Child bears any relation to your historic child – or your memories of it – (Sun may be able to help me out on this one), then my Inner Child is an often unhappy one. Which is kind of ridiculous, given that it (I) has nothing to be unhappy about. Yet many of my memories are of the hurting times, when I was pushed about or humiliated or laughed at because of my general nerdiness, physical weakness and sporting ineptitude. (Anything involving a ball was totally outside my competence; the only sport I even aspired to mediocrity in was cross-country running, when out of a year group, instead of coming last I sometimes managed to come in about 2/3 of the way down the field.)

I blame my mother. Of course. But for all the best of reasons. She had a hell of a childhood: orphaned at 4, and growing up in a succession of children’s homes during the week while her single mother had to work to provide. Consequently when she married and had a family of her own, she was determined to protect her son (and later, daughters) from the hardships she had suffered. So we were protected, wrapped in cotton wool, never allowed to take risks, and generally taught to be rather fearful of life and everything outside the safe haven of home.

My historic Inner Child is a poor, unhappy, shrinking, timid thing.

Yet he is also an idealist, an aspiring hero.

Which is why one of my favourite hymns from the days of school assemblies, is Jan Struther’s now rather unfashionable ‘When a knight won his spurs‘.

When a knight won his spurs, in the stories of old,
he was gentle and brave, he was gallant and bold;
with a shield on his arm and a lance in his hand,
for God and for valour he rode through the land.

No charger have I, and no sword by my side,
yet still to adventure and battle I ride,
though back into storyland giants have fled,
and the knights are no more and the dragons are dead.

Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed
‘gainst the dragons of anger, the ogres of greed;
and let me set free, with the sword of my youth,
from the castle of darkness the power of the truth.

Jan Struther (1901-1953)

And yes, it still brings the tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat, and dreams to my mind of strength and heroism and derring-do. Can I still sing this, now that the sword of my youth – even if it was a wooden one – has long been consigned to the old chest in the attic of memory? Well, yes, I can. I’m taking that sword down again from the attic. It’s not wooden at all, but finest tempered steel that only needs polishing up a bit. I’m not hanging it above the fireplace, like some ancestral trophy in a baronial hall. I’m fastening it on my belt again. I’m just as determined to fight for the truth, and release it from its captivity to the powers of darkness, as ever I was. That’s not a childish fantasy, but a determination thoroughly worthy of any adult, of any age.

So who’s with me, then?

In those stirring cries my Inner Child loves:
Up, guards, and at ‘em!
The game’s afoot!
Vamos, muchachos!
Aux armes, citoyens!
Forth, Eorlingas!
And so on.

Well, alleluia!

The Church Times prints this letter from Canon Anthony Phillips

Sir, – Am I alone in feeling utterly depressed by the comment in the Revd Dr Andrew Davison's article “What's the latest on the resurrection?” when, speaking of his work with the Cambridge Theological Federation, he notes: “I would have difficulty in finding a single ordinand who would not subscribe to the physical resurrection of Christ”? Another reason for lamenting the passing of the 1960s.

Well, for some of us, the passing of the old-fashioned and out-dated theological heresies of the 1960s is nothing but cause for rejoicing,

 

Easter Peace – Alleluia!

On the one hand, there are the people who would like me to preach a sermon at e.g. the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, because there are so many people there who only come to church once a year (or thereabouts), and how else are they going to hear the Gospel?

On the other hand, there are those like the husband of a colleague I met last week. He's an academic, a university chaplain, who says, “I never preach at major festivals. I just let the liturgy and the scriptures do their stuff.”

This year, as I tweeted the other day, I have dealt with Holy Week by deciding I wouldn't think of it as having to deliver or lead loads and loads of services, but as having the opportunity to meet with Christians to pray and hear the scriptures every day. And most days I have shared a few thoughts I've had about the readings, but never for more than a couple of minutes. It hasn't been profound theological reflection, or prophetic social commentary. But then, I'm not a pope or archbishop. No one reports or probably remembers what I say. Is it enough? I hope so.

The main thing is: for me it has worked. I haven't suffered the extreme exhaustion that some Holy Weeks have brought. Nor can I say there have been great emotional convulsions or fireworks. But there has been something like a deep contentment, a sense of the rightness of it all, a kind of quiet joy. Which I rather like.

 

Whom does the Grail (or the Vicar) serve?

A response to the article in the Guardian, What the vicar's wife is really thinking.

Of course as clergy we are called to serve the world, and our fellow men and women; that's part of what Christ calls us to do. And we call the acts of worship we prepare and lead in church, 'services'. But if we think of our services as being in the service of men and women, then of course we will get depressed and demoralised if people don't come to them, and if congregations dwindle. Just the same as the supermarkets go into agonies of panic and self-questioning and restructuring if people don't buy their services as much as they did 6 months ago.

It would be better and more correct to understand services in church as serving God. Liturgy means 'the work of the people', i.e. in serving God. That's all that matters. It's the service we (or often, I) offer to our Lord. If no one else at all is there, I offer it still, and gladly.

My heart bleeds for colleagues who feel ground down by the demands of parishioners and the Institution of the Church. No doubt I have been very fortunate in my ministry, to feel this is an occasional, not a frequent or constant, cross I bear. But a part of me also thinks, that if we set our minds on serving God first, the rest falls into perspective. For example, I don't allow backbiting or sniping in church, because that doesn't serve God. I teach the congregation that isn't how Christians behave, and trust my wonderful congregation to actually be trying to live it out – and they do. People who don't like that have other places they can go and be zealots or bigots, and they are welcome to them. Sorry. It's not that we kick them out of our church, it somehow seems to work by self selection.

In some of the Grail legends, the land is sick because of Sir Percival's failure to ask the right question: Whom does the Grail serve? Could it be one of the reasons the Church of England is sick, is that we aren't asking that question?

 

My heart sheweth me

Here’s one of the places where the Coverdale version of the psalms speaks to me more powerfully than any of the modern versions.

It’s in Psalm 36, appointed for Morning Prayer on the 7th day of the month, and it reads:

My heart sheweth me the wickedness of the ungodly: that there is no fear of God before his eyes. (verse 1)

Modern versions read:
Sin whispers to the wicked, in the depths of their heart:
there is no fear of God before their eyes. (Common Worship)

Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in their hearts;
there is no fear of God before their eyes. (NRSV)

But what I love about the Coverdale translation, used in the BCP, is its psychological wisdom. I don’t need to look at anyone else to see the depths of wickedness. Still less does the wickedness of others allow me to judge anyone. Because it’s in my own heart that I can see and learn it all. My heart shows me the wickedness of the ungodly.

KJV is nearer to Coverdale, and reads: The transgression of the wicked saith within my heart, that there is no fear of God before his eyes.

According to bible.org, the original Hebrew reads, “[the] rebellion of an evil man [is] in the midst of my heart”. So this is a fascinating example of where the archaic version is not only psychologically and spiritually true, but also a more accurate translation, than the moderns.

That’s Enculturation

 

All things bright and beautiful is – how shall I say? – not my favourite hymn. But I have always thought of it as quintessentially English, in a Victorian kind of way. Imagine my surprise then when I was recently asked for it by some Canadian visitors, who attached their version of the words. You'll see not only that verse 3 describes a very different landscape from England's green and pleasant land; the fauna and flora of verse 1 are also rather more exotic.

All things bright and beautiful,

all creatures great and small, ​​​

All things wise and wonderful,

the Lord God made them all.

1. Each radiant flower that opens,

each vibrant bird that sings

God made their glowing colours,

God made their lively wings.

2. The cold wind in the winter,

the pleasant summer sun,

The ripe fruits in the garden,

God made them every one.

3. The rocky mountain splendour,

the loon’s wild, haunting call

The great lakes and the prairies,

the forest in the fall.

4. God gave us eyes to see them ,

and lips that we might tell

How great is the Creator,

who has made all things well.

Has anyone come across other regional variants? For Africa, say, or Australia? Or Antarctica?


 

1950s Attitudes

As I tweeted earlier, today would have been my old Mum and Dad's 66th wedding anniversary. They were married on 28 March 1948, just about 16 months before I was born.

I also suddenly remembered how, at junior school, we were given a personal and family history project of drawing a timeline of our lives. I accidentally marked my parents' wedding day as 28 March 1949. The teacher said laughingly, “That can't be right, can it?” Oh, no.

Goodness! Can you imagine anything like that happening today? Imagine the trouble a teacher could be in for even having an opinion about whether her pupils were conceived or born out of wedlock, never mind assuming they weren't – or were… Or do they just not bother to draw family timelines because of the potential minefields they can lead to?