Wednesday, April 13, 2016


The Llandaff Clergy School is in Oxford this week, and I took a trip into town to see if I could catch a few folk whilst they were there.

It was lovely to see Peter, still working on building projects at St Catherine's; Irving, whose wisdom helped me through some difficult days in my first curacy; Chris, who was once a neighbour; Roger, who used to live in one of my parishes.

Archbishop Barry gave a moving address at the recent Church in Wales Governing Body, speaking of the impact of his wife's death at the start of the year. It was typically honest of him, and filled with faith and yearning, and a very Welsh sense of God and Gospel. I found it beautiful.

I was delighted especially therefore to catch both Barry and also Christopher Smith, Archdeacon of Morgannwg.

When I was at my lowest, in 2010, broken and ill and needing help, these godly men supported me in all sorts of ways. There were days when I was not charitable toward them at the time - there were days I was not charitable toward anyone at the time - but they went out of their way to help, to give me time, to give me opportunity and to provide for me so that I could begin the road to recovery. I am healthy and thriving in ministry now largely because of them.

It is always a pleasure to spend even the briefest of moments with them, and it was a special delight to be able to thank them yesterday for their role in those weeks and months and to talk about life now. Barry ensured I had space and provision to go to Asbury for a season which began my healing; Christopher believed in me when I had forgotten how to. In the pain of those days, I was sometimes quick to tell folk how I felt wounded by the church. It's only fair in the light of these days that I point out I had an archbishop and an archdeacon putting time and money and belief and commitment into helping me through...

Barry has been Archbishop of Wales since 2003. When he eventually comes to retire, I hope he is judged kindly. He has certainly not hidden from controversy! But for me, he was always thoughtful, caring, an inspiring preacher and a real friend.

And he, and Christopher, along with many others, will always, always have my thanks for all the life-affirming care they gave me.

I recently preached a sermon in which I commented on those who say "I don't need to go to church to worship God". Remembering that church is the people, not the building, my response, especially as I meet up with friends like these is -
"Well I do".


The Gospel reading in our Sunday services this week was the story from John 21 about Jesus and Peter having breakfast on the beach after the Resurrection. Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, and tells him to follow him once more.

It's a story I love for all sorts of reasons, but largely because it reminds me of an occasion years ago when I was almost overcome by the struggle of life.

It was my second year at theological college. I had to pull out of the degree course and swap to the certificate course because I was unwell and needed less stress. I had been asked to join a mission trip to Jerusalem to work with the two Anglican churches there, and my doctor thought it would do me good. But I still felt like a failure.

After the mission week, we got to tour around Galilee and other sites, but still I was grumpy. Everywhere we went, we just got out of the cars, took a photo, got back in the car and drove off. I wanted to take time, to breathe the air Jesus had breathed, to smell the scents, to take it all in.

So after we stopped at the Mount of Beatitudes I stomped off in a sulk. I know, can you believe, me in a sulk..?

One member of the group came to me and told me it was OK - if I wanted time alone I could have it. Everything was close together on the lake. There was a bus back to Tiberias where we were staying. I'd be fine.

"Good," I said, the embodiment of grace. And they left. Taking my lunch with them.

So I wandered down through the orange groves to the lakeside and sat on the beach by Tabgha, the site of the breakfast story. I was all alone. It was a grey day, with a mist on the lake, no other tourists anywhere in sight, and I cried out to God. I wanted to serve him, I wanted to be ordained - but I couldn't even succeed in training for ordination. I was failing at everything.

And in my misery I felt him whisper in my ear. Find a stone. I paused, bent down, picked up a rock from the beach. He whispered again. See how it looks like an arrow head? So I am sending you. It will be OK.

And I got up, popped the rock in my backpack and walked back up to the road - but time had passed, and the evening was setting in, and I needed to get home. I found the bus stop - and discovered the timetable was entirely in Hebrew. I never quite made Hebrew class at college. For the first time, this caused me some regret. I had no idea if there was a bus, what time it would come, or if I would be standing there till Tuesday week. So I decided to start walking the eight miles back to Tiberias.

Maybe I'd thumb a lift?

Maybe I'd be shot for that gesture in Israel...

I put my hand out occasionally as cars passed me by. And then one stopped. An old red thing. A Nissan I think. And the driver seemed nice enough. He was, it turned out, a professor at a Hebrew university, a philologist - and he spoke five or six languages. English was number five or six.

We chatted in pigeon English and pigeon French, and he asked what I did. I told him I was training to be a priest.

And then he said words which completed my day. My week, my year. Words I have never forgotten. Words, the like of which I thought only ever got spoken in the movies. But they were spoken to me. On the beach I had felt like a failure. By the time we got to Tiberias I felt ten feet tall.

No longer was God whispering in my ear. He was driving me home.

Those simple words which pierced my soul were:

"If you want God's want, you are - how you say - Congratulations."

Saturday, February 20, 2016

bach to the future

This afternoon I attended a memorial service for a friend from college. Nigel was at Merton for eight years, starting before me, and was CU Rep there the year before me. He died two years ago. He was a kind, gentle, generous man.

Nigel was softly spoken and always thoughtful. He constantly encouraged me as I organised the CU with Karen Wilson, and when he and I would occasionally bump into each other through the years that quiet encouragement would always shine through.

The last time we met was in the college chapel in Merton just before Easter in 2014. He was as gracious as ever. We shared stories briefly. He smiled his melancholy smile; our parting words were that we would meet there again at  some other choir event.

The gathering today was filled with friends from thirty years ago. It was lovely to see familiar faces - and also to suddenly realise that one or two unfamiliar faces were in fact also simply familiar ones subtly obscured by the mists of passing time. Some folk have hardly changed at all; some of us (I include myself) are pretty obscure now.

David, Andrew, Claudia, Carolyn, Mike, Ann, Frances, Louise, Ruth - it was like Wednesday nights of old; how marvellous to see you all and to hear the tiniest fragments of the last thirty years. Thankfully most will be back in Oxford for the college Gaudy (reunion) after Easter. Louise reminded me of an occasion I had all but forgotten; I did the same for her. Her reading of Ephphatha in Mark's Gospel has never left me... One person recounted seeing a gathering of former students from the 1950s when we were undergraduates and thinking how ancient those folk were.

Of course, they were from thirty years before our time. We are now their equivalents. It's back to the future. Our faces almost fit, our voices almost match, our smiles almost work - even in memoriam - though the Porter's Lodge has electric doors, and there are chairs at some of the tables in Hall rather than benches, and someone has landed a behemoth of an organ where once in chapel there was a dainty faux-baroque thing on stilts.

Yet: this afternoon I discovered that now again in Blackwells Music Shop it is possible to acquire LPs - genuine vinyl. And so it was Bach to the Future for me, as just before the service I bought Alfred Brendel playing JSB. I think it's illegal now to play Bach like this, but you can get a permit to own a recording if it comes at 33 1/3 rpm.

Nigel was a fine pianist, and he loved Bach. I think he'd enjoy Brendel's playing, and the warmth of the sound I am listening to as I type this.

It has a gentleness, a soft melancholy, a kindness to it that is rather wonderful. My world is all the better for it.  

Friday, January 01, 2016


As midnight struck, and gathered friends all wished each other "Happy New Year", I realised with a surprising depth of shock that this year brings another Birthday.

Not a birthday, you understand. A Birthday. One of those Birthdays that make you ask, "How did that happen?"

How did that happen?

Too many blessings to number. Too many kindnesses received. Too many mistakes forgiven and forgotten. Not enough good done by me, and too much good done to me. And though there are times I wish I could blot out, wipe away, go back and tell myself to avoid or do differently, there are more times - so many more - that I cherish beyond words, with folk near and far and gone before who make all these days glorious.

I stood at midnight with a surprising depth of shock at what this year promises to bring; but on reflection the deeper surprise lies in gifts already received.

Ahead can only be hope that such blessings might not yet run dry.

Here's a seasonal song - the saddest of all Christmas songs - but the wish behind it is that we might get the chance to be together; as I start this year, I offer a Happy New Year, and a hope that I do indeed get to see as many friends near and far and old and new as possible in the months ahead. You are always the blessings I seek.

Thursday, December 24, 2015


The remarkable news is that many people again received actual Christmas cards from me this year.

Unfortunately, you probably weren't one. 

That's because "many" actually means "more than three". So this is my appallingly weak apology to the rest of my friends and family. It's not that you are second best or that I love you less. Well, not much less. It's just that I looked at the list before me and realised you knew already in your heart of hearts that the chances of getting a card from me was very slight, and so I didn't want to disappoint you. By overachieving.

Anyway, nothing I could have written (and those who got cards realise that all I wrote was "squiggle, squiggle, even more indecipherable squiggle") could have beaten some of the Christmas letters I received. 

I haven't changed nationality, species, hair colour, address details with Barack Obama, my mind over anything all year. That apart, it's been a very exciting twelve months.

So exciting that I can't really find the words to describe it. Which is a mercy to all of us. So really, all I can do is exclaim - 

Happy Christmas! Which is the point of this message. Or, to those of you who became Corbynites this year, Happy Christmas Comrades! Or to this of you yet to see the new Star Wars movie, ***** ******** (plot spoilers removed). Or to Man United supporters, Happy Christmas 2016. Hopefully. 

God bless us, every one. 

Sunday, November 29, 2015


I'm slightly confused by the cards and Facebook messages that are coming today referring to 'age'. It may be my birthday, but I've been doing these things for a while, and I'd like to make a small but significant adjustment to the general thinking on these matters.

Birthdays are in fact celebrations of youth, not age.

For if this day marks a significant moment, it is not the accrual of years: the thing that I have learned with every passing celebration is -

Today I am younger than I ever will be.

I intend to enjoy this.

Happy Birthday Ryan Giggs, by the way.

Monday, October 19, 2015


 So I spent a weekend back in Pontypridd.

There's a new vicar's name on the noticeboard. And more Welsh, too. And, gloriously, the hall I once knew as a building next door to the church where the Social Services worked, is now a living, breathing outreach centre for all the the church does in the community. The connection between the two is physical and more. That was just a vision in my day; it's a reality now.

Peter (the successor; we've known each other since I was at Merton & he was at Pembroke) bought me lunch at the Bunch on Friday. That's changed too. It's not just the awards it gets these days - the old spit & sawdust front bit of the bar has had something of a makeover, but the food is still wonderful and there's nothing like a pint of O1.

I managed supper with the MP & his wife. Owen came back early from a party in Newport to spend the evening with the vicar. I'd feel honoured, but honestly faced with that choice (Newport/vicar - which, let's face it, can be rephrased as "Hell's suburb/Heaven's friend") I think we'd all probably risk Friday evening on the M4.

And then to business.

I was in town for a wedding. Best part of a decade ago I baptised two lads that Kirsty had nurtured in faith through a youth alpha course. She had wanted to start a youth group; the only thing was, we had no youth. So I said she should give it a go - & she got an amazing group together, a group which grew in faith and experience and life together.

They were a musical lot, and from time to time I got to encourage them a bit. Matthew Truelove was part of this group. Matt was (without doubt) the most gifted young singer I ever worked with. He wrote songs, he played guitar, he had a voice to stop angels mid-flight. If he'd wanted to, he'd have been the best known singer Wales had produced in a generation. At his side, Sion Carver was a terrifically gifted pianist who would never sing a word for me - and I pushed! Though I always suspected he might have the performer's gene - he certainly had the attitude. Matt now works behind the camera in film, and Sion fronts a band as keyboard player & singer.

On Saturday I married Matt to his amazingly lovely bride Liz, and also got to spend wonderful time chatting to Sion and his terrific girlfriend Kim.

Standing at the front of church as Liz walked down the aisle, seeing Matt take his place, and remembering so many occasions when he had stepped up to that spot to sing, to speak, to be baptised - and now to promise his life in love to his wife, I felt the glorious privilege that every priest has rise in my heart and almost overwhelm me. I had chosen one of the optional blessing prayers in the latest Welsh wedding service, and it almost undid me.

One of the fundamental roles of a priest is to bless people. When you do it, and know you re doing it, and know that the people you're blessing know themselves to be being blessed, there is a powerful spiritual sense that is simply beyond words. It is glorious, and on days when a PCC gets snarky, you just bring this to mind and it helps you keep doing the job.

As the afternoon turned to evening, and Matt & Liz danced and chatted to all their guests, Sion & Kim & I sat under the stars, beer in hand, and told stories of life and experience and faith and I was just glad to be there. Sion is a good guy, and I am so glad we had time to catch up.

I wish there had been more time.

I saw Jane & Teg, Julie & Joseph, Derek, Gill, Joyce, Barbara, Peter & Martine, David and others in Pontypridd all too briefly - and some not at all. Stewart, Trish: next time. Gemma: we'll find some Christmas trees to decorate on another occasion. My wonderful, wonderful OF friends - I cannot tell you how I miss you guys & look forward to catching up. Sorry it wasn't this occasion.

But for all its brevity it was perfect. It was, in every sense, a blessing.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

with all your heart

In September 1978 I walked down from West Park Road in Blackburn in my new school uniform to Blackburn Cathedral. With me were friends from Peel Park Primary School in Accrington who had also made it to the grammar school. Ian and Duncan. When we got to the cathedral, I saw my Mum there, and Ian's too. We were all rather overwhelmed by the whole thing.

I still have the order of service from that rainy Thursday. The preacher was Philip Hacking, who certain people might recall as a rather conservative evangelical Anglican of that period. I don't remember anything of the service itself.

Today, I didn't walk. I was driven with the Headmaster from the school to the Cathedral, and I was the preacher. It's the first time I've preached in a Cathedral, and how lovely that it should be at a service for the school where I came to faith. 

It was a great experience. I was made very welcome by the Headmaster, by the Dean of the Cathedral, by the whole school & Cathedral staff. There was one member of staff there from my schooldays, and a couple of staff who were students when I was. 

I got to choose the title, and the text. So I chose words from Jeremiah 29 which I heard spoken by our chaplain all those years ago, and which played their part in my coming to faith. Here's the Scripture text, and beneath it, my sermon for those really keen...

Jeremiah 29: 10 - 14
This is what the LORD says: "...I will come to you and fulfil my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you," declares the LORD, "and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations ..." declares the LORD.
A Hope And A Future
I first walked down from West Park Road to this Cathedral when I started at QEGS in 1978. 
At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, that’s a very long time ago, and it set me thinking - about how different things were in the past, and how we could never have guessed what the future might hold. 
For example, In 1978, the school had no computers; count them - not one. 
In 1978, the school had no swimming pool.
In 1978, half the girls in school left all at once. But then we only had girls in the sixth form, and I think the thirteen or fourteen that left in 78 were the first girls who ever came to QEGS.
It was a different school. It was a different world.
This is how different: In 1978 the Queen overtook her grandfather George V to become the 13th longest reigning monarch on the English throne. The 13th longest reigning monarch.
As I sat there (point at south transept) in 1978, I had no idea that I’d come back and stand here in 2015 less than a week before the Queen becomes our longest reigning monarch ever. 
1978 to today has been that long!
In 1978 we really did fear that the world would end with a nuclear war between the USA & the Russia. The school Debating Society held evenings with titles like, “This House Would Rather Be Dead Than Red”. We genuinely thought we might be invaded by the Soviets.
We never dreamed we might one day have a family holiday in Croatia - 
mostly because in 1978 we’d never heard of Croatia; it was still called Yugoslavia, and it was still run, as it had been since World War Two, by a chap called Marshal Tito.
Actually, Fred Bury, Deputy Head in 1978, had been an RAF pilot in World War Two, and when Tito died in 1980 I seem to recall Fred telling a packed school assembly an amazing story about flying Tito to a secret conference in Italy... That’s what you (indicate Deputy Head) have to live up to: we had Second World War RAF pilots who flew future Iron Curtain leaders on clandestine missions.
Here’s a list I made of things we could never have imagined in 1978 - just so you might begin to realise how impossible it is to begin to work out how your future will look in 40 years time. 
We’d never have imagined so many girls in school.
We’d never have imagined having a phone in our pockets with more computing power than frankly we could ever have imagined.
Actually, we’d never have imagined having a phone in our pockets. 
We’d never have imagined the internet. So no Facebook. And no Google. Or Amazon. We had to actually go shopping for everything. That’s what school lunchtimes were for.
In 1978 we’d never seen MacDonalds.
We couldn’t have imagined Ant & Dec. 
Or Saturday evening TV without Bruce Forsyth or Cilla Black; thank goodness Doctor Who keeps going...
We couldn’t have imagined two Iraq wars; or ISIS; or refugees and migrants pouring across the Mediterranean, locked in vans in middle Europe and desperate to get across the Channel. 
Writing to a people far from home, in a world two and a half thousand years ago where everything was changing & no-one could tell what the future would bring, the prophet Jeremiah wrote two things that still hold true today. I’m going to ask you to listen just a bit longer as I tell you what they are. 
Because all of us always face a future that is normally beyond our control.
I mean - There are small things we all have power over.
If you’re in the cricket team, you know when a ball comes at you whether you should play a defensive shot or whack it out of the park. But not till it’s coming right at you.
If you’re in the school play, you rehearse and rehearse and you know your lines and think you are ready but till there’s an audience out there, you don’t know if you’re going to smash it or what it will feel like when you do.
And those of you facing GCSEs and A levels this year already have the power to shape next August. It’s not just your summer brilliance in the exam hall, it’s choosing to be your best you now that makes the difference. 
But at the end of the day, these are the relatively small things we have some power over.
The truly big things - from our own health to world events - are not in our own gift. 
We face a future that is always uncertain and frankly normally beyond our control.
Jeremiah writes to us, as to the wandering and lost people of his own nation so very long ago:
First he writes: “I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
You may not know what the future holds, as I didn’t when I sat there in 1978; but you may know who holds the future. Again: You may not know what the future holds, but you may know who holds the future. That’s the amazing assurance of Jeremiah’s message. I’d never heard anything like it till I heard it here at QEGS. 
I didn’t know that there was an alternative to ignorance or fear or arrogance or apathy. I didn’t know. But suddenly I heard that in the midst of everything, we could know the One who holds the future. The One who has plans to bring us hope even when everything else is so uncertain. Hope. Such a precious gift.
In Emily Dickinson’s beautiful words:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.

For Christians, this Hope is one of the key changes that first the birth and gloriously the Resurrection of Jesus makes to the world. Let me speak from my very long experience from 1978 to today: Hope changes the darkest day. As you all sit here on the threshold of your future, it’s a gift God offers to each and every person in this place.
How do we receive such a gift? Well, I remember sitting in school assembly one day and hearing our then chaplain, Brian Underwood, speaking about words from this same passage of Scripture. This is the second thing we’ll take from Jeremiah today. He tells us that finding hope isn’t about keeping the rules or fulfilling expectations or being outwardly religious or making a fortune or having thousands chanting your name.
Jeremiah writes, This is where hope is found - 
God says: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
Look: Do not fear the future, and do not try to control it. No point. Do your best with the things within your power, and for the rest, seek to find trust and hope wherever you can and you will be people who bring trust and hope into this world.  
And seek God with all your heart, because when you do, you will find a future filled with more hope than you can begin to think or imagine.  

Monday, August 24, 2015

three down

I'm preparing a sermon for the start of the new academic year at my old school. I sort of know what I'm going to say, but thought I'd browse through the school website as I marshal the right words into the right order.

There in the OB section is notice of the passing of one of my History teachers, Alan Petford. He was just thirteen years older than me. My school was his first posting.

Scholarly, enthusiastic, endlessly giving of his time to encourage students who showed any flicker of interest or initiative, Alan was old school when old school was already out of fashion. I remember being driven to a sixth-form History conference in Lancaster in his old (and I mean 1950s) Rover through the Forest of Bowland (no motorways for us) and simply being grateful he hadn't chosen to drive his more familiar Landrover to school that day.

He was a stickler for punctuality and politeness in class. No chewing in Mr Petford's class... And his academic gown (it was that kind of school) brought its own cloud of dust wherever he went, as he never saw the purpose of a board duster when the edge of that scholarly garment, when not wrapped round him for warmth, was perfect for the job.

The photo from the school site shows his craggy features and piercing gaze. It misses the slightly crazed hair of his youth. And of course, the angle of his eyebrows when quizzical or intense or crossed or...just being Mr Petford.

When I started at grammar school, I had David Ramm; and then Lynn Martindale the year after. They returned as my sixth-form history teachers. But Alan Petford taught the years in between (French Revolution; England & Ireland in late 18th & early 19th centuries), though in the sixth-form I had him for an extra Local History AO level. These days I seem endlessly to be renewing, re-ordering and renovating church buildings; it was Alan Petford who first taught me church architecture, albeit of a mostly Lancastrian and mostly seventeenth and eighteenth century bent.

A few of us wanted to form a debating society. There existed one for sixth-formers, but nothing below that. I think I was in 2X, and we asked our form master if he'd help us, and he did - but he quickly passed us on to another teacher whom he thought would do a better job. The "another teacher", of course, was Alan Petford. Alan gave us time, energy, ideas, patience, encouragement and much more. He put up with us when ill-prepared and beamed when we triumphed. He found milk and tea before meetings and helped us wash up afterwards. He even sat and offered wisdom when we bothered to realise that he was always ready to help before the event. I suspect my weekly public speaking now owes more to his early interventions than I am even vaguely aware.

I was of course a History Boy. Seventh Term Oxbridge entry exam, after A levels, followed by a train journey from Preston station and then interview at Merton College.  David, Lynn and Alan all played their part in that term, with Mr Ramm heading it up. I tried to keep contact with them afterwards, when I went to university. But first Lynn passed, and then David, and of course getting an email out of Alan Petford was never going to happen.

Now it's three down.

Funny, at junior school I was top of my class and my year every year. At grammar school I never topped a class again. Well, in the sixth form I once came top of English; I was of course in the History set so that was unfortunate. But I had three History teachers who made me feel top of the class every time I was with them, and who gave me an academic direction I'd never otherwise have known. It's a commonplace to talk of people who touch our lives, but they did. And though it's a long time ago - I left school more than thirty years ago - their touch remains with me and I remain, always, thankful.

Friday, July 31, 2015


I’ve just read Ed Shaw’s ‘The Plausibility Problem - the church and same-sex attraction’. I’m reading around a few books from different evangelical standpoints on gay issues at the moment as I do a bit of writing myself. 

The writer is an evangelical Anglican vicar, single, celibate and gay. Well, he’s keen we don’t use that last word - he prefers ‘same-sex attracted’. He speaks of his own journey, of his struggles and desires and sufferings and of his absolute confidence in the traditional evangelical stance on gay issues.

His set-up is that in today’s world, keeping and teaching his moral stance has all sorts of plausibility problems because people inside as well as outside the church make basic errors of understanding. He tackles them personably and engagingly, and takes on all sorts of opinions that would disagree with him in the process.

Now I need to make two confessions. First, if you read this blog, you know that I too am an evangelical Anglican vicar, single, celibate & gay. (I’m happy with that word). And second, I don’t agree with everything in the traditional evangelical stance on gay issues - because I don’t find them biblical or godly or true enough. 

But I am absolutely committed to engaging with folk who agree with me and folk who disagree. The Christian Church is not defined as “those who believe in Jesus and take X stance on contemporary moral questions”; if we belong to Jesus, we belong to each other. So I have a vested interest in taking the time to listen to and read ideas that I disagree with, and if possible in talking to the people who hold those ideas dear so that we might not be faceless foes hiding behind barriers of print and piety. We are family.

Ed’s book has had a lot of evangelical coverage, and I’ve seen people point to it as a very helpful resource. Ed is one of the people behind the Living Out website, which itself is an interesting phenomenon (I read it and wonder how helpful I would have found it when I was a student; maybe my memory of where we have come from as a church is too good always to rest easy with it.) The book is an engaging read, and I can see why people like it. There were all sorts of things I liked and disliked about it, and I’m going to focus on some general themes in order to (ultimately) make some specific points.

As I read the book I had three main worries that kept coming back to me:

1. A Rose-Tinted View of the Past
I kept feeling that the sub-sub-title might secretly be something like “How to live as
yesterday’s Christians in today’s world”. There is a view of spiritual life here that feels like it came straight out of the 1950s, without any irony. At times this made me smile; occasionally I winced.

Let me give an example.

Right at the start, Ed talks of two fictional characters, Peter & Jane (a smile - only English people of a certain age are probably getting the reference, but the choice of names has a connotation) struggling with their faith and with being gay. Ed writes:
“The single life we are calling Peter and Jane to today was plausible in the past - but it seems so unreasonable today.”

It’s a spit out the coffee moment. Plausible in the past? In the past, if they wanted to exist in a church they just repressed, repressed, repressed. Any other option would have led to a criminal conviction. Many, many people struggle with issues of sexuality, and within my lifetime acting on one’s feelings as a gay person could result in prison in this country. And even when it was no longer a physical sentence, for most people for a good long time being gay remained a social crime. 

Now that “seems unreasonable”. But Ed is unaware of these things, and just presumes there must have been other reasons why good Christian people didn’t make their struggle public.

I am delighted Ed is public about his struggle. It took me a long time to be public about my life, because it was made pretty clear to me right at the start of my journey towards ordination that if there was any hint of anything “suspect” about my life, I wouldn’t make it. I couldn’t serve God or his people if I was gay. 

Now the world and the church have changed. 

The single life I set out on fresh out of college was not “plausible” or reasonable. It was compulsory. Thanks be to God, times have changed. Too rightly, that clock can’t be turned back.
 2. A Perfect Church

I kept worrying that for Ed’s vision of the world to work, you need to belong to a really great church. And by really great, I mean one where even if you are just a bit odd, people will welcome you into their homes (on days other than when the homegroup meets) and let you have care of their children. A church where inclusion is about making sure that everyone goes to the cinema and on holiday together. (Finance is never a problem for gay people, despite living alone.) Where inspirational teaching always shows people the point of life, and it’s Jesus! And our “appropriately intimate” friendships back this up. Where “single-minded service” is more attractive than sharing your life with another human being; and where being single in ministry is seen as an advantage not a hindrance. And most of all, this really great church rejoices in suffering and every member learns how to see thorns as the path to grace.
I’m piling this on because Ed does. Ed knows and I know and you know that this kind of church isn’t often plausible - and I’ve belonged to big churches and small churches and know that size or lack of size is no guarantee of any of these qualities. And if we need all these things to line up before a lifestyle becomes “plausible” - we are saying it’s not very plausible very often.

Now don't get me wrong - I agree with a lot of the things Ed values. As Ed works through this list of issues, I often find myself disagreeing with how he gets there theologically or how he enforces his viewpoint across the board, but I live most of this stuff. 

I’m happy to be called ‘gay’, but he’s right - it’s not my root identity: that’s in my life with God. I will never have my own family, and that’s OK - I pastor churches; Ed’s right, I have so many members in my family, so many folk I’ve been privileged to draw to faith and nurture, and so many wonderful folk I’ve been nurtured by. When I left the last church I was vicar at, I knew it was important to really leave and let go of everyone so that I didn’t hang around and (without meaning to) cast a shadow over the wonderful chap who followed me. But letting go of that congregation was leaving home for me; I had to leave my family and couldn’t look back and it hurt. And I also get what Ed is aiming at when he points out that things that the world says make us happy matter not one bit next to trusting God. That’s how I try to live. 

I could keep going through Ed’s list - 

But the whole thing is a big ask. It presupposes a pretty amazing Christian environment for the ordinary person in the pew. And as a church leader, I’d say I’ve not always had that. So I’m just cautious about its realism as a life-programme for every gay Christian.

3. More Sex, Vicar?
In this book, Ed presents marriage as being about sex. Honestly, I find myself surprised at quite how focussed his emphasis is. 

Now, as I’ve said, I’m an Anglican vicar, so is Ed, so I’m presuming that he reads the introduction to the Anglican marriage service as much as I do. And sex gets mentioned there - openly in one version, and in the words “bodily union” in the alternative. But it’s a mention, and then there’s lots of other things marriage is for. 

Time and again, Ed’s emphasis on sex as (what often seems to be) the only point of marriage gets the better of him and of his theology.

“We can’t make marriage anything but the permanent sexual union of a man and a woman without undermining its central purpose of pointing us to the passionate consummation of God’s love for his people.”

Marriage is about sex because heterosexual sex (within marriage as the focus and point of marriage) points to the ultimate union of Christ and his Church. 

It’s not that this is wrong; it’s just not enough. It misses so much - for example, how deep human relationships demonstrate our made-in-the-image-of-God-ness, and how marriage is an exploration of the divine gift that is our humanity. 

Of course, Ed talks of acting on his same-sex impulses by discovering more of God’s love for him (a wonderful and completely unworldly comment, when most would think one might just hold another’s hand). It's a throwaway comment that shouldn't get lost. But he also writes: “I once Googled the word ‘intimacy’ and found the images to be 99% sexual”.

Of course I did the same after reading that. I’d be interested to discover what you find - there are sexual images there, so be warned. But most were images I wouldn’t put in that category. Holding hands. A couple standing watching a sunset. Various kisses, many of which I would label 'gentle', ‘loving’ or ‘affectionate’ but not ‘sexual’; those also are there - as I say, be warned. I guess what counts as "Sexual" is in the eyes and mind of the beholder. 

For a book about sexuality, I feel at times its terms of reference are hazy, but its general trajectory is clear. An image of holding hands is "sexual". We hear Ed's freely confessed occasional self-loathing for sexual desire. And the definition of the opposite of celibacy we are given is "self-indulgence". I might gently want to question this journey. 


My point in raising these three issues at length rather than doing a chapter-by-chapter review of Ed’s book is this: 

When we discuss the issue of how Christians think and talk about being gay, it’s complicated. On paper Ed & I have a lot in common. But everyone has a background, and we reveal it more than we know in how we write as well as what we write. 

Ed’s book reveals to me a theology that yearns for the past, without facing up to that past. I agree with him in many of his observations on contemporary culture, but I’d add this: thus it ever was. Neither the world nor the church have ever been perfect, and if it used to be easier to encourage young Christians struggling to live with their sexuality to “stay true”, it wasn’t always because they’d been convinced by a Bible Study. There is a value in openness even if it’s an openness we then have to deal with. The truth shall set you free.

It reveals to me, as someone who has spent most of his ordained life away from the vigour of large-church life that understanding the context most people face is complicated. Even where I disagree with Ed’s theology I’ve lived the life he commends, and often it’s been the things he points to that have helped. Often. Not always. And being a leader with a compulsion to serve and good people ready to be there for you makes a heck of a difference - as Ed has experienced, though if he acknowledges that his status might just have helped his journey, I missed it. My apology. 

And, in what will be my biggest departure from Ed, it’s not all about sex. Being gay and wanting to share your life with someone is exactly the same as being straight. It’s about sharing a deep, committed, exclusive relationship with another that is a means of grace, a holy mystery, giving yourself to another throughout your life and being united in that love as Christ is with his Church. It’s about comforting and helping each other, living faithfully together in need and in plenty, in sorrow and in joy. It is about love in all its forms, and that includes sex. But sex isn’t just sex. For the Christian even that joy in the here and now is about strengthening the union of hearts and lives. Sharing life with another brings the possibility of nurturing others; children; for love isn’t selfish. It’s not about hiding but about a life in the community, a life that all should honour, an undertaking that is breathed into being reverently, responsibly, thoughtfully and prayerfully. And that's not self-indulgent, it's self-giving and holy and a Biblical calling.

Ed sees celibacy as “a gift you automatically have unless it has been replaced by the gift of marriage”. I’m with Jesus, St Paul and most of the church’s history in disagreeing with that line. A spiritual gift is a spiritual gift, not simply a label. I’m not sure I have that gift, still less sure I’d want it. And it’s not because I fixate on sex; well, not always. It’s because one day I’d like to know all of the above paragraph with someone. 

A Grace-Shaped Space

And yet, I read Ed and know his struggles and understand where he comes from. Ironically though my theology allows for the possibility of sharing my life with someone, I’m absolutely content as I am. I don’t have Ed’s “kitchen floor” moments where he very frankly describes “the acute pain (he) sometimes feels as a result of not having a partner, sex, children and the rest.” Not any more. I used to make myself ill repressing who I am, and God in his kindness has led me through those dark days. 

But I hear his words and they resonate with me. Someone who knows so much of life from my side of the fence deserves me to listen to them, whether I end up agreeing all the way or not.

In the end, as I read the book, I found myself marking my copy for all sorts of things where I felt Ed missed an issue or targeted an Aunt Sally or overstated something or just got it wrong; and I marked my copy for phrases that really said something well, and for questions that need more thought, and for honesty. Not that personal stories make everything right - Ed himself points that out. 

Ed Shaw has a ministry and a life in Christ that is blessed by God and which blesses others. What unites us is more than what divides us, and as we continue to talk about issues where we disagree in the church, it’s fair to ask all these questions - in the context of acknowledging one another as belonging to Jesus. If you want to read a contemporary conservative evangelical theology on the issue, this isn’t a bad place to start. He asks questions, gives answers, has a world-view and lives out what he preaches. 

For this is a grace-shaped space, and the disagreements we have will never be solved by name calling. Kindness and time to worship together and a little more conversation will remind us all we love because God first loved us. And our Heavenly Father loves us still, even if we’re struggling to get on right now.

Now how's that for pushing plausibility? Yet I believe it.

Monday, June 29, 2015

the difference between having a dream and living one

I've been fascinated by the phenomenon this weekend of all sorts of people registering their support for the Pride movement by changing their facebook profile pictures to have a rainbow filter.

I guess it's felt like a momentous week. The US Supreme Court finally ruled in favour of Equal Marriage, and it's always good to celebrate when US citizens catch up with people in Wales.

I've watched the facebook thing, liked various people's pictures, and not joined in.

In fact, I've found it hard to get excited at all about an issue I'm often quite passionate about.


Because this week I finally caught up with the movie Selma, a film about Martin Luther King and the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The montage at the end takes us from the horrors of what King and his associates and fellow protesters endured and shows what many of them achieved. But I watched it this week.

The week when a callow white youth sat in a Bible study group in a black church in South Carolina and shot nine people dead just because he was white and they were not. Where President Obama spoke - and sang - at the funeral of the pastor and commented on the pain of seeing the State Flag & the US Flag lowered to half mast over the South Carolina capitol in Columbia, but yet the Confederate Flag stayed high.  

Gay rights and the American Civil Rights movement are different beasts; but they have several things in common. They look to change the rules of society so as to make equal those regarded as 'less' by people in power. They look to change the institutional understanding of the way life is - that some are naturally more privileged than others - and fight to show that all are equally human.

And they are not enough. Neither movement. Neither group. Neither can achieve the fulness of their aims by passing laws and taking away physical barriers and officially enabling the servants to eat with the masters.

They are not enough because a kid with a gun - or a website or a shed load of money or a political will or whatever - still has the power to destroy. All people are created equal under God but not all get to live that way.

I'm not celebrating this weekend because as I look at it, the fight for equality amongst people is a long, hard, slow, relentless battle that keeps on keeping on. Equal marriage has been legal in my country for a little while now, but there will remain for years people who protest its invalidity. The folk who feel uncomfortable with it are pretty numerous, and not restricted to the Daily Mail or Reform. In my church, ordained ministers have received episcopal 'guidance' which forbids us from marrying under its provisions. I have personally heard senior diocesan bishops apologise about this, but any bishops who stand up publicly and say what they think about the 'guidance' apparently receive calls for their resignation. That's a conversation for you.

A conversation - in the church, where people should be more raised up, more equal, more whole, more loved than anywhere. And if it's like that here - it's no better anywhere else. Don't kid yourself. Our arguments may be heated, but they tend to be formal and superficially polite. That's not always the way of the football pitch, the playground, the office, the street corner.  

Having a dream is one thing; but living it (as Dr King knew all too well) is a costly thing and it means that we don't get to wake up from it. We don't get to turn the rainbow off our profile picture after Pride weekend passes, and we do get to take the flack for it. We live with it because it matters, and because it matters we keep on keeping on.

And we spot the moments in others' journeys where we stand shoulder to shoulder and pray together and understand. And keep on.

Oh yes, we rejoice on the good days. But for the rest, we pray, we weep, we work, we believe. People are people, by the grace of God. And one day it won't be a temporary victory to say so.