This blog was written by Adele Jarrett-Kerr. Adele and her family attend All Saints, she is a writer, home educator, breastfeeding counsellor, feminist, and Christian. Her frequently updated blog is a great source of support to families thinking about home-schooling, and also a place where ideas are shared for simply encouraging family well-being. You may also like to take a look at soulfarm.co.uk which is Adele and Laurence's community supported farm that helps growers and the community work in partnership to develop sustainable local agriculture.
Some years ago, a friend of mine shared a meme on Facebook that read: “Don’t let your disappointment with people turn into disappointment with God.” I remember feeling at the time that the phrase let both people and God off the hook.
If the Church represents Christ’s hands and feet, at what point do we say that institutional damage goes beyond the individuals and right down to the roots? Yet I see inside the Church the same capacity to heal and harm that exists outside of it, just clothed in different language. Both within and without, we are struggling, where we make the effort to struggle, to find language that will make sense of a world in which we can no longer pretend to have universally shared beliefs.
Even as I talk about “the Church”, I’m aware that it’s an idea that means different things to different people who potentially fall under its umbrella. Depending on your theology, the term can be surprisingly expansive or limited in its reach. Who’s in? Who’s out? What assumptions can be made about someone who uses the label “Christian” or connects their spirituality with the Christian tradition?
Choosing not to let our disappointment with people turn into disappointment with God could mean brushing off actions that should not be ignored, avoiding difficult questions because we’re actually a bit afraid of what the answers might be.
The Bible is full of people being real with God about their rage, despair and agony. God can handle our big questions. We can handle them too. If the Church is to remain a source of hope and a place where real community happens, we must face the shadow and ask big questions of it too.
This is where I find myself, disappointed with the recent statement on marriage and sexuality from the Bishops of the Church of England. There is nothing pastoral in its tone, nothing to indicate care for any it hurts or to understand the perspective of the people whose humanity it ignores - people who are part of the Church of England too.
I was initially relieved to see some attempt to reign it back in with an apology (probably because I am personally unaffected as a cisgender woman in a heterosexual marriage) but ultimately this too misses the mark when the statement didn’t just upset feelings. It represents a fresh betrayal when the CoE has been conducting a lengthy study of gender and sexuality, the results of which have not yet been published.
Many inside and outside the CoE called the statement out of touch. Many others claimed it was right that the CoE should remain at odds with the wider culture. We’re called to be different. Should that mean disengaging from the reality of the lives around us, refusing to listen to people who are bravely, and even generously, showing us where the hurt is?
We’ve never worked out our understanding of God and the Bible in a cultural vacuum. It’s disingenuous to say that personal stories and social shifts have had no part to play in our readings. Historically, we have collectively changed our minds about things, from slavery to marriage to religious practice.
Change can be scary. It can feel destabilising. It can trigger a domino effect. Choosing to rethink long held beliefs can threaten to take apart all the others. We’re exposed. We wonder what’s left.
I believe we can sit with this discomfort. God will enable us to do the hard things. Whatever we feel in the face of these issues is little when compared to those who have suffered at the hands of the Church’s teachings on gender and sexuality. We can learn to de-centre ourselves and listen, really listen. We can decide to move beyond the safety blanket we’ve made of only talking about sex and instead have full-bodied conversations that also acknowledge identity and love.
I realised when I read the Bishops’ statement that disappointment can reveal what we hold in high regard. I’m disappointed because I care about the Church of England. I’ve chosen to worship here and to find community here, hoping that my children are safe, hoping that anyone who wants it can find shelter. By staying, I hope I am playing a part in making it so. The Bishops are not the Church after all. Mingled with uncertainty, my disappointment points to my hope.
You may not know that the very first Black Friday was Nov 18th 1910, and it had nothing to do with shopping. On this day 300 women marched to the Houses of Parliament as part of their campaign to secure voting rights for women. The day earned its name from the violence meted out to protesters, some of it sexual, by the Metropolitan Police and male bystanders. Thanks to the courageous perseverance of these suffragette women, and even earlier the commitment of Chartism for the working class, there is now equality in voting. We still have a way to go though, inequality is still very present in our society.
You may be wondering why I am talking about Black Friday when the rest of the Church is probably talking about Advent & Christmas. Inequality was certainly very real at the time of Jesus’ birth. Consider Mary the mother of Jesus. Mary had no status, or societal influence. Her wealth was next to nothing, and she had no real material value that would’ve caused people to stand up and take notice. And yet because of this, God chooses Mary. In the eyes of the world she had nothing to give and yet Gabriel was sent to her with some extraordinary news. Mary was a young girl in a society that valued men and maturity; she was lowly and poor as her canticle of praise mentions. In other words, Mary was not someone who was favoured in the world, but Christians learn from the Gospels that she was indeed honoured in the eyes of God, she was in fact blessed because of her poverty.
It’s important to know that Mary’s status before God would have undoubtedly brought her shame. In her day, an unmarried woman expecting a child was cause for disgrace. It broke every social and familial law of acceptability. Not only would her condition bring shame on the family, but to try and explain it was somehow a blessing from God, that conception was by account of a visit from God’s messenger, well, this would have been blasphemy of the highest order. Nevertheless, she trusts God. Mary’s part in the Good News and the Incarnation is so inspiring, so extraordinary, and so liberating for us because of her faith.
Mary was the first champion of the Christian faith, showing such courage despite facing the possibility of social darkness, disgrace, shame and violence. Because of her faith the Word of God came into the world. To the world around her Mary had nothing to give. To us, as Christians, we learn that Mary had everything to give, and held nothing back. Her faith inspires us today.
And so, this Christmas I hope like Mary, you know the grace to trust God completely. There are many challenges still facing our society with regards to freedom and equality, and we do need boldness and faith to survive them and to challenge them. But my prayer this Advent and Christmas time is that we learn how loved we are by God through the inspiring faith and motherhood of Mary, and together make the changes God longs to see.
May God bless you and keep you this Christmastide.
Revd Jeremy Putnam.
A collection of thoughts and reflections from the people of All Saints.