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.