The beautiful story

I’ve just finished reading a really beautiful story – ‘Sweet Sorrow’ – a novel by David Nicholls. It was our Book Group book this month and I have to confess that it made me cry as I finished it, big tears, down my cheeks tears. Lots of memories flooded back of school and first love, of friends, lost and kept, family, the pressures of exams, Shakespeare, learnt, remembered, forgotten – and the ‘star crossed lovers’ at the heart of it.

It’s just over a week since the ‘Living in Love and Faith’ (LLF) material was finally published by the Church of England. For those of you who might not be so familiar with the workings of the CofE as some of us are, this is the document on which the church has been working for a few years on the issues of sexuality and marriage. I can hear you yawning! ‘Surely we have done all of that?’ Well clearly we haven’t because we have still not come to a ‘decision’ about the place of LGBT+ people in the life of the church, nor have we really tackled the issues that surround our understanding of marriage and committed relationships in any form, that complex business of relationships that so many novels, like ‘Sweet Sorrow’ attempt in different ways to address. So this piece of work is intended to help us have resourced conversations that might in turn lead us towards some kind of decision making, I suppose.

The point of the LLF book and the videos and the other resources as I understand it is to get us talking and thinking and praying and allowing ourselves to be led by the Holy Sprit in discerning God’s will for the church and the way forward out of this impasse. So I was interested to watch one of the first major contributions to the debate and the process, which was made available on YouTube last week. It’s a thirty minute film entitled ‘The Beautiful Story’ and is the work of the ‘Church of England Evangelical Council’ (CEEC) which is an unofficial gathering of people from the evangelical tradition within the Church of England.

So like many people I sat down and watched it – high production values, good filming, lovely shots, a really professional job. I got over the fact that the only people in it who seemed to be allowed to wear dog collars were the bishops and that the churches in which the interviews were shot had mostly been stripped bare of anything that was particularly beautiful. It reminded me of that verse in 1 Samuel

She named the child Ichabod, meaning, ‘The glory has departed from Israel’ (1 Samuel 4.21)

It didn’t look like the church that I know and love. But I forgave them all of that.

What did disappoint me, however, were two things in particular and one larger issue. The first was that at one point a contributor, speaking about ‘same-sex attraction’ (the phrase evangelicals seem to prefer to homosexuality), said that rejection of ‘living this out’ was a non-negotiable. I didn’t fid that helpful language at the beginning of a conversation – it felt a lot like shutting down any opportunity of talking. Secondly, I found some of the talk about structural changes to the church – maybe a couple of new provinces that were ‘safe’ – equally unhelpful. This is not the way to get the best out of the conversation that we are meant to be having, again.

But my real disappointment was around the telling of ‘The Beautiful Story’. It is undoubtedly true that scripture and the life of faith and the life of the church is a story of romance, a love story, between God and humankind and that the language of the Letter to the Ephesians of the relationship between Christ and the church is very helpful. The writer talks of how ‘Christ loved the church’ (Ephesians 5.25) as a way of understanding marriage and by implication other human, loving, sacrificial, honouring relationships. We use that language every time we celebrate a marriage in the Church of England. There it is, proudly, in the Preface to the service that sets our stall so to speak.

But the speakers, all sincere, many known to me, some of whom I have had the pleasure of working with over the years, only told part of ‘The Beautiful Story’. Just as I didn’t really recognise the Church of England in what I was watching neither did I really recognise the fullness of the God I know in Jesus. I and you have our own beautiful stories to tell and the story we would tell involves the person that God created, me, you. The God I know doesn’t deal in ‘non-negotiables’ but seeks to include, embrace, love every part of the rich creation that flows from the divine love which is so beautifully described in scripture

I was daily his delight,
   rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
   and delighting in the human race
. (Proverbs 8.30-31)

I don’t particularly want to spend the rest of my ministry talking about sex, it’s boring and it just sucks the energy out of the church that should be engaging with God in mission and telling the story of the romance, this beautiful story that includes every person, whoever they are, whoever they are attracted to, those who are called to the single life and those who are called into relationship with another person. I am privileged to be part of a beautiful community at Southwark Cathedral that lives well the beautiful story, with difference, celebrating it, embracing it, not fearing it in whatever form we encounter it and where the glory of the story exists and survives and thrives.

I too have a story to tell of finding love and growing in love and I rejoice in that and rejoice in the glory of the God that never departs or abandons us, in the God who loves me into my better me and embraces me as the child that was so lovingly created.

God of grace and truth, as we live your beautiful story may we recognise your divine image in each one of our sisters and brothers, for your glory never departs and your story is never fully told. Amen,

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