Tuesday, 31 May 2011

General Assembly and Gay Clergy.

Of all the subjects discussed at the General Assembly last week, the one which has attracted the most interest from the media has been, inevitably, the one relating to sex.   People sometimes wrongly accuse the church of being obsessed with the subject.  I don't think this is at all fair, for two reasons:

(1) The Church does a HUGE amount of good work in communities all over Scotland and with vulnerable groups.  It is really thrilling at the Assembly to hear the reports of all the work going on, and I am immensely proud to be part of an organisation doing so much for the disadvantaged and needy.  Are the press interested in those things?  Do they get reported?  Not really, considering how much there is to admire.  "Crossreach", the social care arm of the Church of Scotland does a lot of truly wonderful stuff.  So does the "Guild" (formerly "Womens Guild").  So does the Department of World Mission, the HIV/Aids project, and so much else at a national level.  On top of this, in every city, town and village all over Scotland, local congregations are doing a phenomenal amount of good in terms of social care and community projects.  These things are done in the name of Jesus, and are all ways in which Christians communicate in very practical ways the unconditional love of God for everyone.  It is not really our fault as a denomination if the media are not sufficiently interested in these activities.

(2)  The main message of the Church is not a message about sex, or indeed about any other moral or legal or lifestyle issue.  The main message of the Church, often called the Gospel (which means "good news") is this: God loves the world so much that, rather than allowing people to receive the punishment that their sins deserve (and make no mistake we are ALL sin-full), he allowed his own son, Jesus, to take the punishment for us on the cross.  Jesus became a once-and-for-all sacrifice so that WHOEVER (including prisoners of course) believes in him will not die (though their body does) but have wonderful eternal life.  In Prisonworld, prisoners will interpret the word "sin" to mean their index offence; I sometimes find myself at services in prison having to break the bad news that there's a lot more to their sin than their crimes.  Jesus said, for example that the most important two commandments were to love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbour (our fellow human being) as much as we love ourselves.  We ALL break them, and probably several times a day.  We all need to hear the Gospel and our sex lives are marginal to that.

Having begun with that preamble I want to say something about the issue that has attracted the media attention because it IS an important one. 

Should the Christian church have homosexuals among its leadership?  This has been the subject of much debate.

The traditional point of view in my denomination and many others has been that (a) God loves every human being unconditionally, (b) God sees heterosexual marriage as the only appropriate place for sexual activity, (c) God loves heterosexuals, lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transexuals equally, and (d) it is in no way a sin to be homosexual in orientation.   In view of (a) to (d), therefore, ministers were traditionally expected to be either in a heterosexual marriage or else celibate.

Last week, the Church of Scotland General Assembly voted to consider the possible theological, ecclesiological and legal implications of moving away from this position towards allowing non-celibate gay people to become clergy.

What do I think of this?

To be honest, I am very sad.   This will probably shock my many LGBT friends and relatives because, I trust, you always have found (and I promise always will find) me to be unconditionally accepting of you.  I love you as much as I did.  I love you unconditionally.   However, I also love the Lord.

When I read the Bible it is abundantly clear to me that, whatever I personally may feel, GOD himself disapproves of homosexual practice (as well as heterosexual sin such as adultery etc too of course).   So what I think is irrelevant.  I'm a sinner myself, as all who know me will testify.  Therefore I am a poor judge of what is sin and what isn't.  Just because something doesn't particuarly offend me doesn't mean it's not a sin.  God is holy.  God made the world.   Wee boys playing football will sometimes claim "It's my ball" and that will give them extra say in what the rules are.  The world, shaped like a ball, is God's ball and he makes the rules.  We don't need to love them immediately but need to accept them and work towards understanding why God wants things that way.

The debate at the General Assembly a week ago today resulted in a decision to move in a "trajectory" in the direction of allowing practising homosexuals to be ministers.  This is against the will of the membership as surveyed by a Special Commission questionnaire.  This is against the will of the majority of the worldwide church with whom we do want to retain a real sense of unity.  But more importantly it is clearly against Scripture. 

It is this departure from Scripture that is really what upsets many of us.   I cannot begin to put into words how grieved I am that people genuinely think that people in my position are homophobic.  That is SO not true.  For a living, I love people in spite of their lifestyles.  For the avoidance of doubt let me be clear that I am not  comparing homosexual behaviour with a life of crime.  My point is that I love people in spite of their lifestyles.  If I love the criminal then obviously I love the non-criminal.  I know my heart and I know that I love everyone unconditionally and that clearly and definitely includes my LGBT friends and family.  My greatest fear, indeed, in posting this blog (which has been a decision reached after a lot of thought) is that you guys will be hurt and misunderstand where I am coming from as a rejection of you.

I'm aware that some readers may want to say, "But, AnneDroid, are you saying that only ministers who are without sin at all can be ministers?"  No!  Of course I'm not saying that.  No one is without sin, least of all me.   Ministers are human.  However, there is a higher standard expected of them than of others and that is just the way it is.  Were I to carry on a series of extra-marital affairs (I'm not planning to - I like what I've got) I would not have committed an offence against the law of the land but I would expect the church to take a negative view of it.  Even the least observant among you wouldn't need to look at me long to be suspicious that I am guilty of the sin of gluttony.  I am, and I fight it with varying degrees of earnestness, but what I wouldn't ever do is try to persuade others that gluttony was not a sin but in fact a great blessing.  That's an important distinction.

Some of my fellow clergy who share my understanding of God's will have already decided to leave the Church of Scotland.  Others are still thinking they may well do so.  I'm not going anywhere.  My dad, his brother, my mum's uncle and his uncle before him were CofS ministers.  Perhaps that's got something to do with my desire to stay, I don't know.  But I don't feel God's leading to leave.  Nor does Him Indoors.  So we're staying.  

Friday, 27 May 2011

You can never have too many brothers and sisters!

This week I've been commuting to Edinburgh to the Church of Scotland General Assembly, which is our annual week-long business meeting (with breaks to eat and sleep of course).  A quarter of the denomination's ministers attend each year, and this is my third assembly in the thirteen years since I was ordained, since I had a bit of time off for childbearing/childrearing/good behaviour.

Him Indoors, who is also a minister (not in Prisonworld but in a local church congregation) has also been attending this year.  It's been really lovely to be there together.  After nearly eighteen years of marriage I still quite like being with him... which is good.  :)

One of the lovely things about the General Assembly is that you get to see friends you haven't seen for a while.  That's important as well as what happens in the actual debating chamber.  We all need fellowship and encouragement.  I love my (biological) brother (and my lovely brothers and sisters in law) very much but it's a wonderful thing as a Christian to be part of a worldwide family in which every Christian one meets is "a brother from another mother" and "a sister from another mister".  I've been a Christian so long that I can't remember anything else, but my hunch is that those who're not Christians just can't begin to imagine this brotherliness/sisterliness feeling.  It's great, and I've enjoyed that aspect of this week very much.

As to what's happened in the actual debates, that's important and I'll come back to it in the next couple of days, but meantime I just want to give thanks to God for the encouragement it's been to see friends I haven't seen for ages, and also that I've made a bunch of new friends too.  By tomorrow that may include the waiters and waitresses of JimmyChungs at Waverley who have benefitted a lot from the presence of some of us this week!

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Ecumenism/Inter-faith issues in Prisonworld? You gotta laugh...

I was amused to hear this story today from a prison chaplain in another Scottish prison:

A prisoner asked him recently, "See they Muslim c***s?  Are they Protestants or Catholics?"

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Big Boys do Cry (and I blame myself).

Recently at work it was my turn for my regular refresher self-defence training.  I hope I never need it but it's good to be prepared.

In the middle of us all throwing each other about the gym I was suddenly struck by a funny thought.  I was distracted at one point by thinking about a bereaved prisoner that I should go and see, and remembering how tearful he had been when I last saw him.  That made me think that I should really get some more paper hankies as the box was empty.  Neither of those were the funny thoughts (obviously). 

What made me smile was the idea that I routinely need to buy paper hankies as one of the tools of my trade (along with teabags etc) and so the conclusion from that could be that perhaps I cause the guys to cry (by offering sympathy, love, prayers, etc) at a greater rate than anyone else in the prison.  In other words, there I am, day by day, with some of the so-called "Scotland's Toughest" and I'm the one who brings on tears the most!

The day after I realised my handkerchief supply had run out, I was listening to another tearful prisoner.  He was really crying and, to be blunt, his nose was producing a lot of output too.  He badly needed a tissue but the only thing I had to give him was a (fresh) wiping up cloth like the one in the picture!

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated. Hello long lost blog!

Long time no blog, but think I will get it up and running again.  Limited though my knowledge and understanding of Prisonworld is, I'm in there and I'm listening and learning every day.  Most people in the world are not prisoners/prison staff/families of prisoners, and the big high wall with the barbed wire inevitably means that it is hard for the public to know what it's like in jail, especially given the Total Pile of Crap the tabloids feel free to print on the subject!

What's been happening recently?

Lots that I can't mention, as usual.  But some thought-provoking stuff including:

1)  reflections with chaplaincy colleagues from other jails about just what a weird environment we work in as ministers and how vitally important it is for us to support each other in prayer.  I am the first to admit I am a sinner, albeit I know that God is at work in me sorting out the mess, but I still recognise that working full time in prison is to be a lot of the time in a real old cesspit of sin and the metaphorical stench can get to you after a bit.

2)  the challenge of working as clergy and civil servants at the same time - trying to serve two masters - which of course the Bible says is impossible!  I am a minister and I am an employee of the Scottish Prison Service.  It's a struggle I believe is well worth the effort, but it is an effort sometimes.  There is the constant danger of failing one side or the other of our twofold purpose.

3)  the difficulty of having to watch what one says.  In the Olden Days, it was often said that prisoners would fake religious conversion in order to improve their chances of parole.  This may seem a ridiculous thing to say, but I do believe that one of the results of the secularisation of our society is that things have almost gone the opposite direction.  I sometimes think that if a prisoner mentions his religious experiences, some staff are more likely to send him for a mental health check up than they are to be in some way impressed.  Therefore, I suspect that we as chaplains also have to be careful in case we say things that, whilst totally acceptable in our churches, will be misinterpreted in Prisonworld.  Here is an example - and let me be clear that I didn't say the thing that I wanted to.  I was speaking to a prisoner I have got to know well whose victim was his child who died as a result of the crime.  He is sorry about it and I have tried to be a support to him.  He is unsure whether he believes in God or not, as are lots of people of course.  On one occasion he announced very firmly that were the Lord to appear in front of him, that far from worshipping him, he would kick him in the b***s.  What I would like to ask him, but think I can't is this: "I believe your child is in heaven.  Wouldn't you like the chance to go there one day to be with that child whom you loved and to be able to say sorry?"  If it were to be reported that I'd said that, though, what would happen?  I don't know.  Would I be disciplined?  Possibly.  In Churchworld that would be a perfectly reasonable question to explore.

4)  Some of you may have heard that Rev David Wilkerson died recently following a car accident.  His amazing book "The Cross and the Switchblade" (the first edition of which came out two years before I was born) was a favourite of mine when I was young.  So was "Run Baby Run" by Nicky Cruz who appears in the former book.  The news of David Wilkerson's death caused me to re-read these two books.  I have found myself as stirred by them as I ever was, and would very much recommend them to anyone who's not read them yet.  When I read these books the first time round, as a teenager, it never crossed my mind that I would end up working with people whose lives sometimes have sad similarities to those whom David Wilkerson was called to minister to.

5)  The political landscape in Scotland and the UK has changed with last week's election.  Dramatically and radically changed.  It's exciting to feel like a part of history.  I really do feel for those who have unexpectedly lost their seat after years of faithful service to their constituents but I also feel excited for the new recruits, some of whom did not expect to win and have suddenly had to resign from their jobs and make new plans.  Although the Scottish National Party landslide was in the Scottish election, the consequences will be felt at Westminster too.  Labour's strength in the British government has always been supported by the large number of labour seats in Scotland.  Not so now. 

6)  The Church of Scotland, the protestant and presbyterian denomination I happen to belong to (although I'm really not a denominationalist by nature, just as I'm not party-political) has its General Assembly later this month.  I am a commissioner.  For those who don't know what I'm on about, the General Assembly is the Church of Scotland's annual business meeting.  It lasts for a whole week.  There are too many of us all to attend at once, so each minister and for each minister, one elder, serve on average once every four years.  This year myself and Him Indoors, who is also a minister, are on duty as commissioners.  One of the big issues which the media will be particularly interested in is the debate on whether or not practising homosexual clergy should be allowed to be ordained as ministers in the Church of Scotland.  I can't say any more about that because a previous Assembly agreed that there would be a moratorium on public comment on the issue.  I believe that has been a great blessing, as otherwise those on each side of the debate would be liable to fall prey to the temptation to air their opinions on the subject via the media which would soon descend into an unedifying spectacle.

7)  Above all, my recent reflections have led me to realise that what I most need to be having in my life is the power of the Holy Spirit, and what I most need to be doing is seeking the Lord more fervently in prayer.