Unveiled #Me Too: courage in the face of violence and threat

Helen Paynter, author, Baptist minister, and the director of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence at Bristol Baptist College. 

This article was written by Helen Paynter as part of a series based on our book Unveiled and commissioned by BRF. This was first published by BRF and is reproduced here by kind permission from Helen and BRF.

TW: Domestic Violence/sexual abuse

Standing up to a powerful man comes at considerable cost. 

Unveiled, p. 177

In 2017, the #MeToo tag went viral, becoming a global phenomenon within a matter of weeks, and emboldening millions of women – and also men – to name their experience of sexual harassment and abuse. What had, in many places, been a shadowy secret was brought into the light. The scale of the pandemic of abuse became clearer to many. Systems and structures that collude to silence women were brought under scrutiny. Serial abusers who had concealed their crimes with threats, non-disclosure agreements and the ‘old boys’ network’ were exposed and brought to justice.

What few people might imagine is that the women who shouted ‘Me too!’ had sisters who had gone before them and had left their traces in the pages of the Old Testament.

The Old Testament has a surprising collection of stories about women who stood up to powerful men, some of whom feature in the beautiful book Unveiled by Clare and Micah Hayns. Not all were speaking up about sexual abuse per se, but they share other common features: boldness, courage and truth-telling in the face of violence or threat.

Old Testament sisters

We might think of the two different Old Testament women named Tamar. The first Tamar’s story is told in Genesis and features in Unveiled. The second Tamar’s shocking story is recounted in the book of Samuel. The daughter of King David, she appeals to her lecherous half-brother with remarkable courage and wisdom. ‘No, my brother, do not force me… do not do anything so vile… you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel’ (2 Samuel 13:12–13). Tragically, Tamar’s entreaty is over-ridden by her rapist, but when she is thrust out from his room afterwards, she raises the outcry, which is the traditional appeal for justice. ‘Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore the long robe that she was wearing; she put her hand on her head, and went away, crying aloud as she went’ (v. 19).

“Rizpah daughter of Aiah took sackcloth and spread it out for herself on a rock. From the beginning of the harvest till the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies, she did not let the birds touch them by day or the wild animals by night.” 2 Samuel 21:10 – Image by ©MicahHayns

Or we might turn the pages to read of Rizpah, whose two sons were brutally murdered, on King David’s orders, in retribution for a crime their father Saul had committed. To compound this villainy, David allowed their bodies to remain exposed on the hillside for months, a dreadful act in the ancient world. In the face of such injustice, Rizpah, like Tamar, protested vigorously, making a public nuisance of herself as she guarded her sons’ bodies and grieved for them (2 Samuel 21:10). Such actions were dangerous under despotic kings who could easily have their thugs knife you (as one example among many, see 2 Samuel 20:8–10).

Or we could thumb further through our Bibles to read of another despotic king. In the book of Esther we read the story of Vashti, who boldly refused to be objectified by her husband at his debauched party.

Each of these women creatively and boldly called out the violence of a powerful man. They were noisy, stubborn and caused a public nuisance.

But not everyone was able to do that – then, as today. In Judges 19 we read of the horrific gang rape and murder of a secondary wife, thrust into the hands of a mob to protect her husband. She has no voice, her protest is stifled and she does not survive to raise the outcry. And though the act precipitates civil war in Israel, many more women were raped as a direct consequence of that military action, suggesting that the chief motivation was wounded male pride rather than outrage about a woman’s violation.

And so it falls to her sisters to take up her cause. To name the abuse, to call out the abuser, to cry for justice and safety.

In modern times many women have taken up the story of that nameless woman: Bekah Legg of the domestic abuse charity Restored, and biblical scholars Phyllis TribleIsabelle Hamley and myself (Helen Paynter), to name just four. I am reminded of what took place after the murder of Sarah Everard: the protests on Clapham Common and the Reclaim These Streets movement, which employed public grief to make a wider claim for justice.

Sadly, I can’t think of any good examples in the Old Testament narrative where a man takes up a woman’s cause or speaks effectively on her behalf (Clare’s note: perhaps the story of Suzanna and Daniel in the Apochrapah comes close). But if we keep turning the pages, we will eventually encounter a man who does, and repeatedly. A man who publicly defends a woman whose ‘great sin’ (probably sexual) has been forgiven, and whose gratitude leads her to weep over his feet and anoint them with oil (Luke 7:36-50). We can just imagine the sniggering and lewd remarks that were probably rippling through the onlookers as she did so. Jesus sternly rebukes them.

This is the same man who refuses to join the crowd in baying for the blood of a woman caught in the act of adultery, the crowd that was desperate to vilify the woman while curiously indifferent to the man she was with. Jesus shames the crowd into leaving, and then sends her home with gentle words.

Brothers, be more like Jesus

Because I (Helen) have written about domestic abuse, I find myself invited to speak on the subject from time to time. When the audience is free to choose whether to attend (unlike, for example, when I speak to trainee ministers or priests), it is always predominantly women who attend, usually outnumbering men by around seven to one. Why are men not more interested in this matter? (There are, of course honourable exceptions, such as this.)

Brothers, be more like Jesus, I implore you. Speak out against injustice. Actively stand against abuse. There is so much hatred and harm out there that it requires more than just passive non-complicity.

But the fact that these stories are present in our Bibles should encourage us. The accounts of these ancient women and the things they suffered have not disappeared in the patriarchal sands of time. These women mattered to God, and so he ensured that their stories were preserved in his word. And so they should matter to us, too – they and those who suffer like them in our own day

These stories should encourage contemporary sufferers of abuse to believe that God cares, and maybe to embolden them to speak out.

It is much harder for abuse to thrive when it is brought out of the shadows into the light; when it can no longer hide behind threats, non-disclosure agreements and the old boys’ network.

But, rest assured, in the end all will be revealed:

Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops

Luke 12:2–3

Because, as the psalmist reminds us:

He who planted the ear, does he not hear?
He who formed the eye, does he not see?

Psalm 94:9

Following a career in medicine, Helen Paynter is now a Baptist minister and the director of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence at Bristol Baptist College. She is the author of two BRF books – God of Violence Yesterday, God of Love Today? and The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So: why you don’t have to submit to domestic abuse and coercive control

International Women’s Day – Tuesday 8th March

Daughters of Zelophehad by ©MicahHayns

On this day where we celebrate International Women’s Day, I’d like to remember the wonderful women of the Old Testament who have accompanied me over the past few years as I worked on our book ‘Unveiled’. Seeing them listed in this way reminds me that God has been working through wonderful women for centuries, and continues to do so.

These women remind us:

Eve, that we all stuff up, but God has a plan;
Hagar, that outsiders are seen and heard by God;
Sarah, that dreams can come true even when we feel past it.
Lot’s Wife, that women are fleeing from their homes because of war right now.
Rebekah, that parenting is difficult and it’s OK if we get it wrong;
Rachel, that even being loved by a man is sometimes not enough;
Leah, that it’s really tough when we feel marginalised and unnoticed.
Dinah, that women aren’t defined by the worst thing a man did to them.
Potiphar’s Wife, that God can work through sexy women;
Tamar, that sometimes it’s best to push forward and demand to be noticed;
Shiprah and Puah, that civil disobedience can sometimes save lives;
Jochebed, that we should never give up hope;
Miriam, that there is always time to dance and sing with joy.
Mahlan, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah (the daughters of Zelophehad), that sometimes when you speak up against injustice, change happens.
Rahab, that the genealogy of Jesus names a prostitute and so no one is ‘not good enough’;
Ruth, that at times friendship is the most precious thing in life;
Naomi, that even the most bitter and bereaved can be restored to wholeness.
Deborah, that at times we need to listen to the wise women in our community;
Jael, that some women have to take up arms and fight for freedom;
The First Mrs Samson, that marriage really isn’t the best option for some women;
Delilah, that power isn’t always about being strong.
Jephthah’s Daughter, that sometimes the people we love the most can hurt and harm us;
Bathsheba, that women are too often shamed and blamed for men’s actions;
Hannah, that our prayers from the heart are heard.
Michal, that love isn’t static and can change over time;
Abigail, that many women today are keeping the peace between feuding men;
Rizpah, that warfare leads to too many grieving mothers;
The Medium of Endor, that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should;
Queen Vashti, that saying ‘no’ to powerful men is costly;
Esther, that sometimes we’re in just the right place at the right time.
Abishag, that even the most lowly of jobs can be important;
Jezebel, that our reputations don’t define us;
Huldah, that at times telling the truth means giving ‘bad news’;
Suzannah, that some women aren’t believed when they tell the truth;
Queen of Sheba, that seeking knowledge is a good thing.
The widow of Zarephath, that being generous with little can lead to abundant blessing;
Naaman’s maidservant, that the courage of the smallest can have profound consequences;
Athalia, that not all women have redeeming qualities, and that’s OK;
The Shunamite Woman, that at times we have to be feisty to fight for those we love;
And finally, Shallum’s daughters, that women are always part of the story, even if they’re not named or remembered by our history books.

Happy International Women’s Day!

This Precarious Faith

Last week I was able to go on a retreat to St Bueno’s, a wonderful Jesuit retreat house in North Wales. In the main chapel, there is an altar that rests on large boulders. It inspired me to write this poem.

The altar at St Bueno’s, St Asaphs, North Wales

This precarious faith
Balancing on the boulders
of fears, doubts and wanderings.

One strong push and it’s scattered
The table toppled
and all that was stable
broken. In pieces.

Wondering if we should pick up
the rocks and throw,
hurl and shatter.
It feels so weak.

This precarious faith
Resting on the boulders
of the one who gathers, mends, and makes whole.

©Clare Hayns, January 2022

Window in the Rock Chapel, St Buenos by Claire Mullholland

Susannah: ‘completely trapped’

Susanna: ‘Completely Trapped’

Book of Susannah

Susanna by ©MicahHayns

In March 2021 there was a letter in The Times newspaper from a young woman called Ella, aged seventeen years old. She wrote in response to the death of Sarah Everard, a woman killed by a stranger as she walked to her home in London. Sarah’s death led to an outpouring of anger from women at the harassment and abuse so many experience every day. Ella eloquently explained why women were so angry. She wrote about all the times she’d experienced unwanted attention from men, from wolf-whistling to being followed. She expressed  how difficult it is for women to know how to respond because ‘each time a man harasses us in the street, we don’t know where it will end’. She goes on to say:

 ‘it (Sarah’s death) has resonated with so many women and girls because it’s all our worst fears and something that’s always in our minds: the worry that any time we are harassed it could end in the extreme….I wish more men would think about how they can help stop this, instead of deflecting and telling us that most men would never do such a thing’. [1]

With this in mind let us turn to Susanna. Her story is found in the Greek rather than the Hebrew manuscripts of the Book of Daniel, so it is included as Daniel Chapter 13 in some Bibles, or in the Apocrypha in others.

Susanna lived some time during the ‘Babylonian exile’ when Jewish people were expelled from Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar (597 BC). She had been brought up by diligent parents to love the Lord, and was married to a wealthy man called Joakim. They lived in an expansive house which was also used as the main court house for the Jewish community, where the elders would gather to hear and pass judgement on all manner of offences.

Their home was busy with men coming and going for most of the day but at midday the court would close and everyone would go to their homes for lunch. Within the grounds of their home there was also a beautiful garden and during the peaceful lunchtime period Susanna could enjoy the tranquillity of the garden for herself and, as a wealthy woman, she was normally accompanied by maids.

Two of the community elders noticed Susanna’s beauty and began ‘to lust for her’. At first these men kept their desires to themselves, independently watching her, ‘and, noticing her midday sojourns in the gardens they began to spy on her every day. On one occasion, in a scene akin to a Shakespearean farce, they both pretended to leave to go for lunch and then looped back to the garden and bumped into each other again. They confessed to one another what they were doing and so began to plan how they might find her on her own: they took to hiding in the bushes waiting for an opportune moment.

This came one hot day whilst Susanna was bathing in her garden. She had dismissed her maids who had shut all the gates to give her some privacy. As soon as she was alone the men pounced. They ran over to her, told her that the garden gates were locked, and demanded sex: ‘give your consent, and lie with us. If you refuse, we will testify against you’. (Susanna 21)

Susanna knew instantly that she was in an impossible situation. There were two of them, she was naked, vulnerable and in an enclosed space, and as a woman she would never be believed:

‘I am completely trapped. For if I do this it will mean death for me; if I do not, I cannot escape your hands’. (Susanna 22)

She shouted for help and at the same time so did her attackers, who then lied about what had happened and accused her of having sex with a man who had run off. She was taken in front of the assembly, unveiled in front of all the men and, without asking her for her side of the story or even considering the glaringly obvious plot holes in their story, such as what these men were doing in the garden in the first place, she was found guilty of adultery and sentenced to death. Susanna’s attackers were believed simply because they were powerful men, ‘Because they were elders of the people and judges, the assembly believed them’ (Susanna 41).

Susanna cried out once again, this time to God in a prayer of desperation, ‘O eternal God, you know what is secret and are aware of all things before they come to be… and now I am to die, though I have done none of the wicked things that they have charged against me!’. (Susannah 43).

God heard her cries and stirred the conscience of a young man called Daniel whose voice rose above the clamour of the mob, ‘I want no part in shedding this woman’s blood!’. He challenged the assembly for being ‘fools’ and so quick to ‘condemn a daughter of Israel without examination and without learning the facts’. (Susannah 48)

Daniel took a stand and in doing so persuaded the leaders to return to court where he was given the authority of an elder. He separated the two attackers and asked each of them to show the court exactly where they had seen the couple being ‘intimate with each other’. 

One of the men pointed to a mastic tree (a small shrub) and the other pointed to an evergreen oak tree, and with this the men are revealed to have been lying.

Susanna was spared, the men were convicted of their crime and put to death, and her family rejoiced because she was free to return to them.

Susanna Reflection

One of the slogans of the #MeToo movement is “believe women” because the testimonies of women (and girls, men and boys of course) who speak up about sexual harassment and abuse are still all too often ignored, disbelieved and silenced to protect powerful men and the institutions they belong to. Sadly this has been evident in the church as much as in the rest of society. The recent case of Lori Anne Thompson who testified against the world-renown evangelist Ravi Zacharias is a prime example of this, and churches across the denominations are having to come to terms with the ways in which they have colluded with and protected abusers. In Susanna’s story the hero is the brave young Daniel who refused to be influenced by the mob and pays attention to Susanna’s words. He doesn’t dismiss what she says on the basis of her gender or her relative low standing in society in comparison with the two elders, instead he believes her words and speaks up, saving an innocent victim. In reality there are often no heroes, only survivors, and many are still ‘completely trapped’ because of the fear that they won’t be heard or believed, or they can’t face reliving the trauma of their past. Perhaps our world, and our church, needs more Daniels.

Susanna Prayer

A prayer of Daniel

‘O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and act. Do not delay for your own sake, my God, for your church and your people who are called by your name’ (Daniel 9:19)

[1] Ella Jenning, Letter in The Times, 22.3.2021

Songs of the Spirit: The Benedictus

Based on a sermon for Christ Church Chapel, February 2021

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Luke 1. 76-79 (the full text of the Benedictus is here)

One of the best things about living at Christ Church is being able to get up early in the morning and go for a walk in the meadows before it fills up with joggers, dog walkers and people taking their daily legally sanctioned strolls. It is gloriously peaceful and if I can get up early enough to see the sun rising and I’m reminded of the promise in the Benedictus that ‘the dawn from on high will break upon us’.

The Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah, has been said or sung in early morning worship since it was introduced by Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century. It is a song of blessing (‘Benedictus’ means blessing in Latin) and hope. But it is a song that also speaks of times of hardship. It begins, ‘Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel; who has come to his people and set them free’ – we are reminded that God’s people were once enslaved, had enemies and longed to be able to worship God in freedom. 

Zechariah’s song sprung out of a time of hopelessness. The Bible tells us that he was an elderly priest who, with his wife Elizabeth, was ‘getting on in years’. They had no children. The priests would take on a week’s duty in the temple where they officiated at services: a bit like being Canon-in-Residence in our Cathedral. One day whilst in the temple Zechariah encountered an angel who promised him a son, to be called John. He was told he would have ‘joy and gladness’, that the child ‘will be great in the sight of the Lord’. (Luke 1.13)

But Zechariah didn’t believe the angel.

“How will I know that this is so?” he asked. “For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” (Luke 1.18)

From that moment he became mute, unable to speak at all. He remained silent throughout the entire pregnancy and didn’t speak until his baby was eight days old. It was only when he announced, ‘His name is John’ that his tongue was freed and he began to sing his song of blessing and hope.

One reason the Benedictus is said every morning is that in monastic times there would be a time of ‘great silence’ between Compline and Matins. Saying the Benedictus is a reminder that we, like Zachariah can break our nightly silence with praise.

Within the Benedictus there are great themes of hope and salvation.

There is hope for the salvation of the people of Israel: ‘a mighty saviour’ is on his way. There is hope for Zechariah’s son John who will prepare the way for Jesus with his father’s prophetic blessing upon him. And there is hope for all people: for each one of us.

 ‘The dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

Luke 1.79
Fog in Christ Church Meadows

A few days ago a dense morning fog descended on Oxford. You could hardly see a thing. Just the vague outlines of people walking in meadows. It was one of those days when you could only just make out a few steps ahead. Yet later in the day the fog lifted, clear and beautifully bright.

This seems an apt metaphor for our times. Perhaps we are deep in the fog, in the gloom, not knowing what the next steps are? Many people are struggling to keep going and to keep positive. The future seems unclear. What can we plan? When will be able to gather with our friends and family? We are still in uncertain times.

The Benedictus reminds us that we can have hope and that the dawn shall break.

The light shall shine in the darkness.

Hope is different to optimism – which is about blindly believing things will be better.

Emily Dickinson writes:

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.”

Emily Dickinson ‘

Often hope is delicate and very fragile, sometimes just a flickering candle, a clump of daffodils, a ‘thing with feathers’.

Hope is rooted in trust. Trust that God has brought God’s people out of the shadows in the past, and will do so again.  

We can trust that the fog is not the only weather: it shall lift.

The dawn from on high shall break upon us.

This is an edited extract of a sermon given by Revd Clare Hayns on February 7th 2021.

Songs of the Spirit: A New Song

A New Song

A blog for Christ Church Cathedral

Ephesians 5. 1, 18b-20

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God…  be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

When I was a curate I used to visit a nursing home every week to take communion and lead the community in hymn singing. There was a wonderful woman called Marion, in the late stages of dementia. She had no memory. She didn’t recognise her children and no recall of recent events. Yet she had an incredible memory when it came to hymns: she was word perfect.

She knew ‘Thine be the Glory’, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’, ‘All things Bright and Beautiful’ and ‘Great is thy Faithfulness’. All by heart.

When we sang one of those, she would stand at the front and lead the singing with great gusto.  

Singing taps into a different part of our brain than normal speech. Medics can explain this further but normal speech uses the left hemisphere of the brain and melody the right. So singing uses both sides.

You may have noticed that if you put something to a melody it becomes easier to remember. And it taps into something deep within us. Most of us will have songs that remind us of particular moments in our lives, and song that we draw on in hard times.

The Bible contains around 185 songs, and 80% of these are in the book of psalms, which is the hymn book of the Hebrew Scriptures. There are songs of lament, hope, triumph and love. There are a number of songs in scripture which are sung regularly in church, such as the Benedictus (Zachariah’s song, which we sing at Matins), The Magnificat (Mary’s song, sung at Evensong), and the Nunc Dimittus (Simeon’s song, sung at Evensong and Compline). There are also wonderful songs such as the song of Miriam and Moses, and David’s song of repentance which is psalm 51. We will look at these over the next few blog posts.

Life is difficult right now. Living through this pandemic is bleak. So much of what we love has been stripped away. One of the things I’ve missed most during this pandemic is congregational singing and I long for the time when we can gather together and raise our voices in worship.

Gathering to sing together in praise and worship has always been one of the core activities of the Judeo-Christian people. St Paul exhorts the early believers to ‘be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves… giving thanks to God the Father at all times’

We don’t always need to be in a group to sing. I think of St Paul singing loudly from prison in Acts.

When we sing in worship we are giving God the glory. We are putting things into perspective and remembering our place in the world. We are remembering that our current situation isn’t all there is.

When we sing we might be lifted out of our own troubles for a while, and find that God has blessed us as we worship him, and our troubles may seem a little smaller and less significant.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Even in the mud and scum of things, something always, always sings.”

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who preached in our own Cathedral, left some wonderful ‘Directions for Singing’ which involved learning the words and singing ‘lustily’. At the end of them he adds: “above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing.”[1]

I love that. Sing spiritually, having an eye to God in every word.

There’s one carol that spoke to me this last Christmas. It’s ‘O Holy Night’ and the phrase that struck me particularly is “A thrill of hope. The weary world rejoices.”

We will sing because we have hope. Even though we are weary, even though we are apart, we can sing and our voices join together, with the voices of the angels, with the first Christians, with Wesley. Singing unites us across the divides of time and space.

And as we sing, out loud or in our hearts, tunefully or not, let us giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This blogpost is an edited version of a sermon given by Revd Clare Hayns in January 2021.

[1] http://meaningfulworship.blogspot.com/2018/10/wesleys-directions-for-singing.html

Head above the Parapet

head above parapetIt’s not easy to put your head above a parapet: there is a risk of being shot and wounded.

I know that if I had been in the trenches in the war I’d probably have hidden away in a corner. I’m not brave. I like to be agreeable and I like to be liked: it can be a strength at times and a weakness as well. I worked out very early on in school that being on the outside of a group is horrible and lonely and so I made sure to fit it, to agree with the majority, and to keep my head down in arguments.

But now I feel that I need to stand up, lift my head up and be braver: a belated new year’s resolution perhaps?

For as long as I can remember the church that I belong to and love has been discussing and debating whether or not LGBTI people can be fully accepted into the family of God, and whether their relationships can be fully acknowledged and blessed. This debate has been trundling on for years and just as we seem to be at the stage where just as we are beginning to listen to one another and be getting somewhere, we then seem to take enormous steps back and hurt each other once again.

The Bishops of the Oxford Diocese wrote a measured, loving and pastoral letter to all 1,500 ministers of our Church in October: you can read the letter here. It called for an attitude of inclusion and respect towards LGBTI people whilst further discussions take place; it recognised that many LGBTI men and women are priests working hard to further the Kingdom of God in their churches and communities, and that we are all part of the same family; and it called for us to be ‘clothed with compassion’ in the way in which we conduct ourselves. It seemed to be one giant step forward.

And so yesterday we read a letter signed by 104 mainly evangelical church leaders which seems to take us right back to the beginning again. You can read it here.

There are three things I want to say about this letter which have moved me to say something.

Firstly, the language is overly inflammatory and dramatic: they are ‘dismayed’, ‘disturbed’, ‘concerned’, the situation is ‘serious’ and ‘a tragedy’. Really? Is it really a ‘tragedy’ if we prayerfully look at scripture and come to different conclusions? Many of us disagree over female priests, but would we say it’s a tragedy that a female priest like me is working among students in Oxford and showing them the love of God each day? Or is it a tragedy when I offer the sacrament of marriage to couples who have been living together and clearly enjoying sexual intimacy before they tie the knot? Why then, do we use this language to describe a difference of opinion when it comes to same-sex relationships? The tragedy surely is that we are willing to split apart a family because we can’t agree to disagree.

Secondly, the letter assumes that LGBTI Christians haven’t done any of their own theological study, prayerful reflection, repentance and soul searching. They write of the sacrament of Baptism and the Eucharist being for ‘the community of faith’, and cite St Paul’s teaching which, they say:  ‘clearly discourages participation in the Lord’s Supper for those who have not examined themselves’. Are they saying LGBTI brothers and sisters are not part of the community of faith? Or are they not part of the community of faith when they fall in love with someone? Or does this non-acceptance happen when they express this love sexually? At what point do they think LGBTI people should be excluded from the Lords table I wonder?

And my final point is one that is far better expressed by Marcus Green is his blog ‘A Possibility of Difference’ which you can read here. The letter ends with this threat:

we would ask them (the Bishops) to recognise the seriousness of the difference between us: advocacy of same-sex sexual intimacy is either an expression of the love of God or it creates an obstacle to people entering the kingdom of God. It cannot be both. The situation is serious.

I always thought the Kingdom of God was entered into through the gift of Grace in Jesus Christ, and that all we need to do is accept that gift. That’s the message I get when I read my bible. That’s the message I tell to those who come to my services each Sunday.

As Marcus says:

All have sinned – but sin doesn’t create an obstacle to anyone entering the kingdom of God. We do not pull ourselves up by out bootlaces into the kingdom of God. We cannot. If we think we can, or think others should, Christ died for nothing.

Now to put my head above the parapet. I dearly hope that one day sexual intimacy between two human beings of the same sex will be blessed and hallowed by the Church that I love. And I don’t think that because I’m a ‘liberal’ who doesn’t really care about the gospel, although I’m sure that’s how some will view me. I think that because I’ve read, thought, studied, prayed, spoken to people, and reflected about this over the last 20 years. According to those who have signed this letter I’m now no doubt guilty of ‘advocacy of same-sex intimacy’ and so have put an obstacle in my way to enter the kingdom of God. They can think that if they like.

Thankfully I know that Jesus loves me and on Sunday I will preach that love of God to those students in my care (gay, straight, questioning) as we stand to affirm our baptism vows and remember the words from Luke’s Gospel:

‘you are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased’