Monday, 29 December 2014

A Gangster, a Prostitute and Jesus Walk into a Bar...

Matthew 9:9-17
We start with Jesus and Matthew. Matthew is sitting in his office, on the street, when Jesus walks past. Jesus walks up, ignoring the fact that this man is running the first century equivalent of an extortion racket, and tells him to get up, get his things and become Jesus’ apprentice. We can imagine Matthew might have stared at this dusty northern preacher for a moment: then he quits his job on the spot, grabs his coat and follows him down the road.

He’s so excited and proud to have been chosen to start this new life that he throws a banquet in Jesus’ honour, and invites all his friends to the party: fellow tax collectors, well known petty gangsters. Jesus is seen laughing and eating and drinking with this infamous gang, renown for their breaking of the Jewish law and cosying up with the enemy, and two different groups take issue with it, and challenge him on different accounts.

Firstly, the Pharisees.
The Pharisees ‘[The Pharisees] said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, [Jesus] said, “Those who are well have no need of a doctor, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”’

The Pharisees get a bad rap in the gospels. In actual fact, they were the ones who had reacted against the rich, powerful Sadducees (the Tories of their day) who were content to cosy up to the Romans and ignore the watering down of their religion in return for a rich, comfortable life. The Pharisees treasured the Law that had been handed down to them by Moses, and reacted fiercely against any compromise of this. The scriptures were of vital importance to them, and they knew them inside out. They were famous for creating ‘a fence around the law’ - rules that were even stricter than the law, so that you wouldn’t even come close to sinning.

They were so focused on obeying God’s Law that they even tithed their dried herbs. I mean, seriously. Imagine going to the supermarket, buying in your weekly shop a little pot of dried basil. When you get home, you empty the contents of that jar, carefully weigh it out and set apart an exact tenth of the contents, putting this in a little bag to give to the church. And then you do exactly the same for EVERY OTHER ITEM OF SHOPPING. In Luke 11:37-44, Jesus lays into the Pharisees for focusing so much on the externals that they forget the internals, and the point of the law: ‘You tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God,’ (11:42). ‘Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’,’ (Matt 9:13).

He calls them ‘unmarked graves’: they look normal on the outside but the external is covering up death and emptiness beneath. Because their focus has been so much on getting it right, on not coming anywhere close to sinning, on the correct external actions, they’ve forgotten what it means to engage their hearts: ‘Give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you,’ (Luke 11:41). They have become so focused on not sinning that they have neglected to love their neighbour, to expose themselves to vulnerability by squatting in the dirt next to the crack addict, the homeless man, the pregnant sixteen year old drop out, the bag lady. As a result, their hearts have become hardened, and they’ve ceased to see these people as humans, as anything more than ‘sin’ which means ‘something to stay far away from’.

The trouble is that if you focus really hard on getting it right, on not sinning, on avoiding temptations to sin, you distance yourself from people. You distance yourself particularly from the type of people who are engaging in lifestyles of sin. And when you’re so focused on what your actions are, it’s very hard not to look at other people’s actions; and when you’re looking at other people’s actions, you become aware of them looking at your actions, and when that happens, you suddenly become preoccupied more with what you appear to be doing than what you’re actually doing. And then you’re on a slippery slope to sitting in the right seat in the ‘happening’ church and praying articulately and passionately for revival in big prayer meetings (but not at home) and name-dropping that hotshot pastor and the famous worship leader.

When you’re focused on your heart, and on giving it to small, unimportant people, you don’t worry so much about all that. Because no one can actually see your heart except God, and so there’s no one to compare it to except his. Jesus says that if they give as alms ‘those things that are within’ - if they give a part of their heart to God, which means giving a part of their heart to that 16 year old swearing, smoking, wasted girl, living off benefits in a council house - then ‘everything is clean to you.’

This is a statement I kind of struggle to get my head around, honestly. But I know of my own limited experience that when you allow yourself to become vulnerable to God, or vulnerable to someone who is a ‘sinner’, often you receive within your heart a softening, a holiness which is a natural growth rather than a strained for, hardened husk. You flower into holiness: your heart shines through your actions, filtering through every small moment, so that your whole life becomes a tithe to God, not just a tenth of what you own. The second disgruntled group Jesus has to deal with are the disciples of John.
The Disciples of John ‘Then the disciples of John came to him saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”’And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.  No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”’

John and his disciples were almost certainly Essenes. The Essenes were a strict, ascetic sect, who lived communal lives vowed to poverty, asceticism, and daily ritual cleansing, and for some, celibacy. They had forsaken all worldly pleasures and were focused on developing their spiritual lives. John was missional: he was Messiah-focused, and baptised hundreds, calling on them to repent of their sins and their former way of life. They were strict, and would have fasted a lot. They lived a life of renouncing revelry and excess. So when they see Jesus, the promised Messiah whom John has spent his life of fasting, celibacy and asceticism waiting for, laughing, drinking and eating a feast with a group of notorious gangsters who had acquired their wealth by stealing it from poor Israelites - they were understandably a bit upset.

Jesus response to them is gentle. He emphasises the new and the old: he and his disciples are the ‘new wine’ which cannot fit in the old practices and forms of religion: it must create its own, new forms. But the old isn’t wrong; it isn’t to be thrown out or disregarded: ‘New wine is put into new wineskins, and so both [old and new] are preserved.’ There is nothing wrong with the way John’s disciples are doing things; it’s just not suited for this new thing that God is doing.

And what is God doing? Christ compares himself to a long-awaited bridegroom. John and his disciples spent their lives looking forward to the coming of the Messiah; they lived lives of expectation, of hungering, of yearning and desiring for what was to come. This focus is appropriate to fasting, to desert, to asceticism. That’s why traditionally advent has been a season of fasting: because we are longing for the coming of the Christ, and so our religious practices manifest and mirror this spiritual hunger and thirst in physical hunger and thirst. But now Jesus is saying, “Look - your long awaited Messiah has come: I’m here! Put away your advent fasts. It’s Christmas!” Nobody fasts on Christmas Day. It’s party time!

For God is as much in the celebration as he is in the fast. In Zechariah 7:5-6, God asks, “When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seven months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves?” It has never before struck me that not only our fasts, but our feasts are for God: and equally so. Of course, of course, it should be obvious, because our feasts - Easter Sunday, Christmas Day, Pentecost - are all celebrations of God’s goodness; and so of course they should be feasts which are all about celebrating with God. It’s clear when you’re fasting that you’re fasting for God - you wouldn’t be doing it for fun! But I’ve tended to think of feasts as God being nice and letting us enjoy ourselves after fasting. In fact, our feasts are just as spiritual as our fasts are. Why on earth would they not be?! This is the God who is kicking off eternity with a huge party and feast in heaven (Rev 19:6-9). This is the God who started his human ministry by supernaturally creating six extra kegs of beer for already wasted party guests (I mean, seriously: has it ever struck you that the week-long wedding at Cana is pretty much the first century equivalent of freshers’ week?). This is the God who parties.
Vulnerability and Celebration Jesus’ reputation was as a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of prostitutes and petty gangsters. The Pharisees were so concerned with not sinning that they overlooked the fact that God doesn’t want people just not to sin, but to actively live full, rich, generous, loving lives, vulnerable and open to humans and God. The Essenes were so focused on yearning for God to come that they forgot how to behave when he arrived: they forgot how to celebrate. Let’s be a church that remains open and vulnerable to humans, that doesn’t pigeonhole people or situations as just ‘sin’, but embraces all people and all situations as places where we can share the presence of God. Let’s be a church where in amongst our yearning for God to move, in amongst our revival meetings and our desiring for more of God, we notice what he is doing in the here and now, and we throw ourselves unreservedly into celebrating his kingdom here on earth.

And let’s be a church known for throwing absolutely incredible parties in the worst parts of town, just like our merry vagabond rabbi, Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Nuns

I write this from a nunnery near Bristol where I’m currently on placement.
I’ve been here for just over a week now and my opinion of nuns has been thoroughly revised. Prior to my stay, my mental picture of nuns was built on Sister Act and The Sound of Music – so basically, a lot of singing. Further garnishes to this melodic scene were habits, constant praying and slow, graceful speech. This picture does not do justice to the wonderful and lovely Sister Anita who is seventy years old, surfs the web on a Macbook Air and reads the lectionary from an app on her Galaxy Note. Nor does it come close to capturing Sister Annaliesse, famous for wearing trainers to the Royal Wedding, who can most often be found immersed in the raucous chaos of the Loaves and Fishes foodbank operating out of the Bristol community house, surrounded by volunteers and homeless clients, juggling boxes of cereal and babies and bags of clothes, cutting across the din with a ringing Essex accent as she directs and jokes and cajoles. Perhaps in my previous mental image, becoming a nun somehow wore down your personality until you became a replica model; on the contrary, I’m beginning to suspect it actually distils you to become even more distinctively yourself.
My time here has been shared between the parishes of the East Clevedon benefice, where Sister Anita is part of the clergy team, and the Loaves and Fishes project running in the Bristol house. I preached in one of the local churches last weekend, and am preaching again this coming Sunday. In the Bristol house, over the past three days I have gift wrapped hundreds (literally) of men’s socks, gloves and scarves to be given out with the Christmas foodbank parcels; I’ve also helped pack two hundred Christmas parcels. These are special extra parcels which get given to the foodbank clients at Christmas alongside their regular ones. They have a few extra treats in them: biscuits and chocolate and Christmas puddings.
It’s been an absolute privilege staying here. The week has flown by and I’m sorry to only have a few days left. It’s fascinating talking to the Sisters and hearing their stories of vocation; fascinating too to discuss community with them. Their take on new monasticism and the different forms of community springing up is intriguing to hear, as is their understanding of the meaning of communal life. It’s all going into the melting pot of my thoughts on community as I try to discern what God’s saying to me in that particular area.
All in all, I’ll be sorry to leave next Monday when it comes to it. Not least because this is the view from my bedroom window:
B4ufGhjCIAA7_nk
Pretty hard to beat, eh?

Friday, 5 December 2014

A Day in the Life

I went to London last week and one of the questions people kept asking me was, "What do you actually do?" Being a trainee monk (as I like to think of myself) is a somewhat vague answer and probably not all that helpful for visualising what my life is like here. So here's a day in the life.

8 am: The Stithians Community House creaks into action. We are not early risers. Nor are we particularly morning people. This is definitely a gentle, sleepy, stirring sort of wake-up. None of that 5 am praying malarky. We're not masochists.

9 am: Morning prayer. This takes place in the chapel, which is a small room off the kitchen, with a small altar table with candles and a cross, and icons on the walls. We light the candles and use Common Worship, which takes about half an hour.

9.30 am: The day begins. On a Thursday, we meet with the staff team to celebrate communion together, followed by staff meeting (for them) or a theology tutorial (for us). Our tutorial is with the Rev. Canon Tony Neal, a small retired priest in his late seventies with an impressive beard and an encyclopaedic knowledge of church history. He's in the middle of studying for a PhD and he's taking us through the theology of priesthood, ministry and the church. On a Friday, I meet with Dr. Lucy Larkin, the Cornwall tutor for the South West Ministry Training Scheme, which is the regional training scheme for ordinands. She's giving me one-to-one theology tutorials on Christian doctrine, and is the reason for the ever-increasing pile of thick theological tomes heaped in every corner of my room.

If I don't have a theology tutorial, I've probably got some reading to be doing, or an essay to write. So mornings are quite often spent hunched over dense text, trying to pin Rowan Williams in the midst of his mystical, abstract metaphors down into some sort of sense.

12 pm: Lunch. We quite often have other members of the clergy team around for lunch, and it usually involves freshly baked homemade bread and soup.

1 pm: Usually I'm off in the afternoons, biking down winding, wooded single track lanes to one of our eight villages for a church event of some sort. Yesterday for example, Ben and I spent the afternoon with Maureen, a retired priest's widow, who taught us the ins and outs of serving at the Eucharist. Coming from a baptist background, and then spending the last five years in Christ Church which is so low it scrapes the ground, I really haven't got the first clue about what goes on in an anglo-catholic eucharist. I am proud to say I now know exactly how many bells to ring and at which points, which hand to give the decanters of wine and water to the priest with, the name of the utensils used to ceremonially wash the priest's hands pre-communion (lavabo, if you're wondering), and what the hell a purificator is.

I also managed, three weeks ago, to serve at an anglo-catholic eucharist in full bike leathers. (It was a last minute thing, otherwise I suspect I would have found myself cassocked or albed.)

5.30 pm: Evening prayer. Again, we meet in the chapel and use Common Worship. Often we're joined at this by members of Stithians community, like Melissa, a local twenty-something who lives across the village, and Molly, a lovely and beautifully soft-spoken Cornish woman who is active in village and church life.

6 pm: Dinner. We take it in turns to cook, between Bridget, Nigel, Ben and Lucy and myself. We try to eat together as a community at least twice a week, and hopefully more often. This is usually a fairly rushed affair though, with one or more of us dashing off to get to a 7 o'clock meeting somewhere.

7 pm: Meetings! Deanery meetings, village meetings, advent services, carol services, scout/beaver/brownie services (seriously, you have no idea how many scouting activities go on in this place), harvest suppers, PCCs...there are a lot of meetings. Almost all of them are mind-numbingly boring. But they're important. The local churches and villages have incredibly tight-knit communities, and the seemingly small community events have huge significance for them. So it's important to go to the beaver carol service, because that's your best connection with the parents and children who attend, and because they'll remember if you weren't there.

9 pm: I'm usually vegging, skyping, Buffy-ing (thank you Netflix) or reading (something other than theology. Currently: Dorothy L Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey series, Plato's Republic and Karen Armstrong's A History of God. I get bored if I read just one book at a time, so I have to mix and match).

12 am: I stumble into bed and sleep. The end of another monkish day!

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Call

I've been meditating on the call of God.

Calling is something intrinsically hard to dissect. Almost every priest I've ever spoken to has told me that they resisted, for months, before giving in. Most of them didn't want to be a priest in the first place. Justin Welby, when asked at his selection conference why he wanted to be a priest, replied, "I don't."

I remember when I first felt God tell me to lead worship. I was nineteen, one year of university under my belt, and I'd been happily ignoring Mum suggesting it for years. I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor of my bedroom before leaving for university, arguing with God about worship leading. The conversation went something like this:

God: I want you to lead worship.
Me: No you don't.
God: Yes I do.
Me: No you don't.
God: Yes I do! Go and lead worship!
Me: You're going to have to make me.
God: Okay.
Me: I'm not pushing any doors.
God: [clearly happy to arrange for some doors to push me] Fine. You don't have to ask anybody. But if someone asks you, take the opportunity.
Me: [relaxedly thinking this situation is unlikely to arise in the foreseeable future] Okay, fine.

The next day my youth pastor called with a broken arm and asked me to lead worship.

...Sneaky, no? I tried to avoid it again at the church I attended at university, and it took three people asking me and the acting Worship Pastor telling me he felt God specifically tell him I should do it before I gave in.

After I started worship leading, my mother started telling me I should look into priesthood. Again, I ignored her saying this for years, before finally I gave in and decided to look into it. I really did not want to become a priest. That was not the plan at all. I was going to be...well, I don't know, but something probably a bit more musical and certainly a lot less Anglican. 'Vicar' was not top of my list of cool jobs to do someday. That list looks something more like this:

1. Rock star
2. Songwriter
3. Robin Hood

Anyway, vicar certainly wasn't on it. The thing about vicars is that they're just so...well...uncool. I didn't like the idea of being public property, irrevocably wedded to the institutional church for better or worse. I don't like the ponce and ceremony, and the red tape, and the politics. But I found the more I looked into it, the more I prayed about it, the more it became a concrete reality in my brain, almost an inevitability that I should have to pursue it, whether or not I actually wanted to.

That's the thing about calls. Frankly, they are more often than not costly, painful, wearisome and difficult. The prophets and apostles pull no punches when it comes to the cost of following Jesus:
'God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honour, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labour, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.'   
[1 Cor 4:9-13]
And yet the call of Christ is irresistible; compelling. I resonate with Jeremiah when he says, 'If I say, "I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name", there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.' The call of Christ is compelling: it is impossible to defend against. Despite the resistance we may throw up against him, his unceasing, quiet, inexorable calling to us ultimately draws us in, and our surrender to his ways produces a delight, a peace which cannot be fathomed or replicated. It is the call of the Francis Thompson’s Hounds of Heaven, the compulsion of the suffering Christ in DL Sayers Pantas Elykso:


'I hear Thy trumpets in the breaking morn,
I hear them restless in the resonant night...

They blow aloud between love's lips and mine...
Ring from the cup where I would pour the wine,
Rouse the uneasy echoes about my bed...
They will blow through my grave when I am dead.'


I love the whole of that poem. In it, she speaks of Christ on the cross, interrupting and 'jarring the music of my few, short years' with his testimony of crucifixion and call to follow in his footsteps. It is irresistible, relentless, undefeatable: They will blow through my grave when I am dead...

Who can resist the ceaseless, persistent call of Christ, pulling at you, tugging at your heart so that it takes all your strength to stay, to defend yourself against it, to keep from falling on your knees before him and vowing to follow wherever he goes? There is no peace apart from him; no peace apart from surrender. It is nothing to do with reason or rationality; you don't follow because it makes most sense. At least, I don't understand it like that. You follow because your heart is designed to be in joyful submission to his will, and to resist his will is hard, and hurts, and feels not right; like a magnet trying to pull apart from its opposite.

'O King, O Captain, wasted, wan with scourging,
Strong beyond speech and wonderful with woe,
Whither, relentless, wilt Thou still be urging
Thy maimed and halt that have not strength to go?...
Peace, peace, I follow. Why must we love Thee so?'

Thursday, 20 November 2014

You See Bones? I See An Army

I can't believe I'm about to say this, but right now, being in the Church of England is very exciting.

I'm not a person overly fond of tradition or ritual, so believe me that sentence surprises me as much as it might you. But it's precisely that delight in reimagining, initiating and creating new things that is making me excited about the age-old lumbering C-of-E.

Institutionalised Christianity is fissuring and crumbling around the edges. It's been cracking up for a good few decades now and it comes as no surprise to anybody that numbers of clergy are falling, congregations are aging and churches are shuddering shut their doors beneath the burden of decrepit, ancient buildings. There is no money in church anymore; I know this because the diocese of Truro is the joint poorest in the country, and all they can talk about is how are we ever, ever going to scrape together enough pennies to keep this old thing lumbering on? PCCs are meeting in chilly church halls up and down the county, drinking bad coffee, wringing their hands and talking around and around the insurmountable issue of no money.

But you know what? I've never liked institutionalised Christianity. The early church did pretty well for itself outside the political mainstream, until Emperor Constantine decided it was politically astute to adopt the budding religion and enforce it on the entire empire. Institutionalised, politicised, dried up and regulated by officials and clerks, the radical love-focused movement withered, becoming a cracked, stone-encased statue of what it used to be. Outside, in countries where being a disciple of Christ was still subversive and countercultural, Christianity flourished. But inside, we lost some of that radicalism, some of that zeal and passion and the desire to pursue Christ at all costs. We compromised, basically.

But now, for the first time in nigh on 500 years, the Church is waking up to the fact that it cannot go on like this. I mean, the established church. Of course, in every century - every decade - there have been growths and revivals and motions of the Spirit which have fanned into flame passionate new disciples of Jesus. Nearly always, these movements have had to find a home outside of established church structures, because the existing ones have rejected new ways of doing things. But now, for the first time in a long while, the established church is waking up to the fact that the way it has done church for generations cannot go on.

I have sat through several hours, at this point, of diocesan talk on this subject. In deanery meetings and diocesan roadshows (unfortunate correlations perhaps to the antiques roadshow, where you bring out old keepsakes and wonder how much dosh they're capable of making) the conversation is all around new models of church. How can we reimagine church in the twenty first century? How can we engage with those people who have never stepped foot inside a church, and who never will unless we greet them in their own language? What are we struggling and striving to maintain and keep alive, which ought perhaps instead be allowed to die?

At our last deanery meeting, we were each handed this article by the blogger Archbishop Cranmer. I cannot tell you how excited this made me. The Church of England, that big old institution so establishment it has the Queen as its governor, is scratching its head and telling itself it needs to stop thinking about maintaining Sunday services the way they've always been done, and start dreaming up new ways of engaging with Jesus and the unchurched community. It's investing its efforts and resources into training pioneer ministers, and training its existing clergy to get entrepreneurial, imagine new forms of church, engage with those outside their walls and get their hands dirty in mission.

Now, I don't want for a minute to give the impression that I don't think this has been going on already. Of course there are many great examples of lively, flourishing congregations, thick with mission and passion for God, all across the country and, indeed, the whole Anglican communion. HTB is one good example. So is All Saints, Margaret Street and St James' Piccadilly. They're three very much alive churches of different traditions, off the top of my head (I'm sorry, they're also all in London: only because that's the diocese I know best). There has always been life in the Church of England. But let's be honest: the facts and figures tell it for themselves; the number of Anglicans has halved in the past fifty years, two thirds of under-25s define themselves as having no religion, and the average Church of England attendee is 53 years old.

A couple of years ago I sat in a vast, canvas cavern at New Wine, listening to Justin Welby speak. In the worship time before his talk, we sang the Worship Central song Dry Bones. I like this song, mostly because of the middle section: These dry bones will live again / We're nothing without you, nothing without you. As I sang it, I sang it over the Church of England, and I felt God say, "The child is not dead but sleeping," - an echo of Jesus' words in Mark 5:39.

Death is not always a bad thing. That's something I've heard a lot of people say in the past few weeks, in discussions around the future of the church. We belong to a movement based around the premiss of resurrection, founded on the fact that death is but a prelude to resurrection. And in all these long discussions around how we can keep the church alive, the question has been asked, "Ought we not to allow our own death?" Because while it may be painful, death is not the end, but another beginning, an opportunity for new life to be born in the ashes of what came before.

So yes, I am excited. Because who knows what unimaginable fresh life may rise from these ashes, and what may be in store from the God who raises dead men from tombs, breathes existence into dust, and calls forth an army from dry bones.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Inviting Horror and Grief into our Worship

Be merciful to me Lord, for I am in distress;
my eyes grow weak with sorrow,
my soul and body with grief.
My life is consumed by anguish
and my years by groaning;
my strength fails because of my affliction,
and my bones grow weak...
I am forgotten as though I were dead;
I have become like broken pottery.

In my alarm I said, "I am cut off from your sight!"
Yet you heard my cry for mercy 
when I called to you for help.
You saw my affliction,
and knew the anguish of my soul.
You have not given me into the hands of the enemy
but have set me feet in a spacious place.

Into your hands I commit my spirit.

I trust in you, Lord;
I say, 'You are my God'.
My times are in your hands.

Be strong, and take heart,
all you who hope in the Lord.

                        (psalm 31)
*            *            *


These psalms have always seemed too extreme to me, the ones filled with despair and violence. I've never been able to relate to the bloodthirsty vengefulness or existentialist despair the psalmists express. I turn to the worshipful psalms instead, the ones that talk about thirsting for God's presence and seeking his face, and skip over the bits in Psalm 139 where the psalmist pours out a torrent of hatred upon God's enemies.

But we read this psalm tonight at evening prayer, huddled together in the cold chapel, candles flickering beneath the window, and I found my eyes filling with tears.

I woke up this morning to darkness seeping around the edges, tinging the day with grey pessimism. I greeted the altogether familiar, weary depression like an old acquaintance. Oh. You again. Welcome back. You seem to have made yourself at home...

It's exactly the violence and horror of the psalms that makes them such good prayers. What else can express the unspeakable awful raw bloodiness of grief? I went outside for a cigarette and the screams, like saws grinding away inside, filled my ears. On days like this, when I want to worship, I find myself at a bit of a loss. There are a handful of worship songs which talk about pain - Matt Redman's You Never Let Go and Tim Hughes' When The Tears Fall are good examples - but they're never as violent as the psalms. They're altogether rather passive; the only metaphor we really seem comfortable with in church is storms: so we sing Oceans and Faithful One and Hillsong's Be Still and at times when our circumstances seem to be thundering around us, I've no doubt these are really helpful. But they don't express the reality of the violence within.

You know what I listen to, when the screaming drowns out all else, and I crawl into a corner and squeeze myself shut? Linkin Park. I put on Breaking The Habit and I fill my mind with its images of blood and pain. Because there is no Christian music I can think of which conveys the depth of rage and violence and bloodiness of this.

And yet the psalms do. We seem to have lost this in church. It's like we've sanitised them. But if we have no public lament, if we have no vehicle for anger and grief, how can we channel it into worship? How do you allow God into the midst of the violence and despair when we have no language in our worship which allows him in? And yet our God is the crucified Christ, who hung, bleeding, in the very core of suffering humanity, nailed in the most violent way imaginable to a cross of wood, redeeming the worst depravity of mankind into an altar of grace and healing. This is the very centre of our faith: why have we sanitised it?

We need to unleash the horror of the crucifixion into our worship. Perhaps it isn't appropriate for corporate worship songs: then again, maybe we need to make it so. But we must as a community recapture the depths of suffering into our language and music, because if not we are abandoning people to shallow worship. It is in claiming God as our own in the midst of the agony, in welcoming him into the centre of our grief and pain, that we allow him to redeem it. I believe, firmly and completely, that God is able to take the worst depths of sin and turn it inside out into the highest heights of grace. That's how it works, isn't it? The deeper the sin, the greater the forgiveness. It's Jesus' parable of two debtors in Luke 7:40-47.

If we don't as a community claim the darkest places, own them and acknowledge them, they will never be transformed by God's grace and the power of his Spirit into the tabernacles of his glory they were destined to become. This is where those who rant over the Sainsbury's Christmas ad miss the point: it is not about glamourising war, or skirting over the grit and horror; it is about recognising the triumph of grace in the darkest places. And after all, the darker the night, the more brightly the light shines.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Rainbows & Resurrection

I write this curled up in the comfortable chair beside my window, looking out at a rainbow arching brightly over the wet fields. Rainbows always spell one thing out to me: hope.

They only appear in the rain and the grey, when the air itself is saturated with spray, and the sun slips through a break somewhere, and lights the sky with beautiful, ethereal colours.

I have seen a rainbow every day this week. My friend Verity came to stay and on Tuesday, we motorcycled the West Cornwall Coast Road, which has stunning views of granite, rugged carn on your right, and the deep blue ocean on your left. Just as we rounded the corner and the ocean horizon opened up in front of us, we saw a huge rainbow plunging from the sky deep into the sea, reflected on the waters. I've never seen anything more beautiful.

This past year has felt like constant drizzle at best, and at times, hard, hammering torrents. It's been okay, mostly, since moving: the drizzle has eased off to grey clouds, and there have even been times I've felt the happy sigh and stretching of my soul in contentment and peace. God's here, and that makes all the difference. I can feel myself unwinding, the tension of the past year uncoiling in my gut. The rhythm of life here is so healthy: far from thirsty ambition, far from manipulation and politics, far from raw sexuality and the heavy, viscous grief which envelopes everything it touches. All that's left here is the joyful discipline of prayer and community, and a life lived on the outside. In the city, man has dominated nature and forced her to submission beneath heavy tarmac and tall buildings. Here, any time you want to go somewhere, you're venturing out into the alive wind, which snatches at your hair, and the open sky which showers you with rain or sunshine depending on its mood.

It's humbling, and good. I feel like I've pulled my life out from the live mains socket and am remembering what it means to be alive; simply alive.

It's taking an adjustment. My brain still wanders down the familiar, well-worn paths it used to; my heart still quickens and squeezes over the same old memories. But they're losing their power. God is pumping fresh life into my veins, and the old is being washed and cleansed. This year has been a death; a crucifixion. But there is a glimmering rainbow in the sky, and I can feel in my bones the stirring wakenings of resurrection.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Of Bonfires and Octopi

Of all the things I’d anticipated when moving to deepest, darkest Cornwall and joining the Stithians Community, I’ve got to say that giant fairy-lit papier-mâché octopi weren’t one of them…Yet here it is:
ocean world
This, dear readers, is an eight foot, many tentacled wicker octopus, stuffed with fairy lights, which was constructed, mâchéd and lit in the Community House last week. It’s for the village’s production of Ocean World, an ‘ecological musical’ (you didn’t know that was a thing, did you) containing many scaly props. The octopus is going to sit on top of the font, while a 15-foot whale is hanging from the roof. This would be less amusing if there weren’t also going to be a baptism and a funeral in the church next week; somewhere, a small child is going to have the distinction of being baptised in a font surrounded by eight dangly tentacled legs. That’s definitely enough to scar a child for life.
In other news, we engaged in a spot of community gardening last weekend and attempted to burn the loose branches etc in an Exciting Bonfire. Here is our Exciting Bonfire:
bonfire
This lasted for precisely two seconds before the petrol burned off and we were left with some damp twigs. Never mind. There’s always next November.

Monday, 27 October 2014

On Celts and Carns

Today Ben and I visited Perranarworthal church and her wardens. We discovered that Perranwell (the nearby village) is named after the ancient well of St Piran. Down a narrow, shrouded path deep in drifts of autumn leaves, through what looked like a private garden gate, down steep, moss-covered steps, there is, indeed, an ancient well. It is fed by a natural spring, with water collecting in a stone bath, overshadowed by stone walls and a roof. Funny how I lived here for 18 years a few miles from the well, and had never heard of it before today.




I love the ancient spiritual history of this county. Churches are almost entirely thousands of years old, dating back, most of them, from Norman times, more often than not built on sites which have been used for worship before even that, with buildings of wood, or old monasteries. You can traipse around Carn Brea without noticing the remnants of its bronze age settlement, although you can hardly fail to notice the castle, built in 1379 as a chapel to St Michael. But beneath the bracken there are hundreds of flint arrowheads, remnants of celts from thousands of years past. My sister, Chess, was married in Gwennap, one of the churches I'm working in; it wasn't until last week I discovered the church was built on the site of an ancient celtic abbey, parts of which still stand.

Coming back here, I feel strength flowing from the land into my soul. I have always found myself more at home in Cornwall than anywhere else, and not just because it is familiar and I grew up here; it's home in a much deeper way. My bones feel hewn from Carn Brea granite. To have been born and lived all your life under the shadow of that great monolith, rugged and ominous and beautiful, shapes you. My father still stretches and swells with the land, though it's a long time since he farmed it. In the long winter seasons he sighs and retreats, muttering about the days drawing in and the long nights; with the first light of spring he perks, and the light comes on in his eyes. He moves with the weather, flourishing and retreating as the land does. There is a sense within myself of belonging here, and not with the towns, with the streets and houses I grew up in, but with the sea and the sky and most importantly, with the earth beneath my feet. My forefathers have ploughed and sowed and reaped this soil for centuries, subsisting from the fruits of the earth, hungering when it hardened and died. Standing on Carn Brea, wind hurling itself around me, the land stretched out before me and the sea spreading the horizon, I come alive. I love this place.


Carn Brea castle (my future home, in all my dreams...)

Monday, 20 October 2014

Elvensong

Last night I went to Devoran church for evensong. It was the most beautifully constructed worship service I think I've ever been to. Utterly perfect. It helps that the church is so gorgeous, perfectly symmetrical with dark wooden beams and a dome painted deep blue. The service used the Book of Common Prayer, comfortably well worn, like a well-thumbed favourite novel, and for the first time I didn't get lost (an achievement!).

The Reader, Claire, sang with a crystal clear bell of a voice, and enunciated the prayers with a perfect mix of pause and emphasis. She had the barest hint of a Cornish accent (i.e. she pronounced 'path' correctly, instead of this pretentious 'parth' rubbish); it softened what would otherwise have been a little too formal. Plus we started with my favourite hymn, Be Still, My Soul, which I've only ever sung once in church in my life. Glorious. I left buzzing. I cannot WAIT to lead an evensong. It's basically like cosplay; you're pretty much an elf out of Lord of the Rings.

Except focusing on Jesus, of course.

I think my ideal church, should I get ordained, is going to have to be a heady mix of charismatic evangelicalism and catholicism. Can you be an evangelical charismatic catholic? Probably not. Well, I'll start the party. Evensong with the congregation getting slain in the Spirit. Definitely for the win.

When God Breaks In

I love the church: the beautiful, bumbling, stumbling Bride of Christ. She is strong, weak, courageous, confused, victorious and above all heartfelt. So it breaks my heart to see divisions rise up within her and with them hurt; like the threatened split over the issue of homosexuality. It’s a big issue, one many people feel strongly about, and not to be taken lightly. For me, it’s an issue that has threatened to tear me apart.

I am a lesbian. And writing that, just then, still made my heart beat a little faster and my breath come a little shorter. I am still nervous to say it, still scared to write it out. The only thing that gives me strength to do it – strangely, some will think – is knowing Christ. I’ve known Him since before I can remember – as far back as my toddler years, squatting in the wet sand at the beach making castles. He’s always been there, as much a part of my family as my parents and siblings.

So when, aged 13, I reached with no little bewilderment the realisation that actually, I liked girls in the way my friends liked boys, I found myself in a state of confused dread.  I grew up in a Baptist church in Cornwall where homosexuality was only mentioned in lists of sin and shame and I knew, as everyone did, that gay people were weird and unnatural. To calm the rising panic, I grabbed hold of the line thrown around by every magazine, book and sex ed. class: it’s a phase and I’ll grow out of it.

For three years I waited. Patiently, impatiently, prayerfully, anxiously. I studied the Bible passages with an obsession, and read up on all the various theological interpretations. Nobody seemed to know quite what was going on, which certainly didn’t help me: there were so many theories about Greek words and Roman fertility cults, lust, culture and all the rest that I barely knew where to begin. I’m no theologian and found myself utterly unqualified to discern what the truth behind the scripture was. At sixteen, I found my ‘phase’ excuse beginning to wear thin and the burden of not knowing who I was or what I was feeling weighed me down; with dread and desperation, I knew I had to battle this out once and for all, to discover who I was and what the truth was – above all, what the truth was.

I don’t know if there is anything comparable to coming out to someone for the first time. If you’ve ever done something really, really bad when you’re a kid, really humiliatingly naughty, and had to own up, that might come close. It’s that same cold sweat, sick to the stomach style confession, standing in front of the class with black heavy dread like a rock in your gut. You’re so afraid you think you might throw up. The five minute walk to my youth pastor’s house took fifteen, and I almost turned back three times. When I finally got the words out of my throat – which took even longer – I almost choked on them, though I knew them so well from rolling around my head for three years: “I think I’m gay.”

To give her credit, my youth pastor didn’t, as anticipated, curse me as heathen and throw me out of house and church. Nor did she rush to my parents. She talked it over with me, mentioned the phase theory, and asked if I’d thought of healing.

Now, I’m not going to try to persuade anybody of any theological view in this post. All I can do is explain to you what it’s like to be a homosexual person seeking healing. I spent two years on my knees, with gritted teeth and tears, pleading with God, my friend, my Father, the God who had brought me up, to show me the truth. I begged Him to take away anything in me that wasn’t of Him. Whatever happiness I felt lay with women, and marriage to a woman, I wanted Him more than any of it; and I knew that anything He didn’t want me to have wasn’t worth having.

For two years, I received no healing, no theological direction, and no clue as to what to do. With nothing else to guide me, I decided to simply opt for the safe option, and reject all homosexuality – thoughts, feelings, all of it – as sinful. I may not be able to stop myself desiring women, but I could cut dead everything thereon.

They were long months. The burden of not really knowing who I was hadn’t been lifted and I was as confused as ever; but I had made my decision and I wasn’t going to let go of Jesus, whatever anybody said. Christ was mine, and I was His, and nothing, not least the church – who still threw around sermons like barbs and spoke of the ‘cult of homosexuality’ and the ‘homosexual lifestyle’, whatever that was – was going to come between us. I would sit in my seat and freeze, willing myself not to cry, as the people I had grown up with stood behind the pulpit and called me disgusting, filthy, Satanic, idolatrous. And inside my stiff, still body I would cling to Christ, desperate for Him.

It was a slow Saturday afternoon that He broke in. I was reading Tony Campolo’s Speaking My Mind, not thinking about much, when out of the blue, suddenly what felt like a deep bowl of peace, joy and love broke over my head and flooded me. It drenched me so strongly that the breath left my lungs, and I heard God say, “You’re gay and I love you. You’re mine, my daughter. I love you.”

Things were never the same after that moment. The joy that had flooded my heart drenched me so thoroughly that for a year all I had to do was think of that moment and my heart would swell with such joy and laughter that I thought it would burst out of my chest. In the highest heights of worship, I would cry in my heart, “I’m gay!” and the joy would come rushing up like a flood, welling out of my mouth and eyes in devotion to God.

That was six long years ago and that moment is still, when people ask me, the most defining moment in my Christian walk. The certainty it brought me as to my identity, the knowledge of Christ's infinite love for me, has never left, nor shaken, nor moved, not once. When people tell me - as they do, relatively frequently - that I should pursue more healing, I reach out to God and always, always he repeats those words: You're gay and I love you. The fruit of it has been greater confidence, unshakable joy, and increased closeness with God. I can't explain to you why or how this has happened; but every part of me knows that I am gay and I am so, so, so loved by God.

My identity is rooted in Christ’s love; and now I know who I am, grounded in Him, I don’t need the affirmation of other people, even Christians, although I love my church family and it makes me sad when they don’t give it. But what grieves me more is the dozens of people I know who have left the church because they cannot bear to hold their burden alone any more. There is a community which has suffered rejection and humiliation in their workplace, friendships and families, people who have been turned away point blank by their parents and siblings, and these are the very people who feel they have no place in the church. And there’s no use making excuses; it’s because as a church, we have failed them.

This is not a distant, hypothetical issue. If you have a congregation of more than 30, I can guarantee there is someone in it who has been or is struggling with this. And every time you say the word ‘gay’ and fix it in a sentence with sin and shame and Satan, another little part of them freezes. Every word you speak will hit like bullets, whether you see it happen or not. I’m not saying don’t be honest. I’m saying speak the truth. It is not enough, not ever enough, to say ‘you are a sinner’ – any sinner could tell them that. We are the Body and breath of Jesus, and it is our duty, role, delight, to tell the life-shattering truth that Christ has made it all all right and that nothing, nothing in all creation could ever come between us and God’s love. As a church we must turn to the broken, rejected, hurt community of people the world has turned their back on and get on our knees to ask for forgiveness, because we have not only not embraced them as Christ commanded, but we have added to their woes and laid burdens on their backs which have broken them. We have caused untold hurt by our words and our attitude – but the story is not over and it is not too late to write the final chapter; there is still time for us to turn around and begin to serve the lost and the broken with the heart-crying depths of love that drove Christ to the cross and us into His arms. There is still time for the story not to be the failure of the church to reach the hurting but a victory of grace, and for a generation of lost, outcast people to be ushered into new life in the arms of Christ’s beautiful, bold, broken, perseverant, but above all heartfelt, Bride.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Huntsmen, Sierra Leone and Islam (and you thought Cornwall was boring)

So it's day five of living in the Stithians Community House, and almost a week since I left London. This week has been fairly spacious with a lot of settling in time, and getting to know the clergy team, which is quite big (with eight churches, you need a lot of vicars!).

Rural parish work is incredibly different to the urban parish setting I'm used to. Aside from the differences in churchmanship (the Eight Saints cluster is primarily liberal anglo-catholic), day to day life is so incredibly different that ministry has to look very different. Stithians village has a very strong sense of communal identity, and there are a whole host of village activities which most of the village are involved with - from choirs and scout groups to a community library, a pantomime, coffee mornings, live music and all sorts. The methodist and anglican churches work together often, and many of the village will come along to events and support them even if they don't go to church.

On Monday, a catholic priest from Sierra Leone, Father Daniel, came to dinner at the Community House. A nearby catholic church have been supporting his parishes in west Africa for years by raising money to build wells out there, and so the village has a longstanding relationship with Father Daniel. He happened to be in the village, so my first day in my tiny Cornish village was spent with an African catholic priest - really not what I had been expecting!  It was fascinating to hear of how in his parishes (he looks after twenty churches!), Muslims and Christians live peaceably side by side. Often Muslim children will hear about Christianity at school, and convert; Father Daniel himself converted as a child. Their families support them in this, while remaining Muslim themselves, and so church growth there is mostly amongst children. Once a month, Father Daniel goes to the mosque with his Muslim counterparts and prays with them; and once a month, the Imams come to church and pray with him. There is a sense of brotherhood between the two religions, of worshipping the same God in different ways and with differing understandings of Him.

I wish communities like this were reported as widely and significantly as the horror stories. With all of the atrocities occurring in the middle east, it's important to hear about our shared humanity, and of the many examples where Muslims and Christians live and work side by side. Another great example of this is Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad, who is ministering on the frontline in Iraq where Isis are a blood chilling daily reality. He partners in this ministry with Dr Sarah, a Muslim.

On a totally different note, tonight I have been invited with the curate, Elly, to the Huntsmen Harvest Supper. This is an annual supper and charity auction by the fox huntsmen (!). They've kindly offered for me to spend a half day with agricultural chaplain - I have no idea what an agricultural chaplain is; I assume it's more than baptising sheep. But who knows. Frankly this week has been so surreal already that anything might happen...

The Stithians Community

Greetings all! It's day five of life in the Stithians Community.

Stithians Community is a new monastic community in west Cornwall. The Community House, with wardens Bridget and Nigel Guzek, has been operating as a retreat house and centre for contemplative prayer for just over a year, but the Community itself began when Ben and myself joined two weeks ago.

The Community has both a resident community (myself, Bridget, Nigel) and a dispersed community (including Ben and his wife Lucy, who live in Feock, one of the nearby parishes). How this works, and the rule of life we follow, is evolving; it's exciting to be involved in pioneering this! Prayer is a foundational corner of the Community; we join together to pray the Daily Office morning and night, and host a regular contemplative prayer evening, which is open to all.

The Community House is located in the village of Stithians, one of the parishes in the Eight Saints Cluster. The Eight Saints is a cluster of eight rural parishes, stretching between the towns of Redruth, Truro and Falmouth and including Stithians (St Stythians), Gwennap (St Wennapa), St Day, Feock (St Feoca), Perranwell (St Piran), Devron (St John and St Petroc), Carharrack (St Piran) and Chacewater (St Paul). Lots of Cornish saints! Cornwall has a long history drenched in Celtic spirituality, and almost every village has its own Celtic saint. Each of these parishes has a different flavour, and there is a strong sense of community in each of them.

While we are here, Ben and I will be getting involved with church life and ministry in all of the eight, as part of the Way2 Project that the Stithians Community runs. This is an opportunity for those exploring vocation to ordination or the religious life to join the Community and gain experience working in the parishes, as well as make use of the space and support to explore spiritual life and formation in ministry.

I only moved in on Monday, but already, five days in, I'm loving my time here. I'm fascinated by new monasticism, and it's really exciting to be a part of the beginning stages of this Community. The Eight Saints cluster is a beautiful tangle of different spiritualities, churchmanship and village life, and from the few days I've spent I can already tell that I'm going to learn a lot! I'll be updating this blog as I go along with reflections and updates of my experience here.

You can also follow me on twitter (@rosegrigg) for the less reflective in-the-moment action shots and comments!

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Thoughts on the Desert

My favourite Bible passages are, and have always been, passages about the desert. When I was in uni, I stuck up twenty sheets of A4 on my tiny bedroom wall and scrawled across them the text from Hebrews 11:32-8: 

'And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets - who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight... They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated - of whom the world was not worthy - wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.' 

'Of whom the world was not worthy'...man! Doesn't it get your blood racing? I love that image of prophets and wayfarers, roaming the earth as aliens and strangers, as princes of a foreign land. DL Sayers wrote my favourite poem, 'Desdichado', in which she depicted Christ as a 'bonny outlaw' and 'rascal fiddler' who roams the world, calling to his Bride, the Church, like Orpheus or a prince from a fairy tale. There's something mouthwatering about the desert, about the kind of raw, wild existence where your only security is utter dependence on Christ and there are no false comforts to hide behind. 

A few weeks ago I stayed with the Northumbria Community, a new monastic community with a retreat house near Alnmouth. Stuck in the middle of the bleak northeast, curled up beside roaring log fires with thick, chewy books pilfered from their library, I learned a bit more about the desert; its role and its riches. 

The desert is a place of acknowledged need. It is a place of thirst and hunger, a place of extreme heat and extreme cold. It is a place where your dependence on God is brought to the forefront. The desert fathers chose it as a place of solitude - a time for the heart to be alone with God. A place to face and fight your inner demons (as in the monastic refrain, 'your cell will teach you everything'). A year ago, I sensed God telling me that he was leading me into a year of drought. A few months later, everything fell apart. Does that sound dramatic? It felt dramatic. Things I had counted on for security were taken away, and in their stead a whole raft of changes blew in. I became depressed, and in trying to deal with some of the challenges that threw up, came face to face with a whole host of inner demons. Part of this year has been learning how to embrace celibacy - and so much of that feels like a desert.

Here in this place of depression and desert I am in a place of loss - a place of grief and anguish. It's a place where I am alone with my heart - with all its pains and longings and weaknesses and fallibilities, stripped of falsehoods and deceptions which comfort and self-satisfaction provide. I am in a place of extremes: extreme cold - the absence of the warmth love and partnership bring, of embrace; and of scorching heat - the heat of anger, rage towards myself, the church, and perceived injustices. There is no shelter behind which to hide from these extremes. Here in the desert I am left bare before them. 

But as I stood in the barren, bare, windswept fields in northumbria, watching the thick mist roll, I found myself thanking God for the desert. Thanking him for the insight it provided, the opportunity to rinse my soul, to uncover wounds and perceptions which fogged my faith. In reply, he told me there were more riches to be found in the desert; and to enjoy it. 

Before you start worrying I'm going all dark ages and self-flagellating on you, I don't mean 'enjoy' as we commonly use it, but meaning literally 'to find joy in' the desert. The more I walk with God, the more I realise the link between suffering and joy. 'The crown of suffering is joy' keeps floating through my head, and I think it's true. "We have left everything for you!" exclaimed Peter to Jesus in Matthew 19, and Jesus replied, "Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.' It's not just that God blesses us; suffering increases our capacity for joy. We train our souls to let go of the foolish, filthy toys of this world, and in doing so open our hands to receive the solid, true riches of God. "Indeed," wrote CS Lewis, "if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased." 

It's not fun in the desert. There is altogether too much pain for that. But I pray that as I continue to journey deeper into this drought, that it would be a journey deeper also into God's heart; that my eyes would be opened to new joys, new riches and new loves; and I would hear DL Sayer's bonny outlaw Christ singing, 

"Lady, lady, will you come away with me? Was never man lived longer for the hoarding of his breath; Here be dragons to be slain, here be rich rewards to gain... If we perish in the seeking, ...why, how small a thing is death!"


Finding a Voice

I spent this weekend with Diverse Church, a wonderful group of genuinely inspiring young evangelical LGBT+ Christians. It was the first gathering of the group, which has existed mainly online up to now, and there was an electricity in the air, a fizzling sense that this was the beginning of something exciting, something transformative.

On the Saturday afternoon we joined the Two:23 Network for a time of worship and a talk from Dr Kristin Aune, a feminist academic and the author of Reclaiming the F Word. She spoke vividly and engagingly on modern feminism and the evolution of the movement from its 60s roots to its twenty-first century incarnation. It was fascinating to hear how modern feminists define themselves, the issues they engage with and perhaps more pertinently, the issues they do not. One shocking statistic revealed that 75% of those affected by austerity cuts in Britain are female. It was good to see a group focused on combatting one particular form of oppression - that of the LGBT community - engage with other forms, looking beyond their own boundaries to the issues of gender inequality.

But the most significant event of the day, for me, was what happened next. The chapter of St Paul's Cathedral invited members of Diverse Church to come and share our stories with them. In we trooped, a ragamuffin gang of mostly twenty-somethings, down cool stone corridors through to a room below the sanctuary. We met with the Canon Pastor Tricia Hillas and the Canon Chancellor Mark Oakley, who came out at Greenbelt last year, and shared briefly some of his own experiences with us. We, in turn, shared some of our stories with them.

How can I describe the feeling? There we sat, in one of the most historic, significant cathedrals in the country, a symbol of the authority and establishment of the Church of England - and spoke, finally, as if breaking a long, suffering silence, of our experiences, our story. It felt as if, after decades of being silenced - by fear, by suppression, by the church's stonewalled response - we had finally found a voice. And the Church, finally, finally, was listening.

As I sat, listening to friends talk of being ostracised, of being removed from ministry and service, of being openly ridiculed and abused, I felt a quiet swell of pride within me. Because in the midst of all the pain and confusion and grief there was hope - a small, sweet ray of hope which couldn't quite be extinguished. Despite all the rejection they face, the scorn and assumptions of church leaders, the closed off response of the families they love - they're still here. These guys are still in church, still battling to hold onto their faith, still fighting to love their fellow church members. Isn't that beautiful? Isn't that a stunning example of grace, of the triumph of love over discord? Some of these young people had been removed from their home groups, banned from ministry and told they had no place in the church, and yet they still attended. Some of them had parents who regularly told them to not to look 'so gay', to be more heterosexual in appearance and manner, to hide their orientation for the sake of their parents' ministry; some had experienced kinds of forced 'deliverance' of the 'spirit of homosexuality'. These were people who were experiencing rejection by Christian friends and family they had grown up with on a daily basis. "I'm terrified of losing my faith," one guy said. "The church is all I've got." And yet in spite of all this opposition, these people were holding onto God with everything within them, fighting to keep coming to church, fighting to keep loving the very people who were rejecting them. Is there anything more Jesus-like?

I really believe that the gay community has something to offer the church beyond diversity. I believe that at the moment, LGBT Christians have an amazing opportunity to witness to our brothers and sisters by our lives. We have the opportunity to show grace and how powerful forgiveness and the love of Christ can be. 'They shall know you by your love for one another,' Jesus said in John 13:35, but too often Christians are known for our infighting and bickering instead. Wouldn't it be a beautiful thing if what we remembered from this issue isn't the churches splitting over it, the friendships broken and the Body of Christ torn apart, but how we met each other from across a great divide, carrying our wounds and our prejudices, and embraced? We are one body. We all share in the one spirit. Christ died for all of us, and it is only by his blood we may share in his kingdom at all. What are we doing, vilifying our brothers and sisters as if they were opponents in a battlefield? It is the favourite trick of satan to distract the Church from her true calling by sowing discord. Let's not submit to the illusion, but 'walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit.'

We don't have to agree - but let's disagree in love.