Psalm 139; John 10:14-17
Christ Church has been on a journey reflecting on how to be a truly inclusive church for several years. We believe that we are, and always seek to do our best to be an open, friendly, and welcoming but nevertheless have been unable to nail our colours to the mast. By this I do not mean flying a rainbow flag, I mean demonstrably being the type of church that Jesus would want to attend. A place where age does not preclude you spending time in His presence. A place where your bodily functions do not brand you as unclean. A place where your skin colour is not the thing people recognise about you. A place where who you are attracted to is not a big deal. The Inclusive Church Network was instrumental in highlighting that there was an issue in many institutional churches who despite believing and seeking to be welcoming of everyone perhaps were not so open and friendly when people who were perceived as different turned up. As a result, they developed a statement that was a clear indication to those who felt that a particular church might not be for them were wrong. Having explored the statement offered by the Inclusive Church Network the PCC at Christ Church felt that it did not go far enough but accepted that it was helpful to have an explicit welcome statement.
We have since written our own that makes it clear the direction of travel for this community. This has coincided with a national church initiative entitled Living in Love and Faith, which we shall be exploring later in the year at both Deanery and parish levels. In preparation for that discussion the staff team felt it would be helpful to spend this reflective period of Lent examining another Church of England resource ‘Pastoral Principles for living well together.’ As you can see its very title includes a familiar phrase from our own Christ Church vision ‘living well’ definitely making it worthy of consideration.
As a community of Christians, we are held together in the love of Christ. Our many differences are gifts that can build us up in trust and mutual affection …or they can mar the image of Christ that we are called to reflect through our life together. LGBTI+ people in our churches have not always experienced this unconditional love of Christ and we need to admit and address this reality. These Pastoral Principles invite us to examine afresh our life together. The focus relates to LGBTI+ people, but they apply to all sorts of difference and diversity among God’s people and certainly at Christ Church we intend making it wider in order to embrace the truly inclusive statement that we have recently adopted. Paying attention to these pastoral principles will help us to live out the good news of welcome to all people with its biblical understanding of new birth, the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, the common call to repentance and faith, and our new identity in Christ.
Over the next 6 weeks we will acknowledge PREJUDICE, speak into
SILENCE, address IGNORANCE, cast out FEAR, admit HYPOCRISY,
and pay attention to POWER for at least some of these evils will be at work in our church, even if not with respect to LGBTI+ people. We still need to ask who is missing? Who is present? Who is silent?
I feel passionately about this. I have experienced first-hand the wounding that exclusion gives. In my Curacy there was one particular lady who refused to receive communion from me. She could just about shake my hand in the peace as she knew it would be churlish not to. But never came to the altar rail when I was presiding so not to embarrass either of us. I was told to just accept it and put up with it but that did not mean it did not hurt. When I was growing up this was the only children’s Bible available. The ‘lovely’ pictures show a very white middle-class Jesus, surrounded here by all his white male friends. There were no female leadership role models in the church, girls did not do that kind of thing. I felt a freak for even thinking about it - had I misheard the voice of God? Gender discrimination is a basic example of prejudice and it can be ingrained from childhood building up stereotypes of suitable roles for boys and girls.
As well as all the iconographies being male so was all the liturgical language and it wasn’t until I was a theological college that my eyes were opened to appreciate that God was bigger than gender, sexuality or race. I feel shame now when the church that I love and have pledged allegiance to fails to acknowledge the humanity in another. Hence the vital importance of safeguarding and the need for repentance when things go wrong.
Today’s first Pastoral Principle is acknowledging prejudice. Prejudices are very common - in fact, everyone has a prejudice in their lifetime. Have you ever looked at someone and made a judgment about them without even knowing them? Maybe you decided they looked smart because they wore glasses, or they were rich because they had lots of fancy jewellery. In a way, you pre-judged them, meaning you made a decision about who they were before learning anything about them.
This pre-judgment is called prejudice. The similarity between the words is no accident! Prejudice is an unfair and unreasonable opinion or feeling formed without enough thought or knowledge. You might be thinking that you would never pre-judge someone. However, at some point, everyone has a prejudiced thought about someone else. This is because there are so many influences on our ideas. Prejudice can come from movies, television, or from friends and family members.
Central to our faith is a belief that each of us is unique: we rejoice that we are fearfully and wonderfully made by God. There is a sense of awe and mystery about each one of us – an element of ‘otherness’ – that cannot be reduced to something that we can fully grasp within our finite understanding. This principle applies to all our relationships with people who are different from us, whether as a result of sexuality, gender identity, ethnicity, age or any other characteristic. I believe that all of us need to reflect deeply on our attitudes and behaviour in order to extend a Christ-like welcome to all people in our midst.
Reflecting on our attitude and behaviour lies at the heart of today’s Bible passages. The psalmist reminds us that God knows the heart.
“you perceive my thoughts from afar” and “before a word is on my tongue you know it completely.” Terrifyingly there is no escaping God for even the darkness will not hide our deeds, “for darkness is as light to you”. So, we had better take care with our thoughts and words. The WW2 poster ‘Careless words cost lives’ come to mind. How many times do many of us say or do things we did not mean especially catty or judgemental remarks even if it is just for fun?
· Look at what she’s wearing?
· Wow look at the state of him!
· I wouldn’t be seen dead in that!
Fashions, advertisements, and glossy magazines have a lot to answer for. And I know I am a sinner in this area too. There is nothing I enjoy more than a spot of people watching. Sitting in a café or pub garden (on days when we could do such a thing!) observing what is going on looking at what people are wearing, how they are behaving. Other people’s family or relationship dynamics are just so interesting hence the popularity of soap operas, another of my vices – this is starting to feel like a confessional but that is the point of Lent. To turn from our sin and make a conscious effort to do better. But we need to acknowledge it in the first place and sometimes our behaviour has become so common place that we fail to notice the error of our ways. Or maybe we have become so adjusted to social norms and expectations that we blindly accept something or do not even recognise it, let alone have the courage to face up to a bully or social injustice even when it smacks us in the face.
In recent years, a few Pastors have conducted social experiments to encourage people to take the log out of their own eye before criticising the speck in another’s. One example of this was Sam King in Reading lets watch what happened to him.
When dressed in suit and dog collar Sam was treated kindly with respect with many people stopping to help him. When dressed more scruffily he was frequently ignored or brushed off. Appearances do matter that is why people dress up for interviews. We all know that people make judgements based on what people look like even when we know it’s what inside that really counts. Jesus says, “I know my sheep and my sheep know me”. He looks at the heart not the external appearance. You might be thinking what has what people wear got to do with acknowledging prejudice. For me it is an easy way in to demonstrating that we all have prejudices whether we realise it or not. If left unchecked prejudice can often lead to bullying and other forms of discrimination. These create an atmosphere of fear for what might happen at any moment and fear for what the future might hold. In extreme cases this can lead a person to take their own life.
Failures within the institutional church with regard to safeguarding has led to abuse and mistrust. That is why it is important we examine these pastoral principles as conversation starters and continue on a journey to mature discipleship in order to grow our church and be more missional in outlook. We want Christ Church to be a safe place where all are truly welcome for who they are in Christ, a beloved child of God.
Acknowledging prejudice is a good place to start because of our understanding that everyone is made in the image of God, we will receive our differences as gift, valuing all people, and seek to see Christ in all our neighbours. To help us do this we will acknowledge and address our prejudices.
We are all conditioned by our experience of life, positively or negatively. All of us must reflect deeply on our attitudes and behaviour. All are loved children of God. The cross of Christ is for all. The journey from prejudice to hatred is a short one as the Passion narrative demonstrates.
We are going to go into breakout rooms now and reflect on the question.
How do we welcome people as they are, rather than welcoming them in the hope they will become and behave ‘like us’?
Those who prefer to stay with me are going to watch another video about an American pastor and pray together.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7JbM0qooRg