I have, over the last three and a half years, found myself asking myself what am I doing here.
It is a question that God asked Elijah. After Elijah feared for his life, he fled and came to the cave where he spent the night. The word of the Lord came to him:
‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’
Elijah was told to go and stand on the mountain, because the Lord was about to pass by. And, of course, we know the story: God was not in the wind, he was not in the earthquake or in the fire, but in the sound of sheer silence.
Synod, what if we were to believe that God is not in the wind, the fire or the earthquake, but in the sound of sheer silence.
Elijah knew that surely God was in that place. As Jacob before him, who dreamed of angels ascending and descending between Heaven and Earth, and awoke and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place’.
That continues to be my belief: that God is in this place.
In presenting the motion to General Synod in February, the House of Bishops recognised the profound disagreement that exists across the Church of England. Disagreement about sexuality persists within our church communities, between our churches, among our clergy, our lay leaders, as well as among the bishops of the Church of England.
This has sometimes been characterised as a disagreement between those who take scripture seriously and those who are swayed by the whims of culture. The Living in Love and Faith resources illustrate the fact that this is absolutely not the case. People have read scripture seriously and find a difference of meaning.
There are those who believe that our unity as Christians depends on our agreement on certain doctrinal issues, including those around sexuality and sexual intimacy. Then there are those who believe that unity is possible and desirable even if we disagree. Both of these approaches can be argued from scripture.
The House of Bishops have been seeking the space where we believe God is calling us to live with our current disagreements. The Church of England has always been intentionally and uniquely a broad church.
During the debate at General Synod in February, the bishops were criticised for not showing our ‘theological working out’ when offering the response to ‘Listening in Love and Faith’. Of course, the LLF resources themselves were part of that theological exploration: not just the course and the story films, but the book, the podcasts and the online library which has been developed during the past six years. All of these theological resources underpin our work. All of them can still be found via the LLF Learning Hub. However, we have in paper GS2328 tried to expand the theological and legal foundation on which we are building our work.
We have seen theology in dialogue with legal opinion – you may not agree with our theology or our legal advice, but we have not, as some have suggested, sought to use legal opinion to justify what is not right.
We have with integrity sought to listen to God and to discern a way forward where we do not agree.
The conversations has brought to the surface the deep differences and disagreements which have always been present, which until now maybe we have avoided. It has been, and still is, deeply as a painful process. People have red lines which, if they are crossed by other people, call forth judgement.
Stephen Cox, a priest in the Diocese of Guildford, has written a remarkable book called Navigating by the Son. He holds what some might call a ‘conservative’ view on sexuality, and his son is gay and partnered. So Stephen has been challenged to ask himself how to hold a particular view, with integrity, whilst allowing other people the space to hold theirs, and to live their lives by a different understanding.
Stephen says: “If we do not read all Scripture through the lens that is Jesus, we will inevitably colour our vision with the tinted spectacles of our own personality, culture and world view, which may not be as Christlike as we thought.
This should alert us to the necessary humility of approaching others with whom we disagree and in asserting our own opinions; a humility that Jesus modelled for us. It means that, to see the truth, we need to see each other, and especially we need those who are followers of Jesus while being radically different from us.
So, if an excess of prophetic zeal leads us to want to exclude, silence, traduce or hate our opponents, perhaps we should meditate on the fact that Jesus rebuked his disciples when they wanted to call down fire on the heads of those who opposed them (Luke 9:54, 55).
When we are tempted, in an excess of zeal that outstrips love, to try to bully other people into life changes that we know will be good for them, perhaps we need to recollect how Jesus never coerced, never manipulated, and perhaps we should reflect that, while Jesus undoubtedly had an agenda of transformation for them, it might not include making them more like us."
It is my firm belief that to take this approach does not dumb down our understanding of scripture or theology – on the contrary, it enriches it deeply. It also requires us to believe that there is a space where we can live together as a church.
So Synod, as we prepare to debate this motion I return to my reflections at the beginning of our informal discussions on Monday afternoon.
For some, what was agreed felt like a meteorite. For others it was the crumbs under the table. It may well be that in seeking to repair damage from what some fear was a meteorite, we are sweeping away the few crumbs which had been offered.
Our unity does not come from our commonality. It comes from Christ. The image of the body reminds us that each part of the body needs to be motivated by charitable love, seeking the health of the body rather than the glory of one part – for there is no more excellent way. We need, I believe, to resist those who wish to separate themselves or others from the body.
We live in a body which is messy, with its sacrificial compromise and failure to be what we are called to be. But God has chosen to work through that body – through us - to love the world he saved. We do not agree, but being part of the Body of Christ teaches us that love is patient; love is kind; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
The world needs better examples of dealing with difference, disagreement, and resentment. I still want to believe that this may be the gift of the Church to the world.
Surely God is in this place.
I move the motion.