Being a liberal. The “persecution” of Tim Farron

I’ve read a great deal about Tim Farron in the last few days, following his resignation from being leader of the LibDems. He said that it was impossible to reconcile being a Christian with being a political leader. That is a very ambiguous statement – but most people have taken it to mean that his views on homosexuality made it impossible to be the leader of the LibDems. I shouldn’t imagine that the DUP would find his views problematic, so it is not an issue about politics in general, more his own party and his own views.

I had rather wished Farron would have worded his speech better – his implication is that being a Christian means holding the views he does, and as we know well in the ‘pisky church, there are a multiplicity of views on the subject of same-sex relationships. But that’s by the by. The real issue I have with what he said was the flavour of self-pity which his speech brought to the issue. This has been taken and run with by many people, accusing Farron of being persecuted for his beliefs, and how “illiberal” the LibDems are if they can’t have someone with his views leading their party.

There is certainly a discussion to be had about the place religion in the political and public sphere. But also there is an issue concerning Farron’s inability to be honest about his own views.

I suspect (and it is simply a suspicion) that he lied about his own views on homosexuality, when he said he had no problem with gay sex, because people told him he had to. If he did “have” to lie that is indeed a shame. But he didn’t have to. The issue is about how he answered those questions, and the fact he wanted his Christianity to be public only when it suited him.

There are many ways in which Farron could have successfully answered the question – he could have said “I have an issue with equal marriage, but I would never vote against it because I don’t demand my opinions become universalised”. Or he could have said “I have no issue with equal marriage” But what he actually said was a series of fudges, and something about his private beliefs not being at issue.

Of course they are. People want their politicians to have a morality which they can see and understand. To say that your views on homosexuality are not important would be like saying your views on Trident, or austerity, or equal rights for women are private. If you are a Christian, that is a huge part of what you are, and I simply can’t understand any Christian saying that their faith is compartmentalised in the way Farron believes it can be. Either you are proud of your beliefs, in which case, proclaim them, or you are ashamed of your beliefs, in which case, examine them. To do anything else is to refuse to trust people with the truth – and that is something people are heartily sick of in their politicians.

His speech had the whiff of self-pity to it. Some have even suggested that Farron has been persecuted because of his beliefs. He has not. If someone does not vote for you, that is not persecution. If someone does not want you as the leader of their party, that is not persecution. Beinc bullied, isolated, treated as a lesser human because of your sexuality is being persecuted. Someone disagreeing with your opinions is not.

All political activists do what they do out of a sense of morality. Imagine being a LibDem activist, leading a morally good life, with a same-sex spouse. Imagine finding that again and again your leader refuses to say whether he disapproves of the life you lead or not – a leader whose voting record on LGBTQ rights is mixed, wont tell you what he thinks about your life because he feels it’s none of your business. If Tim Farron can move towards seeing the position he has put those people in, rather than focussing on the position he put himself in, perhaps he can move on from this without regret or rancour.

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Goodbye Indyref 2, Goodbye HardBrexit. Beware the Scottish Tories.

One vote went the way I wanted it to yesterday – the same-sex marriage vote in the Scottish Episcopal Church. I hadn’t expected it, but I certainly hadn’t expected what happened in the second vote, ie the General Election. The people have spoken, but what they have said is a confusing matter.

What happened in Scotland will cause an end to the calls for another Indyref any time soon. When John Swinney tells the media that worries over the Indyref was the reason for their losses, then that tells you a little something of the policy the SNP are going to start adopting. Which will be for an incremental increase in the powers of the Scottish Parliament, with, I suspect another Independence referendum in the long distance. I suspect that will happen within the next twenty years, and I expect it will be won, but it will be evolution not revolution.

On the face of it, Theresa May is going to try and rely on the DUP’s ten seats to form a minority government. But what I think isn’t being said in the media, is that she has another party that she has to go into an uneasy coalition with – the Scottish Conservatives.

The Scottish Tories are a very different breed from down south. They are more Ken Clarke than George Osbourne, and the success of Ruth Davidson has been in spite of her brethren in Westminster, rather than because of it. Those Scottish Tory MPs will be all too well aware that their constituencies were hard Remain, and that how they behave will govern what happens in the Scottish Parliament elections in 2020. Add to that the “English votes for English Legislation” principle, which would imply that over much of the legislation for the UK, neither the Scottish Tories or the DUP would vote, means that the English Tories would not have a majority for much of their agenda.

So when it comes to a hard Brexit, there is little chance of May taking all the Scottish Tories with her in a hard Brexit. And she only needs one or two to dissent and she’s lost.

All in all, yesterday was a good day for me. Hope you’re having a good one too.

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Chess or Church?

CHESS OR CHURCH?

As the Scottish Episocopal church engages with the question of same-sex marriage, there is another group within the Anglican communion who is prepraring to make some news in Edinbrugh today. Gafcom, the grouping of those who are of conservative theology, may appoint a Bishop for Scotland, should the SEC vote in favour of licencing clergy for same-sex marriage.

This would not quite be in the “flying bishops” mode of the C of E, who appointed bishops to service the needs of those who opposed female clergy. The difference, and it is a big one, is that the Gafcom Bishop would be operating within Scotland, without being licenced or approved by Scottish Bishops.

Can Gafcom do it? Within Scottish canonical law, probably not, within the wider context of episcopal authority, possibly. The question is not can they, but should they?

To me it points to a question of what sort of church we want to be. I want to be the sort of church the Apostles founded, a spirit-breathed bible-based, divinely institued communion of God. But what does that sort of church look like? If we go by the Acts of the Apostles, it looks like a passionate, messy, argumentative but faithful church, full of vibrant people and full hearts. And occasional arguments. That’s part of the package. What it doesn’t look like is a bureaucratic, procedural, ecclesiastical church, whose communion with one another is through pronouncements, regulations and canons.

Jesus knew the sort of church he was setting up when in Matthew 18 he gave them some sort of rules for how to disagree. He did that because he knew they would – often. If you have an issue with your brother or sister, he said, speak to them personally first, then if that doesn’t work, bring along a few friends to help sort the matter out, if not speak to the whole church, and keep working on it until you see no choice but to split – and even then, he said, treat them like a Gentile – that is, someone in need of the loving mercy of God, someone to be brought back into the folk and taught the good news. At no point was there an opt-out of communicating with those with whom your disagree.

Paul may not have heard that part of the teaching when he confronted Peter about Gentile converts, but it was certainly what he did. In his own Pauline way, he more or less bawled Peter out for backsliding on his attitude towards Gentiles. Paul didn’t talk about Peter, he talked to him, he travelled a long way to speak to him. They had a passionate discussion, possibly and argument, and they kept debating and discussing.

By contrast, a theological discussion about the nature of God as expressed in the Creed took place a few centuries later. By now the church was powerful and well-organised. The controversy was about whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the son together, or just from the Father – known as the filioque clause.

Now that theological discussion had been simmering for centuries, from the 6th scentury, but in the 11th century things changed. It changed because both sides of this debate became associated with political power. The place of the Bishop of Rome and the Bishop of Constantinope in the church became a subtext to a simmering argument, the issue of how the church was governed became a power-grab, and in 1054 the schism between what is now the Orthodox and Catholic churches took place. It is for this reason, the question of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father or the father and son together, than the churches have been split fromm the 11th century to this day. Now I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty embarassing to me.

The question of what sort of church we are boils down to this – are we a family, or an ideology? Should we behave like a family, with our arguments and disagreements, or like a political party, with a given party line, and occasional schisms?

My Dad and I disagree about many things. We disagree about divorce and remarriage, about female clergy, about same-sex marriage. We even, believe it or not, on an evening with rather too much whisky, disagreed about the filioque clause. But he’s still my Dad. We still talk together about all of these things, and many more. And we still love each other. If we have a problem we talk it through. Sometimes it’s resolved, sometimes it’s not, sometimes it takes time.

I believe we are supposed to be the family of God, not a political party. Political parties can have nice clear lines, and nice clean policy statements. But they also have machinations, power-bases and subterfuge, none of which is part of our Gospel. I’m afraid the Gafcom move feels like a political move, not a family argument.

It might be that having an alternative oversight bishop could keep some of our churches in the Anglican commuinion, should the same-sex marriage vote go through. I wouldn’t like it, but then again I don’t like lots of things that my family members do. Loving people who are different is a compromise.

But not this way. Not this political way. By all means, let’s talk with passion. Let’s discuss and wrestle and fight and pray. Let’s shout at each other if we need to in the street like St Paul. Let’s lose our tempers if we must, and come together and talk of other things, like normaly families do.

But let’s not seek to out-manouvre one another. This isn’t chess, this is church. If we do it this way, there may be a winner, but it won’t be the will of God.

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Vengence is mine. Thoughts on the Manchester Bombing.

There is a horribly familiar feeling about the news from Manchester. Shocked but not surprised is perhaps the feeling. We are shocked by the horror of what happened, we grieve for the families whose future will be so very different from what they hoped, full of compassion for those who suffer. But not surprised. We knew something like this would happen again soon. We didn’t know where or when, but we did, somewhere in the back of our minds, know it would happen.

I’ve been thinking about those who suffer, and I’ve been thinking too of the wonderful compassion of the people of Manchester, whose kindness to those who needed help has done so much to make this more than a simply story of tragedy. I heard an American news reporter tell CNN that in all the terrorist atrocities she has covered, she has never seen goodness like it. Police and news reporters being given sandwiches and drinks by locals, people put up in hotels without question, people being welcomed into the houses of strangers, everyone sharing the common humanity in a time when one man showed none.

My thoughts have also been turning to him. What was going through his mind, as he strapped bombs to himself, as he did up his coat and went to a venue full of excited happy children? Was he full of hate, or anger, or triumph, as he ended both his own life and the lives of innocents? Was he mentally ill? Well of course he was. No-one in their right mind kills children.

There is a common thread to many of these mass-killings, whether it is terrorism, or the sort of right-wing ideology put forward by the murderer of Jo Cox a year ago, or Andreas Brevik in Norway, or indeed the mass-shootings in American schools. Despite the huge variations in ideology and politics, there is a single common thread which unites these murderers – a sense of vengence. Vengence which is turned into malice by self-righteousness That self-righteousness is a corrosive, malicious feeling. It hides our own darker nature from us, and gives us a confidence in our own conscience which nurses evil and feeds it.

Whenever I hear the word “vengence” my mind goes to Pulp Fiction, and to Samuel L Jackson’s character, who used Ezekiel 25 to make himself feel justified and powerful before he ended lives. Vengence is mine, saith the Lord.

But that quotation, like so many in the bible, says the opposite of what some think it means. “vengence is mine” says the Lord – and again and again the scriptures of all religions say that means that vengence does not belong to humans, but to God. Only God, all-knowing and all loving, can have that judgement. To presume to know the mind of God to the extent of ending life is not just mistaken, but is a blasphemy.

Some in the media, Katie Hopkins being the most brutal example, have felt that the best response to vengence is more vengence. She calls for a “final solution”.  I dont’ know if she is frightened or whether she, like the terrrorist, simply enjoys the self-righteous passion which floods through her veins as she becomes more angry and outraged. But the lesson we must learn from both the terrorist is that vengence always, always, makes everything worse.

The Ezekiel quotation which was used in Pulp Fiction also says The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children.“

Our purpose, our task is not vengence,  but to do charity and good will. And while the murderer sought to divide and fragement our society by his evil actions, the people of Manchester have truly become their brothers’ keepers and the finder of lost children. They, and not the shrill voices of revenge, have shown us the way. They have resonded to the worst of humanity with the best of what we are. And I pray God’s mercy that we can stay on that path.

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Resurrection

I just want to share a wee story with you from today. A story which has melted my heart once again.

It’s late on Easter night, I’ve been awake for far too long, and I’ve finally broken my lentern fast of alchol, so you know, this might not end well.

Holy week has been intense this year for a number of reasons, and the path of passion was very real this time round. I’ve been walking with some folk whose way has been painful, including one elderly couple (who are happy for me to tell this story) who lost their son six months ago. Their son’s widow is naturally in great grief, but one of the expressions of that is that they have not been allowed to see their grandchildren since the funeral. The pain of that separation has been sharp and terrible, and I’ve prayed for them with tears as well as with hope.

On Maundy Thursday I knew they would be there, and it was hard to try and say anything of hope and good news when you know some people feel little but despair. I don’t believe in despair, I believe Christianity means there is no such thing, but for them the valley was dark indeed. How can you preach to people about the loss of Jesus when they have lost their own son? I don’t rightly know what I said to them, or if it helped, but if compassion means anything I know I shared their pain.

Even now I can’t really bear to think too hard about what it might feel to lose my own son, I know the idea is so terrible, so heart breaking that I cannot dare to imagine it. I know that their pain is darker than anything I have ever had to experience. I know that they are the kindest, most gentle, most decent of folk, the apotheosis of the sort of people you want to protect from harm and hurt, and I wanted to howl in outrage at what they are having to go through. To lose their son is one thing. To lose the hope of ever seeing their grandchildren again is devastating.

As time wore on, and there was nothing but silence, they began to feel that perhaps this was how it would always be. They are not young. They may not have long. All they have is a yearning love for their grandchildren, expressed in anxiety, pain and an inability to stop hoping.

After Easter Sunday Eucharist we always have a meal in our house for the congregation, and they always come along. Only this Sunday they couldn’t make it. Because on Holy Saturday, they got a card. Written in scrawly handwiting from their grandchildren. It was an invitation. To Easter lunch.

So we didn’t get to see them this Easter lunchtime. They were too busy being resurrected.

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Easter Sermon

And So the Easter Season hits us once again, and it won’t be long before the children have crashed from their sugar rush and the champaigne has kicked in, and finally I can watch Doctor Who.

It’s funny how something like Doctor Who both unites and divides the generations. It’s a rare communal talking point. But we all have our favourite Doctor – and perhaps our favourite companion. Did you have a favourite companion? Yes I’ll bet you did. Chris our organist liked the ditzy blonde one, John our server liked the intelligent brunette – me, I preferred the girls.

But where we divide depends on who “our Doctor” is. Because if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that Doctor Who isn’t as good as it used to be.

It’s like cricket or Pop music. The past was better. It has always been so. If there’s one thing constant in this world, it is that the older generation thinks the past was better than the present.

Now I’ve been perhaps a little frivolous about that but it’s an imporatant truth. There is a feeling, a seemingly authentic, honest, truthful feeling, that the world today is worse today than it was in our recent past. Because bad news feels true.

A couple of years ago there was a conference about church decline, and the statistics were being presented in a very depressing way. The piscy church as a whole was declining, the Church of Scotland and the catholics were in freefall, and the independent churches are only growing because one starts up as another diminishes. And I looked around and all the clergy in the room were doing that “sad but true” expression.

I’ve seen that expression a lot. Sad but true. Sentences that begin “the fact is” are going to be sad facts. Churches are declining, morality is sinking, community is failing, not like it used to be.

And I’ve seen that sad but true expression in the faces of so many people who say, they want to believe in God, but the sad truth is, it’s just a comforting fantasy. You remember that atheist slogan on the busses, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Most atheists feel sad that there’s no God, but feel it has a ring of truth. Because people believe bad news.

I used to think that. I was there, Sad but true. I wished God existed, but thought the sad truth was, it was just a make believe, a comforting fairy tale. And better to have the sad truth, than a comforting lie.

And it feels… cleaner, somehow, more noble, courageous, admitting cold hard reality. Because bad news feels true.

And if there is just one thing that I have learnt from Easter, it is that feeling you get, that feeling of the truth of cold hard reality, – it’s a deceit. It’s a lie. Bad news feels true, people believe bad news, but it’s a psychological tick, a quirk of humanity. Our Gospel today, our mad, strange Gospel, tells us not to be afraid of good news.

So does our first reading. Abraham was locked into his grief at not having children. So locked in that he really didnt’ believe God when God told him he would have a son. Abraham knew the truth. Abraham knew the cold hard reality. Abraham has actually just won a great battle, and he’s become a very rich man But he had no children. And he was old, very old, and so was his wife. What is the point of all this, all this battle, all this striving, if he had no-one to pass it on to? There was something missing. He was grieving for the children he never had.

And this time, along comes God, all hail fellow well met, and he says to him, “Fear not, Abraham, cheer up! Everything’s going to turn out really well! It’s not as black as you think it is!”.

And Abraham, only just manages to keep his temper. You don’t know the half of it. I have no children, he said. You have not blessed me. You dont’ know the half of it.

And God took him gently by the hand, and led him out into the stars, led him out of his enclosed grief and his set-in sorrow. He led him out into the vast majesty of creation and said, “Look. Look at all of this. Don’t be afraid. It is you, who don’t know the half of it.”

The Apostles were locked into their grief, they were well versed in the rituals of despair, and they were living them out. They were ready to accept failure. Sad but true. The venture had failed. The women had brought along embalming fluid for Jesus. They were locked into their rituals of despair, they knew how to cope with bad news. And tthen they saw the empty tomb. And they were terrified. The Apostles refused to believe it even when they saw it, and even when Jesus appeared to them. They knew the future was bleak and they didn’t take kindly to Jesus taking away their certainty.

It takes a lot of guts to believe in the resurrection. Not the appearing after dead stuff, that’s piddling. Any scientist worth his salt will say what is reported in the resurrection can be explained. But the faith to me is not about the physical stuff. It’s about more than that.

Throuhgout the scenes of holy week, we have seen atrocity and degredation, humanity at it’s worst. Just as we see today in Syria. We have seen Jesus, even Jesus feeling abandoned by God, despairing for the world. And through all of that we come to today. Through the twisted world of human sin and evil, into something which is strange, and mind-bending and somehow beautiful.

The faith that we are required to have in order not just to believe the resurrection, but to live it, is the faith that God can take all of that horror and evil and turn it into something beautiful. and good.

The jews said “his blood be upon us and upon our children” and God took that and turned it into a blessing. Saved by the blood of the lamb. Peter’s betrayal caused bitter tears, but because of his betrayal, he became the greatest apostle. God takes all the evil in the world and in his time and if we allow it, he transforms it into goodness, and beauty.

If we truly believe that, then there is no place, no place at all, for despair.

Because that sad but true face is not true, it is never true. There is no room for despair in a world where God’s love can transform everything.

There are places in the world which are as dark and as horrific as Gethsemane and Golgotha. There are people in the world who suffer just as Jesus did, and the easiest, the safest, the most childish and the most selfish thing in the world we can do is to despair. Because it requires us to do nothing, to make no effort, to help no-one, to throw up our hands and say “what can we do?” and to decry the world of God’s creating as evil and forsaken.

We cannot be followers of Christ if we seek refuge in despair. Our only option it to exercise compassion, to share the suffering of those who have nothing, and to find it unbearable, so that we are moved into action, to know that we can and we shall and we will make a difference, because there is never room for despair, there is never a point at which our compassion cannot change the world, there is never, never a point at which love cannot transform everything.

And when we truly believe that, we are living that risen life, and the question no longer is “what can we do” but “what shall we do” – because we can always do something and because our comapssion for those who suffer mean that we will never be beaten down by despair.

You know how much I love Doctor Who, so let me quote a little of it.

‘There’s a mountain made of pure diamond. It takes an hour to climb it, and an hour to walk around it. And every hundred years, a little bird comes, and sharpens it’s beak on the diamond mountain.
And when the entire mountain is chiseled away, the first second of eternity will have passed.’
You might think that’s one hell of a mountain. I think that’s one hell of a bird.”

We are the bird. And we will not stop until those mountains of injustice and suffering are chiselled away. Because our faith tells us we can, and our compassion tells us we must. And our love tells us we will.

And when we do, as we always do, fall into that darker place, where hope seems thin and the world seems an anxious place, when we fall back into the comforting memory of the past, and retreat from the anxiety of the present, then let us remember the story of the Resurrection, and to allow God, as Abraham did, to take us gently by the hand, so that he can say once again to us “It’s okay. Because there is so much more than this. You don’t know the half of it. And the half that you don’t see, is wonderful.”

And that is hope. That is faith. That is love. That is resurrection.

Amen.

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Sermon for Good Friday

GOOD FRIDAY SERMON

Today is the day when we perform that most extraordinary, bizzarre twists that any religion could have chosen. We feel pity for our God.

It’s unremitting, is Good Friday, this death of Jesus. The Gospels don’t spare us. When it comes to Jesus’ own suffering, we find the crucifixion scene so troubling, that it is tempting to underplay the idea of pain and suffering, as though because he’s the son of God it barely touches the sides. But in the Gospels there’s none of that,  no joyful skip on to the end. Jesus is a broken man, who feels abandoned by God, there’s no way out of that. The Gospels take us deep down into those places of sorrow and grief, and show us that Christ, like us, was not spared any pain.

The gospels are cruel to us. They stick our noses into the horror of the real world. Look at death, they say, look at this corpse, look at the evil in the world, look at the suffering of the innocent and the poor, look at the injustices. Dont cover them up by ritual, don’t whatever you do, do that. Make the rituals amplify the hurt, don’t let them be an anelgesic. Don’t find ways of dealing with it, don’t use coping mechanisms, don’t find ways of switching to another channel. Don’t dare look away, says the God of compassion and love, because he knows if we look away we do nothing, and if we look, we can’t bear it. So we look at a broken man we call God, and we feel such compassion for him that we have to do everythign we can to stop anyone else ever having to feel like he did.

The gift God gives us on Good friday is the gift of compassion. Compassion literally means with pain. We are made to feel compassion. Because his whole journey to this place, to this awful, terrible place, this charnel house of suffering, has been an act of compassion on his part. This journey of salvation has been because of his love for us, for his friends, for his enemies, his love for those who were mocking him, nailing him to his death. The compassion we feel for him is the journey of the cross, the purpose of his story. His suffering draws compassion out of us. It causes us to want to help. It makes us better people.

That is why today is so important, as important and as great a feast as Easter. Because Compassion, that essence of love, is the stuff of God. What we feel within us is God at work. When we are moved to help the suffering, the refugee, the homeless, the helpless, the innocent, the poor, when we have to help because we have to do something, that is God at work within us. And every time that happens within us, and in our actions and deeds, then God has been made incarnate, written into that moment, in that place and in time. That moment of God’s incarnation will never be taken away. And we become truly ourselves. In that moment.

And our job as the followers of the ragged God of the cross, is simply to make more moments like that. To be unafraid of compassion, and of love, and to fill the earth with them. And as Christ showed in his last words, we can do that even when the very worst in happpening. Even in the point of cruel, unjust death, love can be made incarnate.

And in that is our hope and our salvation.

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