URC Assembly and General Synod - thanksgiving and hope
Today in Southport, the United Reformed Church voted at their General Assembly to permit churches who wish to do so to conduct marriages for same-sex couples, making the URC the largest denomination in the UK to do so to date. The motion gained a comfortable majority of 240 votes to 21, and no church will be compelled to conduct marriages if they don't wish to do so. You can read the full press release from the URC here.
This is a huge step for the URC, and one which would not have been possible without years of conversations, debates, dialogue, reports and resolutions, theological reflection and prophetic witness. It is especially poignant to recall those who have worked and prayed for this moment over long years, and whose celebration tonight will not be with us, but with the saints in eternity. They are not forgotten, and we give thanks for the way they walked before us, to bring us where we are today.
Tomorrow, members of the General Synod of the Church of England will meet in closed sessions for the final round of the Shared Conversations, in which the CofE has been engaged for almost two years. It has been a grey and humid day in York, but this evening a rainbow appeared above the city and no doubt those of all shades of conviction will see this as a sign of God's presence and promise for the days ahead.
It is probably right to observe that the Shared Conversations on sexuality have been another exercise in which those with power have chosen who they'd like to listen to - and their outcome will no doubt reflect in some measure that regrettable and entirely avoidable approach. Nevertheless, many who been invited and chosen to take part have found them to be a genuine and humbling experience of encounter - with one another, with those who stand in a very different place to them, and with the God who constantly challenges and surprises. Participants have spoken of discovering shared ground, as well as the boundaries around that space - of hardened hearts and immovable and intractible 'theologies'. Gay, lesbian and bisexual people's lives have been open to scrutiny and judgement and that has been a costly process, however well facilitated - and it's important to record that participants have reported that the meetings have been unfailingly well facilitated. Those of our community who have taken part in the Conversations have conducted themselves with grace and dignity and a determination to remain around the table. Every one of them deserves our gratitude, just as they have been in our thoughts and prayers as the process has unfolded.
And tomorrow that process reaches General Synod. Few details have been provided about the programme; are there to be firm conclusions? Discussions, certainly but debate and decisions? That seems unlikely, from what little we know, but we can't be sure. What does seem to be the case is that the process is open enough to allow God some room for manoeuvre - for the Spirit to move. And there can be no doubt at all that the Spirit is moving.
So as darkness falls, a prayer for the General Synod tomorrow. I hope we can be forgiven for 'recycling' one of Jim Cotter's, from Pilgrim Prayer. Here's why.
Over the past fortnight I have met with two very different people - a retired bishop and a committed and gracious pastor - who have spent their lives working to make the church a place Jesus would recognise. We talked about their ministries, and I shared my hopes for what lies ahead - no longer really able to call myself 'new in post', but neverthless, full of hope.
And it's a pretty simple hope. I want to see the church move forward, embrace the radical justice and life-changing love at the heart of the Gospel, and simply treat LGBT people equally. Just that. To celebrate our lives, our relationships, our loves, our stories, our gifts, our ministries. I want good people - gay and straight - to stop giving up on church because of this. I want people who hold very different views to me to remain part of the church, even though I roll my eyes and grit my teeth and know that it will be a bumpy ride and will demand much of me, not blessed with tolerance. I mainly want them to stay because we've lost too many already, and there is so much work to do.
I want the church to be able to stop talking about sex because - if you haven't noticed - there are a thousand and one things out there in that hurting world of ours, crying out for attention. Our beautiful blue and green planet which we are slowly poisoning. Where people put their small children in boats to sail into an unknown future because home means certain death. Where rape remains a weapon of war. Where people in our own country are dependent on food banks. Where we fail to recognise Christ in the stranger - in ways which are frightening and both unfamiliar and all too familiar from my childhood. And where 44% of LGBT young people between the ages of 16 and 24 have considered suicide. There is so much to do, so much we're failing to do. The Spirit is moving and the time is now.
We have spent too many years talking about sex. It's time to listen to the Spirit moving, unsettling and challening all of us to something new. Because when we've finished talking about sex, I wonder what new thing God is calling us to do?
This is my prayer for General Synod and for the whole Church of England tonight, and tomorrow and for the next steps. Not just for the gracious, inclusive outome you'd expect me to be praying for - but for the much bigger thing which God is urgently calling us to do, if we had ears to hear.
Restore the years, O God, that we have lost,
that the locusts have eaten.
Give to us the future that we thought we should never see.
Make of the present moment a firstfruit of true liberation.
Even when we feel exiled, locked in, despairing,
move secretly within us and among us,
and without us realizing it
keep us moving on our journey to your city. Amen.