This hurts

(Part two of two on the 2014 General Assembly)

Eight years ago I attended the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand as a youth commissioner. It was one of the darkest times of my life… I can’t blame all that on the General Assembly, but it didn’t help. My self-identity was already pretty negative, so sitting in a room with hundreds of people and finding out that 65% of them had just voted to exclude people like me from leadership roles because our relationships are considered immoral, abnormal and offensive was enough to tip me over some kind of edge for a time.

During the debate, I had spoken about how the message would put people off engaging with the church, how it would feel like a rejection to many members of the church, of how gay, lesbian and bisexual young people were already vulnerable and didn’t need another organisation telling them their experience of love was unacceptable, and of how the rule would cause pain to families and friends as well. I finished by saying “We don’t choose who we fall in love with. And we don’t choose to become leaders in the Church. God calls us. Let’s leave our lives in God’s capable hands.”

After the debate I was caught crying on the 6 O’clock news.

It was General Assembly time again at the beginning of the month. Even from a distance I have been experiencing waves of anger, sadness and pain. This year, proposals to remove the leadership rule (banning people in same sex or de facto relationships) failed again, and a new rule was added which bans ministers from marrying same-sex couples.

It hurts. It hurts to receive the message, once again, that we are not accepted and valued as we are. It hurts to have our relationships treated, not only as sinful, but as more threatening than other sins. So much so, that the church needs special legislation to protect itself from us.

So yeah, it hurts. Even for me, supported as I am by a wonderful inclusive community. I worry about the impact another rule will have on people who are more isolated, and especially for young queer people growing up in Presbyterian families who are just starting to figure out who they are.

When I started going to church as a teenager, it was all sort of hypothetical. I didn’t even know any queer people, so I was not very optimistic about the prospect of finding a girlfriend. I went to a church where the leaders proclaimed the “love the sinner, hate the sin” message. As a 14 year old I struggled to know exactly what that rule meant for me. What exactly defined “the sin.” Did having a crush count? Writing a poem about a girl? What about a kiss? At what exact point did things tip over from loving to hate?

As I wrote when I was a little older:

It sounded so simple when he said it,
“We love the sinner, but hate the sin”
yet somehow I can’t keep it all separate.
Sinner and sin.
Person and practice.
Lover and love.
Hater and hate.
Love the sinner, hate the sin…
Somehow I always end up
hating myself.

I was lucky. The support of my family, some of my friends, and eventually the welcoming congregation I found, carried me beyond the messages of hate.

Here I am, at home with my two dear ones. Windhorse, who is sleeping but just let out a little cry. I remember wondering what she dreamed about when she was tiny. Boobies and milk probably. Now she has grasped enough language to be able to sleep-talk about things we can understand! Apparently she dreams about train trips with her mums.

L is sleeping too. Tomorrow I will try not to stay up so much later, but tonight I’ve decided to snatch this late night quiet moment to finish this blog post. Soon I will tip toe into the bedroom and curl up beside her as she dreams.

Tonight, suddenly it has struck me – I have crossed the line.

This is the stuff they hate.

Our lives are so tangled together and so infused with queer love. Love which the church refuses to celebrate. Love which makes us unsuitable people who shouldn’t be given the same opportunities to contribute to our church life. There’s no way to separate out one part which makes us “practising” (and probably parenting without a man involved makes anything else we’re doing a moot point in terms of contributing to the moral decline of society). So this, all this, is what they hate.

How exactly is the church showing us it is still loving?

From the outside

(Part one of two on the 2014 General Assembly)

These are my reflections, from outside and far away from the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ). I have so many thoughts and feelings I have separated them into two posts. This one is about the process stuff. The next one is my reaction to another decision which excludes.

This year, there were several proposals to ban ministers from marrying same-sex couples, and a couple of proposals to remove the existing  leadership rule (banning people in same-sex and de facto or civil union relationships*) The official report states:

The Rev Hamish Galloway spoke during debate saying that there had to be a better way forward for the Church to discuss what is a complicated issue. He ended his speech by laying down his voting cards and leaving the Assembly floor. Approximately 100 commissioners subsequently also abstained from voting by leaving the floor. People returned to the voting floor once voting on all sexuality and marriage matters was complete.

With a third of commissioners absent from the floor, the marriage rule passed easily. As Tim Watkin points out, it is a deeply un-Presbyterian rule. Traditionally, diverse views are recognised and ministers have liberty of conscious on matters that are not fundamental to our faith (and the learned people of the “Doctrine Core Group” have advised that this is not a matter of the substance of the reformed faith).

From unofficial reports I have heard that many people left in tears, that the moderator was in tears, that debate was curtailed on the next motion. I have heard that people saw signs of hope, that they felt something incredible happened, that there was some movement at last…

I am glad that people I like and respect saw signs of hope. I have been hoping for years that someone would come up with some sort of dramatic symbolic action. I have been advocating for a different sort of conversation, outside of the Assembly debates…

And yet I cannot bring myself to celebrate people walking out of the debate.

The national Church has been shutting me out for years. It has ruled, Assembly after Assembly, that I am not acceptable, that I am not welcome to participate in the full life of the church.

The Church has been literally shutting LGBTIQ people out of the debates about our future. General Assemblies are made up of ministers and elders (and a few youth reps). These are the decision makers in our church… and people like me are no longer allowed to become ministers or elders. While there is a lifeboat clause for existing ministers, the number of out gay, lesbian or bisexual ministers in our church has dropped. There were only a few to begin with, and with some leaving the country, or leaving ministry roles, or leaving the church all together… I only know of a couple who are left and I don’t know if there were any out LGBTIQ voices at this General Assembly. If the leadership rule is upheld, one day there will be none. We will have been silenced in the courts of the church. Despite the church’s attempts to exclude us, some of us are sticking with the church.

I want those who can speak to stay part of the Assembly, to speak for us. Our stories need to be told. I know that some allies did stay, and I am grateful for those who spoke. I know that some who walked out are allies. I am trying to understand their action as a sign of support.

I also feel frustrated at the walkout, because last Assembly the marriage ban lost by one vote. We will never know how it would have gone this time if all the commissioners had voted. Now we have another rule which excludes us.

I have heard a lot of people saying that they are sick of the debating. That it is getting us nowhere. I’ve heard that people are being “wounded” by the debates. I struggle to see how they can feel as wounded as those who are directly affected, whose lives are being debated.

As I’ve said before, the “sides” of this debate are not equal. The debates started because a group within the church decided we should have rules so that the whole church must abide by their views. Some of us keep debating because we want to create space for our views. We want space to live faithfully to God’s call in our lives. We are not saying that the whole church should abide by our views. We are not saying that all congregations should have an LGBTI minster. We are not arguing that all ministers should be obliged to marry same-sex couples. (Weird, anyway, to think that a couple would insist someone who did not support same-sex marriage would be ideal to lead their marriage.) The state recognises a diversity of views and gives ministers the right to discriminate if that is what their faith calls them to do. This church is not leaving ministers the right to NOT discriminate.

As Rob at St Ninian’s sums it up, the issue is not about marriage. “The issue is whether the PCANZ is a church that means what it says when it says all are welcome.  Whether the church is able to allow a diversity of deeply held views alongside each other or whether there can be only one point of view acceptable.”

Walking away from the debate does not leave us in a neutral position. The current situation is one where there is space for only one point of view.

So yeah, I’m glad that there is a desire to do things differently… But I wish a dramatic stand had been taken before Assembly. Or I wish that a symbolic action, a disruption, could have happened without walking out. I think only a different sort of conversation will help us move forward, but it needs to happen alongside Assembly processes, because that is where decisions are made. For a diversity of views to be respected, General Assembly will need to vote to change the rules.

Rob reminds us (after Edward Hayes) to associate with the hopeful.

I am trying to understand the signs of hope some saw at Assembly. I am wondering how the signs of hope are going to be shared. I have had several conversations with people who had similar reactions to me when they heard about people walking out, but they had not heard anyone say that there were signs of hope. I am trying to feel hopeful that the walk out will inspire people to take action, to make meaningful conversations happen, to find a way for us to move forward.

I also am glad that at General Assembly there were people who stayed, who raised their voices speaking out for justice. Their voices give me hope.

So, these are my thoughts about the events of General Assembly. They won’t match up with the experiences of people who were there, but the PCANZ has said this is all I can have: General Assembly from the outside. The church from the margins. This is my point of view.


The rule bans anyone “in a relationship outside of a faithful marriage between a man and a woman” from holding leadership positions in the church. A cynical person might think that it was carefully worded so that those who supported could argue that it’s not discriminating against people. But it is. Only some of us are being told that we have to choose: we can choose to be with the love of our life; that means choosing not to be accepted by the church.

Help us O God, achieve peace.

Two unspeakable tragedies. Two stories of senseless loss of innocent lives. One is all over our news websites. Probably on all our minds. It could have been us. Most of us having travelled by plane for work or holidays. We feel connected to the loss through the photos and stories of people who share some small link with us – people who have lived in our city, perhaps, or whose families resemble our own in some way. We who are free, we are shocked by how suddenly our lives could be destroyed.

To read about the other story you have to scroll down to the bottom half of the Stuff or Herald websites for an update. The death toll is rising rapidly. The UN says one-fifth of those dying are children.

“I knew that my friend and neighbours had been killed, my dad told me to get up and help them! We ran to the site together, among the rubble and dust I could see body parts. I wanted to run away, but I couldn’t. I have to be strong for this is not the first time that I witness such chaos. This is my third war in Gaza and I’m only 12. How many more wars will I see? How many air strikes can we survive? When is it all going to end? When can I enjoy my childhood and play in the streets like other boys of my age?”
– Mohammad (quote from the Caritas blog)

They are just children, like our children. Playing, learning, exploring the world around them…

What can we do, from so far away?

CWS and Caritas have partner organisations in Palestine and have emergency relief appeals. We can donate to support their work.

We can teach our children compassion and empathy. We can teach them to see things from other perspectives, to see the people behind labels, to talk to one another, to hope.

We can pray for peace.

***

Help us O God, achieve
the peace that cares for the wellbeing of the people;
the peace that rebukes injustice and violence;
the peace that seeks freedom for all;
the peace that heals the hurts of the past;
the peace that enables for today
and releases the potential for tomorrow;
the peace that is new life in Christ.
Amen.

(from Alternative Ecumenical Service prepared by Middle East churches: http://www.sabeel.org/etemplate.php)

Tears, tantrums, and broccoli soup faina pizza (with recipes)

Last night, after Windhorse was quiet in her cot, I put the cup of tea I had made three hours earlier into the microwave for the third time. As it reheated, I contemplated the greyish broccoli in front of me, wondering whether I should still put it on our faina pizza. It was the last of the broccoli, which I had intended to blanch for a minute, but instead it had been left to boil for about ten minutes, then been left steaming  in the saucepan, probably for as long again. It was limp and soggy. It possibly resembled broccoli the way my grandparents served it 60 years ago. It looked horrible.

Usually we eat together, but last night the dinner preparation had been interrupted by a difficult nappy change, an unexpected trip to pick up L who had an evening audio conference and was held up because a train had crashed on our line, and multiple attempts to calm and distract Windhorse, who had reached the end of her tether. Shared faina had gone out the window. Bath night had gone out the window. Windhorse had helped make herself a scrambled egg, steamed veggies and pita bread – the distraction calmed her down and it was ready in a few minutes – and then all my effort went into getting her to bed as early as possible.

Back to the faina. I put on a few pieces of capsicum, and then, having ascertained that there were no other pizza compatible vegetables in the fridge, I put on the broccoli and cheese and put it in the oven.

I remembered my tea, took a sip, burned my tongue because I had misjudged the time required to reheat two thirds of a cup of lukewarm tea, and sat down at the table. I felt like crying. Or shouting. Or punching a wall. Or going to bed. Except all of those options felt too hard, and so I just sat and thought about the day.

It had felt like the hardest day of my life since becoming a parent. It is possible that there have been days that felt harder at the time – I may have been experiencing that special variety of amnesia that parents have probably evolved to have because without it no parent would contemplate having another baby ever again – but right then that seemed unlikely.

I thought about the conversation I’d had recently with friends of older children, who had assured me that it would keep getting harder, and wondered how it could possibly get harder still.

It had started with the first nappy change of the day. We had an early appointment with a doctor, so there was a limited amount of time to change Windhorse’s nappy, but still time to allow for the usual drawn out process. I have realised that forcing her to come to the nappy mat before she is ready still leads to a drawn out process but with more anguish. So, I changed pretend nappies on all the toys she put on the change mat. Then I practiced Pennie Brownlee’s “gesture of invitation” and also verbally invited Windhorse to come to the change mat. She patted her nappy and said “Meeee!” indicating that she understood that I had finished the toys’ nappies and it was her turn next, but then she ran away and crawled underneath a chair, giggling. I waited. Then I told her again that it was time for her to have her nappy changed.

“Meeee!”

“Yes, it’s your turn. Come and lie down.”

This went on for a while, and then I said “OK, I am going to get some other things ready. Let me know when you are ready for a change.”

“Meeeeeeeee!” Windhorse wailed, getting distressed and slapping her nappy.

“You want a change now? Great, come and lie on your mat.”

“No!”

“Ok, I will come back in a minute.” I left the room and Windhorse started crying.

“Meee! Meee!”

“You really want it changed now?”

“Yes!”

“Great.” I sat down and patted the change mat.

“No!”

“Windhorse, we need to go out to the doctor soon.”

“Aaah.” Windhorse mimed putting a stick on her tongue so the doctor could check her throat.

“You have to have a clean nappy on before we go out. You have been in that nappy all night and it is soaking.”

“No!”

“I am going to count to five. If you don’t lie down on your mat before I get to five, I will pick you up and put you there.”

“Nooooo!” Windhorse wailed. “Meee!”

“One… two… three… four… five. OK, we are running out of time so I am going to pick you up and put you on the mat.”

“Nooooo!”

I tried to pick her up but she slipped out of my grasp and crawled under her cot. I held her ankles and dragged her out, then rolled her onto the mat. She screamed, and tears rolled down her face. She flipped over and tried to escape. I managed to get her wet nappy off. I gave up on the cloth nappy I had lined up and reached for a pull up. I managed to get it onto one of her kicking legs. I tried to pull it on the other but she kicked the first leg out. Repeat. Repeat.

Then I came up with the ingenious trick of putting my hands through both leg holes, grabbing both her feet with my hands, and… oh wait, I needed another hand to pull it up. Or maybe I could use my teeth? Windhorse was screaming and thrashing around. Then she pointed at the cloth nappy. “This!! This!!” Sometimes she gets even more worked up when she has been expecting one thing (the cloth nappy) and I do another (the pull up). Sometimes I go back to the first thing and she calms down.

“Windhorse, do you want to wear the cloth nappy?”

“Yes!”

“Ok, that’s fine.” I started to put it under her. Seriously, sometimes this is the magic solution. Not yesterday.

“No!” Windhorse wriggled away and crawled under her cot.

“You have to have a nappy. I am going to put you into this pull up.”

I dragged her out, got the nappy over both ankles using my ingenious technique, and then held her kicking feet with one hand while I pulled the nappy up with the other. I got it as far as her knees, put she was pushing it off as hard as I was pulling it on.

“This! This!” she sobbed. OK, I tried the cloth nappy again.

“No! No!” Windhorse screamed, punching the floor with her fists.

I tried the pull up again. More screaming, more punching, her expression somehow conveying a mixture of rage, anguish, despair and betrayal. “This! This!” Since I was failing, again, to get the pull up onto her bottom, I tried the cloth nappy again, and this time she lay still, and I put the nappy on, and then (a small miracle) she let me put her in the first pair of trousers I reached for. Then I gave her a cuddle and asked if she wanted to choose which socks to wear, which instantly cheered her up because she has new socks to choose from (trains or ruru).

In the middle of that nappy change were some moments that made me feel horrible. When I was using force to pin my child down. When she cried and screamed and seemed to feel it was the worst thing that had ever happened to anyone. When I saw the anguished expression of someone who seemed to feel she was being tortured and betrayed by someone she had trusted. And I don’t want to torture my child, so it was one of the worst moments for me in what continued to be a trying morning, followed (after several apparently happy hours in childcare, where she was lying serenely having her nappy changed when I arrived to pick her up) by a hard evening for both of us.

I drank my tea, and felt sad and tired and like I was failing as a parent.

Then I remembered that we had made it to the doctor, only ten minutes late, and she had said that Windhorse’s chest sounded perfect, and I was thankful for the health of our child. Then I remembered that it was Tuesday, which meant that the next day L would be the primary caregiver, and I was thankful that L is able to spend one weekday each week with her daughter. I remembered friends who have had a house fire, and I felt thankful that I hadn’t forgotten the broccoli for longer and caused a house fire. I remembered that some don’t have enough to eat, and felt thankful for the broccoli that I had ruined. Then I remembered that we had both beer and chocolate biscuits in the house, which is almost as cheering as having two new pairs of socks to choose between.

I know there are people who face far greater struggles as parents. I know there may be greater struggles ahead for us. I have no idea how I will cope when I’m not even competent enough to change a nappy. But I made it through a challenging day. Without hitting my toddler, myself, or even a wall. For that, I am thankful.

And you know what? Melt-in-the-mouth broccoli-soup-flavoured (which is a very different flavour to lightly cooked broccoli) pieces on a faina pizza are not bad. Not bad at all.

Faina Pizza

We first encountered faina when visiting a friend in Uruguay. He took us out to a pizzeria and ordered “pizza a caballo” (pizza on horseback). We were served a normal pizza and a round flatbread made with chickpea flour. Our friend demonstrated the correct way to eat this – by putting a slice of the faina (the chickpea bread) on top of the pizza, making a sort of sandwich. It was delicious. A few days later at a cafe we found out you could skip the pizza base and put the toppings straight on the faina. It’s gluten free, delicious, and transforms pizza into a nutritious meal for vegetarians with the added protein and iron. It has become a favourite meal, with countless variations. The cheapest source of chickpea flour round here is Indian shops where it is called chana flour.

Basic faina recipe

1 cup chickpea flour
A pinch or two of salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 cup water
3 tbsp olive oil

Sift the chickpea flour into a bowl and stir in the salt and pepper. Slowly add the water, whisking as you go to so it doesn’t form lumps. Stir in 2 tbsp of olive oil (Some recipes have more oil and a lot more salt. I sometimes leave the oil out, it’s still tasty, perhaps a little less crispy). Leave the mixture for at least half an hour so that the flour absorbs the water.

Put a cast iron skillet in the oven and heat to 220°C (we’ve also made a larger serving of faina on a heated baking tray – it needs to have a decent rim as the mixture is quite liquid – but a skillet is best). When it is hot, take it out, quickly pour the remaining tbsp of olive oil into the pan and swirl it around, then pour in the chickpea mixture. Put it back into the oven.

If you are adding pizza toppings, leave it in the oven for a few minutes, until it has set enough to spread sauce on. Take it out, put your favourite pizza sauce and toppings on it, and put it back in the oven until the cheese has melted and the edges of the faina are golden and crispy. The sauce must be very thick, otherwise your faina pizza will be soggy.

Variations

Rosemary and parmesan faina
Stir 3 tbsp grated parmesan cheese and a bit of finely chopped onion to the mixture. Sprinkle rosemary and rock salt on top. Bake until crispy.

Vegan pesto faina
Make a pesto of sundried tomato, herbs, pinenuts or sunflower seeds and olive oil, and spread over the faina once it has set, then bake until crispy.

Broccoli soup faina pizza
Prepare faina mixture. Make pizza sauce by simmering half a tin of chopped tomato, 2 cloves of garlic and a tbsp of basil. Get distracted by a shouting toddler. Remember the sauce when it is very thick and just about to burn. Put some broccoli florets in a saucepan with a little water. If you don’t like the flavour of broccoli soup and prefer your broccoli with a little bite, you might want to blanch it for a minute and then strain it. Otherwise, boil until the broccoli is mushy. Turn it off just before the water boils away, narrowly avoiding another kitchen fire. Cut up a small green capsicum. Strain a few olives. Grate some cheese. Pour some oil and then the faina mixture into the hot skillet and put it back in the oven. Once the faina has set, quickly but carefully spread the sauce on top, scatter over the toppings, finishing with the cheese. The “carefully” bit is important, so as not to injure the faina, but more importantly so as not to injure yourself with a very very hot skillet. If you are clumsy like me you might want to do this bit wearing long oven gloves. Put the faina pizza back in the oven until the cheese has melted and the edges are golden and crispy. Sit. Relax. Enjoy.

P1050175

The picture is actually of kale, caper and preserved lemon faina pizza; also delicious.

On hearing the news

Sweet boy,

I remember the week we met. The conversations, about God, hope, pain, despair, and poetry. Our own and our favourite poems of others that we skipped to each other like stones across a body of water. Long after others had gone to sleep, skimming the surface, circling each other.

You followed me home. We kept talking. Late night calls, long emails.

I followed you south, but not to your home. A little way off, a hut in the valley where black fantails flittered around me a stream trickled down through the bush. You followed me there. The frost was still crunchy on the grass, but the beach was warm in the sun.

IMG_0001

***

Sometimes I felt trapped by the land. I was always waiting, in every silent pause, for the sea to roll back towards the horizon, the purple rim of the ocean lifting and rising against the clouds.

Depression always came to me as a dark, clawing wave, tearing everything apart. Destroying every sign of life.

I sat on the south coast. The swell was huge that day, every wave seemed to tower higher than those before, and with every peak my breath froze inside my chest. I waited. I waited for the wave swallow everything.

You said you didn’t want this life. Your words left me numb and shaking. My mind filled with all the cliches that pissed me off so much when they fell from other people’s lips. “It will get better” I heard myself saying. “I promise…” What the hell did I know?

***

“I think I’m falling…

We’re all talk…

take my hand

please
don’t let go…”

***

The waves subside. I am grateful for the blue sky. The sun turns tear soaked eyelashes into rainbows.

Now I am waiting again. Waiting for the phone to ring, for someone to tell me how I can help… for someone to tell me that you’ve gone through with it. Life goes on outside but I am waiting.

I’ve found a satellite image of Japan at night. A dusting of gold leaf. The edges glow. It’s beautiful. And here, Wellington is a tiny glowing speak. All I can think of is a thousand dark kilometers of ocean spreading between.

I feel as though I’m paused on the edge of something. A landscape of possibility waits to take shape from the darkness.

“I think that I’m falling…

maybe love
is like a wave

don’t let go.”

***

2004 – My words to you.

Who first stumbled into that

uncertain territory?

Did the air change

imperceptibly as you pulled

me to you

on the empty beach?

At first the collisions could be

explained away: the greetings

and departures of friends,

platonic

embraces. Later, in the car,

no one seemed to

notice as I crossed the space

between us

the curve

of your shoulder

moulded to fit

my palm.

*

In the afternoon you said

“love,”

and the sun

burned the word

into my skin.

*

The taste of you clings to me

like a skin of memory.

I find myself touching

the echoes of words

tracing the outlines that linger

pale ghosts in the air.

*

I grow restless as the moon swells

more huge with every night

light pours through the window

saturates my dreams.

*

“I don’t want you to fall

in love with me”

you say and I

can’t think of an answer.

*

This moon will soon

rise in your northern sky.

My fingers

follow the trail

of light

across my pillow

my body has not yet

accepted your

absence.

***

Your words to me.

In a six tatami mat
room tonight

I unwrap your poem
paper curled like

your back around me.
Two line stanzas

run between us
bank to bank

like a wire bridge
in wet bush.

Outside the room
the night

plays smash fluorescent
God across the sky.

***

The end of our story is lost to me. I was in a bipolar storm. It was hard to hold onto anyone. You were so far away.

I wish I knew how we ended. I didn’t keep your emails, your letters. I can’t remember our phone calls. I guess we drifted apart.

I wish we had bumped into each other. I could have said sorry for the times I was careless with you. I could have shared how far I have travelled since that time. I could have told you how happy I am now. You’d probably have laughed to hear that L and I are together. We called have talked about poetry again. I would have loved to introduce you to Windhorse.

***

It gives me great comfort to know that you were with someone who loved you and you obviously loved deeply. She has shared some videos, and you look less awkward, more relaxed, happier than I ever remember seeing you. I’m so glad to know you had found such a supportive group of friends and such a fun theatre group where you felt accepted.

I hope that you had come to want this life.

I am so sad that all that was cut short. You misjudged a gap and fell from a building. A tragic accident which means done of us will ever bump into you again. My heart goes out to your family, your friends, your partner, all those who were close to you. My grief will be a faint flicker of what they feel.

Right now though, I can’t stop crying. I wish we could pass each other again on happier paths. I wish I could say sorry.

In a time when others had hurt me, you touched my heart. You held me. You were gentle. I wish I could say thank you.

Last night we lit candles for you. It was good to be together, to share stories, to comfort each other.

Sweet, thoughtful, hilarious, kind, poetic man. May God comfort your loved ones. May God keep laughing with you. May your spirit keep laughing alongside us.

I’m so sorry to say goodbye.

P1060942

The “sides” of the LGBT Christian debate

The book I wrote about in my last post reminded me that we (people with differing views within the church) have some similarities in how our every day theologies are shaped and in how we relate to one another…

…but we are not experiencing the debates about the place of queer people within the church from equal positions.

Quite often I have heard comments implying that the debate about queers in the church is characterised by two opposing groups, both equally extreme in their views, with ordinary people in the middle just wanting to get on with being the church.

We are not equal.

The current Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa NZ law denies congregations the right to call ministers who they are led to call. It denies people the right to follow God’s call and offer their gifts to the church as ministers and elders.

Those of us who oppose this rule are not telling other congregations that they have to call gay, lesbian or bisexual ministers. We’re not even telling them they can’t call homophobic ministers. We are just saying that we want the space to be able to call our own ministers, and to follow God’s call in our own lives.

There are people in the denomination who want a ban on ministers officiating at same-sex weddings.

Those of us who support same-sex marriage are not going to force any minister to marry a same-sex couple. We are asking for the space for ministers to be able to discern for themselves who they should marry… and for Presbyterians in same-sex relationships to be able to have their love affirmed and celebrated in a church ceremony led by a minister if that is what they want.

Some people are debating. Some of us are debated.

There are some of us who are at the heart of this debate. It’s not about abstract issues, it’s not about theology, it’s about us. Our lives.  Our identities. Our right to be believed when we speak about the ways God is working in our lives. Our right to offer our gifts to our church. Our love. Our right to experience the gift of sexuality and the joy of a loving relationship.

As well as the “two extremes” line, there’s the “why do people have to keep bringing up this issue over and over? We just want to have a peaceful time at General Assembly…”

Some of us can’t stop bringing up this issue. It’s about our whole lives.

How can we speak with one another about God?

Sometimes we have more similarities than we might think.

I have just been reading a fascinating book about two congregations wrestling with the place of gay people* in the church. God, Sex and Politics: Homosexuality and Everyday Theologies, by Dawne Moon, has given me a greater understanding of my own beliefs, and raised some questions about how I relate to others within the church.

Moon did an ethnographic study of two congregations within the United Methodist Church (UMC) in the USA. One congregation, which she calls City Church, was debating whether to join the Reconciling Congregations Programme (RCP), an organisation seeking to welcome and affirm gay, lesbian and bisexual people.  The other congregation, which she calls Missionary Church, had some alliance with Transforming Congregations, an organisation supporting the ex-gay movement and promoting the belief that homosexuality is sinful. There were a range of views in each congregation.

As someone who was raised in the UMC but is no longer a Christian, and informed by critical theory, Moon was able to analyse the ways people naturalised beliefs. That is, the beliefs that were different between groups, which might change over time or in response to different social situations, became timeless, natural, God-ordained truths for some people.

She also observed that the debates about homosexuality were actually about much more – understandings of community, sin, the nature of God. Debates about homosexuality threatened to expose deep theological differences within the denomination. I have been aware of this within my own denomination – but Moon articulates it well.

Moon examined the way that every day theologies were shaped. People’s beliefs were influenced by all kinds of things. Yes, the message they heard from the pulpit played a role, but their beliefs were also shaped by their own experiences, interactions with other people, bible verses which seemed to leap off the page or resonate with them, and feelings – whether a belief or course of action made them feel settled, untroubled.

What I found most fascinating was the similarities between the two congregations.

1.       In both congregations people saw themselves as inclusive and welcoming.

At City Church, a lot of people wanted to declare that gay people were welcome and didn’t have to change who they were. They wanted their church to be a sanctuary for ordinary gay people (but perhaps not weird or radical queers) who had been hurt.

At Missionary Church, people thought that gay people should be welcomed to the church, as all sinners were welcomed. People saw themselves as sinners, struggling with their own issues, and trying to live as God intended them to. Ordinary gay people (as opposed to those lobbying/converting/taking advantage of the vulnerable) were not seen as the other, they were fellow sinners and should be supported to let go of that sin so they could come closer to God.

2.       In both congregations people saw the bible as sacred and a source of God’s truth and both understood it contextually

At City Church people generally understood the bible as God’s word written, translated and influenced by people. They saw examples of the same-sex temple prostitution and sex with slaves which are condemned in the bible as very different from contemporary gay relationships and saw the purity codes as overruled by the coming of Jesus. They drew connections between biblically-justified/church-supported oppression in the past and oppression of gay people today.

At Missionary Church, many people were aware that in the past the bible had been used to justify slavery, racism and exclusion of women from ministry but saw these examples as different from homosexuality. They saw that sometimes scriptures could be misunderstood or misused. They did not see that the same could be happening with debates over homosexuality – because homosexuality is condemned every time it is mentioned in the bible

Moon observed that in both congregations, scripture had to make sense – it had to fit with what they already knew to be true. “Members looked to scripture to naturalize their understanding of God’s will, and they looked to what they knew about God to help interpret scripture.”

3.       In both congregations people had a list of does and don’ts

At City Church people sometimes denied having a list of does and don’ts, but as they talked in seemed like it actually came down to a short list. Do love God and love others. Don’t hurt people. Sin seemed to equate to being unloving or cutting people off from God’s love.

At Missionary Church people generally believed that God demanded that they follow scripture and not commit various sins – don’t lie, don’t be promiscuous, don’t be an alcoholic, don’t have gay sex. By sinning people hurt others, hurt themselves, and drove God further away.

4.       In both congregations people saw those with opposing views as wrong

Some at City Church thought that those who saw homosexuality as sinful were misguided, ignorant and fearful about homosexuality, and if they could be educated about how ordinary gay people were and how much gay people had been hurt by the church they might change their views.

At Missionary Church some saw the bible as a complicated message which was hard to understand if you were immature in your faith journey. Sometimes people who were pro-gay were ignorant and misguided about what God meant. Other times people were deceived by the pro-gay lobby.

5.       In both congregations people saw the body as earthly/separate from the sacred

In both congregations people framed the human body – and sex – as earthly, profane, fallen and very separate from what was sacred. Church debates often focused on gay sex, locating gay people in the physical and profane realm. In addition, those who were pro-gay often talked about homosexuality as biological and innate as a way of countering claims that it was a sinful choice. This also reinforced gay people’s separation from what was sacred and spiritual.

Moon observed that gay people, and their allies, seemed to be trying to move where the dividing line between body/spirit, profane/sacred was, so that they could be on the other side of it, rather than challenging the divide itself.

There was so much more that I found fascinating and I’m probably not doing the book justice. You should read it.

What does it mean for me?

“The right to be believed when one testifies as to God’s power in one’s life. The right to receive the church’s blessing for answering God’s calling…”

Moon’s summary of what gay church members seek really resonates for me. I have felt God’s presence in my life. I have a deep sense of God’s blessing of my relationship and my family.  I sense God calling me to be part of change within our church, creating a space where all are welcomed and supported to reach their potential. I have an understanding of a loving God who celebrates diversity and of Jesus who believed in radical love and sought liberation for the oppressed. This understanding has been influenced by reading scripture and learning about its context… listening to ministers and theologians… my own experiences… the still small voice… the sense of resonance and rightness in my heart of hearts.

God, Sex and Politics has reminded me that others hear that still small voice, or feel something as God’s truth in their heart of hearts,  but they have very different beliefs about God’s intentions.

There are people within my denomination who have very different theologies. We debate issues like the place of queers in the church but we don’t acknowledge we have very different understandings of what God is like and what God intends for us and the world.

I have known people who have believed that homosexuality is sinful, and they were not ignorant, deceitful or setting out to hurt people. And yet… I find myself thinking they must be misguided, ignorant about biblical contextualism, misled by the rhetoric of anti-gay lobby groups… how could they have got God’s message so wrong?

I don’t want to frame others as ignorant or malicious if they’re not. I don’t want to make judgements about whether others are really experiencing connection with God. Some of the people at City Church who thought homosexuality was sinful felt like their views weren’t heard. They were offended to be lumped in with racism and sexism (the implication of comparing their stance to things Christians have supported in the past) and they felt hurt and infuriated by the way the issue was being discussed. Is it possible to talk about this issue without someone feeling hurt and frustrated?

I can’t stand by while injustice is present in our church. I guess I have a similar bottom line to some of the people from City Church; that is, love God, love others, don’t hurt people. I know that the message that homosexuality is sinful hurts people, and I want people to be aware of that.

But, with the stories of this book to reflect on, I will continue to reflect and pray about how I can relate to those with opposing views.

And, I will continue to work to create the space where LGBTQueer people can experience God’s love and follow God’s intentions within the community of the church.

Whatever others believe, that is what I know God calls me to do.

* Almost all the time within both congregations people talked about “homosexuality” and “gay people” rather than LGBT/queer people and I have used that language here while discussing their perspectives.

*****

Still with me? Here’s part 2.