A personal opinion by Jeremy Fagan.
What does it mean for the church to take seriously the command of Jesus to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations? Or to respond to St. Paul writing to one of his churches that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female?
On the face of it, this is an easy question – surely it’s about welcoming everyone no matter who they are? The church should be for everyone, regardless of who they are.
But this answer hasn’t always come easily to the church through history. There have been times when the church has supported the institution of slavery, or when churches in parts of the world have held segregated services – only white people welcome here. At other times, the church has seemed to be on the side of the wealthy, taking their side against the poor. In England, many churches would have pew rents – the wealthy hired the most comfortable seats in church, boxed off from the poor people standing at the back, and with their own fireplaces and heaters to keep the comfortable.
These battles have largely been fought and won. We would now not want the church to be a place of racial discrimination, or one where anyone is treated differently because of either their class or their income.
But the church continues to debate how far it is possible to include two groups of people in its leadership. The first, accepted by the majority of the church, is women. Women priests were first ordained in the Church of England in 1994, but it has still not (quite!) got to the point of ordaining women bishops – although there are women bishops in other parts of the world. The debate is no longer about whether women should be ordained, but what provision to make for those members of the church who find that they are unable to accept women’s ministry.
The second group is people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered. This has been a much more contentious issue over the last ten years, with large parts of the church welcoming the ministry of gay clergy and bishops, and large parts of the church vociferously opposing it.
On this issue, Jesus in the gospels is silent. St. Paul mentions it once or twice, and there are one or two mentions in the Old Testament. But in general, it does not seem to have been an issue in ancient times. Where it is mentioned, we are unsure if what is references is homosexuality as we understand it, or the practices of the Greek temples of their day, often abusive towards young boys and girls. I do not believe that what St. Paul condemns is lifelong loving relationships between two adults of the same sex, but instead the kind of destructive sexual behaviour that is destructive whether it is homosexual or heterosexual.
Instead, what I read in the gospels is a Jesus who condemns the religious of his day for excluding people, who welcomes people from across society, and who seems to regard rules that damage human life as unnecessary. Marriage is seen as a lifelong commitment, and is often (but not always!) the picture throughout the bible as a picture of heaven – a loving, life-giving life-long relationship. (St. Paul on the other hand regards celibacy as the higher calling.)
So for me, the church is called to be a place that includes and welcomes people of all sexualities and genders, that affirms their calling from God and vocation to serve their church. This will, I hope and pray, eventually extend to the church being a place where lesbian and gay couples are able to be married in the sight of God as well as in the sight of the state, and the lesbian and gay clergy and bishops that already serve in the Church of England are able to be fully open and honest.
Bishop James has recently expressed his own position on this, that he feels that it should be an issue over which Christians are fully able to disagree, and yet to remain within the same church, worshipping God alongside each other.
More information is available from Inclusive Church.