Red lines

It’s interesting to think about where you draw the line. I went along to the Bridge Theatre last week, just as the bishops of the Anglican Communion were gathering in Canterbury for the Lambeth Conference. I had heard about the play that was being performed there and was quite keen to see it – ‘The Southbury Child’ by Stephen Beresford. The set was simple; a large table as in many vicarage kitchens, unmatching chairs, mugs in which to serve tea to guests, piles of paper to be dealt with. And in this humdrum and familiar setting – especially to clergy and their families – the drama is played it. I don’t want to give the story away but it centres on a child’s funeral and a request by the grieving mother that the church be decorated with balloons, because the child loved balloons and it would make the church look jolly and welcoming.

For the priest it was a red line he was unprepared to cross, whatever the cost. The play looks at the costs, the price, and who pays it, and, of course, the back story to the marriage and the family relationships all come out. There are reasons for the red lines we choose, reasons why we will defend, often the indefensible, that are hard for others to understand.

My predecessor had his red lines. I remember arriving back one day and being asked to see the Dean. I was then the Canon Precentor and I was told that the singing of ‘Jerusalem’ was banned in Southwark Cathedral and, by the way, anything by Graham Kendrick. Some of you may remember that episode in our lives. Colin had to go on the radio to defend his decision; I had to make it work as best I could given that most schools wanted to sing ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Shine Jesus shine’, whatever its theological virtues, or lacks, was enormously popular. But it was a red line.

I suppose I have them, but of course mine are entirely reasonable and easily explained, as far as I am concerned. I went into the vestry the other day. It had been very hot. The Head Verger told me that one of the diocesan dignitaries, we love these titles don’t we, had asked not to wear a chasuble for a service they were presiding at. The vergers told the person that that was a red line for the Dean. However much he would sweat full vestments had to be worn. If it was good enough for the early martyrs of the church it is good enough for us! As such a notorious liberal with seemingly no standards or principles – according to some – it was good to know that I have some red lines!

My blog last week went a bit viral. I thought it might, commenting as I did on the ‘Lambeth Calls’ document and the reference to Lambeth 1:10 from 1998. I was pleased therefore when the announcement came of some significant changes, particularly that bishops would be allowed to vote that they do not accept it. Since then, of course, there has been push back. We are being told that 75% of those present support Lambeth 1:10, there seem to move moves afoot to bring it back on the agenda. Even more disturbingly some of the bishops have now refused to take communion with those who have a same-sex partner, or who support equal marriage, or … well, the categories seem a bit blurred and include a lot of those there.

It is all very disturbing. What is the Communion about if we are not actually in communion, able to receive communion, one bread, one cup? Why is the Eucharist being weaponised in this way? Why, oh why, is sexuality the red line for the church, the ‘balloon’ issue for the Communion?

I am writing this, as I always do, on Saturday, ready for Sunday. It’s the commemoration today (30 July) of William Wilberforce, Olaudah Equiano and Thomas Clarkson, the three, among many, who we remember campaigned for the abolition of slavery. We know, because it is all part of the #BlackLivesMatter and contested heritage debates, all part of the Queen Anne’s Bounty discussions, all part of the history of USPG and so many other church bodies, all part of the history of Bristol and its cathedral, that the church was up to its neck and beyond in slavery and we know that bishops defended slavery with recourse to scripture. We know that it was a red line at that time, that there was huge resistance to what Wilberforce and his companions, and others in parliament were wanting. Yet, somehow the Holy Spirit spoke through the arguments and wisdom and right and justice prevailed and that red line disappeared.

Human dignity is a matter of justice, who I am, who you are, loved and created by God is a reality. Denying what God has done, out of love, drawing red lines across the lines of God’s grace is a scandal, as is refusing to take the bread and the cup that Jesus holds out to us, his friends, and even to the one who would betray him.

The play is well worth seeing; ok not all of it is true to life, true to the vicarage kitchen, but it points to the way in which the red lines we draw are destructive and divisive. It seems to me, and as you all know I never claim to be a biblical scholar, simply a child of God, that Paul, speaking to the Romans describes a love that knows no bounds, a divine love in which no lines are drawn.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Romans 8.35-39)

But I will still insist on full vestments – and isn’t that really the problem? I need to look at my own red lines as much as the next person.

God of boundless grace, draw us with your cords of love into the freedom of your kingdom and into that deeper and fuller communion with you, which is life in all its fullness. Amen.

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