Monday, 20 February 2017

Gifts we don't want

Some of the things which made Birmingham an important place in which to train for ordination in the middle of the 1980s have been coming back to me. 

The Bishop of Lincoln happened to ask me about it at breakfast earlier in the month and we named both Prof John Hull and Prof Frances Young in the conversation. 

And then the beautiful film Notes on Blindness was broadcast on BBC 4 this week – a film based on the notes which John Hull was making at the time as he explored the process of his going blind – and I was back in the midst of those conversations thirty years ago.

The film brought him to the place in which an overwhelming experience of grace gave him a sense of God placing a dark cloak over him – so that he had to own his blindness as a gift (albeit one he did not want) and the only question was then what he would do with it.

At the same time Frances Young, then a newly ordained Methodist Minister, was articulating her response to her son Arthur’s severe disabilities using what I take to be the same ‘theological method’.

But neither John Hull’s blindness nor Frances Young’s son’s disability were simply ‘raw material’ for ‘theological reflection’ but rather the realities integral to their lives, the lenses through which they read scripture, the questions with which they interrogated tradition, the filter through which they sifted other Christians' explorations and experience.

It strikes me belatedly that my own ministerial formation alongside these sorts of reflections explains why I find those who have a ‘problem with suffering’ so puzzling - when they made me want every such encounter to be the starting point which strips away previously easy answers and casual assumptions and takes me somewhere new.

So facing the realities of dispossesionbereavement, dementiasecular assumptions (thanks to Stephen Pattison, another of my Birmingham teachers of the time) and of stillbirth are examples of the places where faith can be refined and therefore renewed and validated rather than undermined and abandoned.

And just perhaps the Church of England is at such a moment with the gifts of both the experience of those who wish to own the reality of their same-sex marriages before God and of the painful division this has provoked.

It has brought our Archbishop this week to focus anew for those of whichever very different views of these realities:

No person is a problem, or an issue.  People are made in the image of God.  All of us, without exception, are loved and called in Christ.  There are no ‘problems’, there are simply people...  we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church... this must be... based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual... The way forward needs to be about love, joy and celebration of our humanity; of our creation in the image of God, of our belonging to Christ - all of us, without exception, without exclusion.

It brings me back to my reading of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 - returning from what would have been a marginalising experience at the temple in Jerusalem and full of urgent questions about his reading of Isaiah 53.

I’m certain it is not just or even chiefly a story of an intellectual question (‘who is Isaiah speaking about?’) receiving a satisfactory academic answer (‘this is how we understand the ministry of Jesus’) and thus provoking a religious response (‘what then prevents me from being baptised?’).

It is a story of a painful reality (of emasculation and religious exclusion) encountering Gospel possibilities (‘don’t let the eunuch say I’m just a dry tree’ comes in the same part of Isaiah) which opens up new life itself (‘and he went on his way rejoicing’).

The picture was taken in St Nicolas’, Great Coates after the children had left last week.

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