Testing the beliefs we’ve inherited from our past

This week, Methodist Conference accepted (by a large majority) a report proposing,  that we should:

  • Be open and positive about sexuality and relationships. We hope to enable the Methodist Church to speak openly, positively, and joyfully as well as wisely about relationships and sexuality as one aspect of God’s gracious goodness and of who God has made us to be.
  • Value all relationships of grace. We invite the Methodist Church to value all committed faithful loving relationships that bear the marks that we can see in the love of Jesus, and are within the law of the land. We encourage the Church actively to offer greater dignity, inclusion and restoration in the community of God’s new creation to those who cohabit, are single, or are developing relationships, irrespective of sexuality and gender.
  • Widen and justify the understanding of marriage as being between two persons. We offer to the Methodist Church a theological reflection on marriage as a particular form of ‘gospel’ relationship between two persons, and propose that we take steps to enable same-sex couples to get married in the Methodist Church. At the same time, we recognise that not everyone will agree with this and so we ask that the Church seek to protect the differing convictions of those who do not agree.

The report will be reflected upon and prayed about at a local level before a definitive vote on these provisions that will be held at next year’s conference. 

This sermon was preached last Sunday, before the vote, and based upon the lectionary reading, Galatians 5: 1, 13-25.

The lectionary is racing through Paul’s letter to the Galatians at the moment. It seems to be going particularly quickly because how much we read from Galatians in any particular three-year cycle is dependent on the timing of Easter in the third year. If Easter is late, as it is this year, then we don’t get to read much of Galatians. Blink and you’ll miss it.

This may or may not be a bad thing. I say this because Galatians is either one of the most important letters Paul ever wrote or is almost completely irrelevant to the modern church. To explore which we need to understand a little of the context in which it was written.

Galatians may be the earliest of the letters in the New Testament. Paul was probably writing towards the end of his second missionary journeys to a group of churches in the Roman province of Galatia, in what is now part of Turkey. He had visited the cities on his first two journeys and had helped establish “churches” there. On those journeys he developed a particular way of operating. When he went to a new town, he would base his activities at the local synagogue. His approach is very similar to how many of us would respond to a move to a new town – we’d probably go to the church, the place where we feel at home and expect to find like-minded people.

There was generally a mix of people at the synagogue. There would be some people who were ethnically Jewish, whose families had emigrated from Israel at some time in the past. Some might have been persecuted, some might have been economic migrants. They preserved their Jewish culture and identity principally through adherence to a code of laws that covered just about every aspect of their lives. They assumed that their relationship with God depended on how closely they followed these laws. Along with them would be non-Jews who were attracted to Jewish ideas about God, they were known as god-fearers. The ethnic Jews apparently encouraged these non-Jews to join in with many of their activities but they were still considered them as separate outsiders.

Paul was adamant that the death and resurrection of Jesus defined a new way of relating to God as individuals which made the distinction between Jews and non-Jews irrelevant. Ethnicity was not an issue. God was for everyone. Perhaps more importantly a personal relationship with God superseded the requirement to adhere slavishly to the law codes. Paul, thus, encouraged these communities to treat Jews and non-Jews as equal before God. The Jews could continue to adhere to the law if they wanted to, but the non-Jews didn’t have to. Having set these communities up in this way, Paul then moved on.

The letter to the Galatians is clearly Paul’s response to hearing news that this way of living was breaking down. We don’t know how he got the news or exactly what he was told, but it is clear that the ethnic Jews were insisting that if the god-fearers wanted to continue in the community they were going to have to start adhering to the Jewish law and, more specifically, that the males would have to be circumcised. Paul let rip; he was furious. The letter to the Galatians is a short  and an angry letter with a specific focus on this one issue.

Which brings us to the question of whether or not the letter is relevant to us today. It was written in a very specific context. If the letter is taken simply as advice to a group of Christian communities in first century Galatia about whether non-Jews should be required to adhere to the Jewish Law, then it is almost entirely irrelevant to us in Bramhall today. We, as Christians, see no requirement to follow the Jewish law and there is no pressure on any male to be circumcised. These are purely historic concerns. If this is how we view Galatians, it would be in everybody’s interest to forget about the letter altogether whenever Easter occurs in any given year.

But we can look at the letter it a different way. We can see it as Paul’s more general advice on how to deal with any religious beliefs which we may have inherited from previous generations and the culture in which we have grown up. The book becomes highly relevant if we read it like this because many of our most deeply held beliefs are rooted in the culture in which we grew up and many have been passed onto us by our parents, both biological and spiritual.

The starting point is for us to be honest and accept that the beliefs that the church has held to over the years have been bit of a mixed bag. Much of what the church has believed in the past has been true to the teachings of Jesus and Paul. Along with this, however, are many beliefs which, in light of a modern understanding of God, we now see as at best distracting and often quite simply wrong. The church accepted slavery as inevitable part of God’s created order for nearly 1800 years, for example. Just over 100 years ago the countries of Europe slipped into the most devastating war there has ever been all believing that the Christian God was on their side. Over our own lifetime the  way we view certain parts of the Church’s historic teaching have changed. Methodists now celebrate the gifts that women can bring to ordained roles in the church (even if other denominations do not). Most of us now accept that divorced people should be offered a second chance through remarrying in church. Our understanding of God, and the way we live out our lives in response, has changed.

When we look back, we are forced to accept that the faith we have inherited from past generations is a mix of the good and the bad, the true and the false. On this basis, Paul’s letter to the Galatians, becomes incredibly relevant in providing us with tools to look back on that inherited faith and discern which elements we should hold to and which we should move on from. So, what is that advice?

Perhaps the most obvious thing to state is that he does not simply dismiss that inherited faith. He sees it as something that the Jews should continue to honour, but they should honour it by testing it seriously against the new understanding of God as revealed in Jesus. Those parts of our tradition that pass that test we should continue to celebrate, but we should move on from those that fail.

So what is that test? Earlier in the letter Paul has repeated his understanding that our relationship with God is based primarily on how God loves us (as demonstrated through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus). He sees our response to this as reflected in and how well we love our neighbours. He sees this as “summarising” or “fulfilling” those huge volumes of the Jewish law. Paul’s teaching here is very close to Jesus’ repetition of the commandment to love each other as you love yourselves or his gift of a new commandment, that we should love one another as he has first loved us. The test of the faith that we have received from previous generations is firstly then, whether it fulfils the commandment to love our neighbours.

But Paul sees faith as more than just intellectual assent to ideological beliefs. He sees faith as something that leads to radical transformation of who we are and how we act. If we allow that Spirit to dwell within in us then we will exhibit its fruits, “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” When we look at those beliefs that we have inherited we need to judge them in the light of the people they help us become. Are they leading us towards love, joy, peace and kindness?

The final point that I think is relevant today, is that Paul is telling the Jews to welcome people who have very different lifestyles to their own. I don’t think there is anywhere in the whole of Paul’s letters where he tells the Jews that they should stop adhering to the law. If that is what works for them, brings them closer to God, results in the fruits of the Spirit, then by all means continue. But, and this is a really big “but”, don’t assume that this is the only way to honour God. Jews had to accept that the non-Jews might honour God through lifestyles that were quite radically different to theirs but of no less value in the eyes of God.

The report that is to be debated at Conference this week, and which we will have an opportunity to discuss in various forums over the coming year, can be seen as an application of Paul’s teaching as embodied in the passage we’ve heard read this morning. First, it offers us an opportunity for us to examine the beliefs that we have inherited from previous generations of Christians – an opportunity to discern which of those we should continue to hold, and which we should decide to move on from. Secondly, it offers a test to help us make this decision: What best expresses our love for our neighbour and what allows ourselves and that neighbour to be open to the gifts of the spirit? Thirdly, it offers us an opportunity to welcome into our community people who love God but who’s lifestyles may be different to our own. It does this without this requiring us to give up those lifestyles that have allowed us to live God filled lives until now.

So in the rest of this service and throughout this coming year let us pray for a vision of how God’s church should move forwards in a way that honours what we hold most precious from the past but also welcomes those who love God in different ways and have different lifestyles. Above all let us pray that whatever decisions are made, they will express our love for our neighbour and open channels for all people to have their lives transformed by the blessing of God’s Spirit. Let us, through sharing our different views, unite to work for the coming of God’s Kingdom.



Equal marriage meeting

Report from the Circuit Open Meeting on Human Sexuality and Equal Marriage contributed to my local church magazine.

34 people from across the circuit met. After a brief act of worship David Walton, an ex-Vice President of Conference talked about the Same Sex Marriage Act, which the government passed last year, and its implications for the Methodist Church. The Act allows religious organisations to choose whether they will conduct same sex marriages or not. This means that Methodist Conference, our Church Council and the presiding Minister would all need to agree before such a marriage could take place on our premises.

At present Methodist Standing Orders state that ‘…marriage is the gift of God and it is God’s intention that a marriage should be a life-long union in body, mind and spirit of one man and one woman’. Our Church cannot, therefore, hold same-sex marriages unless it changes its Standing Orders first. The church responded to the government consultations on the Act from this position. At the last Conference, however, a working group was set  up to “to consider whether the Methodist Church’s position on marriage needs revising in light of changes in society, undertaking this consideration with reference to scripture, tradition, reason and experience”.

David also gave us a short history of how Christian attitudes to marriage have changed over time which I found particularly interesting. Did you know, for example, that it was only in the 1215 that the Church decreed that marriages had to be carried out in public in the presence of a priest? Before then many marriages were either informal (for the poor) or a form of legal contract (if money was involved).

We then broke into small groups for discussion of six questions that guided us through some of the issues that our church faces. Within my group were people with the widely different views which I’m sure characterise most congregations. The questions led us through these, however, in a way that allowed us to explore how we had all come to hold those different views. I got a real sense of a community joining the “pilgrimage of faith” that had been advocated by Conference when human sexuality was last discussed in 1993.

After that there was time for us to come together and reflect jointly on the conversations that had been held separately. Again there was honesty and openness in that sharing and a willingness to listen respectfully to people who had different opinions.

As we’d started in a short act of worship, so we ended in a short act of worship. For me, however, the whole morning had been a deeply moving act of worship. It was worship as I imagine the early church worshipping – sitting around in small groups, talking to each other of the things that deeply concerned them and, through that shared experience and in the presence of the Spirit, trying to discern how God wanted them to respond to a changing world.

Those of you who weren’t able to be there might like to draw into communion with those who were by reflecting on the words of the two hymns we sang: “Sacred the body that God has created (StF 618)” and “Let us build a house where love can dwell (StF 409)”. Think about how God speaks to you through the words first to affirm what you believe and then to challenge it. Then imagine a fellow Christian with different views to yours on human sexuality. How would God speak through these words to both affirm and challenge what they believe? Then pray for yourself and then for your imagined friend.

Same sex marriage act

This is a sermon preached on Sunday 1st June the week before a circuit level “open meeting” on human sexuality and same sex marriage. The readings I chose were Matthew 15:21-28 and Acts 15:1-19.

Introduction to theme

This morning I’d like to suggest we talk about same sex marriage. Such a topic is not every Christian’s cup of tea but our church has asked us to prayerfully consider the matter so let’s give it a go. It’s probably worth starting off with a bit of background before we get to the sermon proper.

The Marriage (same sex couples) Act came into force in 2013 and first same sex marriages took place on 29th March 2014. The Church of England is prevented by the law for constitutional reasons from holding same sex marriages but the other churches have the choice to opt in or opt out. The Quakers have already announced that they will welcome same sex marriages.

The Methodist response has been quite legalistic and technical. Our standing orders currently state that “marriage is a gift of God and that it is God’s intention that a marriage should be a life-long union in body, mind and spirit of one man and one woman”. This is the tradition of the church which was reinforced after the last substantial debate on the topic in 1993. The official pronouncements have really just hidden behind this. Our formal definition of marriage explicitly states that it is between a man and a woman then clearly we cannot acknowledge marriage between two men or two women. At that Conference in 1993 however the Methodist Church also resolved that it:

recognises, affirms and celebrates the participation and ministry of lesbians and gay men in the church. Conference calls on the Methodist people to begin a pilgrimage of faith to combat repression and discrimination, to work for justice and human rights and to give dignity and worth to people whatever their sexuality.

Things are thus not quite as clear cut as the pronouncements suggest. How can  we “recognise, affirm and celebrate” what lesbians and gay men have to offer and then deny them the opportunity to form relationships and have these recognised and celebrated in church? At last year’s Conference our church thus asked a working group to “consider whether the Methodist Church’s position on marriage needs revising in the light of changes in society“. The meeting next week is a part of that process.

The other issue that the meeting will address is how to deal with the consequences of any such decision. It is very clear that there is a wide diversity of opinion within the Methodist church on this issue with some people at both ends of the spectrum holding very deeply rooted an opposing views. However the decision goes, a substantial part of the church are likely to be quite unhappy. They will feel the church has turned away form the will of God. Are there actions we can take now, before we know the outcome of the debate, that might make it easier for the church to address the consequences whichever way the decision goes. In my sermon this morning I’d like to address the issue of whether we should revise our understanding of marriage and afterwards I hope we might have time  for a little discussion on how the church can accommodate people of opposing views.

Before I do so I just want to finish off the “information session” by pointing out that whatever happens it is not going to happen quickly. If the working party proposes that we should consider revising our definition of marriage then there will be a period of consultation before that decision is made. If that decision is to broaden the definition to include same sex marriage then there will need to be further consultation and debate for Conference to allow such ceremonies on Methodist church premises. Our rules will then require each Church Council individual to decide whether to host such ceremonies or not and the Minister will also be allowed to take a personal decision as to whether they feel able to officiate at the ceremony or not. There are a lot of ifs in what I’ve just said and the different levels of decision making are going to take a considerable period of time.


In thinking about how to preach on this subject I was struck by the  phrasing of the resolution of Conference last year: “to consider whether the Methodist Church’s position on marriage needs revising in the light of changes in society“. I want to focus on the last seven words: “in the light of changes in society“. This isn’t the way that many of us think about our theology is it. We tend to think of our understanding of God and God’s will as being the same in the beginning, now and forever more, Amen. In a rapidly changing and bewildering world many of us take considerable strength from our faith as something the is steadfast and unchanging. We want to believe that there are certain truths that simply do not change.

But our church’s governing body is saying something different. It is saying that our beliefs may need revising, not only that they may need revising but they may need revising in the light of changes in society. Is our understanding of God to be dictated to us by society?  I suspect there are many within the church who would be horrified by this thought once they hear it expressed in this way.

But there are clear precedents in our communal history. The early church’s attitude to non-Jews is, I would suggest, such an example. There is no real doubt that the historical Jesus saw his mission as to the Jews. He was raised in a part of Palestine were he probably never met anyone who didn’t consider themselves Jewish. He clearly saw his teaching as a fulfilment of the Jewish religion and the teaching of the prophets. We catch a glimpse of this in the reading we’ve had from Matthew this morning. When approached with a request from a non-Jewish woman he replies quite harshly, “I was sent here only for the lost sheep of Israel“. This was his teaching to his disciples who after his death continued in the assumption that early Christianity was a movement within Judaism which required Christians to accept the requirements of Judaism including circumcision and adherence to food laws.

The first Council of Jerusalem, which was probably held in about 50 CE and is recorded in the passage we heard form Acts changed that. From that point onwards the official church position was that Christianity was open to all and there was no specific requirements for Christians to adhere to Jewish customs and practices. What changes? The scriptures certainly didn’t – they’d been formalised a couple of centuries earlier. Jesus’ teaching didn’t – he’d been dead for 20 years. What I’d like to suggest had changed was the society in which the church was operating. The church had moved away from Galilee which was overwhelmingly Jewish to Jerusalem which was a cosmopolitan city embracing individuals from many backgrounds. More than that, particularly through Paul’s ministry, Christianity was being proclaimed across the eastern Mediterranean in cities where the Jewish community were a very small minority. It was not scripture or Jesus teaching that had changed – it was the society in which Christianity was being lived out that had changed. In a very real sense the First Council of Jerusalem had revised its teaching in the light of changes in society.

Another slightly more recent example might be the church’s position on slavery. For nearly the first 1800 years of its existence the church had just assumed that slavery was part of the economic order – the way in which God had created the world. Despite spending long periods in slavery as a nation the Jewish people clearly didn’t see anything wrong in the concept. Solomon built the first temple with slaves. Paul’s letter to Philemon is written to accompany a runaway slave, Onesimus, who Paul is returning to his master without the slightest suggestion that Paul sees anything wrong with slavery. Yet we all know the story of Hannah More and William Wilberforce to convince the Church (and the nation) that slavery was wrong and should be abolished.

What changed? Clearly the scriptures hadn’t changed. Again what I believed had changed was society. It is interesting that the debate over slavery in England really only started after the Revolution in France. It was a time at which the concepts of  liberté, egalité and fraternité where starting to spread beyond France (and inspiring American independence of course). In a very real sense the fight against slavery was a consequence of the philosophy of the Enlightenment which was largely secular, if not atheist, rather than religion. The church, through Wilberforce and others, adopted those views and allowed their theology to be fashioned by them. A theological understanding of slavery was transformed in the light of changes in society.

So what can we learn from these two episodes that might help us in considering the issues that face the church today? The first thing is that decisions look very clear and obvious with the respect of hindsight. No-one in today’s church has the faintest belief that Christians need to be circumcised or obey Jewich food laws. No-one int today’s church has the faintest belief that slavery is anything but totally abhorrent. But those truths which we now accept universally where far from obvious to the Christians involved in debating the issues at the time. There was considerable resistance within the church to opening up the early church to gentiles and, even more remarkably to modern Christians, there was considerable resistance within the church to the abolitionist cause.  When we consider how the church should be interpretting God’s will for today I think we should use the imagination that God has given us to consider how the decisions we make today will be looked back on from the future. How do you think the church will look back on the current debate on same sex marriage in fifty years, in a hundred years, in a thousand years?

If you want  more recent examples think about the church’s attitudes to women in the ministry or to the re-marriage of divorced couples when you were growing up. What were your attitudes at the time? Have those attitudes changed with the passage of time? Is the church a better place for the decisions it took, in the midst of considerable internal discord, all those years ago.

I want to conclude with another angle, and that is that our understanding of God’s will is not just affected by our experiences of society as an abstract entity. They are affected by our direct experience of the individuals that comprise that society. During Jesus Galilean ministry his disciples probably never met anyone who didn’t consider themselves Jewish. In Jerusalem they would have started to meet gentiles as individuals and Paul’s ministry led him to strike up many personal relationships with gentiles. It was almost certainly the strength of those relationships and the growing appreciation of what gentiles had to offer the growing church, and of what the church had to offer the gentiles that led to the decisions of that First Council. The theology of the early church was forged through experience of personal relationships.

Similarly with  the anti-slavery movement. One of the things that characterised England in the late 18th century was the growing number of black people within society, many of whom would have been those who had escaped from slavery by some means or other. Black people were becoming very common in London with a  fashion amongst the upper classes to employ them as servants. An important part of the anti-slavery movement was that people were meeting with ex-slaves on a more and more regular basis and assumptions that blacks were different and naturally inferior were being eroded away. Through personal relationships people were able to see that slaves were human just like you or me. The theology of the anti-slavery campaign was forged, in part, through the experience of personal relationships.

I think in many ways the biggest weakness we have with the current debate about the theology of same sex marriage is that many of us within local church congregations don’t actually know that many gay or lesbian people. It’s difficult to get reliable statistics on just how many people who are homosexual  there are in Britain, but the background reading I’ve done over this week suggests that they probably comprise somewhere in the region of  5% of the population. Within this is quite an age difference so friends of our age are much less likely to be open about their homosexuality than younger people. Then of course there is the fact that traditional attitudes to homosexuality mean that many homosexuals choose to avoid the church. All in all, most of us have very little contact with people who are homosexual. This is sad because it may mean that we don’t have those experiences of personal relationships that might have the potential to influence our views. Its interesting that the Archbishop of Canterbury himself has made it clear that one of the most important influences on his thinking in this area is the quality of the relationships he has with people who are homosexual and what he has observed of the quality of the relationships that they have with their partners.

So I’d like to conclude by suggesting that, in considering the issues that our church is placing before us, our main concern in our thoughts and in our prayers should be for the people that it affects most directly. If you do know people who are openly homosexual then think and pray about them. Talk to them. What do they need, how can we best express God’s love for them – the god who created all people in his own image. If you don’t know anyone who is openly homosexual then ask yourselves how your views might be altered if you did. Use your imagination, pray for them, ask how we can make God’s love as open as possible to everyone in the modern world.

We should all ask ourselves if our personal beliefs do need to change in the light of changes in our society.


Afterwards we sang the hymn Come all who look to Christ today which seemed to resonate with the theme of my sermon even more than I’d recognised when choosing it two days earlier.