Human Relationships and the Church

What we need is the courage to affirm/bless different relationships not simply maintaining that one form of relationship has been divinely prescribed for all people.

Why?

The man born blind

When Jesus met a man born blind ( John, 9:1–12) two issues were addressed. First the man’s blindness. Being blind within his culture he was regarded as bad, a sinner. So were his parents. Neither the man nor his parents had done anything wrong, but the intransigence of humanity was such that it was easier to heal the man than to heal those who were condemning him. Ultimately those condemning him would not let go of their critique. To do so would be to lose face. Though there is a lingering human sense for some people that illness or disability has a human agency, that if, for instance, our children are different it is our fault, science and culture do not generally uphold this point of view. We are born as we are. We are all different from one another and the challenge of Jesus is one of accepting love which bridges difference and loves others, incorporating them into society rather than alienating or condemning them.

Healing a leper

This is further underlined in the instance of a leper coming to Jesus to be healed (Mark 1: 40 – 45). The leper is unwell, but fear of illness had caused society to alienate people with such illness, rather than enabling them to live and be loved within society. So Jesus heals the leper but also points him to the priest who can issue a certificate indicating that he is ‘clean’ and can be reincorporated into society. Jesus’ initial response to the man is to be moved, either with compassion or with anger, depending on the Biblical text which is chosen. There are two and the Greek word in each is different. One suggests compassion, but at a level which is visceral and not the gentler sense which our English might suggest. The other word relates to ‘snorting like a war horse’, it conveys a very aggressive emotion. Neither expression fits an appropriate response to the man himself, or to the illness. It does make sense in relation to the those who would seek to put this man outside of their society on account of something which was not his fault. While some illnesses might carry with them an element of personal responsibility, not all do and even in those that have this component, the sufferer needs to have an awareness of what they are doing in order to avoid the action that is causing the problem and the capacity to alter their practice or context. The bottom line that Jesus demonstrates in these situations is the human possibility of love to incorporate someone different from ourselves and the human responsibility to change our attitude in order that someone else can be whole as they are. The illness and its healing is secondary.

Creation

Arguably in relation to racial difference we are still on a journey of growing understanding. Racism still exists in society, though most societies recognize it as wrong. What is more difficult is eradicating it as we have a deeply ingrained sense of fear, sometimes biologically helpful sometimes culturally learned which makes us fear difference. Increasingly such differences are seen as biologically inherent and make up part of the variety of created life. Indeed, such variety offers a survival premium and hence the emphasis on seed banks and conservation maintaining a varied genetic resource for future generations. So there is a human benefit, aside from any cultural or Biblical injunction at least not to kill, at best to love and care.

Reading the Bible

This moves us to a consideration as to how we read creation stories and particularly phrases such as ‘male and female created he them’ and ‘being made in God’s image’ (Genesis 1: 27). When such passages were first spoken or written people were seeking to make sense of the world in which they lived. Arguably they saw men and women. What they saw was an outside manifestation, but also what fitted in the context of their culture. Difference felt threatening. We now know that human beings  have been around for upward of a million years. We now (except in situations where the Biblical text is read independently of context, variety and translation) recognise that the Biblical text we are reading cannot be read as a literal description of what happened at creation. We also see around us people who exhibit a variety of difference in appearance, genetic make-up, cultural history, mental capacity and theological understanding. This latter is manifested, not simply in nuances of interpretation of one collection of scripture, but in a compendium of different faiths, some of which have come and gone and others are still being practised. In that light we might read ‘male and female created he them’ and ‘being made in God’s image’ differently. We now know that there is, for instance, a spectrum of skin and hair colour, genetically determined. We are also increasingly aware that the same is true of our sexuality. I would suggest that this has been so for centuries. Our forebears would recognise ‘strong women’ and ‘gentle men’, though we now know that such descriptions are limited and simplistic. We are all more varied, indeed ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139: 14), than our simple outer appearance would allow. Turning the phrases around, without I think doing disservice to scripture, we might now say male and female and in many other ways (LGBTQ for instance), we have been made. And if that is so, and we are made in God’s image, this variety must be inherently present in the otherness that we name ‘God’.

Human variety and relationship

These reflections give me pause to reflect and the conviction that, while recognising this fascinating and wonderful variety of created humanity, we should have little surprise that Jesus worked so hard, in the terms of his day, to enable people to live with difference and to love one another, to break down walls of alienation. To do this today we need to see all people as created in God’s image, to work together in mutual recognition of our common humanity for our common good what ever our differences.

In the context of intimate human relations, the church has tended to fit people into models of relationship rather than enabling people to be affirmed in the relationships for which they were suited. This should in no way diminish our reverence for traditional marriage, but neither should we be fearful of other forms, styles and types of relationship. For some these other relationships will feel like a traditional marriage, and could be named as such, others might be seen in other ways, named by other names. Even the term ‘traditional marriage’ is difficult to pin down as individuals relate faithfully to others in a variety of different ways. No two marriages are the same. What ought to be stressed is that no relationship is acceptable which is one sided or abusive in any way.

What we need is the courage to affirm/bless different relationships not simply maintaining that one form of relationship has been divinely prescribed for all people.  

Published by

Andrew Pratt

Andrew Pratt was born in Paignton, Devon, England in 1948. For his first degree he studied Zoology (B.Sc. Hons., London) before going to the University College of North Wales in Bangor. Andrew obtained a M.Sc. in Marine Biology which was partly dependent on a thesis on the Effects of sympathomimetic drugs on the rectum of Pleuronectes platessa (effects of drugs on the guts of the plaice). From here he went to St Luke’s College, Exeter, since absorbed into Exeter University, to study for a PGCE. Andrew taught in Essex, Wrexham, and Liverpool together with some brief spells of supply teaching since entering the ministry. Subjects have ranged through biology, chemistry, religious studies, swimming, personal and social education, and health education. During his M.Sc., he began to foster a belief in God. He became a member of the Methodist Church in Exeter. Moving to Essex he saw little of the church as both his parents died in a space of a year and he was away seeing them at weekends. In Wrexham (Gresford) he sensed a call to the ministry and in 1979 went for theological training at the Queen’s (Ecumenical) College in Birmingham. He was there for three years, partly doing a post graduate Diploma in Theology at Birmingham University and partly doing ministerial training. It was here that Andrew began to write hymns as a means of exploring theology. He had already written poems (mainly for private consumption!) one of which was published in a college magazine at St Luke’s in 1972. Since leaving Birmingham, Andrew has been stationed in Northwich, Nantwich, Leigh and Hindley, and Orrell and Lamberhead Green (near Wigan). While in Nantwich he began to achieve publication of his texts, firstly in Hymns of the City and then, under the guidance and constructive criticism of Bernard Braley, with some regularity in Hymns and Congregational Songs. Andrew was asked to be part of the groups that edited Story Song, Big Blue Planet and Sound Bytes. He has been regularly published in Worship Live and has had articles, hymns and reviews published in the The Hymn, The Bulletin of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland(of which has been the Editor since 2004) Theological Book Review, Writers News, Writing Magazine, the Methodist Recorder, Reform and Crucible. For some time he broadcast regularly on BBC Radio Merseyside. From 2004 he was a member of the Music Resource Group appointed to compile Singing the Faith, convening the words group until its dissolution in 2009 when he resigned. Blinded by the Dazzle, his first hymn collection, was published in 1997 by Stainer & Bell. Further collections, Whatever Name or Creed, Reclaiming Praise and More than Words were subsequently produced. Over a period of three years, with Marjorie Dobson, he wrote material for the Revised Common Lectionary which was published on www.worshipcloud.com HymnQuest includes over 1400 of his hymn texts. He is a Non-Executive Director of Stainer & Bell Ltd., and was instrumental in their establishing a web site (www.hymns.uk.com) carrying contemporary hymn texts which could be downloaded for local use. He is Chair of the Pratt Green Trust. On two consecutive years Andrew entered the Pratt Green Essay Competition, achieving second and joint first prizes. This work acted as a springboard for his research in hymnody. In 1997 he gained a M.A in English from the University of Durham for his research into Frederick Faber’s Hymns on the Four Last Things. He has researched the origins of the Methodist Hymn Book (1933) for a Ph.D., at Liverpool Hope University College. A book based on this research, O for a thousand tongues – the Methodist Hymn Book (1933) in context was published by the Methodist Publishing House. In 2004 he was appointed as a tutor and then Acting Principal at Hartley Victoria College (part of the Partnership for Theological Education in Manchester) to its closure in 2015. He continued as an Honorary Research Fellow with the Partnershp. While there he wrote Net Gains (Methodist Publishing House) and Study Skills for Ministry (SCM). He has lectured and led workshops in the UK, USA, Finland, Poland, Ireland, and Germany. He has written and contributed to many books relating to hymns and worship including Charles Wesley: Life, Literature and Legacy (2011, Epworth, edit., Ted Campbell, Kenneth G.C Newport), Why Weren't We Told? (2012, Polebridge Press, USA, R.A.E. Hunt) Hymn, song, society (2014, Unigrafia Finland, edit Tapani Innanen, Veli-Matti Salminen), Methodism Abounding (2016, Church in the Market Place, edit., John Vincent), The Servant of God in Practice (2017, Deo, edit., J.W. Rogerson and John Vincent). He has written a series of reflections on selected hymns of Charles Wesley (Inextinguishable Blaze) and co-written with Marjorie Dobson two books of worship resources, Poppies and Snowdrops and Nothing too religious (both Inspire, Methodist Publishing House). In 2017 with Jan Berry he edited and contributed to Hymns for Hope and Healing (Stainer & Bell Ltd). He was one time Chair of the Methodist Peace Fellowship.

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