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.  

Brexit or how, for a church, it all came tumbling down -almost!

Nearly twenty years ago the members of a church were told that the roof was unsafe and liable to collapse.

What to do? The members had to decide.

A meeting was called. It was an open meeting for anyone who wished to attend and not just limited to members. At least five distinct solutions to the problem were suggested. These ranged from putting the roof back as it had been originally to closing the church and joining with a congregation of another denomination with which they had good relations.

Another meeting was convened for a week’s time and a representative of each scheme agreed to present their idea to this meeting for consideration.

They had to move swiftly, but it was also important to take these different groups along together. The Secretary ensured that everyone was informed at every stage and notes of meetings were posted regularly in the room where the congregation was now gathering.

At the next meeting each representative was allowed to speak for 10 minutes without interruption to put a case. Five minutes were allowed for questions. There was then a brief time for clarification where this was needed. The meeting then spent a short time in prayer. Everyone was conscious of the need to move to a workable conclusion. Each scheme was voted on in turn by a secret ballot. The votes were counted and recorded. After the vote the option with the least votes was excluded and everyone voted again. The process continued until two options were left and a final vote was taken. The decision had been made that the roof would be replaced, but in a re-designed form to prevent a further collapse.

The transition was not easy. It required listening, understanding, compromise, even empathy. Building works of this scale involve raising money, employment of professionals and a lot of hard work. The church was ultimately re-opened and, although some people felt that the wrong decision had been made they were still there to express their feelings!

And then we have Brexit!

Religious groups at their best might have something to teach us, perhaps?

Jesus calls us to the chaos – hymn – ministry outside the camp

Jesus calls us to the chaos
that our hearts would fear to own,
places that are fraught and tortured,
only hurt and hatred known.

Jesus calls us to the desert,
wilderness of mental pain,
all perception seems distorted,
will we risk this stress and strain?

Jesus calls us out to meet him,
homeless, restless, lost alone,
all the future rung with sadness,
empty, heartless, cold as stone.

Jesus calls beyond the comfort
will the church stand still, or go?
Will we risk it, yet he beckons,
leave the safety that we know?

Andrew Pratt 21/3/2019
Words © 2019 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England, http://www.stainer.co.uk.
Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd.

Written for Peter Barber

I give to this land

I give to this land,
and the land to me,
that down millennia God has graced:
here in the depth of this hollow oak
the satin grain,
the thornless wood,
this hall of God,
this belfry tower
the holly’s way beyond the font,
through death and suffering,
through re-birth
to Christ,
to God,
to all.

Andrew Pratt -/2/2004

To Alan Garner, Cheshire author.