Please leave, or please stay?

by Mike Paget and Erica Hamence

We open with these words we love from Kanishka Raffel, the Dean of St Andrews Cathedral:

Matthew 11 records perhaps some of the best known and best loved words of Jesus: Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)

We hear the words of Jesus and our whole being moves towards him, we sit forward in our chairs and want to hear more of what he has or say. We know the weariness of tears and the weariness of sin, the weariness of frustration and disappointment and regret and we long for rest, for peace, for light and hope. We long for rest for ourselves and for those we love. We long for rest for the world that groans with weariness.

What is the rest that Jesus offers?

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:29)

Jesus promises rest to those who will accept his yoke and learn from him. As we learn from him – as we accept his yoke – so he offers rest to us now. Jesus’ invitation is not only for final rest in the next life but for the experience of rest in the tumult and tears of this life as well. The image of the yoke is of the contraption that keeps oxen in the path. It was an image often used of rabbis and their disciples. It isn’t an invitation to be yoked alongside Jesus, but under Jesus. He is not our fellow ox but the farmer driving the plough – that is why Jesus says, learn from me. He is the one who gives instruction, direction, guidance.

As the gospel unfolds we learn that much of Jesus’ instruction is about himself. He is himself, the source of rest. His death for sin cleanses us from guilt and shame and fear and death. As we come to him in repentance and faith we are welcomed, forgiven, restored in relationship, adopted into his family and indwelt by his own Spirit. The Spirit lives in us to bring forth a new life in which we find that our truest self is the self conformed to Christ.

To whom does Jesus make this invitation? ‘All you who are weary and burdened’. The invitation is generous and broad. Indeed, it is universal. Jesus knows the heart of people. To welcome the ‘weary and burdened’ is to welcome all who experience the fallenness of the world that wearies, and the failure of our own efforts to live well, that leaves us burdened. Jesus’ invitation to one and all is, ‘Come’!

In the very same accounts where Jesus opens his arms wide in welcome, he also calls all who come to him to be changed. ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ He calls the rich and powerful to give their wealth away, the proud to be humble, the self-righteous to look to their own hearts.

Jesus also, we are convinced, calls every one of us to chastity: to pursuing deep friendships in celibate singleness, or to pursuing faithfulness in lifelong, heterosexual, exclusive marriage. We don’t claim that those who disagree with this view have come to that position lightly or without integrity. However, the consensus of most scholars is that this best represents the unified message of the biblical texts, and it is noteworthy that the bulk of those who reject this ethical position do so by openly and honestly setting aside some or all of the them. We too have laboured hard, and have found the historic Christian understanding of Jesus’ teaching unavoidable.

Because Jesus calls us to learn from him, we must keep teaching what we are convinced is Jesus’ message.

We feel the weight of the claim from many voices in our society that the teaching of the church is causing real harm to our LGBTI neighbours. There is no question that some conservative commentators and clergy have openly made statements that range from clumsy to cruel. And if we become persuaded that we have misunderstood Jesus’ teaching on sexuality and marriage, then we ought to repent immediately and publicly and, I suspect, those of us who have taught falsely should resign. The possibility of being wrong on this in terms of human cost fills me with anguish.

But if we have not misheard Jesus, and his words are the bread of life, then a necessary distinction between hurtful and harmful emerges. When Jesus, a male, Jewish rabbi, encountered the Samaritan woman beside the well, he named her sin to her face and called her to find life-giving water by leaving her old way of life behind. We diminish her personhood if we do not acknowledge that this experience of Jesus must have been simultaneously hurtful and healing. We fail the test of compassion if we do not empathize with the pain that often arises from a confrontation with Jesus’ good news; we fail the test of conviction if we refuse to allow that his challenge to her way of life was the only way for her to begin a new one.

In Jesus, we see a coming together of both compassion and conviction. John Dickson recently observed that, ‘ever since then, the Christian ‘tribes’ have been insisting on one or another. A church that refuses (in the name of ‘compassion’) to discipline or expel its disobedient own is the mirror-image of the church that refuses (in the name of ‘conviction’) to welcome the sinful. The former might get more applause from a fallen world, but neither wins the applause of the Lord.’

There are gay and lesbian Christians who wish to marry. But there are also gay and lesbian Christians who are convinced by the more classical understanding of marriage and sexuality. Celibate singleness is an incredibly difficult conviction to live out in our modern world. But knowing that this same Jesus willingly laid down his life for them, and having tasted and seen that God is good, they believe it is worth following Jesus anywhere he calls us.

And so they seek out churches which will hold onto not only compassion but conviction, too. Churches where they will be walked with and wept with as they strive for the Spirit-filled holy lives to which they believe God has called them. Churches where sex and marriage are kept in their appropriate, marginal places. Churches where the ministers will keep their promises to hand on the teaching of Jesus with gentleness and integrity. Churches who will not abandon their commitment to the historic faith and, in so doing, abandon them.

And yet, we know that this is what has occurred.

When ministers are ordained in the Anglican Church, they are universally required to promise to uphold the doctrines of the church, which seek to express Jesus’ teaching on this matter, both in their lives and in their teaching.

But we know that there are Anglican clergy around the country who have broken these promises, living semi-openly with same-sex partners for years. It is unsurprising, then, that in some dioceses, priests and bishops in council have worked – again, despite their ordination vows – to introduce blessings and services which are in contravention of our Anglican doctrines.

Wherever you stand on same sex marriage, this should raise disturbing questions of personal integrity.

It is one thing to be a church member. What we see in the early church is that living for God involved many false starts, stumbling, arguing and questioning, of living in the gulf between knowing God’s will and doing it. We recognise that this will likely be a pattern after which we will we follow. Each of us has things that we are learning and unlearning. Each of us needs grace for that.

But a leader in the church – and especially a bishop – is to be a guardian of the faith. The apostle James reminds us that those who presume to teach will be held to a stricter standard. Paul rebuked his fellow apostle, Peter, for his racially motivated exclusion of Gentiles on the grounds of the gospel.

What we see in Jesus’ life and ministry is that Jesus knew how to discern the difference between doubting that needed rebuke, and doubt that needed gentleness. He could discern between power differences and positions of privilege. He knew what to do with those who were hurting, and it never compromised on his capacity to tell the truth. He knew how to speak to those in power.

If an Anglican rector became persuaded of purgatory, we would reasonably expect him to find another platform for his ministry, perhaps in the Roman Catholic Church, rather than try to smuggle it into the pulpit; if a minister became an atheist, we trust that they would have the decency to step down entirely and find a different vocation, hopefully with the support of their church.

Of course, we want ministers of all denominations to be free to change their minds and live authentic expressions of their faith. We all know how our consciences can compel us to a new way of seeing the world; but to value our consciences rightly is also to insist that they call us to live out changes in new worldview with integrity.

And if they refused, we would want them to be held to account.

This week, Dr. Glenn Davies, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, made some public comments that many have found extremely hurtful, and some media and commentators have represented as a callous ejection of thousands of gay and straight, confused and convicted Christians on the basis of disagreements around sexuality.

What has not been clear – either in the reporting or in the Archbishop’s own words – is that these comments were about other Anglican dioceses and leaders who wish to leave the historic Anglican understanding of biblical teaching behind. The Archbishop has subsequently and specifically clarified that he was addressing bishops.

I’m no apologist for the Archbishop and have been publicly critical of his comments in the past. I wish that Glenn that chosen different words. I wish that he’d been more alert to the way in which his words would understandably be misunderstood, and would hurt people. I wish that he’d thought to be clear about what he was not saying – in particular, that he had made crystal clear that gay and lesbian Christians were not the intended target of his speech are and always will be welcome in Anglican churches.

I am disappointed that we need to clarify and explain his intentions. But I will, because I think those intentions are to perform precisely the task the Jesus calls him to as a leader in the church, which is to call other leaders, his peers, to remain faithful to the promises that they made and, if they will not, plead with them to seek a platform elsewhere.

What does this mean?

What this means in practice is that there will be people in pews who aren’t sure, are wavering, or who flat out disagree – all to varying levels of conviction and all with their own sense of the stakes. We think they should be there. We hope they will be there.

For many of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters (and those who walk alongside them) this means that there may be times when they doubt or question (what we consider to be) the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexuality, when they research and become confused about previous convictions, or convinced of new ones. These things are dynamic.

We believe that these sorts of struggles and questions are best asked amongst people who know and love the people asking them. If we have failed to know and love you, please say so. And please stay and let us try to do better.

If you come to the decision that you cannot be loved here, that is very different to the church telling you to leave. We won’t reject you as a sister or brother because you disagree with us on this matter.

We will keep seeking to be one thing in all of that: faithful to Jesus’ teaching which compels us to truth and love.