Queer Acts 2.14-21: Beginning to Preach the Gospel (Peter’s Sermon 1/3)

In this first chunk of Peter’s sermon, Peter challenges us to begin our talking about Jesus not from a place of negativity and cynicism, but from a place of hope and trust in God.


 

An Introduction to Peter’s Sermon

Peter’s sermon is a massive passage. And I am no going to try to write a single full commentary on the whole thing. What I want to focus on in the next few posts is the challenges Peter poses for us in our proclamation of the Gospel.

First of all, stop and think. How would you sum up the Gospel if you had two minutes to do it? What would you say to a friend who asked you over a pint, ‘What do you believe?’

Then think about the sermons you’ve heard, or the books you’ve read. How did people represent the Gospel to you? Were you convinced? What did you think was missing, or superfluous?

The task of telling others about Jesus is more difficult than we very often realise. It’s often only when you have a go that you run up against the buffers.

Peter’s sermon is a literary device. By that I mean that it is highly unlikely that he actually delivered these precise words as a single sermon. Rather, it is probable that Luke is cobbling together sources telling him about the sort of sermons Peter did preach, and also the sorts of things which the early Apostles emphasised in their preaching. Or perhaps, entirely legitimately for a classical writer, Luke has created his own sermon and put it in the mouth of Peter as an oration, a useful way of giving voice to a large amount of theology in an accessible way.

What matters to us is that it has come down to us through the Church in scripture as the first of the great sermons preached. But how does it go?

In the next three posts we shall see that Peter begins with an assurance that God is working in people’s lives. He then offers us a model for how to preach the Gospel simply and effectively. And he then shows us how to welcome people into the Church. All pretty important stuff. And all of which has particular implications for queer people too. This isn’t a guide for evangelism, or for preaching, but it is an excellent chunk of scripture for making us think about how we communicate as members of Christ’s Church, with each other as well as outsiders.


Acts 2.14-21: How to start the Gospel

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 “In the last days it will be, God declares,

that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams.

18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,

in those days I will pour out my Spirit;

and they shall prophesy.

19 And I will show portents in the heaven above

and signs on the earth below,

blood, and fire, and smoky mist.

20 The sun shall be turned to darkness

and the moon to blood,

before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

How does your talking about the Gospel usually begin? Not when you are asked, ‘How would you sum up the Gospel?’ But when you actually talk about Jesus. How our conversations about what really matters begin should give us pause for thought, for the beginning of a conversation frames what follows, shapes it and changes it: for good or ill. Many of the conversations I have pertaining to the Gospel begin with something like: ‘That sermon was terrible, wasn’t it?’ Or ‘The Church is a really terrible institution to be in as an LGBT person,’ or ‘God, I am so not awake enough for Morning Prayer today.’

It is amazing when I start to think about it how many of my Christian interactions often begin with a grump, sarcasm or a criticism of something or someone else. And I don’t think I am alone in being prone to that particular vice.

But Peter’s talk of Jesus does not begin like this. He begins by telling of something wonderful, something that matters: “let this be known to you, and listen to what I say” (v14). These are the words of someone who has guarded speech, who is learning to speak carefully, and so who has confidence when he really does have something good to say.

Rather than beginning with something negative, a challenge, a problem, something the Church could really improve on or should repent of, Peter begins by telling them about something amazing that God is doing among His people NOW: “…these are not drunk, as you suppose” (v.15). The life of the Church can look pretty odd, or just boring, on its own; but Peter puts what is going on in the context of God’s plans and God’s timeless action and will: “No, this was what was spoken though the prophet Joel” (v.16). Peter manages quickly to place the strange and confusing events of the beginning of the Church into the context of “the last days” (v.17); the babbling of the disciples is what “God declares” (v.17); the antics of a small group bears witness to a promise for “all flesh” (v.17), for “sons and daughters” (v.17), for “slaves”, for “both men and women” (v.18). This strange sight of people talking in the languages of the world is just one of the many more familiar portents Peter’s audience expects and looks for from the Jewish scriptures: “blood, and fire, and smoky mist” (v.19) touching all creation, even the sun and moon (v.20).

And all this context setting is to concretise one message: “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (v.21).
Peter begins his talking of Jesus not with the negatives, not with the failings of the early community, not with talk of the fear they have had of the Jewish leaders or Judas’ betrayal. He begins by assuring the people of Jerusalem that the things they see around them are part of God’s work in the life of the Church, and in their lives too.

This is how our talk of Jesus must begin. God is working in His creation through His Church. And he does this so that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (v.21).

This is Peter’s first challenge to us: speak to others about Jesus, not beginning from a place of darkness, of cycnicism or despair, but from a place of hope, and trust in God’s good works in our lives and the life of all his people.

Prayer Request

Please pray for those of us on the Cranmer Hall leavers retreat at Shepherd’s Dene, the Newcastle Diocesan retreat house.

As my evangelical brethren have been downstairs adoring Christ in the sacrament of the altar, I have been upstairs doing some bible study.

So whilst the world does seem to have gone topsy-turvy, it does mean that there are now four posts of Queer Acts ready and waiting to go after the retreat.

If you’re up for writing a guest post, in a medium that works for you, and which can be anonymised, please let me know at t.m.sharp@durham.ac.uk

Peace and good,

Thomas

Queer Acts 2.1-13: Pentecostal Fire

Praying for the Spirit is a risk poured out on the whole Church. Luke’s account of Pentecost challenges the members of the Church to talk very differently, both to each other and to outsiders. What would the Church look like if we learned to speak and listen to each other in our very different Christian languages?


 

Acts 2.1-3: Catholicity and Risk

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.

Pentecost is a controversial topic in the modern Church. Different denominations understand the pentecostal life of the Church in very different ways, almost a spectrum: from the Spirit setting us free into improvised and experimental church life to the Spirit poured out into the Church’s institutional life into which we as believers are incorporated.

I don’t want to go there. Not because I don’t think it isn’t relevant: if this was a post on ecclesiology it really would be. But actually the ecclesiological argument can detract from seriously reading this passage.

The narrative begins with the gathering of the disciples. We saw in Acts 1 that Luke focusses the narrative on Jerusalem and on the group of disciples and early believers gathered together. So, when the day of Pentecost arrives, “they were all together in one place” (v.1). This is important because it is easy, when we mentally place ourselves in the narrative, to project our church or our community into the pentecost narrative, to say that it is people like us who are really living life in the Spirit. Luke makes it clear from the outset that it is the whole Church which is annointed by the Spirit at Pentecost, not a conservative bubble, or a liberal one. Pentecost is an excellent opportunity to be reminded of the catholicity of the Church: the fact that, despite our divisions and our differences, those of us who profess faith in Jesus Christ are in fact one united and worldwide Church. For the Spirit does not fill only one corner of the house of the early believers: “it filled the entire house where they were sitting” (v.2).

The gift of the Spirit is something we are prone to praying for in some parts of the Church. But sometimes it is worth asking ourselves whether we really want the gift of the Spirit to start with. Of course we do! But do we ask in ignorance of what this means. The Spirit comes “suddenly”, not from anywhere comfortable to us but “from heaven”, not with a gentle kiss but “like the rush of a violent wind” (v.2). When you pray for the Spirit, are you ready for what that might mean? Are you ready for what God might ask of you through the Spirit? I have joined with queer people many times praying for the Spirit to move in the Church. It is interesting that we often attempt to channel the Spirit by giving Him names: ‘Spirit of peace’, ‘Spirit of justice’, ‘Spirit of truth’. When we pray for the Spirit to move in power, are we, even queer people, ready for what might result? Are we ready to take the risk of God’s idea of peace, justice and truth might just possibly be different from ours.


Acts 2.4-13: The Challenge of Communication

 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

But how does this anointing with the Spirit manifest itself? “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (v.4). But why this gift for speaking in other languages? It seems rather odd.

Luke makes a point of noting that there were lots of people, “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” (v.5), all speaking different languages on the day of Pentecost. With different languages comes a diversity of cultures, world views and social norms: the people of Jerusalem are profoundly diverse. Luke expresses what happens next in rather colourful language. The crowd are not just amazed: they are “bewildered”, “amazed and astonished” (vv.6-7), but more importantly they are “gathered” (v.6). Although mass outbreaks of effective speaking in living languages is rare in the life of the modern Church, one wonders what challenge there is here for the modern Church that tries to hard to gather people to it.

The challenge to us is to communicate “God’s deeds of power” (v.11) not just in our own language (cf. v.11), but in the language of those whom God wants us to reach. The miracle is not that people hear uneducated Galileans talking in different languages (you might detect in this my suspicion that the modern instantiation of ‘speaking in tongues’ may be missing the point), that they are “speaking in our own languages” (v.11); but rather that they recognise that “in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (v.11).

The task of learning a language is not simply to speak the correct words but is also to communicate effectively the substance which you want to get across. It seems that the disciples do manage to do this. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ proclamation of the Gospel is marked by a sharp krisis (judgment) (cf. John 3.17-18; 12.31) in which people respond in two ways, either wrestling with what Jesus says to them or rejecting him outright. Here the same thing happens: “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine’.” (vv.12-13). The disciples aren’t just speaking the right words: they are communicating and convincing. I think of St John, who preached in such a way that he gained the surname Chrysostom: Golden-Mouthed. This is speaking in such a way that the hearer stops… and truly hears.


Most queer people in Churches know what it feels like to be preached past, when the Gospel is presented in such a way that it doesn’t really seem to be relevant to you, or in such a way that (though you try) it just doesn’t seem to be in a language you can really understand, internalise, and make your own. I put in that category in my own experience pretty much every sermon I have heard referencing sex, marriage, love, Fatherhood, family and a good deal of other subjects. The collect for Bible Sunday in the Church of England includes a prayer that we might ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’ the scriptures. But in order to do that, the Gospel must be preached to us in our language, in a tongue which will enable us to say, “in our own lanaguages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (v.11).

But there are several challenges to queer people as well within this. Since beginning training for ministry, I have had so many requests to talk to this or that LGBT person known by a colleague or friend ‘because you will be able to speak their language.‘ It is like a colleague of mine who was encouraged to work with Chinese students ‘because you are from the same continent’ – my friend is Indian (fail). People often assume that we can talk in a particular way to all other queer people, because we speak the same language and have shared experiences. Perhaps we do, but that very rarely reaches the point at which I don’t have to work to understand the other and consciously speak in a way more useful to them. One of the queer people I was asked to have a chat with was heavily into the BDSM scene… and I am ashamed to admit that I learned a vast amount more from him than he did from me. And boy did he use language around power, consent, love, care and support in a deeper and more profound way than I. His language was far richer in that sense, and I had to learn how to understand it.

Similarly, when we dialogue with straight Christians, we cannot assume that we are speaking the same language. It is not only they who must guard their speech and be self-aware. If we wish to communicate effectively, if we want to see understanding blossom and a better future for queer people in the Church, we must learn to speak the language of those whose speech we find difficult. When my conservative brothers and sisters talk to me about marriage, family, love, sex (and a load of other things), I need to do a lot of work understanding the ways in which they use common words, and particularly how that reveals their concerns and assumptions. Then I need to work out what I am meant to say to them in response. And that takes prayer as well as patience.

Learning to speak the language of others in terms of purely getting the words right is hard work and tiring. Learning to speak the language of others in terms of what the Spirit is leading you to say to them is hard work but life-giving.

Pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit. And do not worry what you are to say (cf. Matthew 10.19). Learn in love and prayer how to talk to others. The Church will be a holier and happier family when half our conversations aren’t lost in translation, when we learn to listen, and truly learn to speak.

Queer Acts 1.15-end: Discernment and Leadership in the Church

Acts 1 begins to explore the recurring theme of how leadership in the Church is meant to look. It challenges us to reassess our own relationship to authority and power and also to discern our own vocation to minister in Christ’s Church ever more carefully and prayerfully.


Acts 1.15-20: The Reality of Leadership

15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred and twenty people) and said, 16‘Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— 17for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.’ 18(Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20‘For it is written in the book of Psalms,“Let his homestead become desolate,

   and let there be no one to live in it”;

and

“Let another take his position of overseer.”

Who is in charge in the Church? It is a difficult question for all Christians: all of us feel strongly about who should or should not be in charge. All of us have a strong sense of when the wrong person is in charge. And we may feel profound discomfort about at the notion that any is in fact in charge at all. For many queer people, in particular, the overtones of dominance and potential for abuse that the notion of leadership can bring makes us more suspicious than most of the idea that anyone should be in leadership at all.

But in even the smallest communities, whether or not it is intended, leaders begin to emerge. Even the most democratic of Churches ends up being dominated by particular people and groups when certain issues are at stake. And that means that Christians have to take the reality of human leadership and power dynamics seriously, however uncomfortable we might feel about it, or however much we might believe that human leadership and dominance would not exist in an ideal society.

The first thing to note about this passage is that Acts 1 does not offer us a leadership model for the modern Church. Peter stands up “among the believers”… but “together the crowd numbers about one hundred and twenty” (v.15). The Church was tiny. When people point out that the earliest Church did not have leadership structures like the modern Church, all the priests, deacons, bishops and administrators and missioners in between, I have to agree. For the Church of the disciples was indeed not like ours. It was far more top heavy! Of one hundred and twenty believers, about 10% were the apostolic disciples. That’s not to mention the many women who were administrators and resource managers for this early group of believers! In the apostolic Church, as it prepared for its most succesful period of mission, 1 in 10 were clergy. That is a salutary reminder for those of us in the Church of England as it prepares to reduce clergy numbers in many of its dioceses.

But, in any case, it is clear that the Church of the apostles was profoundly different to the Church we inhabit today. What is most interesting about this excerpt, however, is Peter’s mindset when it comes to leadership. For Peter, the maintaining of a full apostolic mission to the world is nothing less than a scriptural imperative: “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus” (v.16). The integrity and importance of the office which Judas served does not seem to have been destroyed by his betrayal of Jesus: “for he was allotted his share in this ministry” (v.17).

This is because, Acts argues, Judas is not in himself the apostolic disciple. Judas has a “share” in an apostolic ministry which is far more fundamental than the individuals carrying it out. For it is not the apostolic ministry which is abolished by Judas’ failure, but Judas himself who, as Luke adds with a dark sense of irony in his editor’s comment, uses the “reward of his wickedness” (v.18) to purchase a field in which he immdiately trips, dying a gruesome death by disembowelment (vv.18-19). Judas’ downfall is not portrayed so much as the failure of an apostolic disciple as of a disinheritance, a demotion and a dismissal from apostolic discipleship. For his death is portrayed as a fulfilment of a psalm about disinheritance: “Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it” (v.20). On its own, this might be read to suggest the end of his apostolic ministry. But another verse makes it clear that the office continues, even when the incumbent has fallen: “Let another take his position of overseer” (v.20: “καί Τὴν ἐπισκοπὴν αὐτοῦ λαβέτω ἕτερος”, if you are a Greek geek!). This, as v.25 will tell us, is the “ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.”

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And this is Peter’s theological reasoning, as reported by Luke. Peter seems to take the reality of leadership within the Church as a given, and perhaps even as scripturally mandated. There is no sense in which, once the initial disciples have died off, the whole people of God will become a shapeless identical and democratically self-regulating mass. Protestant traditions emphasise the importance of order whilst Catholic traditions emphasise apostolic inheritance (there is not time here to go into all the ins and outs of that particular ecumenical debate). But what is clear is that leadership is something we have to take seriously. We can’t simply turn our noses up at it and ignore it, however egalitarian we may think our churches are. We have to think carefully about what leaders in the Church are meant to look like, what they are meant to do, and so what qualities they must possess and have nurtured in them by the rest of the Church. If leadership is something that exists in the Church, and has always existed in the Church, let it be good leadership, done well and for the right reasons.


Acts 1.21-26: Prayerful Discernment

[Peter continued], 21’So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.’ 23So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ 26And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

So how were they to choose a new apostle?

I am tempted to say that they didn’t have a clue. But I don’t think that would be fair to the text. Acts gives pretty clear criteria for choosing the new apostle, and they are wise.

Firstly, they must not actually be new. They must be “one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” (vv.21-22). The apostle must be experienced, must know the story of Jesus, the Gospel, if they are to be able to witness to it. For the apostle is called nothing less that to be “a witness with us to his resurrection” (v.22). Although I have said that this passage is not a model for leadership in the modern Church, I wonder how much dissatisfaction with some leaders in the modern Church has, at its root, the fact that many leaders are inexperienced and lacking in the knowledge they need to be able to do their task really well. I am always encouraged by preachers and pastors who have well thumbed bibles and well stocked bookshelves. I begin to get nervous when people in the Church say, ‘I don’t need to study.’ The basic subject matter of the Gospel is relatively small, but being able to administer and nourish the Church which it has birthed requires training and study if we are to be effective and faithful.

On the basis of this criterion Joseph and Matthias are chosen. But a second criterion is revealed in the disciples’ prayer. They do not simply pray, Lord, “show us which one of these two you have chosen” (v.24). They pray also, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart” (v.24). The deepest integrity and fittingness of a person for a particular office is a difficult thing to discern. The Church of England has an extended process of discernment for those wanting to enter ordained ministry, and discernment pathways also for those wishing to take up many of the many lay (non-ordained) ministries in the Church. But whilst the church of the disciples seems a little simplistic in discerning this by casting lots (v.26), the point Luke makes here strongly is that the discernment of the heart is hard work. It must be done in the Spirit, or it will not be done at all. And so such discernment must be done in prayer.

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I have encountered many people who are exploring ministry within the Church, but whom I can’t quite describe as discerning. They are honest and genuine in their self-examination and submission to Church processes. But they aren’t praying it. Leadership at any level is not something which we are called to campaign for. It is not something we make happen by our own endeavours, either to put ourselves in positions of authority or those we support or particularly like. Leadership and apostolic authority within the Church is to important for that. It must be prayed about. And prayed about earnestly.

Matthias “was added to the eleven apostles” (v.26). Maybe you might be as well, one day, a particular apostolic office within the Church. But you are and will always be fundamentally a believer, whose task is prayerful discernment. And, remember, even if 10% of the Church in Acts 1 were official apostles, 90% of them weren’t. And the 90% are just as much saints of Christ’s Church.

As Acts progresses, the question of the shape of apostolic leadership will be a recurring them (this book, after all, recounts the Acts of the Apostles!). But as it explores that theme, Acts will have salutary reminders for us to evaluate our own interaction with Church authority and power, and to discern ever more carefully our own vocation to our role in the Church (for all of us have one!). But Acts, like the Holy Spirit, teaches us discernment slowly, and in many instances. Stick at it. Discernment, wisdom and a fulfilling ministry within the Church will come.

Prayer Request: Talking Jesus Mission

Dear friends,

Over this weekend I will try to snatch some time to write up the next section of Queer Acts, I promise. All the Ordinands at Cranmer are taking part in something called Talking Jesus, in which the Bishops of the Northern Province of the CofE and lots of clergy and missioners all descend on the Diocese of Durham for a weekend and support local parishes in growing in confidence in talking about Jesus in their communities.

We don’t get any extra time off before it, and essays press, but we are all excited. So please pray for all those taking part, and for the communities in Durham which will be receiving us. And please pray for the good folk of Willington and Hunwick, Co Durham, where I am on placement, and the team from Liverpool who are visiting.

Sometimes the work of the Church is a long hard slog. Sometimes it is a long hard slog which is fun and exciting! I think this is going to be the latter.

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Man from a Woman Bishop’s Rib: a Man’s Perspective on Mutual Flourishing?

When I told people I was going to be ordained by a bishop who was a woman, I was surprised by the response. We need to call each other out on unholy behaviour or dodgy theologies which make those sorts of responses worse.


Since the appointment of Philip North, Bishop of Burnley, to the see of Sheffield, there has been an uproar on social media. Lots of people seem angry.

Since the Church of England began to consecrate women as bishops, guidelines called The Five Guiding Principles (available here) have attempted to achieve “mutual flourishing” of all in the Church, whether or not they can accept in good conscience the ministry of women. But this has not please all. The campaigning group Women and the Church released a statement which comments on the ongoing systematic discrimination against women in the Church, asking: “Who is concerned for the flourishing of women clergy?” Commentators on social media have argued that “mutual flourishing” only exists to protect traditionalists, and leaves women in ministry in the lurch.

The row reached a low point in an unfortunate guardian article reporting the views of Martyn Percy, the dean of Christ Church, Oxford, which quoted him as saying: “The public will neither comprehend nor welcome this rather fogeyish sacralised sexism of the religious organisation – known simply as the Society – and that Bishop Philip leads.” The Society is one organisation of those who do not accept the ordination of women.

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Has “mutual flourishing” broken down? The sometimes uncomfortable rhetoric of liberal commentators and the experience of women in ministry might suggest so.

But the trajectory of “mutual flourishing” for the future of the Church is a deeper question than a matter simply of who is in the papers today.


Much of the criticism of the Society from progressive quarters has argued that its members have a theology of “taint” – that is that those who accept women’s ministry, especially bishops who ordain women, are tainted and so members of The Society will refrain from receiving sacraments from them. There are accusations that this is a form of donatism (not without some substance, in my view) and that such a view is inconsistent with an acceptance of Anglican Orders.

But The Society’s leadership has consistently rejected “any so-called “theology of taint”” , so does that mean that the charge doesn’t stick?


The experience of a man from a woman bishop’s rib

I am a man, a cis-gendered man, so in some respects I feel unjustified in writing a blog post on this subject. But, thanks be to God, I am due to be ordained this June by the Bishop of Newcastle…. who is the Rt Revd Christine Hardman.

I was not always due to be ordained in Newcastle. I came from a diocese with a man as bishop. But when Bishop Christine offered me a curacy with an interesting and exciting vicar in her diocese, and when I heard of her growing reputation as an effective and creative Bishop, I was glad to accept.

But not all my friends were as glad as I.

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“I’ve got a curacy,” I told one, “in Newcastle Diocese.” “Ah, who’s the Bishop there?” came the response. “Christine Hardman, formerly archdeacon in Southwark.” “Hmmm.”

I’ve got very used to that Hmmm.

It is a response which more men in the Church will begin to experience as the first generations of men to be ordained by women emerge from more diocesan cathedrals. It is a response of disappointment, and often of confusion too.

People don’t know how to respond. On the one hand, they like that a young man straight out of university is going to serve in the Church. But on the other, they don’t like the fact that he is due to be ordained by a woman.


What happens next is often interesting.

It is interesting, I think, because although the theological reasoning may be the same as if they were talking to a woman who had announced she was being ordained, there is a category error: I am theologically in a position which they have generally only encountered as inhabited by women; and yet I am a man, so the social rules of discourse seem strangely altered.

Sometimes people feel they can say things to me that they wouldn’t need or wouldn’t be able to say to a woman directly, or at least I hope they wouldn’t. Here is a selection:

  • “Couldn’t you be ordained by a suffragan bishop who was a man? That would get around the problem.” At no point had I thought of Bishop Christine as a problem.
  • “Why are you throwing away a ministry with such potential?” I guess, unless one is ordained by a man in pure male succession, one can be of no service to Christ’s church.
  • “Well, of course, at least you’re not a woman yourself. That would be really difficult.” I really don’t know how to respond to that, even with hindsight.

What was especially interesting was when, with some young members of The Society and ordinands who aspire to membership of The Society, I have posited the hypothetical possibility of being ordained deacon by the male suffragan in the Diocese, the Rt Revd Mark Tanner, Bishop of Berwick.

“Oh no, there were women at his consecration. He’s not validly ordained, not a real bishop… The communion is fractured. You’d need to find a Society Bishop to do it. Otherwise you wouldn’t be ordained.”

Now this was interesting.

A male bishop, consecrated bishop by men, with women bishops present, would not be able to ordain me validly. That was textbook theology of taint. From the mouths of young members of The Society.

And on another level, women training for ordination and those experienced in ministry are probably used to a certain level of unpleasantness, receiving the cold shoulder if not often direct misogyny. But young men like me are not. It is shocking to hear and receive so openly from fellow Christians. They can’t call me “that bloody woman”, but the frosty chill in the atmosphere doesn’t take the greatest empathy to detect.


Mutual flourishing means respect

Mutual flourishing is a great challenge to the Church. If we learn to do it well it could be a remarkable model for how the Church could preach the Gospel in our increasingly divided society. It could be a model for how Churches riven by schism could come together in something stronger than the mere ecumenism of the last fifteen years.

But mutual flourishing needs to be mutual.

The charge that mutual flourishing is only one way does not follow through in every case. But it does seem the experience of some of us on the ground that a theology of taint is alive and kicking amongst those opposed to women’s ordination.

Liberals have behaved appaulingly at times, our campaigning tipping over the Christian boundary from striving for the Gospel into defamation and disrespect. We must do better. And our bishops must call us out on this when we get it wrong.

But conservatives must acknowledge that bad behaviour, disrespect and bad theology are not limited to liberals. And The Society bishops rightly condemn theologies of taint, but it doesn’t seem that all of its members are listening.

The work of reconciliation between conservatives and progressives cannot come to fruition until the leaders within both groups begin to call out campaigners and those in the ranks when they behave inappropriately. Mutual flourishing means respect, and an honouring of the other, even when you can’t share an altar.

I look forward to ministering alongside those who hold very different views from me, as I have enjoyed training alongside them. And I pray that as we say mass, at our different altars, in different churches, in different “societies”, our sacrifice of praise may join with those of our brethren in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, and with the saints and angels in heaven.

And if I pray this sincerely, I may get angry, I may slip up, but I will try not to defame them, try not to scoff, and I shall certainly try not to exclude them.

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Queer Acts 1.1-14: Scene Setting and Ascension

At the beginning of Acts St Luke sets out his stall: the Church is beginning to emerge from the chrysalis of the Gospel.


 

Scene-Setting (Acts 1.1-5): From followers to bearers of the promise

1In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’

Acts does not come on its own. It comes as the second part of Luke’s presentation of the Gospel, often referred to as Luke-Acts. Luke is the only one of the four evangelists who gives us a sequel that has made its way into the canon of Scripture. And so Acts functions in a sense as a bridge between the Gospels and the rest of the Old Testament. In a way, it gives us a clearer picture of how the Christian life in the Gospels, following the historical Jesus, becomes the Christian life of the Church. And Luke does this in a clearer, more narrative, way than does the Apostle Paul. Acts is perfect for those of us who don’t get our kicks from wrestling through knotty passages of Romans or the mystical theology of John.

And like any good sequel, Acts dives right in. “In the first book” (v.1), Luke writes to his sponsor Theophilus, I wrote about Jesus’ life up until the Ascension. And he alludes to the resurrection appearances which make up the last chapter of his Gospel – to the women in the garden (Luke 24.1-12); on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24.13-35); and eating a piece of fish amongst the disciples in Jerusalem (Luke 24.36-43) – these are the “convincing proofs” (v.3) in the forty days after the resurrection.

But now Luke rewinds, to take the Ascension more slowly, to focus in on it and perhaps to provide a clear join between the two volumes of Luke-Acts. And this is all leading up to Pentecost.

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The first five chapters of Acts are odd, because they are fixed in one particular place. The stage is narrowed, unlike the travelling Jesus of Luke’s Gospel, to the city of Jerusalem. It is claustrophobic. And the wonder of the events narrated are boiling over, the pressure building up as the Gospel threatens to burst out over the entire world.

The particularity of the beginning of Acts is special, because it is commanded by Jesus: “While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem” (v.4). The people of God are beginning to make the transition from those who follow Jesus on his journey to becoming a people who live lives in many different places and “wait there for the promise of the Father” (v.4). The disciples have only ever received the baptism of John, if they have been baptised at all (v.4). But now, for the disciples as for all baptised Christians, the Father’s promise of eternal life through Christ will be partially fulfilled as they “will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (v.5).


The Ascension (Acts 1.6-11): From disciples to waiters

6 So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ 7He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’

Throughout the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), the disciples fail to grasp what God is doing in Christ. And this moment is no exception. The disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (v.6). This question is cryptic. Either the disciples are being incredibly theologically astute and are asking whether it is time for God’s final reign of glory to be consummated; or, more likely, they are being rather as they have been throughout the Gospels and still think that Jesus’ kingdom might in some sense be linked to the political and religious kingdom of Israel. Jesus’ response is direct: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (v.8). This must have brought the disciples up short. And it should do the same to us, also.

For queer people – as for all those who experience marginalisation, misunderstanding, maltreatment and oppression – it is tempting to reduce the Gospel of the Glory of God to the good news of our own liberation. Jesus says to the disciples, ‘Yes, that is included, but not in the way you might plan it, and not in the time-scales you decree. The Father has other priorities.’

This is difficult. God at times feels distant, and not a little heartless. Why does he wait to deliver his people? More than others, those who know oppression and injustice cry, ‘How long, Lord? How long?’

But God does not leave the disciples with nothing. Or, rather, he does not leave humanity with nothing. He leaves us all with the disciples to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (v.8). When Jesus’ feet leave the surface of the earth, we shall not be forsaken. For we have the disciples to witness to him. And that is not all the comfort Christ offers at this stage, for those disciples will not be working on their own. The effectiveness of Christ’s presence among us will not be left to this rather unimpressive bunch of misfits, for he promises them that: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (v.8).

This is important because, however far off God may feel at times – and for each of us he does – it is our fellow believers (and often our fellow queer believers) whom Christ gives us as his gift. I have often been told by people that they feel abandoned by the Church, and I ask them how it is that they have sustained their faith through that. And they reply, ‘It wasn’t me. I had friends who were really supportive.’ At times, distracted and frustrated by our struggles with the institutional Church, we underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit to anoint others to minister to us.

And Jesus ascends, leaving the earth until his coming at the last day (v.9). How interesting that Luke emphasises that “a cloud took him out of their sight” (v.9). Jesus is now forever veiled to the eyes of the flesh and can only be seen by the eyes of the spirit. In eastern icons, that truth is represented by a mandorla, an almond shaped barrier, separating Christ from earthly view, sometimes several layers representing the depth into which Christ’s human life is taken into the inner life of the Godhead.

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But this does not mean that we are left alone. Remember the promise of the Spirit. The disciples of course have failed to grasp the full meaning of that promise, and are standing, waiting, “gazing up towards heaven” when “suddenly two men in white robes stood by them” (v.10). Some commentators say that these are Moses and Elijah, who stood either side of Jesus at the Transfiguration. But we don’t really know. What we do know is that their task was to send the disciples on their way: “Men of Galilee, why do you stan looking up towards heaven?” (v.11). They are not meant to squander their life, gawping into the sky, but are to wait for a day when he “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (v.11). The chapter closes for the disciples on the days of their talking with Jesus as friend. They are no longer disciples, but waiters, beginning the Church’s long wait for the kingdom of God to be established on earth. Even now, we stand and wait with them.


 

The Ascension’s Aftermath (Acts 1.12-14): Fellowship from loss to prayer

12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

After the Ascension, Luke reflects on two aspects of life in the Church: journey and place. The disciples return to Jerusalem (v.12) – they travel from the place where they last knew Christ in the flesh to the place of the Jewish Church, the holy city which was the home of the temple, the house of the presence of God – from the Mount of Olives, where Jesus had prayed to the Father on the night before His Passion. Time and place is being collapsed in the journeying of the fledgeling Church, as the events of the Gospel are being wrapped up into one package: this new community. They carry within them the life, passion, resurrection and ascension of the Lord. Galilee, Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives, they embody them all.

And now they come to an upper room (v.13), like the “large room upstairs” in Luke 22.12 in which the Last Supper takes place. The upper room, with its table fellowship and prayer, sandwiches the events of the passion, resurrection and ascension. Table fellowship and prayer are the key for the Church: they are the essence of the Church. For those of us who are members of the Church, they are the most important thing with offer to the Lord, and they are the most wonderful thing we receive from Him in the Church.

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But many of us who are queer find this difficult. Whether we find it hard to be ourselves in Church, or whether we are explicitly or implicitly excluded from the congregation, simply saying that table fellowship and joining the faithful in prayer are important is not sufficient. But Luke throws something interesting into the mix for those of us who experience exclusion in the public life of the Church. “All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer” (v.14) – that is the disciples, the people who might be considered most legit. and most appropriate to be present at the worship of the Church. But Luke goes on: “together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (v.14). Luke explicitly opens up the community of the Church beyond the male and approved disciples. The Church in its prayer is developing beyond the narrow bounds of a particular group (not that, when you really read the Gospels, the disciples were the only ones who followed Jesus and spread the Word – lots of people did!). But in Luke’s explicit inclusion of people other than the disciples in the community of the early Church we see a powerful challenge to the modern Church to explicitly include ALL the members of Christ’s body in the prayer and table fellowship.

But there is a challenge to queer people, too. In the upper room of the Last Supper, all the disciples were gathered, including Judas. In the upper room of the early Church too, all the disciples were gathered. Scripture does not give us much to go on if we want to know about their relationships with one another: the internal politics of the first Church. But this much is clear: it isn’t up to us to choose who is in the Church either. This challenge is particularly difficult for us if we find a home in an explicitly LGBT-inclusion focussed denomination. It is incumbent on us in those situations, just as in any case where we are in a small or secluded congregation, to remember that Christ calls us to welcome ALL into His prayer and table fellowship. This begs the question: How do we make Church safe and nurturing for queer people, whilst making explicit our welcome to all, even those who are not queer, or who can at times be antagonistic? And if it is not possible for us to  physically welcome such people into our congregations, out of a desire to protect our weaker members, how do we make explicit our connection and fellowship with them around the one table, in one prayer to one Father, and in one upper room, the body of Christ?

And there is another dimension too which is cause for encouragement. The disciples have been locked in the psychology of loss. Jesus, the tangible friend and teacher, has been taken from them, tried, executed, and then raised up into glory. But here they move into a new psychology: of prayer. Prayer is vital for all of us who know loss, and all f us, not just queer people, are in that category. But mourning at stages in our family relationships, in our personal growth and in our journey of faith will weigh us down unless it can be harnessed to bear the fruit of prayer. Christ gives the vocation to prayer as his good gift, that though in our loss we are separated from things we desire and love, in prayer we are joined to Him whom we need. The injunction in 1 Thessalonians 5.16-17 comes to my mind: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing…”. Prayer is the means by which Christ turns our mourning into joy.


If you have feedback on the Queer Acts project, or would like to contribute a guest post (in any format appropriate for you, and which can be anonymised), please email me on t.m.sharp@durham.ac.uk