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 

NEW PROJECT: Queer Acts – Call for contributors

 

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Some time ago I wrote in pieces a queer commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. It was a satisfying project, not least because of the fascinating conversations with people on line and in the flesh it provoked. Questions like: Can there ever be a queer commentary on the Bible? Is it doing violence to scripture to read it from a queer perspective? If queer readings of scripture simply seek to free the Bible from certain narrow readings, surely they should just be called orthodox?

There is a blog, an essay and a book in each of those questions.

But what I was amazed by was how queer people around me were freed to engage with a scripture that some of them felt had been denied them. This, and only this actually, is my answer to the question: Why bother reading the Bible from a queer perspective?

Scripture, if it is truly God’s Holy Word, will slip through our fingers, will overpower us and run away from us, if we try to contain it, to direct or to make it say what we want it to say. It is only when the Church allows its members to read Scripture prayerfully, humbly, and in love of fellow members that the Church can come to a fuller understanding of what Scripture really is saying.

The prayer, humility and love of queer people is a vital and largely untapped resource for the Church when it comes to Scriptural elucidation.

And in the same way as feminist, womanist, black, liberation and other newer opportunities to read Scripture don’t get everything right, just like the many different perspectives which have been offered in the Church’s past, this reading of Acts will get things wrong. In some senses it will be unfaithful to the Word it exegetes. In many cases, it will simply not have spent enough time learning about the many wiser people who are out there writing on the same Scripture.

So this queer reading of Acts does not claim to be authoritative. Nor does it claim to be anything particularly new.

But it does claim to contribute something for the Church’s consideration, and for the nourishment of its members.

As part of this, I welcome contributions from anyone who might like to write a guest post, reflecting on their reading of a portion of Acts of the Apostles. This need not be in the more formal style which I shall use, but may be in any medium which allows you to communicate effectively.

Please contact me at t.m.sharp@durham.ac.uk if you would like to contribute.

And please pray for me as I undertake this project. Devotion to the study of Scripture is hard for queer people, and hard for people who work hard, and even harder for people who study theology with the rest of their time! But I believe it is utterly necessary for those of us who seek to live as disciples of Christ.

May God bless you.

It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But 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. (Acts 1:7-8)