The decision of the Church of England Synod to deny women the opportunity to be elected as bishops will be much debated in the days to come. The debate will not be about theological convictions or biblical interpretation but about how badly the church can get things wrong.
Its easy to dismiss those who voted to deny women the opportunity to become bishops as misogynists, or narrow-minded bigots, or worse. I, for one, do not want to hang such labels around the necks of those who voted against the legislation, though I am remote from the raw emotions felt by women especially and I can understand their hurt and anguish, even if I cannot experience it.
But once the immediate reactions have subsided there needs to be a very serious conversation indeed, and it needs to go wider than Anglicanism. If we, as Baptists, want to be part of that debate let us at least be aware of the potential inconsistency in advocating in favour of justice for one group whilst cherishing our own reasons for excluding others. Jesus addressed this directly - “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? (Luke 6:41 TNIV)
Gay men and women feel excluded from most of the Christian church, including I suggest, most Baptist churches, on the grounds of their orientation. Many of our churches have rules that exclude people from Our Communion Table. Sorry, a slip there – The Lord’s Table. We exclude people from church membership on the basis of our convictions about believer’s baptism. We then exclude people from baptism because they’re cohabiting. And we exclude people from getting married in the church because one is a committed Christian and their partner isn't.
So, if we’re going to have a conversation about injustice, just realise we will also be in the spotlight ourselves, and it wont necessarily be a comfortable experience.
I’m not saying that there are no underlying moral, ethical or theological convictions and truths, underpinning these issues – there are. All I’m saying is that those who voted against women bishops are probably not women haters, but for whatever reason they are part of a long ecclesiastical tradition of exclusion.
We’re a part of that. I’m a part of that. Jesus wasn’t.
So let me take a few risks here because frankly the stakes are too high not to do so.
It seems to me most gay people do not choose to be gay, that is simply how they’re wired. I don’t pretend to understand it, but maybe one day we will. Maybe its the same as my heterosexuality – its just the way I’m wired – or maybe its something genetic. I know too that the issue is more complicated than blind prejudice – heterosexuality is described in scripture as part of God’s creation design in a way that homosexuality is not. But I know how much human sexuality, gay or straight, is fallen so I am loathe to make any sweeping assertions that permanently exclude men and women whose orientation is different.
I know too that the Bible doesn’t at first glance help us with some key verses that refer to homosexuality and I am not at liberty to set aside those verses indiscriminately. But I do know that we routinely explain away large parts of scripture to do with food laws, what animal skins we can wear, what can and cant be done during a women’s period, head-coverings and strongly worded advice about stoning people to death. Get it?
Even that doesn’t settle the issue. I know that too! But I ask myself what Jesus would do, and I have a fair idea that he’d challenge exclusion and welcome people to him. It wouldn’t be an unqualified welcome – none of us, gay or straight, rich or poor, black or white are beyond reproach in his presence – but I know we’d be welcomed.
Don’t stone me yet - I haven’t finished. Most Baptist churches have an open table these days though a minority don’t. My concern is that sometimes I hear the words at the communion table spoken as if we had to protect the bread and wine from contamination by people who are not quite ready to eat and drink. Read a little more here.
Ah yes, and then there’s cohabitation. Now you’re getting really angry because it seems like I’m saying ‘anything goes’. Not really. All I’m saying is, how did the hymn-writer put it, “Jesus take me as I am, I can come no other way”. For millions of young never-churched people, how will they choose to live for Jesus unless they know Jesus and how will they know Jesus unless they’re welcome in our churches? I know the presence or absence of a welcome isn't the main deal – most people just don’t give a fig about Jesus and his church, but it would at least be a start if churches were known as welcoming places for such couples.
The point is this. All of these convictions have biblical roots, and on the whole people who hold the convictions that have the effect of locking others out are not bigots. So name-calling isn’t helpful.
What may be helpful is to see that however right we think we are, its possible, dare I say likely, that we’ve lost sight of the main thing. We’ve hidden Jesus out of sight, protected him, defended him, safeguarded the purity of the gospel, kept ‘the world’ at a distance so we don’t get dirty, as if the world isn't the place where we eat and drink and dance and watch good movies and read great books and live and love and laugh and cry. This is life, and it’s a gift from God, but it’s simultaneously beautiful and broken. Who gave us the right to be the gatekeepers to the one who alone offers healing and hope?
If Baptists want to say something to our Anglican brothers and sisters, then we need to show the same willingness to examine the areas of life where its our convictions, not theirs, that are in the spotlight.
That won’t be easy because it will require me / us to relocate our convictions into second place in order that an even higher conviction takes first place, namely the conviction that Jesus came to destroy barriers and we need to do the same.